A Chickenkeeper Abroad: On Chickenkeeping
This summer, the directors of the Environmental Studies Center gave in to a student worker's entreaties and added an important element to our model sustainable landscape project: livestock. Seven hens were procured in various ways (all, to the best of my knowledge, legal) and housed in a handsome little coop built by Mary-Claire. A run was built, some straw was bought, and the department officially had a flock of chickens.
Why chickens? Besides the obvious benefit of daily fresh eggs, a flock also plays an important role in an organic garden. They help keep pests down when allowed to roam after harvest and aerate soil by scratching and pecking. Their droppings are also excellent fertilizer, and make good compost mixed with old coop bedding. And a happy flock is a joy to watch and care for. All this I learned later, however. At first I heard only rumors. And then there was Darling.
Although the chickens had been on campus since late summer, I managed to remain entirely ignorant of their presence until midway through Orientation. It was a few days after moving in, and boxes still littered the room Ary and I share; one more box didn't seem out of place, but since it wasn't mine, I asked Ary if I could move it a few feet.
"Oh, sure, that's not mine," she said. "That's the box the chicken is in."
Thus began the romance which would come to define each day, from the first ten minutes upon waking until dusk fell on the coop. (Luckily, it took very little time in between.) The chicken in the box was Darling, née Gurgly, who was sick with a mysterious respiratory illness and had to be coddled or killed.
It was love at first sight, so coddle her I did, while the official chickenkeepers cared for the other six chickens in the AJLC's motley flock. On the first day, I built her a makeshift run of chickenwire near Harkness' front door. It had no roof, but Darling was so sick she didn't need one. She didn't fly or run about or do much more than pick listlessly at the rice and beans I brought her. On the second day, it rained. She stood under the tarp I hung over her, indifferent to the rain on her tailfeathers.
On the third day, Mary-Claire brought me antibiotics, and Darling began to recover. She was still too tame to be healthy, but she took an interest in beans and birdseed, and even walked around. It seemed like she'd recover within the week. But when the antibiotics ran out, so did Darling's energy, and she was moping around again in her solitary run.
While in isolation, Darling became a celebrity. Students would stop and take pictures of her, give her treats, and inquire after her health. Someone christened her Isabel. I liked to walk around with her on my shoulder, feeding her apple cores or corn cobs as she coughed gently in my ear. A few brave souls also consented to be a chicken perch:
One night, arriving about an hour after sunset, I found MC and Jeremy standing dispiritedly near the compost bins. "Darling flew down from the porch and we can't find her. I'm so sorry. I think we'll just have to leave her out tonight." They had looked in the compost, in the garden, and in the trees, but I knew Darling had better instincts than that. She would be in the place most like her box, and sure enough, a sweep of the garden shed with my cell phone revealed a feathery lump on the lawn mower that looked quite a lot like a chicken. My efforts to save her were rewarded with a resenting cluck. I was ecstatic. As I carried her joyfully out of the shed, I dubbed her "Smartypants," pleased and proud.
I took to wearing her feathers in my hair, to remind me to check her water at noon and bring her in at dusk. Every night just after sunset I would take her box someplace safe and warm. I would fall asleep listening to her gurgle.
At last, after a period of slow decline, Jeremy brought me a bag large enough to medicate the whole flock for a year (provided they didn't kick it over, as chickens will do). But the medication had come a little too late. Darling was losing ground fast, and one day, Jeremy knocked, ashen-faced, on my door. It had been a cold and drizzly morning, and Darling had been outside for the worst of it, left to her own devices while I was in class.
"It looks pretty bad," he said. "I think it might be time."
"Where is she?" I asked, a little wildly. He had given her shelter in the garden shed, and I rushed to bring her somewhere warmer. She was so sick that she uttered not a peep as I towelled her off and sat with her in my arms, lending her warmth.
I swaddled her in blankets before leaving for lab. She looked marginally healthier when I got back, but it looked like if we didn't euthanize her, Darling might die on her own. Was she suffering? Who can tell? Selfishly, I decided to give her a few more days.
If those days had been rainy, that might have been the end. But the sun that so blessed rain-weary Obies also warmed my chicken, and by the end of the week she was eating again and cheerfully kicking over her water. I paraded around Harkness in celebration. The same friends that had heard me fret and dither now were party to my joy.
