It is a mystery of farming, and one of those great truths,
that the animal that will choose the creative way of dying young is
always the one the kids have chosen as a pet.
Last year it was Oreo the sheep, a black spotted ewe lamb who was both
friendly and distinctive, who broke her leg by getting it caught in
a gate. I’d have taken a large wager that no animal could injure
itself, much less so badly it would have to be put down, on that gate,
but Oreo managed it.
This year the chickens, instead of being the feral flighty creatures
I raise, are hand-tame. I wouldn’t spend the time to do it, but
my neighbor’s daughter did. She painstakingly taught them to fly,
lifting them up with their stubby wings and encouraging their little
hops. She taught a couple of them to sit on her finger, and as they
got bigger to tolerate being carried around. And, naturally, she named
them: Abby, Sunflower, Fudge — a half-dozen names for the cutest
of the 15 chickens. She prefers the buff and yellow birds. The black-and-white
Barred Rocks are all anonymous bundles of feathers.
So it was with a sinking heart that I realized the only birds out in
the yard this morning were three Barred Rocks. No Golden Comets, no
Buff Orphingtons, no Araucanas — but, more to the point, no Abby,
no Sunflower, none of the tame birds to be seen. In the pouring rain,
I searched the sheep sheds. I looked in the hay storage. I checked the
trees. No birds, and not a sign of a bird.
The only positive thing I can say about whatever got the birds is they
were taken cleanly. No mass of feathers to indicate where they were
taken. Usually, such a clean kill means a hawk — in this case,
several hawks — have found the flock and borne them off. Foxes
are messier, leaving a pile of feathers to mark their kills. Ermines
leave bodies. Raccoons or domestic dogs leave carnage in their wake.
The remaining three juvenile birds are cowering under a tree, and glad
to be chased into the coop. The remaining adult, having survived domestic
dogs, foxes and hawks, is already in the coop, hunkered down in a nesting
box and looking like nothing will pry her from it.
So I put fresh feed in the coop and barricade what is left of the flock
inside before stomping into the house to locate another flock of birds
to replace the lost ones. They won’t be hand-tame, but they can
be trained to come running for scratch; some birds are better than no
birds at all.
This spring, chickens — which have been enjoying something of
a resurrection since celebrities (most notably Martha Stewart) started
promoting backyard flocks — suddenly exploded in popularity. Area
hatcheries, unable to keep up with demand, shipped partial orders. Out-of-state
hatcheries stopped taking back orders for popular breeds, and began
refusing orders that didn’t accept substitutions as stocks ran
low. I took delivery of a short order, and so did everyone else I know.
“Call me in the fall,” says one farm. “We might have
some older hens available then.”
I decide to start over and start checking hatcheries to see what can
be shipped immediately. Breed after breed, hatchery after hatchery,
pages are marked “sold out” or simply “unavailable.”
So, sadly, I notify the house above. “Something got the chickens,”
I say, and hear a shriek of dismay as this is relayed to the kids. “What
about Abby?” I hear, simultaneous with the slamming of the screen
door. Abby, the Araucana, is not in the coop, but the sound of little
feet pounding down the hill in the driving rain tells me someone isn’t
going to take my word on it.
And lo! As we round the corner to the coop, two more survivors! Neither
Abby nor Sunflower, nor unfortunately, Fudge, but another Barred Rock
and a Buff Orphington. Five survivors are better than three; I’ll
take what I can get. But survivors mean hope, and she runs out into
the rain, into the field, calling for the flock. “Abby, Abby,
where are you?”
And out of nowhere birds come running. Soaking wet, dripping scraggly
feathers, but alive. They take one look at me and promptly scatter in
100 different directions (something of an achievement for only a dozen
birds), so we chase them. Up the field, into the berries, out of the
berries, into the sheep shed, out of the sheep shed — “Be
careful,” her brother cautions, as we run across the sheep pen.
“It is slippery in here!” Until finally the birds are corralled,
stepping and stumbling over each other as they head into the coop.
as is befitting a tame bird who comes when called, is carried to the
coop. “One, two, three — no, wait, one, two, three, four,
five — hey.” Chickens are not easy to count, but she at
last establishes that all 15 juveniles are safely inside.
Peter and I go shopping. For wood, wire — whatever spooked them
will be back — and fly tape. Free-range chickens serve a dual
purpose on a small farm: They provide us with eggs and they keep the
sheep sheds clean with their voracious appetites for flies.
Chicks: $17.50. Bag of mash: $10.50. Chicken wire: $25. Fly tape: $5.
Pet chicken that sits in a girl’s arms and comes when called?
Yes, there really are some things that can’t be counted in simple
coin. For everything else, there’s a feed store.
an eye on the farm at FarmCam!