Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Chicken Adventure

Sweetie Peep and Big Man, cochin bantam roosters

Early this spring I went to the farm store unsupervised and finally succumbed to the irresistible allure of the newborn chicks. I watched the bantams for a good while before choosing the three most vital. I had no idea what breed they were. I chose a tiny blue chick with a spot of light yellow on its head, and two brown striped babies with white breasts. They skittered across the pen with great speed, and acted confident. The blue chick seemed especially independent and intelligent as I watched it interact with the others.

I knew a bit about raising chickens from my mother and grandmother. Should be easy, I thought. The chicks cost $2.49 each, but by the time I purchased a cage, bedding, feed, a waterer and a feeder, I had spent over $50. Great.

At home I set them up in the warmest room of the house, with a desk lamp for heat, and a draped towel to avoid drafts. The chicks survived. They actually thrived. I spent hours on the internet in an effort to determine their breeds. It is not easy to identify living things from photos alone but I thought the blue chick was a porcelain d'uccle. It would be white and mottled blue when it matured. The other two were a mystery but I finally decided they were partridge cochins.

Very soon their fluff was replaced with the first feathers. The blue chick was in fact white and light blue. It was capable of flying up to a small perch in a remarkably short period. Almost immediately, it learned to fly to the door each time I opened the cage, apparently because it enjoyed sitting in my hand. It was so tiny and so brave that I named it Tenzing Norgay after the indomitable sherpa without whom Sir Edmund Hillary would never have successfully climbed Mt Everest.

The other two had no interest in flying out of the cage, loudly peeping in a panic each and every time I picked them up. One was very tiny and received the name of Baby Peep. The other brown chick was quiet in nature and a bit timid. It developed a condition known as "pasty butt". Manure gets spread across the rear and dries into a cement-like substance, preventing the chick from fulfilling its main purpose in life: producing manure. This hapless little chick I named Sweetie Peep. To remove the dried manure, I held the chick under warm running water. It was too much for Sweetie Peep's timid nature. I do not believe it ever recovered from the indignity.

Of course I was hoping for three little hens, but two were roosters. The smartest and bravest chick, Tenzing, turned out to be a hen, naturally. It was a very cold late spring, so the three stayed in the house in a large dog kennel. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to observe them, though it was a lot of work cleaning their cage twice a day.

Baby Peep was destined to become "BIG MAN", the tiniest, most handsome bit of rooster flesh to ever sport green tail feathers. He was always the most vocal, clucking loudly and scratching in the cage any time I spoke to them. In my ignorance, I did not know that his strutting and pecking at the floor was his war dance and warning.

The more handsome he became, the more assertive and macho he grew. His comb grew into a fine fat and firm crown, as befits a king. His wattles grew bright red and impressive. He feathered out into a mix of shimmering red, green and browns. Any time I would speak to the three, Big Man would make his musical rolling cluck, pecking on the bottom of the cage, ripping up a big piece of newspaper and strutting around with it in his beak. How I admired The King in my ignorance!

One sad day I opened the cage and Big Man pecked my hand. It did not hurt much but only because he was a rookie at pecking. I knew nothing about roosters. I was so enamored of the Bantam King, that I good-naturedly took his abuse. He always managed to peck my fingers or hands and draw blood, yet he held still for neck scratches, "bruck-brucking" contentedly, his eyes closed in bliss. I forgave him the attacks, assuming it was the testosterone and he could not help himself. After all, he did not even weigh a full pound! How mean could he possibly get?

While the peeps were maturing, I was constructing a chicken coop. I imagined it in my head and detailed it on a scrap of paper. Did I mention that I owned no power tools? So....several hundred dollars later, (two power saws, a variety of other power tools, a special table and clamps), the coop was completed. I stood back in admiration of my finest carpentry handiwork to date. It was pristine white and included three one-square-foot nest boxes. It also had a double screened picture window with an expensive piece of removable plexiglass for the summer months.

I had to promptly remodel the coop, moving the nests to the outside to free floor space - because I purchased four more peeps! I was hoping for four hens so I would not have to get rid of either rooster. This is the worst mistake new chicken farmers make. I succeeded in buying three more roosters! I took two to my first poultry swap meet but came home with them plus another little porcelain d'uccle hen. Eight chickens! Was I crazy?

As difficult as it was, I decided I should sell or give away one of the big roosters after I put the youngsters in the permanent pen. Two fully grown roosters are too many, I thought. I kept an eye on things as I tried to blend the two "flocks". Much to my dismay, Tenzing preferred Sweetie, so sadly I removed Big Man from the coop at twilight when chickens become somnolent. I brought him into the house and put him in the baby cage in preparation for the swap meet the next morning. All night long he sat forlorn and sadly fluffed on his perch, making the saddest noise over and over again. It sounded just like he was crying. I had no choice but to return him to his flock the next day. Back in the pen, he strutted around, pecking the ground over and over again, then he quietly went into the coop alone. He climbed into one of the nests and spent a long time in there making quiet peeping noises to himself. It sounded as if he were comforting himself at being home again. I will never take Big Man away again.

I slipped out to the pen with a flashlight the other night, wondering how the youngsters were doing in the coop with the three big chickens. Sweetie and Tenzing were cozied up in one nest. I was startled to see Big Man and all five of the youngsters in the same nest box! I guess this will last until the testosterone gets to El' and Hawk.... then I'll be building on to the current chicken facilities.

1 comment:

Li'l Ned said...

Hi Jackie,

I loved your post about your chicken adventure. I too have a fantasy about having a few chickens here in suburbia. Our city allows one to have four hens. I'm still working on husbandly approval. I would love to see a photo of your glorious coop, also Tenzing Norgay and Tiny Elvis.
Hi from Kathy