Monday, November 23, 2009

No Harm No Fowl

Winslow Homer's The Sick Chicken

Although it is the Week of the Turkey, I have a bone to pick about Chickens. This morning’s News and Observer ran an article with a catchy, but alarming headline: In a Cary backyard, death swoops down.

Seems a nice older couple, who keep a small number of chickens in their suburban yard lost a rooster to a Falconer and his hawk. The Falconer was hunting rabbits with his hawk in a nearby meadow and the hawk took the couple’s rooster instead of a rabbit. The Falconer graciously went to the couple’s home, apologized for his hawk’s trespass and offered a handsome sum of $45.00 as compensation for the rooster. His goodwill was rudely rebuffed by the devastated couple -- they ordered him off their property and reported him to the police. They told the paper “this sort of hunting should not be allowed anymore!” and backed up their claim for banning Falconry by saying it belongs in rural areas, not residential areas such as theirs. But their argument falls apart when the article reveals that keeping chickens is banned throughout the city of Cary and this nice couple received a special exemption permit to keep chickens in their yard. Hmmmm...too surburban for practicing Falconry but rural enough for keeping chickens.

Frankly, I think the hunter, who had a proper permit to hunt within the city limits, should be commended for apologizing and offering to pay for the rooster. This innocent hunting mistake is not comparable in any way to some of the gun hunting tragedies that have happened in recent times. Obviously he felt bad -- he and his hawk made a mistake and that is the rub here -- it was a mistake. Falconers practice an ancient and beautiful form of hunting. I imagine a Falconer to be much more in tune with his bird than a man who keeps hens for the sake of eggs. I find nothing wrong with hunters who hunt responsibly -- especially ones who are honest when they have made a mistake, be it with their hawk or a gun.

But this is the kind of behavior I am beginning to expect from Urban Chicken Keepers (UCKs). This article is one in a handful of stories I have read lately about the good intentions of city people keeping chickens gone wrong. It is admirable that people want to keep chickens so as to have fresh eggs and perhaps teach their children about the realities of where their food comes from. But something is amiss with this growing trend. Unfortunately, there seems to be far too many UCKs who are totally unrealistic about keeping fowl. Fowl are livestock and they are vulnerable to any number of predators and disease and people who keep them should understand that reality. But UCKs aren’t buying it -- they are hellbent on teaching us that chickens can be pets and livestock all at the same time.

Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the state of Urban Chicken Keeping in Berkeley, California -- take note my imaginary readers of San Jose. Seems Chicken Husbandry is the latest and greatest trend to hit the city. In a city overrun with vegetarians, chickens now abound in back yards and apartment courtyards. I have no problem with vegetarians, as I practiced not eating meat for over a decade. But the problem with vegetarians owning chickens, aside from the obvious murky philosophical details, is that they don’t want to kill them. So when chickens become unwanted in Berkeley, they are showing up in over-crowded animal shelters to be re-homed. The shelters don’t have the resources to care for all these homeless chickens. I’m going to get emails for this but here goes -- my solution, of course, is to kill the chickens and feed them to the homeless dogs. There, I said it and I feel better for it.

UCKs complain that their neighbors don’t like their chickens. They say their chickens have been poisoned and strangled and stolen. UCKs cannot understand why people don’t love the sound of their rooster at 5 am as much as they do. UCKs are under assault and they are mystified by the hoards of people showing up at town council meetings demanding that chickens and roosters be driven out of their neighborhoods.

With that said, I want to tell you about Frenchy. She belonged to my neighbor Elena, who is an extraordinary chicken keeper. Elena and I could be said to live in the country, although, its beginning to not look like the country so much anymore. We live five minutes outside of the city limits of Hillsborough, NC, so we get all the benefits of town without the bothers of the same. I have learned everything I know about chickens from Elena. I first met Elena through a riding buddy and not long after we met and discovered we were neighbors, Elena called me to ask if I might Chicken Sit for her while she went on a trip to the mountains. I admitted right away that I had never taken care of chickens. And Elena said I had been recommended with the highest references from someone who’s horses I had taken care of. I told her “Horses are one thing, chickens are another thing entirely! For one thing, I am not afraid of horses, but I am afraid of chickens.” Elena reassured me and invited me over to meet her 12 hens, her one teenage rooster, and her turkey. I spent two hours learning the ins and outs of her tiny operation. She was impressed that her turkey liked me. She could tell because he didn’t display his feathers when I came near -- and his head didn’t go all red...these were signs she told me, that he might attack me. I was surprisingly comfortable with the turkey and while she had a proper name for him, I began to call him Gonzo after the Muppets character who sleazily managed a flock of performing hens. Elena told me that Gonzo had once had a female turkey, but she ate her, and so Gonzo spent his days leering at her hens. Gonzo was clearly a pet and not headed for the oven. But the teenage rooster was headed for a culinary future.

