(The following is provided as a small, light-hearted diversion from the deeply serious social and political commentary normally provided. We need such small, light-hearted thing in serious times, which is why my daughter and I started writing the Luna City Chronicle series.)
No, it’s not that anything bad has happened to our chickens, or the ‘Whup-whups’ as my daughter calls them, for the contented and low-voiced clucking that they make when all is good and happy in their world, especially when I bring out something savory from the house, like slivered-up potato or apple peelings, or a handful of cracked corn, which the chickens love to the point of distraction. They love it so much that we call cracked corn ‘chicken crack’. Although they are also very partial to the slivered peelings; spoiled birds – I do have to slice it up for them This world of theirs is a limited one; the tiny back yard of a tiny suburban house with a population of five; three Barred Plymouth Rocks, and a pair of bantam Wyandotte hens. (Barred rocks are those pretty speckled black and white chickens with brilliant red combs and wattles.) Wyandottes are also pretty – tending to be white or pale, with darker edges to their feathers which gives an overall lacy effect. They come in many colors; the smallest of the Wyandottes, Dottie (pale with caramel-color lacings), is lowest in the pecking order, and subject to mild bullying on the part of the next-smallest, Winona (white with grey lacings) – and in turn, the two of them are bullied by the Barred Rock hens, Maureen and Carly, who chase them away from the two shallow pans where we put their food daily.
Larry-Bird the Magnificent is the rooster; Dottie and Winona are beneath his lordly notice. Carly is also mostly beneath his notice, as she is not his favored mate in the same way that Maureen is. We noticed this when they were fairly mature, and trying to accustom them to being handled. Larry didn’t care if we picked up Carly. But handle Maureen, and Larry would be dancing around our feed, creating a huge fuss: “Put her down this very minute! Put her down, I say! Brawwwwk!” Poor Maureen gets the swift-shag treatment on a regular basis; Carly is nimble and fast – she gets away from him, mostly. I don’t believe Larry-Bird pays amorous attentions to the Wyandottes. There is the size differential, after all – and they run even faster than Carly. Winona and Dottie spend a great deal of time underneath the shed, and they have their own separate little henhouse, to which they retreat just after sundown every evening, just as Larry-Bird and his harem of two retreat to the bigger henhouse. We bought them all as ten-week old pullets. Larry and his harem from a poultry farm out near Pleasanton, and the Wyandottes from neighbor who thought she wanted to start a flock of Wyandottes, but changed her mind later. When we first brought them home, they all seemed to get along just fine – but one morning, when my daughter opened up the henhouse, Winona and Dottie had their heads pecked bloody and raw – so we segregated them in separate enclosures, and eventually in separate coops. Poor Dottie is still scarred. And we didn’t know they were bantams – we thought they were just slow to get their growth. But when they began laying teeny, tiny little brown eggs, that made it clear they were mature, and would not get any bigger than about three or four pounds, undressed.
Dottie is the most prone to be broody – to sit in the small coop on eggs if there are any, or even just on the nest if there are none at all. She is the one hen most dedicated to protect and keep those eggs sheltered. The noise that she makes when I confiscate them out from under her is almost a shriek of indignation: “What!? You’re taking them AWAY! Whaaah! Murder! Kidnapping!?” I really think that she would be the most likely of our four to hatch chicks – if not from her own eggs, which are most likely to be unfertilized – but from Maureens’s eggs. I’d be tempted to let this happen for the sheer comic spectacle of tiny Dottie mothering Maureen’s huge eggs, and likely even bigger chicks. But we are at our limit in the city for chickens, and the odds are about 50% that there would be cockerel chicks among them, and apart from the noise of another rooster, Larry would not abide that situation gracefully.
The traditional thing for surplus cockerels is of course, fried chicken, but in normal times, once you have given a name to something, it is not a meal, it is a pet. We got them all for the eggs, after reading stories about various avian plagues going like wildfire through the poultry farms, noticing that prices for good fresh range-free eggs were going up, and that even our local grocery store was rationing in a limited way; no more than a two or three flats of eggs per customer, or something like that. Eggs we wanted – and eggs we have. They lay – barring moods or molting on something like a 36-hour rotation, although I think Carly and Maureen are more like 24 hours. So – two to four eggs every day. The charming thing is that we can tell which hen laid which egg: Dottie’s are slightly darker than Winona’s, Carly’s are smaller and darker than Maureens’. Maureen’s are huge – gargantuan eggs. I can visualize Maureen screaming for an epidural every laying time, they are that big.
It’s been almost two years, and totting up the start-up costs of coops and pens and chicken crumble and cracked corn and all, I think the cost of our eggs is just about equivalent to the most expensive organic, natural, free-range and gourmet eggs available in the supermarket. Our neighbors have the benefit of all this, as we give them away quite freely – mostly for the goodwill, as Larry Bird does make a lot of noise in the early morning. Fortunately, our closest neighbors all grew up in the country, and rather like the sound, or at least, don’t mind it too much.