Sunday Diversion: Back Yard Chicken Melodrama

(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.

10 thoughts on “Sunday Diversion: Back Yard Chicken Melodrama”

  1. Along with the prior sentence about giving away eggs, the summary that wins: “…at least don’t mind it too much.”

    Leads me to chuckle thinking of Proverbs 17:8 and 21:14.

    Some local dear friends have hens. But they have told me that city ordinances prevent roosters. Their reports of costs/benefits parallel yours.

  2. I had banties for many years. They were the result of us getting a couple of Paymasters for free, I think to save them from death, but it was long ago. I got a bantam rooster from another friend and he just owned his 2 hens, to everyone’s delight. They were a happy little crew and gave me a few eggs.

    Then I moved to Vancouver Island and added many free bantams, I forget where they came from, to that mix. That became a banty flock. If you have ever had one you know how wild they are. They would all fly up in the trees at nightfall. Any one of em’ could fly 100′, no problem and they were great fun. You had to watch em’, most would not lay in the coop, or even go in it for many of them, and you had to see where they laid to get your eggs. They did not mind mostly, but managed to breed and gave me many chicks. I gave chickens away for many years.

    The orange yolk eggs were amazing and I keep thinking of getting a few banties. My farmer landlord would not like them I suspect, they are little outlaws and hard to contain.

  3. When we re-did the fence along one side, we left a lattice window for one of our neighbors to watch the chickens. On the other side is a guy with four very noisy basset hounds, who works nights – no complaints there. Beyond that house is a guy who grew up in Puerto Rico – and he says he likes to drink his early-morning coffee to the sound of Larry-Bird tuning up. Sounds like home, he says. He’s a bow hunter and has swapped venison for eggs. Mainly, the one whom Larry-Bird mainly bothers is me – and he’s better than an alarm clock. I really ought to be getting up and seeing to things … like writing, plus the usual chores.

    For additional good-will among neighbors — we also give away home-made fudge at Christmas. Luscious, home-made gourmet-quality fudge, made with best chocolate, cream, butter, etc.

    But no, I don’t believe we could endure another rooster.

  4. The smartest chickens I’ve ever raised are Ameracaunas. They can become big pets and like to be petted. They also lay pastel green/blue shelled eggs, about one every other day. Red Stars, a cross between a white Leghorn Rooster and a Rhode Island red hen are great layers of brown shelled eggs, some hens lay one per day for the first year. I’ve had a flock of both types for several years.

    As a teenager, I was responsible for a flock that had a lot of banty hens and fighting game hens. It was a chore to get them all to roost in the coop, as they preferred to roost in the trees. The funniest sight I ever saw was an old broody banty hen who would take her chicks up into her favorite roosting tree after they started fledging. She would get them to hop on her back and fly them up one at a time until she had all of them up in a crotch in the tree where she would settle in with them all under her wings. She would always hatch out anywhere from 6 to 10 chicks yearly. One time I put some eggs from a black Orpington flock under her to set on. Within a few weeks of hatching she could barely cover the huge chicks and before she cut them loose some were bigger than she was.

  5. Joe, I think Ameracaunas would be lovely, for the blue and green eggs, and for being friendly enough – our’s don’t much like being petted or held, although even Larry-Bird is not as hostile and vicious as some roosters we have heard of. They do gather around when I come out with some sliced up stuff for them to eat – they know the sound of the slider door opening.

    My daughter has her own heart set on some Buff Orpingtons, for the next chicken generation, though! Luckily, our two banties are dedicated to their coop. No chance of them ever doing what you saw with that hen who would take her chickies pick-a-back to her favorite tree.

  6. When I was about 10, I got ten chicks and two duck chicks for Easter. That was not unusual for those days, even in the city. My father, who was a farm boy, built a hen house for them. I had a great time with them but, in summer, when the roosters started to crow and the hens to lay pullet eggs, I was sent off for two weeks to Wisconsin to friends who had a cottage up there.

    When I came home the chickens and ducks were gone. They were sent to the family farm I was told.

    I remember a couple of fried chicken dinners about that time.

  7. It’s been years since we had chickens. The wife asked if we could keep goats, but we don’t have Texas neighbors, ours are city people who are terrified at the lack of street lighting. We had Rhode Island Reds when I was very young, lots of them, later Bantams just for something to decorate the lawn. Had to round them up before dusk though, or it was tree climbing time.

  8. I wondered what Ameracaunas are as I had an Araucana for quite a while, she was very sweet, and way cuter than those birds. Now you have to go google. ;)

  9. Celia,

    I used to keep a couple of Buff Orpingtons for broody hens. They are wonderful mothers. If I let them they’d brood 3-4 clutches of eggs a year. Penny, Ameracaunas are what most hatcheries in North America sell as Auracanas. I think they have been crossed with leghorns to remove the broodiness and give them tail feathers to allow easier breeding while keeping the nature and intelligence of the native stock.

    Damn! Now I really have the bug to get a flock started again. I had to sell off the last one when I was living temporarily in Tennessee doing the Watts Bar unit 2 startup in 2011-2013.

  10. Ever do chicken tricks?

    Putting Chickens to Sleep:

    Take one and tuck it’s head under it’s wing, gently swing it back and forth till it becomes calm, then very carefully put it down, They will stay there for up to, well about 5 minutes was our record.

    Chicken Hook:

    You need to catch em’ wholesale for whatever reason. Take a wire coat hanger, straighten it and make a hook on one end. Just a U at the end. Then sweep it along the ground and hook their legs. You can get a couple at once if you are good, and they are crowded. Makes moving a flock, and things like that simpler.

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