My grandson Jeremy (11) is the chicken guy and on vacation – and I have my instructions, which go something like this: “Nana, Jim Bob is very bossy so don’t turn your back on him – if he goes after you, just hold your hand down flat over his head. Or you can just let him get you, it doesn’t really hurt – and he gets tired of it. Party Girl is laying eggs right on top of Lulu who is broody, she only has a couple of eggs under there, but she’s in a bad mood. Michele and Brenda are co-parenting again, they will take care of their babies, you don’t have to do anything. Just make sure they have food and water inside and outside, only feed them once, and try to keep track of how many babies there are.” You would be thinking right about now that it’s cute that he gave all of them names, and I won’t know which ones he is talking about and that is the gist of my story. And then we can laugh all afternoon about one Nana’s cute chicken antics. But no. That’s not it.
I DO know their names, because our whole family watches the flock like it’s the Real Housewives of Honey Brook. Much of our conversation as a family revolves around the drama and pathos of the chicken yard. The chicken’s names were given them because of a characteristic behavior or their social status in the flock, mostly by me.
Our chickens are free range, which sounds like we made a conscious decision based on information regarding humane needs and best practices. In actuality, it means we don’t have and can’t afford a fence that will contain them. Our chickens have been “free range” for twenty five years, never once has one been hit by a car. Occasionally, a rogue hen will refuse the coop they stay in at night. She might start perching in the trees and while we are deciding what and if to do something about that, she usually disappears – owls will pluck her right off the branch as she sleeps. We have had suspicious paw prints in the snow around the coop, and we have found some chicken bodies “cached” in holes around the farm. Bob and Nola, the bulldogs, killed a chicken together when they were puppies, but a few days with the shock collar took care of that. Since we got goats, we don’t see fox foot prints at all, so Ripper thinks that the goats are like watchdogs. It’s a rate of attrition we can live with considering we aren’t very efficient at collecting eggs, so we have piles of babies all the time. I know this manner of chicken keeping flies in the face of all those who want to complicate the simple life, but it works for us.
This morning I can hear them crowing and bumping and rustling as the flock moves around inside the small coop. It’s a little like listening to someone’s stomach growl – you can’t see what’s causing it, but you can definitely hear it. When I open the little door they tumble out, like clowns out of a clown car.
Party Girl (small black and white Banty) is the first one out. She is named Party Girl because ... well, she only dates the dominant rooster, she lays fertile eggs all the time and insists that other hens raise her children. After the really hard work of rearing the babies is done, she will hang out with her own adolescent offspring, which can be identified by their distinctive coloring. Right now she has a pure white teenage rooster and a black and white teenage rooster following her every where, but otherwise, her only socializing is with Jim-Bob. Or with Jeremy. She loves to be picked up and carried around by him. They sit together on the porch and he strokes her feathers and talks to her. She stares at him with the intention of a geisha. She knows how to work it.
Jim-Bob is a pure white incredibly attractive nasty little s.o.b. He has cobalt blue cheeks and a black crusty comb. He is the father of almost all the babies. He and Party Girl have a very Clinton-esque relationship – she tolerates his indiscretions, she is unfailingly loyal to him. I think she thinks he has a job to do. And he does. Not only is he primarily in charge of making sure the flock increases, he watches the skies for predators during the day – like crows and red tails. He also is a caring wonderful father, often helping Michele and Brenda with their huge broods made up of their babies and Party Girl’s. He teaches the babies how to find stuff in the ground, and he breaks up fights with the older kids.
Lulu, Brenda and Michele lay eggs, raise babies, and teach babies to find food. They often stumble around with a dozen or more babies pushed up under their wings, under their legs or chin. As the chicks get older, they take groups of them on trips down into the field, past the dog kennels, and to the manure piles behind the barn. “Cluck cluck,” they seem to say, “follow me, look at this, you can find food here.” They issue warnings, confer with the other Mothers (but not Party Girl) and generally are a miniature theatre production of what goes on, on any playground anywhere. They keep track of all the babies, steal each other’s babies and seem to know whose is whose. Well, that is how it appears.
As I said, the kids are on vacation and I am homesteading solo during a week of horrible thunderstorms. Almost daily, the clouds roll in from the southwest, darkness eating up the day, winds coming out of nowhere. One early evening, I get caught on the lawn, between the car and the house, as curtains of rain drench me. I am so glad to get inside, dripping water on the kitchen floor. It was hot, but now, soaking wet, I am freezing, teeth chattering. I am alone, so I strip down and grab a robe from the peg in the hallway. Then I hear it, over the banging of the shutters and the rain on the metal roof.
Hysterical, persistent chirping. Louder and Louder, more and more frantic. Where are they? They sound like they are right in the house! I can hear branches clashing, torrential sheets of rain crashing across the yard. The tree between the house and the barn is bending and twisting from powerful gusts, causing the motion detecting light to go on and off, almost at the same time as the lightening flashes. Still I hear the chirping. I go out on the porch with the flashlight and yes, I see them. A moving mass of yellow under the chicken house, on an island between coursing run off from the driveway and barn roof.
Chirping. Yelling for help. About to be swept away, out into the pasture.
WHERE ARE THEIR MOTHERS?
Throwing a raincoat over the robe, forcing my still wet feet into my barn shoes, I grab an umbrella and head out into the storm to save the babies. This is right up my alley.
I fight my way against the wind to the chicken house and think, I can just reach down and pick them up and put them in through the little door. Except, standing there, I can’t reach them. They are too far under the coop. I realize I am going to have to kneel down in the rain and mud. Well, it would be ideal if it was only mud but it is the yard surrounding a chicken house, where chickens live. Who are not known for their excremental control.
It is impossible to kneel down, reach under the chicken house and hold the umbrella, so the umbrella has to go. It’s not really functioning as any sort of protection anyway: the wind is blowing the rain nearly horizontal. However, I find I can use it to kind of scoop the baby chicks toward me, and I get four or five at a time out and up to where I can reach them. I open the hatch on the nesting box side of the coop and start throwing them in. I can hear the chickens inside protesting against the rain and wind that blows inside, and I can hear Michele and Brenda chirping, “Come here, get under,” to the rescued babies. I repeat the process several times until there are only two babies left, huddled together and chirping.
I call them, I beckon them, I plead with them and finally curse and scream at them. They heed me not. To save them from the cold water now swirling menacingly toward them, I get down on my belly, shimmy under, grab them, and shimmy back out. I can feel their tiny hearts beating through their bony, wet, feathery breasts. They seem more scared of me than the storm. I toss them into the nesting box and slam the lid closed.
I feel good, standing on the lawn in the storm, so wet and dirty that I realize I am as wet and dirty as I ever could be. There is a freedom to this, as it is no longer necessary to protect myself from anything. I do a little hero dance in the puddles, throw back my head and laugh. It’s all very enervating until a bolt of lightening slamming to the ground in the field across the street sends me tearing for the house.
I am sure that as the storm rolled in, the hens moved toward the ramp up to the chicken house like they do every day at dusk. I am sure they called to the babies, and I am sure the chicks heard them. As the thunder and rain rolled in and crashed around them, the chicks chirped so loud I could hear them in the house – and I know the hens could hear them, too. At some point, the hens decided to stick it out in the comfort and warmth of the coop and stop worrying. Later, washed and warmed by a shower, I think about what kind of mothers would take such care of their babies in the sunshine, yet leave them to drown in a storm.