For as long as I can remember, chickens have been a renewable natural resource, similar to such things as sunshine or television signals.
When I was a kid growing up on our humble South Dakota dairy farm, our parents would purchase a hundred baby chicks each April. One spring something must have gone wrong with our brooder, because an upstairs bedroom in our farmhouse suddenly became a baby chick nursery.
My siblings and I didn’t mind this development. On the contrary, we were delighted to have unlimited opportunities to cuddle the cute little peepers. I don’t recall how long the chicks stayed in the bedroom, but I’m pretty sure Mom insisted they be gone before they began to crow.
Our baby chicks normally lived in our chicken coop. They would huddle under our brooder, a hexagonal sheet metal contraption that was about 8 feet across and had a propane-fired heater at its heart. I often worried about what would happen if the rusty wires from which the brooder was suspended broke. I assumed we would have no choice but to dine for the next several days on miniature roast chicken.
The chicks grew rapidly and were soon venturing out from the shelter of the brooder. When the weather warmed, Dad would open the door to the coop and give the chickens the run of the farmstead. We were trendsetters in that we had free-range chickens long before this practice became chic.
Summer arrived, and the pullets began to lay. Since the chickens were able to roam freely, finding their eggs was a challenge. It fell to my sister Di and me to explore the hidden recesses and forgotten corners of our sprawling old barn. It was like having an Easter egg hunt every day.
The majority of the hens were cooperative and laid their eggs in the nest boxes that occupied one wall of the coop. Gathering eggs in the coop was an adventure of its own. Most hens would hastily evacuate their nest box as soon as you approached, while others sat absolutely still, obviously hoping that we would say, “Oops, sorry! I didn’t know someone was in there.”
Reaching under a hen to retrieve eggs can be tricky. Sometimes the hen simply allows you to slip your hand underneath her, as if making a scene about a little egg thievery was beneath her dignity. Other hens abruptly explode from the nest in a flurry of squawks and fluttering wings, startling the egg gatherer to such a degree that a change of underwear is required.
Sometimes a hen sits docilely in the nest box as you slowly slide your hand beneath her feathery underside. Just when your fingers touch the blood-warm eggs, the hen summarily administers a surprising peck to your arm with her daggerlike beak. This elicits a reaction of surprise from the egg gatherer, for us generally the kind that involved four-lettered words.
There are those who think that chickens are dim-witted, but I have found the opposite to be true: Chickens were some of the craftiest creatures on our farm.
For instance, shortly after the chickens were given the run of the farmstead, they discovered that there were easy pickings in the cattle yard where our dairy cows lived. Nobody told the chickens that this was where they could get warm meals at all hours; they figured this out totally on their own. Thanks to the chickens’ fondness for recycled grain and their fervor for hunting bugs, our chicken feed bill must have amounted to, well, chicken feed.
And few creatures are better at predicting a rainstorm than chickens. The first rumble of thunder would send them scooting to the coop. We featherbrained kids, on the other hand, would ignorantly continue to play softball until it was too late to avoid a soaking.
Each summer, some of our older hens would become broody. And no, this doesn’t mean that they would sit on a rocky, windswept beach and stare pensively at the stormy sea. These hens were what we called a “clucky.” It was easy to tell a clucky from a regular hen due to the way she would puff up her feathers and make angry “cluck, cluck” sounds whenever you neared her nest. Cluckies would defend their nests with the fierce determination of a samurai warrior.
Try to steal eggs from a clucky, and you would be met by a tornado of pecks and squawks and flapping-in-your-face fury. Even after she had been forcibly evicted from her nest box, a clucky would continue to attack her tormentor, putting one’s ankles in grave danger. Egg gatherers were well-advised to wear high-top boots.
Some of the more cunning cluckies would find remarkably secluded spots to hide their eggs. They were creative thinkers, nesting in such places as a cavity somewhere deep inside a pile of old lumber or beneath the undercarriage of a junked car.
Should a clucky succeed with her hatching plans, she would strut proudly across the farmstead with a dozen or more tiny fuzz balls tottering along behind her. The clucky would stop and scratch the dirt industriously, “talking” to her chicks via a series of motherly clucks. The chicks would eagerly gather in and peck at the area their mother had tilled. Baby chicks are quick learners; I never saw one that had to be shown how to eat more than once.
Having chickens roaming the farmyard came with a few downsides. You had to watch where you set your foot, lest you step in one of the “surprises” the birds left behind. This was especially critical when you went barefoot.
The farm where my wife and I live has been chicken-less for the past year. I have noticed an uptick in the bug population, so it must be time to reinstall a poultry-based, self-directed insect control system. I just hope that my wife doesn’t mind having some temporary guests in our spare bedroom.
Jerry Nelson is a former dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, live on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in 1887. They have two grown sons. He enjoys gardening, traveling, and putting around on his 1949 John Deere A. Jerry’s new book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.