Friday, July 11, 2003

The Chicken Dance

It was on March 1st when my internal clock started chiming "Spring". Not that the weather had anything to do with it, mind you. It was still bitterly cold and wet. More than once, the locals had accused me of bringing the hardest winter in 20 years with me from South Carolina. I had thoroughly enjoyed it. After three years of being held prisoner by the air conditioner for the nine plus months when the temperature soared above 90 degrees in Bluffton, I welcomed the cold.

March 1st was significant because I wandered into to Tractor Supply in Morristown to price fencing supplies. I'd already started buying seeds and had planted certain things that needed vernalization. As I opened the door to the store, my ears picked out the sound immediately. I was drawn to it like a zombie to fresh brains.

A large banner was flying over the center of the store. "Chick Days Are Here!" If you've never heard the sound of a hundred day-old chicks then you truly have missed out on one of the great mysteries of life. There is something amazing about these tiny fluffballs. Just knowing that your standard breakfast egg ...which first of all, comes out of an impossibly small bird...can, if fertile, after 21 days, turn into this impossibly adorable little creature...and then grow up to be a sometimes crazy and vicious bird...that then pops out these breakfast eggs. Knowing this, the chicken/egg paradox becomes worthy of the great philosophers.

I nervously look down on the bins of little chicks. Oh...Look...Baby Ducks too! I know that I want chickens on the farm. I even know what kind of chickens...Silver-Laced Wyandottes. I've been studying chickens my entire's all been leading up to this moment. The acquisition of Chickens! I see now that there are omens sprinkled throughout my life that make chickens my destiny. My old alma mater's team was the "Gamecocks". I'd moved to Cocke County, Tennessee. I use such portents to justify what is essentially, a poorly thought out impulse purchase.

I decide then and there to get Chickens. I'll set up a brooder out of the dog crates in my laundry room. The saleswoman has to do a bit of hand-holding as she shows me the supplies that I'll need. I place an order for 25 wyandottes. I can't resist the little fluffballs so I take home 5 straight-run chicks...and oh what the hell...4 ducks as well.

It sleets the entire way back home. The cheeps from the little box of chicks seems to brighten everything up. Nothing says "Spring" like the sound of baby chicks. I'm oblivious to the cold and impossibly excited. The ducks are also very sweet. They are bright yellow and sort of clumsy. When I get home, I eagerly transform my smallest dog crate into a warm, lit brooder with newspaper on the bottom and little chick feeders and waterers that I bought at the Tractor Supply. I have a week before the wyandottes get here so that's plenty of time to set up additional brooders. Finally, I get the little box of livestock out of the jeep.

The dogs have been curiously following this entire process. They know something is up. When the box comes out with it's noisy cargo...they completely loose their minds. Shadow is grinning ear to ear with anticipation. He's convinced these are for him, exclusively. He is unable to shake this conviction for the next two months. Aegis, the lab, is only interested in the ducks. Something in his retriever gene pool stirs to life at the smell of them. He has an epiphany. I'm convinced that he dreams of nothing for the next two months but diving into deep water after duck carcasses. He obsessively retrieves...everything.

My small laundry room becomes a revolving door of poultry-crazed dogs, spent litter and chick starter. I know that raising baby chicks has been the traditional chore of small children up here in the mountains. While I was buying the little metal feeders, an old man came up to me smiling. He said he hadn't seen one of those since he was a small child and in charge of bringing up the baby chickens. How hard could it be? The wyandottes arrive a full four days ahead of schedule. I soon have electrified dog crates in places that I can only get to with a ladder. The babies double in size in the first two days and continue to get bigger and bigger....messier and messier.

I wasn't really expecting the ducks to be such a problem. They never met a water bowl they didn't like. They find inventive ways to overturn the water so they can play in it. They are forgiven, because unlike the chicks...they seem to have personalities. To alleviate the mess, I move them to the downstairs bathtub during the day. There, they can quack and wallow in water to their heart's content. At least, that's the plan. I figured if they insist on playing in their water, that having a scheduled aquatic period in the bathtub might keep them drinking out of the water container rather than wallowing in it. I found out the following morning that I failed miserably. Once again I am mopping out drenched, stinking litter from the brooder.