Elena is as realistic about her chickens as no UCK could ever be. All roosters in Elena’s yard meet one fate and that is the knife. She doesn’t tolerate the noise they make and the trouble they cause. As for her hens, Elena is very loving to these girls. She calls them “My Girls!” and she sometimes sits with them at night in the coop just to hear them coo -- she strokes them and admires their feathers. But she has no compunction about killing them and eating them. Two of her stand out chickens are gone now -- one was named Sister and the other Frenchy. I noticed Frenchy the first day I went to Elena’s house. Frenchy looked like none of the other hens. She was the most delicate rose color -- her feathers looked like something you would see adorning a whore in a Degas painting. And she had pantaloons! These fabulous layers of sunset pink feathers that covered her legs. Frenchy was all girl and she talked too much. Sister was the big girl in the coop, she went everywhere first and everyone got out of her way, but she was quiet about it. Frenchy made a lot of announcements -- open this gate, give me that tortilla, i’m going to sit on that egg now!

And sitting on eggs was Frenchy’s problem. Elena told me Frenchy wanted nothing more than to be a mother hen, “Frenchy is the broodiest hen I have ever owned, she is constantly sitting on the eggs and ruining them. You have to watch Frenchy!”

And so Elena went to the Mountains and I was initiated as a Chicken Sitter. I made all sorts of mistakes -- I went too early in the evening to close the coop. I assumed that because it was dusk, the hens would be roosting. Nope, if there was any daylight at all, those girls were still outside. I let them all out of the coop one morning into their generously sized pen and then went out the gate to go around the back of the coop to begin cleaning it. I assumed they had all gone out the other door, but when I opened the back door, they all came streaming out. Thus began my initiation as a Chicken Herder. Elena taught me to hold my arms out, almost as though I were practicing Tai Chi and to gently wave my arms as though I were the wind and the chickens were the sea. Never chase chickens, that is a futile exercise. Scoop the air around the chickens and they will go the way you want them to. Its probably the most zen thing I have ever learned, the herding of chickens. And most importantly it avoids the need to pick them up -- some people are fine with picking up chickens, I am not one of those people.

Two days before Elena returned, the teenage rooster disappeared. The hens lived in one pen and Gonzo and the teenage rooster lived in another. They could peck at each other through the fence, but that was the only contact they could have. Gonzo and the rooster were not shut in at night, they had a small roof overhang that they roosted in when the sun went down and Elena insisted that they would be fine. But I found the rooster gone and Gonzo in a somewhat hysterical state over his missing friend. I decided that Gonzo would be calmer as soon as I let the hens out of the coop and I was right -- his feathers laid down and his face went blue instead of red as Sister and Frenchy and the rest of the cabaret girls sauntered down their little ramp into the light of the day. I couldn’t help but think of Can Can girls when the hens emerged from the coop each morning -- it was just a comical sight to me.

So with the rooster missing I was presented with a dilemma. Should I call Elena? I decided against it. She was coming home the next day and I had high hopes for his return. There was no evidence of a murder in the feathers strewn in the grass. I fed everyone their grain and tortillas, and cleaned the coop. I came back at lunch time and looked for the rooster. He was still gone. I was beginning to think that maybe he had been carried away in the night by an owl.

I returned after sunset to find all the hens convened in some sort of grand meeting. Gonzo was pacing up and down the fence and his voice was more hysterical than it had been earlier in the day when he announced that his rooster companion was missing. I turned my flashlight on to The Girls and approached them. They were very intent on something in their midst, but they scattered when I waved my arm at them. I couldn’t for the life of me think of what it was that would keep them out in this darkness, but I found out immediately. The remains of the teenage rooster lay in front of me - he was nothing but a rib cage with tail feathers. They had picked him clean.

