December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions (Or, Henhouse Rules)

It rarely happens like this, all in the same week: New Year, new job, new schedule, new rooster on the block. Huh? This story has actually been brewing (or should I say stewing) for the last two months. I was washing dishes and staring out the window, musing over what would be my New Year's resolutions. Aside from wanting to make more time to overhaul my garden (whose multitude of weeds I also gaze at while at the kitchen sink), I was mulling over a lofty goal like not settling for just being happy about getting ahead in life, but actively working to improve other people's quality of life, and in doing so, growing within myself and making the world a better place. But then I noticed a commotion in the background, and my eyes lit on a pair of roosters, the feathers on the backs of their necks all ruffled up, jumping and pecking and trying to kick each other in the chest. So much for loving kindness. When it comes to keeping farm animals, that kind of approach is something that in theory I'd like to strive for, but in practice can only get so far with.

Our roosters are both fairly attractive birds, but they represent something that I wasn't quite looking for when I bought 4 large chicks from my elderly next door neighbor who has a much larger flock of chickens, turkeys, goats, and sheep. When we first started raising chickens, we fancied ourselves raising organic meat birds, but the fact that we didn't have them on an excessive feed and hormone schedule meant that they were quite scrawny when it came time to butcher them. I also refused to take part in the butchering after several traumatic experiences. So we gave up and decided to just keep them for eggs. Problem is, chickens have a natural life cycle that involves a slowing down of egg laying once they get older. By the time my older chickens, were pushing 4 years old, they were practically geriatric and had pretty much stopped laying eggs. Since we still had to buy feed for them, but they were not pets, but nor were they producing anymore, this produced a conundrum for me. We ended up giving several of the oldest ones to  friends who liked these kind of birds for stew meat, which avoided me getting into another animal cruelty quandary.

This left me with very few birds—three to be exact, all of whom weren't laying their share of eggs either. I wanted to give them a chance to make it past winter, maybe when the days got longer they'd be back to normal. But in the meantime, it was the first time in a few years that I had to buy eggs from the store. Which doesn't sound like a big deal to people who haven't raised their own, but is a big deal for me. This just goes to show how snobby I am about organic food (even though I can't always afford to buy it, I vastly prefer the flavor of it, or to grow my own). I'd gotten very spoiled on our own free range eggs, with the deep orange yolks from the wide variety of things our chickens eat—corn, bugs and weeds from the yard, buckets full of kitchen scraps. Even the so-called organic eggs I was purchasing were just yellowish and watery. Blech. I had to do something.

So I noticed, with envy, that my next door neighbor's hens had little flocks of chicks running around behind them, and I decided to go and buy some from her. By the time we made it over there, the chicks were practically adolescents, and my neighbor charged a pretty penny for each of the four I picked out—three sort of criollo mutt chickens, black with streaks of rusty red and green on the wings and head, and one a barred rock-looking one of grey and white tweed, who was instantly my favorite. She assured me they were all females (you don't need a rooster for eggs & I didn't want one because they don't lay), and I trotted home to close them into the henhouse for a few days so they'd imprint on their new home.

Course, I felt sorry for them fast and let them out into the larger pen to stretch their legs. Mistake. The next day I saw they were gone, back over to the neighbor's yard. All of them except one black one. That night I went back to her house, called from the gate out front, and helped her round up the three escape artists, and upon returning home we clipped their wings so they couldn't get out over the fence. Back into the henhouse for another few days. I then confidently let them back out into the pen, thinking I'd stymied them. But this time, two managed to get out, back to their home field. How were they getting out? After retrieving them, I finally noticed that they were jumping up on a roosting bar and then jumping over the fence. Tricky. I closed the gate to the back part with the high bar, and took down the bar in the main pen. Now they should be good. Another week in the pen.

Finally, I decided it was time to let them out into our yard, so they could go foraging. This was OK for the first few days. But then I noticed my barred rock chicken was missing. A few days went by and I finally went over to my neighbor's house to see if she was there, and my neighbor said she'd tried to bring him back the night before but I hadn't heard her calling from my closed window. At this time, she informed me that the chicken was actually a rooster, and that I shouldn't let him out for a while, but that I should keep him so he can mate with my hens and they can have their own chicks. I grudgingly agreed (at this point I wanted to return him & get my money back), and informed Margo of this, who told me one of the black ones was also a rooster, but I didn't believe him. But at least we knew we couldn't let them out for quite a while longer.

Around this time, I had emergency surgery to remove my appendix, and my attentions to the garden & with our birds (which was already practically nil with a baby in the house) severely decreased. There was a period of a couple weeks where only Margo would go out and make sure they had water and food but I barely peeked outside. When I was finally recuperating, one night, I heard a strange noise coming from the henhouse. The next morning, I ventured outside only to find that I only had two black chickens. When I searched for both who were missing, I made a grim discovery of only a wing remaining of one of the black ones, lodged in the corner of their pen & half out. I assumed some animal reached in from outside and grabbed one, and feared the grey one had also been attacked.

When I told this to Margo, he said the chickens themselves had probably eaten one alive. I couldn't bring myself to believe this. Neither could my neighbor, who blamed my cats for it & the death of another of hers. I swore to her it wasn't my cat, but then I watched them suspiciously, but never figured out who was responsible. It turned out the grey and white rooster was back at her place. This time we put a bracelet on his leg so we could pick him out of the flock easier. But when I brought him back and he started facing off with one of the remaining two black chickens in our pen, I realized Margo was right. The other one was also a rooster. Damn. So I had two roosters, one dead hen, and one meek black hen trying to fit in with the other three older, cantankerous hens who aren't exactly a tolerant bunch.

When I happened to mention this to Margo and my mother, they said I should just get a bunch of new chicks and start over. Surely my grandma would say the same thing. I really wanted things to work out with my barred rock rooster, but to keep two cocks in the same pen is to invite disaster for the hens and each of the roosters, with all their aggression. He ended up getting out once more, and I meant to go get him, but then my parents came to visit, and I just ended up letting him stay next door, where he wasn't causing problems, and technically, he wasn't eating my feed.

A few days after Christmas, I was reading with the baby around dusk when Margo hollered that "la señora," was at the rock wall separating our yards, with her grandson and my rooster. I ran out, not before stopping to grab her a wrapped piece of homemade fudge as a token of my appreciation for putting up with my lack of small animal husbandry abilities. I felt kind of sheepish as I looked at this little old woman, whose patience and attention to her flock must be vastly superior to mine, considering how large and beautiful it's grown. When I'd taken him and we stood there chatting, she mentioned that he was quite fat, and I mentioned that the other black one was definitely a rooster. She said, oh really? and I nodded. I'm starting to think to myself, I wondered out loud, what am I going to do with this rooster? She drew her hand across her neck with a slicing motion, and replied, "Ya con el. Al caldo." Enough with him. Into the stew.

Moral of the story? Maybe our society does have a long way to go in terms of becoming truly civilized, care for our planet, and practice brotherly love, and we ought not simply rest on our laurels that we are making it in life. But at the end of the day I am still content to be (and to motivated to keep improving the state of being) human. Oh yeah, and don't count your hens until you're sure they're not roosters.

1 comment:

  1. What a story.
    Those chickens behaved like ANIMALS!

    In the New Year I'd better pitch in on weeding detail.


Your comments are welcome!