Wednesday, April 02, 2014

chicken bliss

Before I got into the business of caring for chickens (now 11 days ago!), I had, in my mind, two categories of poultry: happy chickens and then all the others. For me, happy chickens were ones who had some degree of freedom and green grass under their claws. No overcrowded tenements for them. Clean coops waiting at the end of the day. I wound spend more for their eggs and when their tour of duty was done, I would be willing to make stew out of them.

Things change when you get closer to the flock. If you have hens that don't get along, no one is going to be happy. If illness hits -- your flock of once happy hens can suddenly become the pariah of the community: disease spreads like rapid fire. Our newly found love of organic broilers and friers, or organic eggs means that medicating chickens is suddenly not so straightforward. Eggs from a hen who got a dose of an antibiotic is not organic for a good month after.

Like relationships between us humans, those between humans and hens is... complicated.

But I learned something good today -- something that made me smile: even though I have to reject the simple dichotomy I had held onto for years -- happy/not happy -- still, I came close to intuiting what really does make a hen content. Here are some things that strike me as relevant: 

It's a good beginning to a day when the chicken keeper gets up at dawn and opens up the coop.



While the chickens stretch and ponder the day's coordinates, someone cleans their cage and here's a real pleasant surprise -- pours warm water into the dish inside and then, too, puts out a dish of steamy warm water outside for them.


The chickens take in the morning. The keeper disappears, true, possibly to sustain herself and her co-chicken keeper with breakfast...


...and then, noting the brilliant sunshine outside, comes out again to open up the pen so that the chickens, so ready and waiting at the gate for this, are finally free to roam.

And they do roam. Occasionally the chicken keeper sprinkles kernels of corn so that the chickens come to view her as their hero. Once, she tries to interest them in some flax seed, but guess what -- even though we humans are tickled if they eat flax seed (Omega 3! Must be good!), the chickens themselves could take it or leave it. Actually, truthfully, they leave it. So if you're eating eggs where the chickens were fed flaxseed,  know that it was not of their own choosing.

The sky is so blue! The two chicken keepers sit at the picnic table in the courtyard because the rays of the sun feel so warm, so good! Even if the temps are still on the low side (at most 40F), the jacket gets tossed aside. The air is still. All is quiet.

So quiet in fact, that one by one, the chickens slow down...


...and then completely stop their foraging. Butter's the first to figure out how good it is to just bask in all that sunshine.


But the others soon follow.


And so here we are: Ed and I and the four chickens, spread out in our small courtyard, each enjoying the heavenly sunshine, the unexpected pleasure of a most perfect day. (And note the pattern of sunshine coming in through the porch roof!)


And if this isn't chicken bliss, then I don't know what is.

But that's not the end of it! If the chicken keepers go out to the far corner of their farmette to tidy up the veggie plot for this year's new crop of corn, broccoli, cucumbers and who knows what else and ponder the creation of pea trellises and new beds for their 96 containers of planted tomatoes, the chickens may follow to see a new world out there. They watch with intense interest as Ed pulls out spent corn stalks.


And then, in the late afternoon, as one of the chicken keepers takes a book to read outside at the picnic table and the chickens are out again, guess what might make a chicken really happy! A dirt bath! Watching Whitney roll in the dirt in the courtyard is delightful for me (I don't have to share quarters tonight with her), possibly less so for the other chickens who regard her with a bit of pity: her angelic white feathers are now streaked with dirt!

a speckled Butter

Lexie puffs out her white down, appalled at Butter below

You know, I can't really put my finger on chicken happiness yet. I know, for example, the Lexie still struggles to control her run and peck inclinations (she succeeds more than she fails though!). And Butter's eggs still have a flat side to them, indicating her stress earlier this week (moving away from her sisters and girlfriends to a small coop occupied by Oreo and Lexie would stress anyone -- you and me included).

But man oh man, if you were the chicken keeper and you looked out at your brood in those hours of sunshine today, quietly resting, or playing, or moving together in pairs, or as a foursome, you'd think -- now there's one happy flock!

Of course, you will have understood, I'm sure, that chicken bliss doesn't stray too far in kind from human bliss: surround yourself with those who love you, protect you, stay quiet and calm together, listen to the spring sounds, raise your face to the sun -- bliss.