Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Have Chickens, I Have Eggs

I should have known.
I've seen it many times.
Hell, I've swerved out of the way often enough that when I hit that turkey late one rainy afternoon I felt like I ran over an old acquaintance. Amazed at its heft, I moved the bird off the road and walked down the only driveway around.

Have you ever knocked on a stranger's door to tell them you killed one of their animals? I did, and it's not fun at all. The door was answered by an elderly couple who warily looked at my wet self through the glass door.

Not having the words, I just turned and pointed at the road.

They opened the door and I explained what happened and the man was quite stoic and muttered something about it being inevitable. I already suspected the bird was a pet and this was pretty much confirmed by the old woman. She looked like someone had just run over her...dog.

I was invited inside but I had this horrid feeling that I would see framed photographs of the couple along with their turkey. I apologized once again and offered to fetch the bird from the end of the driveway. They declined and I was relieved because I was not sure if I could carry it that distance in a dignified manor. I left feeling lousy.

The brain works in strange ways. It was spring and the sun was shining and that always brings out the best of people in Oregon. I had completely forgotten about the turkey incident from weeks before and therefore was quite surprised when I found myself whipping into the Wilco feed store parking lot. If I was surprised, then my girlfriend Rhonda was a bit freaked. Did I hit something? Is it car trouble? "No," I said, "I have to check something out. C'mon in," I waved.

Behind us, out in the parking lot, the sign read Spring chicks! Turkeys!

It was like I was on a mission and knew exactly where to go; weaving through the isles at a brisk pace, Rhonda close behind. I could feel her getting ready to question when I suddenly stopped, turned, and pointed. How smart and purposeful I felt when I uttered that one word: "turkey." Rhonda's eyes followed to where my finger was pointing and asked, "what the ...?"

That was a question I had a hard time answering.

My knowledge of turkeys was quite limited. Growing up within sight of the Boston skyline, I had made turkeys out of colored construction paper and paste, I had participated in many wonderful thanksgivings, and I knew the Wild kind made the bed spin. Beyond that? Ziltch. I only identified the turkey to which I was pointing by brilliantly deducing that it was bigger than a baby chicken (about twice).

There was a lot of activity around the other racks, all of which contained day-old chickens. Chickens! Who needs chickens? I just needed a turkey to give to that nice old couple. Price tag: $2.00.

I was hunched over, studying the small bird while waiting for a salesperson to free up. What's wrong with these salespeople? Don't they see that I am purposeful and ready to buy? Around me I keep catching bits of conversation about chickens. What a bunch of freaks, I thought. Do they gather at Wilco and just stand around talking about chickens?

Then I noticed the sign that read "FREE CLASS! The Care and Feeding of Chickens. Sunday, 1:00pm."

Hmmm, 10 minutes. I turned to Rhonda and talked both of us into staying for the class because, after all, the old couple might not be home and we might end up having to care for a turkey for a day or two. I like to think she was trying to absorb these new events but I suspect she was contemplating the depth of my insanity. So either out of love, or fear, she agreed.

I thought it was mildly hokey that they had bails of hay for benches set up in the back of the store. I thought it was extremely hokey when the 25 or 30 people started to clap when the speaker came out. I mean, c'mon! It's not like this guy wrote a book or anything.

My cynicism has a way of biting me in the ass. It turns out the book he wrote was a tome that documented about 2000 diseases that can afflict chickens. This was a man who was seriously concerned about the safety of our food supply.

He began with "Yep, this is the book", while hefting the tome off a table. "This is the book none of you will ever have to buy unless you purchase your chickens by the millions." (Laugh). "If you have a few chickens and let them run around and eat bugs in your yard, then you will more than likely never have a sick bird..."

Hey, this was going pretty good! He was dismissing worries I didn't even know I had. I figured the same must hold true for a turkey, after all they taste similar.

Then Wilco did something truly evil.

Those bastards sent a couple of kids, presumably slave labor, around the room passing out paper bags that contained "One Free Chick, Compliments of Wilco."

I didn't see it coming and I'm sure that was the plan. Oh, yeah. Here's your free chicken, and by the way it needs food and water and heat or it will die, killer.

Heat? Where the hell do I get heat? How much heat? It turns out they sell lamps that heat up baby chickens. Cost: $10.00.

What the hell do you feed a chicken? My guess was bread. Bzz, today is "you're wrong" day. The feeding options for baby chickens are real simple. You feed them Chick Starter and they live, or you feed them nothing and they die. They are not picky; you can feed them Starter in the morning, and then Starter for lunch, and later, feed them some Starter for dinner. Or you can just put Starter in a dish that they can reach and let them eat whenever they want.

They also need water. Chickens like fresh water. They don't need nearly as much water as, say, a horse but they appreciate it just as much.

