Monthly Archives: December 2013

Happy Christmas! (And a Cheery Solstice to you, too!)

(This week I’m sharing my weekly Greenwoman newsletter. —Sandra)

Hi everyone,

I don’t know about you, but even though it can be a teensy bit stressful at times, I like the Christmas season, a lot. 

Not only do we allow ourselves a little more indulgence (which is not always such a bad thing) but when the shortest day of the year arrives, I am elated. To me, it feels like turning a corner, and it is. The days will now get longer, and soon it will be warming up, and another growing season will be here! (In my winter daydreams, I can almost feel the sunshine on my back and the warmth of the earth under my feet, and smell the tomato plant foliage . . . )

I tried to think of something entertaining or clever or educational to send you today, but it’s been a very busy week. Both our daughters are home now (they are, right at this moment, baking sugar cookies in the kitchen—and it smells so goodum, the vanilla).  I’ve also been focused on getting packages of magazines out to our contributors and to a local store or two.

To top it all off, yesterday we did our shopping, and the landscape looked like this. 

Well, not exactly like this. This is at a nearby park, but the streets were lined everywhere with just this kind of frosted beauty! (I’ll reveal who took this gorgeous photo at the end of this letter.)

But, seriously, with everything going on and with this beauty, is it any wonder I’ve been distracted?

I did make one fun publishing-related side trip this week. I spent an hour or two checking out the Christmas art at The Graphics Fairy. The site features public domain works—art and illustrations that are old enough to be available for free use to hobbyists, crafters, or, in my case, small self-publishers. I fell in love with this beautiful stag and wanted to share it with you.

Vintage-Christmas-Deer-Image-GraphicsFairy

(This particular image is from a rare, circa 1907 pyrography catalog. Pyrography is the art of burning a design into wood.)

Art found on The Graphics Fairy site has appeared in nearly every issue of Greenwoman. I am so grateful for the web creator’s sharing of these charming images.

So, that was my week. Between now and Wednesday there may be one more trip to the post office, one more visit to the store, the wrapping of a few more presents, but mostly, I’m looking forward to a bit of fun and much-needed relaxation. (Lots of cooking, visiting family and friends, movie time with popcorn and hot cocoa, reading, nature hikes.)

I’m feeling very lucky, as I do every year. What more could we wish for but to have loved ones close and time to spend together?

I hope you will be enjoying these days with your good friends and loved ones.

Merry Christmas and much love to all of you!

And thank you for your interest in Greenwoman Magazine. I look forward to sharing more of the art and wonder of the green world with you in 2014.

—Sandra

P. S. A very special thank you to Bill Griffin, who took this photo on December 21, 2013 at Palmer Park, and to his wife Lauri, who told me about it. Bill is also an amazing gardener. Lauri is an artist, writer, and teacher and she wrote about their backyard poly greenhouses in the latest issue of Greenwoman Magazine. Her column is named Green Heritage and her essay is entitled “Heirlooms and Hothouses”. I hope you will get to check it out.

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The Chicken Chronicles – Part III – (the conclusion)

Lily and Garrett, her black rosecomb rooster.

Lily and Garrett, her black Rosecomb rooster.

As we left the story last week, Alice, our young Dalmatian, had dug under the chicken run and the chickens had escaped. As we had just lost a chicken to drowning the week before (when a cat menaced them and Jessica flew into the children’s swimming pool) I was, needless to say, freaking out.

Presenting  the conclusion of The Chicken Chronicles.

–Sandra Knauf

* * *

The chickens escaped and again I ran around, heart racing, hunting and gathering. This time I found only three.

The other Sebright was missing, as was Zelda, the female Silkie. Finding evidence of Alice’s digging at the wire fence surrounding the vegetable garden, right next to the chicken shack, I investigated there. Sitting very still in a patch of grass was the Sebright. I took him into the house and examined him, discovering some minor scratches under a wing and a scrape on the lower right leg. He had apparently injured himself trying to escape Alice by squeezing under a low spot in the fence. Vehicle-less, I phoned our veterinarian. Dr. Westrich. He told me that if I couldn’t come in I should clean the wounds with hydrogen peroxide, keep the bird in a quiet place, and watch him. He also said that if the other one hadn’t been found yet it probably meant that she wouldn’t be found alive.

I made a box for the male Sebright named Suzie in the girl’s playroom and went to search for Zelda again. I found her immediately–alive and well! She had been hiding out on the other side of the enclosed run–between it and a bale of straw. I spotted her as she ventured out into the open, peeping frantically to her coop-mates on the other side. I quietly thanked whoever was in charge of her safety for having mercy on me as well.

Early the next morning I found the Sebright hopping around his box. I picked him up for a minute and murmured consolingly to him, and when I left he made loud, distressed peeps. I comforted him again and again he cried out when I left. The third time I went in he was perched on top of the box on his good leg. Maybe he would be okay outside with his buddies, I thought, it was apparent he would be miserable inside alone. In the chicken shack, his brothers and sister, noisy and excited, gathered around him, but he was hopping around so pitifully I changed my mind about leaving him. He needed rest. As I walked away from the other chickens with Suzie pressed against my breast, he began to protest–loudly and incessantly. With a nagging conscience, I returned him to his flock.