I ran back to my truck and called my husband. I told him to come right away. “You have to help me clean this up, I can’t do it all alone.” He was not thrilled with the idea of visiting the scene of a chicken murder, but he came and gave me moral support. The rooster had returned that evening, but the unfortunate thing got in the pen with The Girls and not with Gonzo. They took no time in killing him. Elena returned the next day and I apologized to her for the loss of the rooster. She apologized to me for having to see how brutal The Girls could be. She said she was just sorry that they ate him before she could! She offered me a handful of eggs to take home, I declined. I was off eggs for a long time after that. Elena explained that the rooster was probably injured when he returned from his gallivanting and The Girls smelled blood on him and that was all it took for them to murder him. Elena was matter of fact about it. I was traumatized.

But Elena called me again this spring and asked me to Chicken Sit again, she said things should go fine, no roosters this time. But when I went to her house to get the key and my instructions for the week, she had a surprise for me. “Frenchy is finally a mother!” Elena had lost too many eggs to Frenchy’s brooding habits, so she went to the feed store and bought five cotton ball sized Bitties for Frenchy. She set the Bitties up in a dog crate in the sewing room at the front of her house and put Frenchy in there with the little yellow-as-the-sun peeps. Frenchy took possession immediately, there was no question in her mind that the Bitties were her flesh and blood.

I was so happy for Frenchy -- there she sat in the dog crate with the Bitties neatly tucked under her rosey petticoats. Frenchy purred and wiggled. These were her children and she couldn’t be more content. “Do you mind taking care of her and the little ones all week?” Elena asked as I admired Frenchy. I told her I could do it, but I had one question, “Frenchy’s not going to turn on the little things is she? I mean, if one of them tells her that she’s not really their mama, she’s not going to retaliate and eat them is she? Cause I don’t think I can handle another murder.” Elena told me to just make sure there was plenty of food and water in the cage and to keep it clean. She assured me no harm would come to the Bitties.

You cannot believe how much Bitties can grow in seven days. They went from being Easter Basket material to near pullet-sized in the time I cared for them. I wondered if Frenchy was shooting them up with growth hormones. Their wing feathers were emerging by the end of the week! Each morning when I walked in the door I would find Frenchy walking around the cage with the Bitties riding on her back, which became more entertaining as they got bigger. On my final morning, I found all the Bitties were riding Frenchy except for one. This Bittie was standing on top of the cylindrical feeder and he was flapping his wings and crowing! “I think I found the rooster.” I told myself.

Elena returned the next day and I was happy to report that all the Girls, and the Bitties, and Frenchy and Gonzo had lived through the week. I told her of the rooster and she said there was no way to sex the Bitties that early, but lo, she found him crowing two days later and called me. “Wow! You were right!” she said. I felt as though I had passed some great chicken exam by my observation of the little rooster.

Frenchy died this summer, not long after her Bitties were grown. She was close to eight years old and perhaps motherhood satisfied her and tired her so much that she decided to let go. Elena told me that Sister dove into a terrible depression after Frenchy’s passing and so Elena did what she thought best - she ate her. I thought that was a fitting end for Sister -- she had given years of service as the head Girl and when she could no longer give eggs due to her ennui, she gave her body to Elena’s kitchen.

I want to finish with this clipping from The New York Times which I have kept for over 10 years:

Hawk Eats Pupil's Pet Chick

Lompoc, Calif., March 7 (AP) -- As frightened pupils watched helplessly during recess on Friday, a hawk swooped down and grabbed a chick that was being raised by a fifth grade class at Los Berros school, flew to the top of a nearby telephone pole and ate the pet, which had been named Peep Jr. A student teacher, Lori Stitch, said that there was no time to shield the children and that as a result youngsters "learned about the food chain." Ms. Stitch said she regretted that Peep Jr. "Never knew another chicken."

1 comment:

Caitlyn Hentenaar said...

I'm glad you kept the clipping. That's great journalism.