Monday, August 16, 2010

Ode to Chickens

A friend on Facebook recently posted that she had an excess of chickens and wanted to know if we wanted any. Immediately, I thought of happy days gone by and wished I lived where I could have taken her up on her offer. Because I flat love chickens. Chickens are the Rodney Dangerfield of birds - they don't get no respect although they absolutely don't deserve their feckless reputation.

Not long after my husband's return from Vietnam, we moved to our little five-acre farm. We had one of the premiere subscriptions to Mother Earth News. We planted a huge garden.  We were city kids who knew nothing about country life. For instance, we planted 40 tomato plants, enough to sub-contract our harvest to Heinz. I blew up my first pressure cooker of green beans and had to re-paint the entire kitchen.

Our first livestock purchase consisted of 12 pullets "just ready to lay", or so our hatchery salesman told us. We brought them home and put them in the chicken house. We took turns checking the coop each morning, both of us longing for the honor of finding our first egg. Within a couple of weeks, we arguing over who had to go. It was depressing to  face all those empty nests. We got so we checked only every other day or so.

We often got a lot of helpful information from our friendly neighborhood farmers but they liked pulling tricks on us too. One of them told us seriously, when we complained about our non-productive hens, that it was because they were virgins and what we needed was a rooster, of which he had several young studs coming up.

We drove over to his farm and came back with Goliath. To this day, Goliath is my most admired bird. For one thing, he was beautiful with a honey-colored head and feathers that shaded from copper to dark auburn on his back, to a tail that fountained into black. And he was a ultra responsible leader, taking charge of his wives' welfare from the first. He scratched up bugs and called them over, giving up his own dinner so they could eat. He was courageous. If a hawk flew over, he warned them to head for the coop while he stood outside, with ruffled feathers, daring the other bird to attack his home.  Every morning, he flew to the top of the gate and gave his clarion call to the sun. I loved waking up to him in the morning.

I know now that it was only a coincidence but the day after Goliath's arrival, I heard my husband screaming across the barnlot. I went running, figuring he'd sawed off a finger or pounded a nail into his foot, but it turned out, he was carrying....an egg! We celebrated that egg. It seemed to us like a small miracle and I never got over that feeling with all the ones that followed.

At first Goliath was harassed because our 12 Highland White airheads were the blonde jokes of the chicken world. They truly didn't have sense to come in out of the rain. Convincing them to seek shelter when he gave the word, teaching them to scratch out food that wasn't poured into a pan - it was all beyond their mental capacity. I was hoping they would sit so we'd have baby chicks but they never seemed to have the slightest urge to do so. They didn't even use the nests very often but just dropped their eggs wherever they happened to be if we didn't keep them penned up.

I asked the hatchery man about it - "those hens you sold me sure seem dumb".

"Yep," he said, "that's deliberate. Bred the intelligence and maternal instinct right out of'em so they won't try to sit. They're meant to be egg-laying machines, that's all. Do you have a rooster?"

I told him about Goliath.

"Well, then their eggs are fertilized so if you would happen to hatch any of them, that next generation would be smarter and the one after that, smarter yet. After awhile, you'd have normal chickens again. You might want to get some Banty hens. Those little gals will sit on anything."

So, I did. And sure enough, the Banty mamas sat on their own eggs, as well as those of the hybred hens, so their broods came out looking like affirmative action was alive and well on the farm. Their own little ones were tiny and black or brown while their step-brothers and sisters were large and yellow. The Bantys didn't care and neither did the siblings.

I'm sure Goliath heaved a rooster sigh of relief to have some assistance in the barnlot. The little hens were clever and resourceful. They could hide a nest under your nose so you couldn't find it. They taught the kiddies how to be independent, to find their own food just in case the humans fell down on the job. And sure enough, when the yellow chicks grew up, they were twice as smart as their mothers, having had the benefit of both Goliath's genes and tutoring from him and the Bantys.

We used to sit out on the picnic table and watch Goliath fly to the fence to stretch his wings and throw his head back to announce that all was well at the farm. And we'd see the Banty hens coming out of hiding with their Joseph's Coat of babies pittering along behind them.  And running counterpoint to other farm sounds was the "bluck, bluck, bluck" of chickens scratching and clucking and pointing out food to the little ones. They are part of my fondest memories of the farm.

Isn't it just typical of humans to take an animal and deliberately manipulate its genetics to make stupid and useless except for the one thing that suits our needs, laying eggs, and then make fun of it for being unintelligent?