“She’s real pretty,” says our neighbor, standing in our driveway by her turquoise pickup full of rescued chickens in dog carriers. “She” is a black and white speckled wild banty hen, looking a lot like a pheasant, which our neighbor has just rescued from a defunct farm where the neighbors are complaining. I am ecstatic. This is pure magic — the Bearded One finished our chicken coop and aviary just 17 hours earlier. “She’s got 7 chicks, 3 days old. No pressure.” We weren’t planning on chicks yet. Winter isn’t far off here. The Bearded One has questions. So do I, but to me they are already our chickens.
Our neighbor, our personal Mother Goose, is in her mid-40s. She has dyed bright red hair and is a welder. She and her husband raise chickens, turkeys, and ducks. They have become our friends and teachers. Is our setup adequate for babies? Do they require extra heat and special food? What will we do with the ones that turn into roosters? Don’t basic dog-raising guidelines on avoiding the mating of siblings apply? What’s the timing on that?
We walk up to the barn. Mother Goose inspects the fence line of the enclosed 30’x30′ aviary. Five foot no-climb wire fencing plus filler fencing strips cemented a foot into the ground, plus chicken wire outside that, then just chicken wire all the way up to the roof.
“You’ll know it’s weasels that got them because of the Dracula Effect,” says Mother Goose and lights a cigarette. “They’re sucked dry. Two little holes in the neck.” I picture a carcass that’s been in my dehydrator for a day. Mummy dry.
“Do weasels climb?” asks the Bearded One. “Don’t know,” says Mother Goose. “Mainly they dig. The raccoons — the raccoons will climb, but they’re so big, they’re like bears. They’ll climb halfway up this and then blow it off and climb down.” She looks up at the wall of chicken wire. “No eagle and raven problem in here!” she says, and then tells us that they have now installed poultry netting over their bird yards — they lost all their layers to eagles this summer — and recommends we do the same if we let the chickens out of the aviary and into the goat pastures. Hang it from tree to tree. The Bearded One is not enthusiastic. Covered pastures? A circus tent? Wouldn’t tree branches fall into it?
I change the subject. “What do we feed the chicks?”
“All-purpose chick feed crumble is fine,” she says. “I’ll give you feeders and a watering system.” She is making this so easy for us. “With the chick feeder, be careful to close it completely, though, or the chicks can get their little legs chopped off on the edges.” It looks like a big industrial metal ice tray.
“Right,” I say, and try not to cry out in grief at the very prospect.
She laughs. “When they get hurt, like get pecked, which they will, treat it just like a human. Put Neosporin on it.”
“What do we do with the chicks that are roosters?” asks the Bearded One, who is against roosters crowing at all times of the night.
“You’ll be able to tell the cockerels in about two months. They’ll start getting aggressive with each other, and then they’ll get combs. Give ’em to us. We’ll either keep them or make a stew. They’re small, so it’d probably take three!” Who knows, I think, by then we might have decided to keep one. No — wait — there’s still the mating problem. We accept their invitation to attend their poultry harvesting party at the end of October when they rent all the equipment — killing cones, scalding pots, feather pluckers.
Mother Goose warns us that the eggs this banty will lay are small, but she’ll get us some full-sized layers soon. “This is a Poultry Palace!” she says, and then tells us that we could comfortably and humanely raise 20 chickens in it. We plan to let them out into the goat pastures some of the time, once the chicks grow up, and once all that fencing has had the poultry wire treatment at the base to discourage the diggers — coyotes, raccoons and weasels, just for starters.
“How can I say no?” says the Bearded One to Mother Goose and shakes her hand. “Thank you. Yes.” I hug them both. This beautiful hen is our primal chicken, our first, and so we name her Kimber after our twenty-year-old son’s kindergarten girlfriend.
After Mother Goose leaves, the Bearded One and I go up to the chickens with lawn chairs. We laugh at their cuteness and antics, and then, before our very eyes the impossible happens. The smallest chick squeezes through the fencing! I shriek and yell for the Bearded One go get it before Garfield does. And then another chick slips through after the first! I cluck and flap my wings. The Bearded One has to go through THREE gates to get to where the chicks are! Halfway there he stops and comes back. “I’ll scare them away,” he says. Just let them come back the same way they went through. And he’s right.
Kimber is calm. Br..Br..br.brk…. she clucks to them. We decide Okay, We’ll Let Kimber Handle It, and go to the barn. Five minutes later we return and the chicks are back inside with their mama. Pure chicken magic. Kimber knows what to do. We don’t have to know everything.