18. Henpecked

Someone recently suggested that I write about our chickens. I thanked them for the idea. After all, I wrote three posts about building the coop, and nothing on the occupants.

But what did they have to do with new stuff sucking? Obviously, if we’re getting eggs from them, we can avoid buying egg cartons. That packaging can be egregious: clear plastic and Styrofoam cartons will persist for centuries as pollution, unrecyclable, and even the paper ones are energy-intensive to produce. But these cartons are a small subset of the whole packaging issue, and I already gave them special attention in Post 14. (See “Garbage In, Beauty Out” for an artist’s reaction to plastic egg cartons deceptively overwritten with eco-text.) I just didn’t see any other reasons to write about chickens.

But it would be fun!

I know that chickens are a classic part of permaculture design. They do so much for domestic systems—picking off weeds, removing bugs from compost while also enriching it, contributing eggs for people and eggshells for wild birds to consume, loosening garden soil, and even stimulating human oxytocin (when they’re embraced as pets).

But what about meat? Before I met Terry (a vegetarian for decades), I avoided buying meat but didn’t pay attention to what was in dishes offered at potlucks. Permaculture favors meat under certain circumstances. Imagine a place where grass grew, but not much else. Humans could survive there if they ate the animals that grazed on it. When a rattlesnake got run over, when I live-trapped a squirrel, I put them in stews—mostly for flavor; the meat was scant—and ate them. Permaculture was about nature, and nature was dog-eat-dog. Terry said he’d never eat chicken. But if it was permaculturally logical, where I only had grass to eat otherwise, he could see me eating meat.

However, when we brought the three little fluffballs home, we named them. They were going to be our Dickens Chickens, named after three of his female characters: Miss Havisham (Great Expectations), Lady Dedlock (Bleak House), and Nurse Peggotty (David Copperfield). And attachment, of course, starts with naming.

That’s true even when it’s a dumb bird with a face that has no means of expression. The beak is either open or closed, but that doesn’t carry any meaning beyond the ambient temperature. (Birds are like dogs panting, keeping their mouths and tongues open to cooling airflow.) There aren’t any eyebrows over the always startled-looking round eyes, no muscles for squinting out tears or doubt—only a second-by-second assessment of food opportunities. It just seems, at first, that these are animals of somewhat low intelligence and feeling.

But dumb little babies are still cute. The three wisps of down on legs, randomly picked from a heated drawer at the feed store, were as irresistible as any kitten or puppy. I say “on legs” because as tiny as they were, they could shoot across the ground faster than a speeding bullet. (In fact, it occurred to me that the word “pullet,” used to describe them at this age, must have come from that root word.) They may or may not have been sisters, but they stuck together, amusingly, in all their running around and falling.

Havisham’s comb peeks through

Although all three were Barred Rocks, we fancied we could tell them apart by their markings. But they grew fast, and their markings stretched and changed. We watched these changes as though they were kids growing up, only it happened faster, the way everything happens now. You could tell they were proud of themselves when they were able to “fly” to the lowest rung on their chair, then to its seat, then to the top of its back. Next they figured out how to go up the ramp to a low roost, and finally to the highest one, five feet off the ground. If Terry was there, they’d use his shoulder as a jumping-off platform.

Soon we noticed a red line emerging from the top of each head, each with a different pattern of bumps. Now we’d be able to tell them apart. About this time, some friends who had older chickens showed us how fun it was to pick them up and hold them. When they’d see you reaching for them, they’d crouch down and freeze, waiting to feel your grasp on them. Who’d ever heard of this? I hadn’t. Apparently is was a show of submission to the hypothetical rooster.

Trying out the human lap

Our girls did this, too. Terry loved picking them up and setting them down on the bench next to him, or having them on his lap as he sat reading. I didn’t. A pecking order was developing, and Terry was the rooster.

They didn’t crouch for me.