My house, my life, my bathroom have now been completely taken over by infant poultry. I have no life. Everything revolves around making sure the chicks and ducks are warm, well-fed and safe. Shadow continues to hold vigil outside of the laundry room. He is hesitant to even eat lest he miss one moment of heart-stopping chicken action. I finally move them all to the back porch. The ladder thing is getting dangerous with teetering dog crates everywhere.

So far, I had resisted naming most of the poultry. The ducks got names almost immediately....Duckzilla, Dubbyah, Quasi and Blackbill. I wasn't too sure about gender yet but I was pretty sure that the huge Duckzilla was a drake. The original five straight runs consisted of two roosters and three hens. The roosters were named V.L.B. and Ouday. Both are mean, even in infancy. Then there are the Georges...three rust red Rhoad Island Red females that are curious to a fault and one developes an unlikely affection for Shadow, who was always sitting on ready for cage cleaning time. She sticks her little beak out when he comes to "visit" and is very interested in him. I'm afraid this affair is bound to end tragically. No amount of therapy will expunge Shadow's tendency to objectify George as "original recipe". Hopefully, George will outgrow this tendency to enter co-dependant relationships with dogs. It's just not healthy.

I got so many chicks because I sort of figured that some would die. At six weeks, I'm getting a bit nervous that none have. We had a few close calls once they started growing feathers and flapping around. At one point, one of the wyandottes jumped out of her brooder into the waiting jaws of Fat Buddy. He was so surprised by the feathery flapping mess that he dropped her immediately. Chickens at the Kentucky Fried drive-through NEVER do this. My surburban dogs want desperately to be country dogs...but they just aren't equipped. Eventually, I did wake up to find one of the pullets pecked to death in her brooder.

She was in V.L.B.'s coop and I immediately was suspicious. V.L.B. (not "very little buddy", but rather "Vicious Little Bastard") had already proven to be a nasty customer. And here was evidence that he had used pecking on his own chicken people. Still, I hadn't actually seen him use his weapon of mass consumption in any way to harm the pullets. I thought about exiling him to the duck brooder...a dank place populated with smelly beings with big noses who talk funny. The dogs were in favor of the "running start" exile and formed "The Coalition of the Mostly Hungry Dawgs in Need of Entertainment" to deal once and for all with the V.L.B. menace.

I drove down to the United Newport Farm Co-op (known as the U.N.) and asked about the situation. They said it was most likely the lights. Chickens turn cannibalistic if the light is hung too low and there was most likely something wrong with that particular pullet to have met such a fate. Maybe she was a chicken Kurd. So...V.L.B. had a reprieve for least until he puts on some more weight. We were all watching him very closely though. Some of us with drool stringing out of our mouths.

During the day, I am up on the hill building the coop. The previous owners had left a dog kennel and sturdy fence to contain their hunting dogs. They had also left a big pile of "slabs"...the bark covered planks left over from a saw-mill and a good number of steel T-posts. With my chainsaw, I sided the kennel with slabs and covered it with a "living" roof. It is surprisingly successful. I have no doubt that it will gracefully deteriorate into a dangerous heap of chain-link and rotten boards in a few years, but for now, I'm excited and pleased with the outcome. I cover every available surface with 1 inch hex poultry wire. After running exterior extension cords and hanging heat lamps, I'm ready to move the entire mess of poultry to their permanent home.

I was so happy to see them permanently installed a full 100 feet from the house. Small creatures had started scurrying around under the porches looking for spilled chick crumbles. Shadow was systematically digging the foundation out from under the house to try to get at them.

I have to say, my chick and duckling raising experiment was something of an ordeal. I'll probably be repeating it next spring, if not sooner...maybe with geese. The whole chicken thing is somewhat addictive and I've already filed the bad things in the "repressed memory" part of my brain.

1 Comment:

  1. Mike said...
    I made the mistake of ordering 250 of them lil devils from McMurray here a few years back. Now, you wanna talk about a JOB. lol I was into it!

    Made the mistake of getting 50 Leghorns, the meanest chickens on earth. They set about trying to kill every other chick on the place. Even the hawks wouldn't bother them. lol

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