I drove home carefully yesterday, slipping a couple of times. The sky was white, and only the corn stubble told where the sky meets the ground. The occasional tree line would become visible gradually, first like a pencil drawing that's been erased, then growing larger and more stark against the snow.
But this morning, the clouds were gray splatters in the sky, like fritters suspended in oil. I went out to feed the chickens first thing and heard a flock of birds that had settled in the big hedge apple by the barn. They sent up such a ruckus and clatter that it sounded like static on abirdradio station.
I hiked up the lid to the coop and set down the scoop of food into the nesting box so I could turn down the screws that keep the lid from falling on my head while I do my work.
The chickens are eager, and one auracana jumped up to where the food is. I shooed her off so she didn't spill it, and then she jumped out of the coop, which caused Ursa to lunge after her with a halfhearted snap. My dog still does it, if only to assert her dominance.
She knows well she is not supposed to chase the chickens and gave up to go sniffing at the bottom of the coop again, where maybe a few crumbs of feed would fall through when I poured it.
I used my new tool for spiffing up the nest boxes: one of those semi-disposable salad tongs that restaurants give out with the salad to a catered event. I left one hanging in the coop on the perch. It is perfect for picking the poop out of the nest boxes. If I remove the night soil every day, then the bedding stays fresher much longer. It only took me 10 years to come up with that idea. Every coop should have one.
Keeping the night soil out of the coop just got a little bit more difficult and even more important because we now have six new Buff Orpington hens plus a tiny banty mix who has come home to roost. The banty was hatched from an egg many years ago, an egg that was laid in Birdland, and started my friend's dream of fresh eggs from her backyard.
These eggs were a little girl's 4-H project. The banty's name is Chiquita. Her portrait hangs in my house. She and her friends have come to Birdland because her people live in a town that doesn't fully approve of backyard chickens.
It's so sad when communities write shortsighted laws that forbid (or practically forbid; how many lots in town have room for a coop that is 75 feet away from any building?) the keeping of chickens when they can add so much color and value to a community. (I'm looking at you, Champaign and Monticello!)
My friend brought the chooks out Monday evening. The birds were in a dog crate in the back of her car. We ate supper while we waited for dark to fall. It's always better to add chickens to the flock at night. There will always be some jockeying for pecking order, but adding new chickens at night makes for the possibility that they will all wake up peacefully, not noticing that some are new kids. After supper, we carried the crate out, and one by one I pushed the chickens through the door of the chicken yard. They explored the yard a bit in the dark, then one by one decided to go into the coop.
Now they've been with us for almost a week. And though I'm grateful for their company and the extra eggs (these new chickens doubled the size of our flock, doubled our egg production), I'm sad that my friend had to let go of her flock. I'm hoping that the story won't end there, though. Laws can be changed. MadCityChickens.com is a Web page for a group in Madison, Wis., that advocates for urban flocks. It gives lots of advice about how to address the issue in your community. There is even a film that tells the group's story, "Mad City Chickens," which they make available for public screenings across the country. Do I smell a film festival coming on?
Peck in beauty; cheep in peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in all the little ways we can eat closer to the land and be involved in our food system. She is always running behind posting her blog — but promises to put links for some backyard chicken sites prominently on http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.