Monday, May 28, 2012

"Is That an Ostrich?"

Um no. That, my friend, is a 4-week-old chicken. "Lady Buffy Peckington," to be precise.


Gandalf once said, "You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month and yet, after a hundred years, they can still surprise you." He could have been talking about chickens just as readily as hobbits.

Backyard chickens are the new "it" craze. With so much in the news lately about salmonella outbreaks and conditions of "factory" chickens, more and more people are considering the more humane (and cheaper) option of getting eggs from their own back yard. No longer relegated to being pets of "the crazy lady down the street," urban chickens are now legally permissible in many very urban areas of the United States, including cities like Atlanta, GA; Houston, Texas; Seattle, Wash.; Boston, Mass.; and even L.A. and New York!

My Valentine's Day present from my husband this year was a flock of 10 chickens. Our city voted last year to allow for urban chickens, and I had been planning on getting the max ever since. Since April--at about six weeks--the girls have been free ranging outside, eating grass, bugs, and kitchen scraps.

From Day 1, they have amazed. It is mind-boggling how much information is contained in those itty-bitty heads, even at a day old. Because of supply issues (and then untimely deaths), we got our current flock in stages. Our oldest girls, though, had no one to teach them how to be chickens. We picked them up when they were a day old from the hatchery. And yet, no one to teach them that those small crumbs in the dish are food. No one to show them how to drink without drowning. No one to teach them how to take a dirt bath or preen their feathers. No mama taught them how to be good mothers in return.

When our oldest girls were two weeks old, we got the second set. We were told by all the books and the people at the hatchery to expect fights over dominance (establishing their pecking order), but at the first peep, our older girls fell in love with the babies and taught them everything they knew. The younger girls learned how to be chickens much faster than the older set.

As the girls grew, they began to show different personalities. We have a mama (who, at 6 weeks, adopted two chicks to replace two who were got by predators), the baby, the one who thinks she's people (Buffy, pictured above, who is a "lap chicken"), the leader, the "enforcer" (who makes sure the leader's orders are carried out), the dumb blonde, the stuck-up pretty one, the sidekick, the timid one, and the bully--whose favorite thing is to go after our cat if she feels he's getting to close.

Despite their small "bird brains," they all know their names, recognize my mother as "the one who brings treats," put themselves to bed at night, what is good to eat in the back yard (which, unfortunately still includes my pea and bean starts) and what isn't, and exactly how far the dog's tie-down will reach.

In a few months, each girl will start laying about one free-range not-quite-organic egg every 26-28 hours--eggs with various shades of shell, from blueish green to brown to white, with dark yellow yolks. But they have already brought so much in the areas of organic insect control, fertilizer, and entertainment that they have already earned their keep.