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Chickens are more than a source of eggs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Chickens are busy creatures, always at work, scratching and pecking for food, grooming themselves, laying and setting. There's never a dull moment if you're a chicken. They're never bored and they never get tired of being a chicken. They go to bed early and they're up at the crack of dawn - ready to work all day on their busy little chicken business.

I love my chickens. My life would be an empty shell (literally) without them. OK, that sounds a little extreme, but in the handful of years since I started keeping chickens, I've gone from - wow, that's a real chicken, as if they were some sort of magical storybook creature only to be found in Little Golden Books, to not being able to imagine my life without chickens in it ever again. Chickens are an ever-present delight and a constant source of entertainment. They require relatively little care yet deliver daily in the form of their wonderful eggs (if you can find them). They care nothing about you, but are completely fascinated with you at the same time. I can't walk across the yard without a pack of chickens around my feet. If I dropped dead tomorrow, they wouldn't care, however, as long as someone else showed up with cracked corn. I like to think that is part of their charm.  

Chickens are more popular today than ever - perhaps because the economy has forced a turn back to more self-sustainable practices, or perhaps due to the general increasing popularity of simple living. The more sophisticated the world becomes, the more we long for something to ground us. Chickens are grounding. There is something uniquely soothing about a chicken, and they are, without a doubt, one of the finest sources of entertainment that can be found. "Country TV" as it's known, which means setting a couple of lawn chairs in front of the chicken yard, or if yours are free-rangers, just taking a seat in a rocking chair on the porch. Let the antics begin. One time I threw out a piece of day old bread and watched five goats, a donkey, and 20 chickens chase the one little red hen who made off with the crust. They made circles around the goat house until she escaped under a gate - with the bread.

Chickens have far more personality than we realize until we take the time to observe them. They're cheerful little bees, friendly, interested in people (with food), and encouraging of one another. Anyone who has chickens knows the ruckus when the hens are laying. One hen lays while the others join in a chorus of clucking. They are so happy for each other! (They have a sense of humor, too, shown in the way they hide their eggs, and change hiding places regularly. They think they are so funny.)

Just how much individual personality chickens have was made clear to me one day when one my roosters became injured. We all know that chickens are flock animals, but the caring expressed between a hen and that rooster on that day surprised me and I've never looked at chickens the same way since.

Today, my chickens are free-rangers, but at the time some were living in a chicken house with a fenced yard.  Mostly, this was by their individual choice, but one day, I decided to put a rooster in the chicken yard against his will.  He'd been making trouble, and a mess, roosting on my porch. He strutted about the farm, full of self-importance and inconsideration.

Well, I showed that rooster. I put him in the chicken yard. He paced back and forth at the fence line, crowing and crowing. He was trying to tell me I'd made a big mistake, but I was yet inexperienced with chickens and didn't understand.

By the next day, the other roosters in the chicken yard had nearly killed him. When I found him, I thought he was dead. And it was all my fault! I had put him in the chicken yard! I had made the mistake in judgment that he was top rooster and that those chicken house roosters wouldn't dare touch him.

I found him in a lifeless heap, his beak pressed into a corner behind the feed box. His feathers were soaked in blood. I picked him up and took him back to the porch to inspect the damage.

He drank some water and pecked some stray dog food off the porch floor. A hen patted across the porch toward him and something surprising happened.

The once-gorgeous rooster bowed his head in front of that little hen, as if ashamed of his condition from the tip of his bloody comb right down to his droopy tail feather.  

In my imagination, I heard him say, "I'm not beautiful anymore."

And that little hen bent her head this way, and that way, grooming him. This spectacle continued for hours. It was one of the most amazing animal incidents I've ever seen, the way she cleaned him. She curried and preened his every feather as best as she could. And when she was done, he puffed out his chest for a moment, scarred but clean, yet still his long tail feather drooped in the back. He seemed to deflate again, as if to say, "How could you ever love me now, little hen?"

And I could have sworn I heard that little hen respond, "Beauty is on the inside, rooster."

While I know that at least half of that incident occurred only in my imagination, I saw that day the depth of relationship chickens can actually have between themselves. We think they are just here for us, to serve us up their daily egg. But if we take the time to observe, we can discover they are living their own lives and we are merely passers-through it, and that the gifts they can give us as their keepers are far greater than the simple egg.

Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at www.chickensintheroad.com.


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