By now we’d given them the run of the back yard. For them, life was all about eating. Right away, I learned which plants they liked, because they were the ones that quickly disappeared. The pale-green succulent, echeveria, was first to go; the purple-trumpeted ruellia was next, three-quarters gone before I realized it, but I was able to transplant the last bit to safety.

Work companions

They did do other things besides eat, but all of them had to do with eating. A favorite pastime was finding bare dirt and vigorously scratching it behind them—Michael Jackson moonwalk style—until it covered the graveled pathways and other graveled areas. Scratch-scratch-peck. I’m sure they were getting bugs, but it all happened so fast I could never see them. I countered with covering the most important bare-dirt places with rocks. In those spots, they were foiled. But then they discovered another amusement: digging under rocks—the rocks that I put there to accent or delineate the landscape. Yeah, the curve-billed thrasher had been doing that for years, hoping to find buried grubs. But their little excavations had nothing on the dark depth of these chicken holes. Of course, all the dirt was once again moonwalked onto carefully graveled ground. And there were way too many rocks in the yard for me to come up with a fix for that.

Peggotty, as the top hen, had acquired a habit unique to her position, which I don’t think had to do with food, though I did sometimes lose bits of flesh. She’d sneak up to me and peck me on the leg. I believe she was trying to put me in my place—below herself as top chicken under the rooster—by pecking me when I wasn’t looking. She could absolutely tell—I’m sure of it—when I’d let my guard down and had started to relax into some project. She’d go as deep as her hard, sharp little beak would let her, often hard enough to draw blood. I resorted to making myself a pair of chaps out of old leather to tie onto the back of my legs. It worked! By the time she came around to the front of me, it was too late. I’d seen her. The only problem was, it was a lot of trouble to haul them out and tie them on for the quick trips into the yard, say, just to pick a few greens from the chard patch for dinner.

Terry was impressively on the ball when it came to the poop scooping, so I had no complaints about that. Their droppings were an ideal ingredient for the compost bins and the soil. Also, the chickens were great at picking off roaches and grubs from the compost when we turned it. And the sweet things were giving us eggs now, one a day each—clean, latte-colored eggs with intensely orange yolks. Our omelets could barely keep up.

No one ever told me the details of that part of the chicken experience—the egg collecting. I hadn’t known about the distinct, passionate song that always announced the laying. Sometimes it wasn’t the producer herself who sounded off; it might be a sister. Nobody knows for sure why they do this. And if you went to get the egg right after the broadcast, it would still be warm from the bird’s body heat.

This was an intimate relationship we had with these girls. I wanted to know how they felt about us taking their eggs from them—but I doubted this would ever be the subject of scientific research. If Peggotty were mad, though, she’d find a way to let me know.

We’d figure someone was sitting on the box if she was missing from the threesome. If I went to confirm it, I stayed back and made it brief. It was just too much like peeking into a bathroom where someone was sitting on the throne.

But plants continued to disappear or get dug up and discarded. Holes appeared all over the yard; my gravel disappeared into the dirt they churned up. All the damage and extra yard work was starting to get to me. Terry, however, didn’t seem to notice I was becoming more upset, despite the clues I gave him.

I was so grateful for their gifts. I wanted them to be free. I didn’t think Terry wanted to entertain any other possibility. But unless I was okay with the Sisyphean task of daily yard repair, our ranging-the-yard chickens would soon render our outdoor space unfit for guests.

And it appeared to me this would be the biggest challenge so far in my eight-year relationship with Terry. It seemed the solution had to be either closer confinement or banishment of our birds. Our kids.

Oh dear. There’s more, but this post is too long already. And I’ve just written my first cliffhanger! You’ll have to come back next week to find out how this impossible situation turns out.

I didn’t intend to write two posts on chickens. Forgive me. I’m not always in control of the muse.

If you missed the Broad Perspectives interview on KXCI, you’ll still be able to hear it by clicking below.

Kay interviewed by Aspen Green and Kathy Harris.

2 thoughts on “18. Henpecked

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