When I told my mother that I was planning to get chickens, she tried to dissuade me. "But Aya, you don't even like chickens." It's true. She raised chickens when I was a teenager, and the way the chickens behaved toward one another reminded me too much of the worst aspects of human behavior. I especially couldn't stand the pecking order.
It's because of the pecking order among human beings that I've pretty much stayed out of the mainstream -- sometimes by choice, and sometimes because I simply wasn't invited to join. And it's because of this, too, that I think it's important for my small family to try to be a little more self-sufficient now.
So that's why I brought home four baby chicks this Easter.
I bought two yellow fluffly chicks that were identified as Reds, and two chicks with brown speckled wings that were called Rhode Island reds by the owner of the local feed store. At first, the "blondies", as my daughter called the Reds, were dominant, and they tended to push the brown Rhode Island chicks around. However, as they grew, it became clear that the Reds were more cooperative, while the Rhode Islanders were less likely to go along with our plans.
All the chicks had been identified as female, so that we didn't end up with any roosters.
At first, we kept them in a cardboard box in the bathroom. That worked for a while, but then they started coming out of the box and messing all over the bathroom floor. So the next step was to get a bigger cardboard box and to put the top of a birdcage over it. They liked the perches that were designed for a parrot, and even though it was very crowded, they seemed happy to return to the cardboard box with the cage top over it at the end of the day, after spending most of their time in the back yard.
We made a sort of play yard for the hens out of part of a play structure, by wrapping chicken wire around the wood exterior of the structure that was attached to my daughter's swing set. Every morning, I would transport the four chicks in the tiny cardboard box in which I had brought them home from the store. They hated going in, but would walk out willingly from the box into their enclosure in the yard. Every evening, I would go out and force them back into the box to be transported indoors again.
At first it was easy, but then it got hard. They grew so fast!
Toward the end of this intermediate period, I noticed that Brownie, our chocolate Lab, was helping me to round up the chickens. When he saw that I was struggling, and that some of the chickens were getting away, he would come in closer, and even catch one of them in his mouth, if he deemed it necessary.
This scared me at first. I thought he was going to kill them. All my previous experiences with dogs and chickens had taught me to keep the two separated. I tried to keep the door of the enclosure closed, while I rounded up the chickens. But there was no way to fasten it on the inside, and crouched inside a child's play structure, I was at a distinct disadvantage. Both the chickens and Brownie were much faster than I was.
The miracle was this: though he held the chicken's neck in his mouth, Brownie didn't harm it! When I told him to release it, the chicken ran squaking to me for protection!
Now that we finally have the chicken coop and the adjoining chicken yard up, things are easier. The coop is two inches off the ground, and there's a narrow corridor between the chicken fence and the eight foot fence of our back yard. Both of these are measures that are supposed to help keep predators out. The reasoning goes like this: predators could burrow in, if the coop had a dirt floor. If the chicken fence and the yard fence were one and the same, the dogs could not get to the predator before the predator got the chickens.
We have two dogs. Teyman, a tiny mixed breed female, is a mighty hunter and cannot be trusted with the chickens. Fortunately, Brownie is keeping her hunting instincts in check. She looks at the chickens and licks her chops, but does nothing else.
The chicken coop is pink, because that is Sword's favorite color. Now that the coop is up, taking care of the chickens is her chore. Every so often, she will let the dogs into the house and allows the chickens to have free run in the entire back yard.
I showed Bow the little chicks as soon as I brought them home the first day. He said he thought they were cute. However, no further interaction between them was allowed, as I was afraid he would squeeze them too hard. Now Bow enjoys going outside into his external pen, where he can watch the dogs and the chickens interact.
At the end of the day, as it grows dark, we no longer have to stuff the chickens into a box to bring them back into the house. Instead, they decide by themselves when to take shelter in their own chicken house, as night falls. Then Sword comes and shuts the door behind them. No predators can enter, and they are safe.
If for any reason we want them in the coop before nightfall, then Brownie helps round them up.
Our chickens are not the big bullies that I remembered from my childhood. They congregate together in a group, and there is very little pecking at others.
I can remember that my mother's chickens used to decide that one of them was the least high ranking and they would go about de-feathering it, until my mother had to intervene to save it.
Sword says that our chickens displayed a similar tendency early on, but she punished any chicken that tried to be mean to another chicken, and so they stopped! If only we could do the same with human beings...
So far, our hens are not laying any eggs, so we have spent money and have no return on investment. However, in the long run it may be worth it. A friend of mine who lives in Alberta, Canada tells me that a dozen eggs over there go for three dollars!
Sword recently asked me: "Do you still not like chickens?"
I answered: "No, I like our chickens."
"Because they're beautiful and well behaved, and they don't hurt one another."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Our chickens are special."
(c) 2009 Aya Katz