Friday, March 28, 2014

price of freedom


The reality is that if you truly want to free range (it's a verb! how about that!) your chickens, you're going to eventually lose a bird. Or two. It appears that every animal alive (this includes you and me) loves chicken meat. It's as if the kingdom of beasts is lined up in the fields to the north, to the east and up above, ready to attack if we let down our guard.

Now, chickens have their defense systems. One is the rooster himself, whose job it is to be alert to predators. He has his sexual privilege, but it does not come without work. Yesterday, Oreo herded the flock into the rosebushes to keep them safe from hawks.

Another defense is to fill your yard with bushes, picnic tables, sheltered areas for the hens to run to when a hawk appears. We have some of that. An overgrown yard -- yes, that's the farmette!

People also get dogs, and they put up scarecrows with shiny mirrors, and hoist up fake owls painted in pretty colors -- all to ward off hawks. We're not going to get dogs and delighted as I am to build a scarecrow, I think it's pointless.

Of course, you can also build fencing: from the sides and at the top. You don't then truly free range, but you come close to it.

We've resisted that. It's not cheap, and you have to maintain fencing, and, too, I want the chickens to roam in a variety of settings. Imagine letting them peck in our wild prairie! Our idea is that three acres offers plenty of space for four chicken to enjoy without fencing and destroying any one portion of the yard. And we do want to keep the chicks within sight of the farmhouse. We like to look at them. And have them see us when we're out and about.

Chicken girl and her mom are in agreement: we do the best we can to protect them, but if in their free roam we lose one to the brutal forces of nature -- so be it.

And oh, the rewards of happy chicks! To see them in the morning, clamoring to get out, but then changing their mind as they watch me clean the coop. What are you doing to my room?! -- Lexie asks as she pecks at my pooper scooper.


Butter reluctantly moves out. Then moves back in. Then out. Then in. The girl's nickname suits her well.

But here's an early complaint: this day is becoming too chicken-centered (and the blog post surely reflects that). Early, just after sun rise,  Ed rolls over in bed and mumbles -- the chicks probably want to go out... 
I stare at him and do a quick calculus as to the probability that he'll be the one opening the coop for them this morning. Zero. Out I go.

Within an hour, their coop is cleaned out, they've had a good spin around the yard, I've settled a few disagreements between them, they've explored a lot of new territory and now, just as I am about to herd them back in (because I want some non-chicken time), Chicken Girl shows up with her mom to take Oreo to the vet. That broken, twisted foot looks aggravated. Chicken Girl has a saintly mother who is willing to spend $70 (they are a family of modest means) on the vet to examine Oreo's issues with his leg. They count it as exotic animal, so they charge extra... she sighs.

Without Oreo, I feel I need to stay outside and watch the skies for hawks. (Oreo merely has to listen. He can hear the whistle of a hungry bird instantly.) And so after breakfast...


...I stay outdoors (and it is still so chilly outside!) and watch the hens play. And I see that without Oreo, Lexie is a lonely girl. She comes and pecks on my glove to get my attention. She tries to follow the two big girls, but they shoo her off. I have a sudden fear that Oreo will never come back.  I mean, if he requires treatment, is anyone really going to spend money on it? Already, the $70 vet visit would have been enough to buy 30 rooster replacements.

I try to teach the hens good manners (meaning I yell at them when they misbehave). But there is a pecking order in this world and while I count for something, I am not in control of their habits.

(Butter is having a bad hair day)

The skies are gray. There should have been sunshine. No sunshine. We're all looking forward to Sunday because everyone is promising a warm and sunny day then. Watch it be snatched from us at the last minute! This has not been a great weather week.The ground is half frozen half mud. Sunshine would be so welcome!

(digging side by side)

Two hours after Oreo was taken away, I decide I need to go about my Friday chores which include the weekly grocery shopping. Into the coop they all go. Manipulated by some nice, fresh mealy worms.

And in my absence, Chicken Girl brings Oreo back and leaves a note telling me that the vet says he is fine. Yes, the broken foot can be fixed with pins. Cost: $1500-$2000. The recommendation is to let it go. Indeed!

And now the flock is whole again and I let them out and I spend not a small amount of time watching them destroy pieces of my flower bed and, on a happier note -- chew away on the creeping charlie.

Welcome home, Oreo. The girls and I are happy to have your back!


I missed the guy. Well, I trust him now to look after the flock. In I go to get some writing work done. oh! Not so fast. They follow me to the farmhouse. And stare inside, wondering how it is that I just disappeared.


I go out. I try to herd them to the coop. No go. I go inside and shut my eyes for a few seconds and tell myself that when I open them, my vision will encompass everything and anything that does not have feathers.

But here's the thing: the chickens are forcing me to not be in a hurry. To shake off the constant nagging feeling that, even in my retirement, I must be productive.  They stand in my way and tell me -- watch us scratch at the dirt! And I do. And the minutes pass and that's okay.


And then all hell breaks loose.

Where did I leave off? Oh yes: I go inside and close my eyes... Still, I set up my laptop so that I can face the yard. Occasionally I look up.

On one such occasion, I see only Lexie. What the hell? I go outside. No sign of the other three. Did I miss a hawk attack??? No hawk I ever heard off would go after a rooster. A racoon? Coyote?

A forlorn Lexie runs up to me. Talk, girl! Where are you buds? Nothing. Ed!!!!!!!!

We hunt the property.

Well now, they aren't on our three acres. They wandered under the wooden fence that separates us from our insanely proper neighbor. His is a small patch of land -- and he is as proper about tending to it as can be. In fact, the reason there is a six foot wooden fence (the one the two hens and Oreo went under) between our neighbor and Ed is because at some early point in time, the neighbor got tired of looking at the unkempt farmette. This was before I moved in and before we fixed up the old farmhouse and I planted flower beds, but still, I have to admit that even now we are sort of lackadaisical about stuff. Leaves fall, we don't rake. Weeds take over certain portions of land, we ignore them.

It is indeed the good fortune of Oreo, Whitey and Butter that our neighbor did not take out his gun and make chicken pie for dinner. I think the dozen eggs we took over a few days back molified him for one boundary crossing. But if they crossed once, they will cross again.

Freedom is suddenly very much under fire for our little flock. Because no one ever mentioned to me the fact that you really cannot free range (!) chickens without any enclosure whatsoever. Even if you have three acres for them. When we are outside, they stay near us. When we disappear, they roam.

I really do not want to spend even more time tending to our beautiful, intelligent foster chicks. 

So we get busy searching for fencing solutions -- something we can build and put up quickly. Something that we can move. Erect, take down. Erect, take down.

Oreo crows. I smile. Our foster chicks will have more freedom soon. And so will I.

For supper? Well, a first: scrambled eggs made entirely from loot recovered from my girls in the back yard.


Each day they deliver: Whitney and Butter give two huge eggs, Lexie pops out a little one, but with the most deeply orange yolk on the planet. Quite good! -- Ed announces. No, not biased. Not biased at all.