I'll give you one guess how I know all this about baby chickens. That's right, I ended up leaving Wilco with:

6 Rhode Island Red sex-linked baby hens $6.00
1 baby Bronze turkey $2.00
1 Special heat lamp for poultry $10.00
25-lbs. Chick starter (turkeys love it!) $5.00
Total $23.00

Before you go running out and doing the same, there is something very important I have to tell you. It concerns turkeys and their survival. It is crucial that you understand that baby turkeys are very ugly. All of them. Mine was and yours will be too. They are hideous, and you will have to cultivate that paternal or maternal bond and resist the urge to put it out of its misery.

As they get older something incredible happens. Simultaneously, they get both uglier and shockingly beautiful. From the neck up they look like they had a real bad case of acne whose cure was attempted by dunking their heads in boiling water. Vivid, angry colors and wattles - that's what their heads look like. But the rest of the turkey? Well that's another story. A Bronze turkey, especially a Tom, has outrageous plumage. Sometimes I didn't know where my turkey began, and where it left off.

The turkey never did get over to see that nice old couple. When you take care of something living, you become vested in it. That little turkey would respond when I talked to it and if I took it out of the box and held it in my hands, it would hop up onto my shoulder and then onto my head of curly hair where it would go right to sleep. Rhonda would look at me with that ugly little bird on my head and say "yep. It's a definite improvement. I'd go with it."

Rhonda cracks herself up all the time.

As the days went by I found out that when a turkey rubs his head on you that means he likes you. It's good to have them like you because turkeys grow very large, very fast. My turkey was not aggressive but he did startle me sometimes. He had a thing for the rivets on my jeans and would occasionally try to remove them with his beak. It didn't hurt but it would give you quite jump if you didn't know he was behind you.

Another thing to know about turkeys is that they are monumentally stupid. My turkey was known to waste the better part of a day just staring at himself in the bumper of my truck. On Monday mornings I'd always find him out by the road sitting next to the bright blue garbage barrel. It was trash pickup day and my theory was that he thought the yard had moved out to the street because that's where the bright blue thing was.

Alas, it was my stupidity that did him in. I work from home and sometimes I'd work late into the night and not get up until 10:00 or 11:00, which is too late to keep the birds cooped up. I got to leaving the door open on the small shed that I used for a coop. I was aware that predators like to sneak into chicken coops for a meal but I rationalized this by thinking that Turkey was big enough to scare anything off. The problem is, chickens and turkeys become very docile at night and can be handled quite easily. More than once I've had to pick a bird up after dark and carry it to the coop. This usually happens on nice evenings when the bugs are plentiful and there's maybe a piece of watermelon to peck around the yard. Just as when we were children having fun in the summer, I think the dark just sneaks up on them.

Predators are a fact of life when owning animals. This is especially true of fowl because they taste so good. You like chicken, I like chicken, Mr. Raccoon likes chicken, Mr. Fox likes chicken, and I suspect one of my neighbors dogs likes chicken.

Which brings us back to chickens.

I told you that I purchased half a dozen Rhode Island Reds but actually I lied. I only thought I did. I'm going to be talking about cocks and sex-links but rest assured I am staying on subject. The Reds I got were actually sex-links. Don't Google it because you will be getting chicks of a whole different kind - mostly without feathers. Sex-links are hybrid birds specifically bred for better performance and easy sex identification at hatch time. The males and females are either a different color or the feather patterns are different. This is important because, unbelievably, roosters don't lay eggs.

The first few weeks after bringing home the birds was somewhat uneventful. I kept them in a large box on to which I clipped the heat lamp. I would have to regularly change the water and I would take them outside to run around so I could replace the lining in the box. Unlike Turkey, who learned to jump out of the box after a week, the chickens didn't do much of anything. Not even grow much. At about week four, they decided to double in size in the span of an afternoon. At least that is what it seemed to me. I figured like all birds, they need to be helped out of the nest, so one last time I brought them outside and tipped the box over and away they ran.

I figured the chickens would follow Turkey around and look to it as their protector but just the opposite happened. As I said, turkeys are monumentally stupid and my turkey must have been impressed with the very busy agenda the chickens had. He would follow them around as they darted about the yard, always running, always with some purpose only known to them. I thought about strapping a proximity detector on two chickens, multiplying the resulting vectors together, and posting the answer on the Internet as a perfect random number generator, but I didn't want to intrude on their affairs. For all I knew they would start to run in regular patterns and then I'd look like a real jerk.

Soon, I got to thinking, "where the hell are my eggs?" I gave them the benefit of the doubt for about another month but at this point I was buying chicken feed in 50 lb. sacks. Fifty pounds! It was the high-protein Starter mix and it cost $9.00, or about $3.00 more than regular feed.

I started to get pissed off at my lazy chickens. I bought them "surrogate eggs" if you can believe it. Fake eggs that are supposed to stimulate laying wherever you put them. I figured "stimulate", hell, I'll just show them the real deal, so I chased them around the yard with a frozen chicken completely naked. The chicken, that is; not me.