I kept her in the chicken tractor until her death rattle sounded more like a chuckle and then like a light snore. She never quite stopped gurgling, but after months of isolation, I decided it was probably chronic. I put her back in with the flock in November, hoping to accustom her to the coop before it got too cold.
In the meantime, Mary-Claire left and I'd officially inherited the flock. I had no experience with gardens or chickens, but hired on MC's recommendation, I devoted myself to the care of the six healthy hens. Of course, as independent women, they were easier to care for than my own ailing Darling. I would rush her out to the chicken tractor before class, stopping to let the ladies out and top off their chicken crumble. When I had time, I'd visit them during lunch and toss them pepper cores. Since the tractor was occupied, I would let them ramble in the garden while I worked. I loved to watch them cluck and chortle as they dug up my freshly laid mulch.
Free chickens are a remarkably pretty sight. Although my flock's favorite activity is the scratch-and-peck associated with barnyard hens, they also explore the garden shed and practice getting airborne. They are inordinately fond of the compost, but nothing, I found, could tame them like well-placed cracked corn.
Over fall break, I took a big step in furthering my relationship with my chickens: I moved in.
A tangle of scheduling and transportation issues kept me on campus for fall break, when I had hoped to go home to Connecticut and stop in the city on the way. Occupy Wall Street was in full swing, and I wanted to experience the energy of the movement, the momentum, the hope for real and lasting change.
Instead, inspired by the Occupy movement, I occupied the coop one night after a very thorough cleaning. I had practical reasons: I wanted to see how how effective our strawbale insulation was, for one, and make sure nobody else had been gurgling late at night.
But I also wanted to do a little occupying of my own. I believe in knowing where food comes from, so I spent the night only a few feet from eggs I would eat the next morning. I believe in treating all beings equitably, so I slept in the same coop I trusted to keep my chickens safe and warm. I got up the next morning, took a long shower, and spent the day putting my garden to bed. That's my Occupy: a night spent in solidarity, a day in solid work.
And so I had a flock of seven mostly healthy birds. They have many admirers and several names each; our black Silkie, for instance, is known as Mommy, Black Chicken, Kade, or Justin Bieber. Darling takes the prize, of course. Her full name is Gurgly Darling Isabel Smartypants Sicken.
Of course, all was not immediately peaceful in the coop. Darling needed a few nights to get used to the idea of cooping up and would huddle in the corner of the run, close to her box, waiting to be taken inside. The hens, from the boss hen down to the littlest Silkie, bullied Oviraptor incessantly. Even Sugar pecked at Darling when she rejoined the flock. But everyone had enough to eat and a whole garden to pillage, at least when I could watch them — or when they escaped.
Pepper, an otherwise docile Plymouth Rock, would often lead the charge. She delighted in slipping out the gate in the morning and making me late for class. She also has a habit of slipping under loose wire, and once I am convinced she must have flown. However she got out, the littlest Silkie would inevitably follow, and they usually ran in opposite directions as soon as they saw me coming.
I have come to love those chickens. They are beautiful, of course, but lots of things are beautiful. My chickens have personality. Pepper, my little Houdini, is also the broodiest of my hens — sometimes I think she's just looking for a place to lay her eggs in peace. Justin Bieber is no bigger than a football, but her chief aim in life seems to be a mother. She always comes out in the morning a minute after the general crumble rush, as if saving the eggs from a trampling by overeager hens. And Oviraptor — Americaunas are supposed to be friendly and docile, but I have never met a more suspicious bird. Once she evaded capture for a whole day. She was found after sunset on an overturned trash can, perfectly content.
It was hard to leave my hens when I went home for Christmas. Luckily, I left them in extremely capable hands. Rebecca is thinking of keeping chickens of her own, and is clearly as fond of my little flock as I am. She's also quite talented, managing to tame even Oviraptor and pick up the ladies at will.
Care doesn't always transition smoothly. A misunderstanding left me scrambling to find an official Winter Term chickenkeeper, but meanwhile, several students loyally fed, watered and cooped the hens simply because it had to be done. No living thing will suffer in sight of Harkness. One of the volunteers, Lauren McCrystal, was willing to take on the mantle of official Winter Term chickenkeeper. She will hold the fort until I get home at the end of January to brave the snow among my beautiful hens.