I had heard that weather can influence egg laying so I used that as an excuse to mention my egg laying problem to the cute little know-it-all smart-ass behind the counter at the feed store. Because I was buying starter she asked how old my birds were and I told her about 10 weeks. She gave me that your-an-idiot look I was getting used to and told me they start laying at 20 weeks.

I was obsessed! Week 20 was hell and I'm sure my behavior didn't help my nervous chickens at all. I had built nests of straw everywhere around my yard. It was like something out of a nightmare. I figured "one more nest, that's what they need!" So, of course, it was in a box of rags that I found the first egg. It was small, misshapen, and had two yolks! That little lady continued to lay double yolkers for months, each one bigger and more perfect than the last.

I had never had a fresh, free-ranged egg before and all I can say is I'll never buy store eggs again. The yolks of store eggs look sickly and yellow compared to the bright orange ones I was getting. How many eggs was I getting? Five or six a day. Rhode Island Reds are known as prolific layers. They lay brown eggs. Rock hens are another great laying breed and they lay white eggs. Do you know what a male Rock chicken is called? That's right: a Rock cock.

Speaking of roosters, chickens don't need one to lay eggs. That's right, no roosters. If I don't need one, I won't get one.

Life is tenacious. If you have chickens there is a great chance you will end up with a rooster. For me, it happened while I was looking at a horse to buy. I drove up to a farmhouse not far away and when I got out of the truck the strangest looking bird came running up to me, stuck out its chest, and belted out a loud cock-a-doodle-do. That bird cracked me up and I said so to the man that eventually sold me the horse.

Here is what I think happened: my chickens somehow made me convey to that rooster that they were alone. In turn, the rooster conveyed to his owner that he needed to be given to me because when that man delivered my horse, out came the rooster from the trailer. He said "I know you liked this guy, so here he is." To the best of my recollection, I never mentioned owning chickens to him, so just giving someone a rooster is a strange thing to do.

Never name your chickens. They come and go, and too many look too much alike, so when the man told me the name of the rooster was Rock-a-Doodle I laughed because you could not find a more apt name for this bird. It looked just like a punk rocker. Polish chickens have an outrageous mop of feathers on top of their heads. This one was a Polish variation called a Top Hat Special, and he was special all right.

Roosters are loud, funny, and aggressive. I could carry Rock-a-Doodle around like a football at night, but forget about doing that in the day. It seems I was sporting fun for him in the morning before feeding them all. Hell, I got to where I'd carry a trash lid with me to bash that little bastard in the head. They have short memories so I'd have to bash him quite often.

If he wasn't attacking me, he was trying to nail one of the hens. You don't know what sex drive is until you've seen a rooster. They say you should have one rooster for every ten or so hens and I'll testify.

You know how in the cartoons roosters are always portrayed as crowing when the sun comes up? Bullshit! Don't believe everything you see in cartoons. How about 3:00am? How about 3:00am, 3:01am, and 3:07am? How about whenever they want and often enough that you completely get used to it. My neighbors did too - eventually.

The neighbors minded less when I started giving them cartons of fresh eggs. The cartons are the problem now, since I don't buy eggs. My neighbors are good about bringing back the empty ones and of course they linger around long enough for me to fill them up again. My original six birds, those lovely ladies, were giving me 5 or 6 eggs a day and that adds up fast. Rhonda suggested we plop a sign out at the end of the driveway announcing a dozen eggs for $1.00, but I told her I didn't want a bunch of egg-eating freaks crawling all over my property for the sake of a buck. It's tough enough watching out for the neighbors.

How many eggs am I getting now? Today? Let me first tell you about some more BS that is being foisted upon us. At the beginning of this I mentioned buying a heat lamp and accessories to grow chickens. They (it's always 'they') also were pitching an incubator as required goods to successfully hatch your own birds. Again, a big hardy Bullshit! I have to work at NOT hatching chickens because all that is needed are some fertilized eggs and a chicken to sit on them. Things in great supply in my back yard.

The work to NOT hatch eggs involves finding them. Chickens are sneaky! They will start laying eggs in a well hidden place and once they have enough, they will start setting. Even if not hidden all that well, they lie perfectly still and, I believe, assume other shapes such as a can of paint.

The very inspiration for this story is because, for the second time now, the morning feed was enjoyed by eleven new chirping balls of fuzz. Eleven!

Besides the Reds, I have acquired the odd other chicken here and there, and I do mean odd. I don't know what these chicks are going to look like when they grow. One of my Frizzle hens was the one setting but that doesn't mean she's the one who layed them. They are very communal in that way.

The one thing I haven't done yet is cook up a chicken. Rhonda is against the idea on the grounds that they live on our property and therefore are part of the family. Me? I don't have anything against the idea on principle, I mean it's just like fishing, right?

Oddly enough, I always catch and release when fishing in the river behind my house.

Anybody want some chickens? Anybody want some eggs?


Anonymous said...

Very funny and well written. Thank you for cheering me up.

MouseOfSuburbia said...

My pleasure. Thank you for reading it.