The next couple of days he seemed to be okay except for the leg–I could tell it was causing him pain. As the other chickens filed out of the coop into the garden to scratch for bugs and eat young weeds he protested loudly, then reluctantly hopped along behind them. Otherwise he ate, drank, and rested normally. I checked twice daily for signs of infection and found none.
On the third day I noticed the bottom of his injured leg was swollen. I called Dr. Westrich. Although he didn’t treat birds, he agreed to check him out that afternoon. I figured the bird’s leg was infected and that it would be drained and the doctor would put him on antibiotics. I wasn’t really worried, and thought it would be an educational experience for the girls.

Zora, the girls' friend Eva, and Zelda.

Zora, the girls’ friend Eva, and  Zelda, the Silkie hen. On another dress-up day.

Christiana, a friend of the girls’, was spending the day with us and her mother said she could come along. As I carried the basket holding Suzie into the veterinarian’s office, three little girls dressed up in tea party clothes–long colorful dresses, shawls, rhinestone jewelry and parasols–traipsed behind me. In the examining room, we gathered around Dr. Westrich as he gently lifted the bird from the basket, speaking to him softly and reassuringly.

He examined him for only a few moments before pointing out the area above the swelling. “Do you see here, where the leg bends?” he said. “If you compare it with the other leg, you can see it shouldn’t do that. It’s broken.”

My heart sank.

“And his foot doesn’t have the healthy pink color that the other has. That shows that the area is not getting circulation.”

“So it’s getting gangrene?” I asked, completely horrified.

“It looks like that’s probably what’s happening.”

I asked if it could be amputated and he said he thought it could. He told me he thought the chicken would eventually be able to get around like other animal amputees, but that he didn’t do surgery on birds. He said he’d call a doctor he knew, see what he thought, and try to set up an appointment.

The children had been silently taking in the unfolding drama. Zora now spoke. “Do we have to watch the other doctor do that?”

“God no!” I blurted.

The doctor, father of six grown children of his own, smiled at me sympathetically.

We waited at the front desk. After a few minutes Dr. Westrich came back out and carefully explained, “I spoke with Dr. Abernathy. He said that in the case of amputations, the birds eventually develop a disease, an arthritic condition in the other leg, that ultimately debilitates them.”

“So there’s nothing that can be done?” I asked tearfully.

“You could go ahead with the amputation,” he said, “ but I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“We’d be putting off the inevitable . . .” I paused, trying to find an escape route from reality. “Are you sure it would be the same for him, since he’s a miniature chicken? They only weigh about a fourth as much as a regular-sized bird.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“I can’t imagine putting him through more than I already have.”

“We can euthanize him here.”

“I think that would probably be best.” I looked over at the girls chatting happily near the waiting room’s aquarium. I felt dread, devastation, and a large measure of self-loathing.

“You can use the examining room to talk to them,” Dr. Westrich said quietly.

Trying hard to hold on to what little composure I felt I had left, I called the girls back into the examining room. Crouched before them, tears brimming, I told them what had to be done.

Zora, in a consoling tone I’d never heard her use before said, “Okay, Mom.”

Lily’s eyes filled with tears for a few moments before asking, “Are we going to bury him next to Jessica?”

It felt like I was co-starring in the absolute worst, most melodramatic soap opera of all time–and I could not escape–the scene had to play out. We went to say our good-byes to Suzie. Before taking him away, the doctor asked if we wanted the body to take home, or if they should dispose of it.

“Please do it here,” I said. I knew I was copping out. The girls could probably handle it, but I could not. Not two pet burials in as many weeks, even if they were “just” chickens.

The doctor brought back the basket and left the room to begin the euthanasia. Taking out my checkbook and pen, I asked the receptionist how much the bill came to.

“The doctor says there’s no charge.”

“You can’t be serious. I have to pay you.”

“He said not to charge you.” She smiled. “So don’t worry about it.”

When I got home I found I had to make a decision. On one hand, I could not bear any more tragedies. If anything else happened, the chicken experiment was officially over. And I meant it. We were down to four chickens and three were male. And I wasn’t sure how long we’d be keeping them. After a summer of work and dreams we had one hen. On the other hand, we’d gone this far–we’d built the covered run, I’d now laid cement blocks around the parameter so the damn dog (I’d cursed her bitterly when we returned home that day) couldn’t dig under it. I had nearly twenty-five pounds of feed, plus all the poultry paraphernalia–waterers and feeders, vitamins, a wire cage. The girls had bonded with their favorites, who were luckily still alive, and we’d taken a lot of pictures, documenting our “fun,” including some wonderful ones of the girls holding the birds while wearing their tea-party clothes. I decided I’d give it one more try. But to make it worth while, I needed to find a few replacement hens.

Zora and her bantam Cochin rooster, Kayley.

Zora and her bantam Cochin rooster, Kayley.

I browsed the local paper’s Classifieds under “Farm Animals” and found no chickens for sale. Not profitable enough in the big city, I deduced. The County Fair had come and gone, and the only other places I knew of to buy poultry this time of year were the weekly livestock auction in the rural town of Calhan and the State Fair, now going on in the nearby city of Pueblo. Still quite the livestock novice, I was more than a little wary of buying at auction, so I called the State Fair. A helpful woman informed me they’d be selling chickens from the Junior Division Livestock Show in a couple of weeks.

The weekend before our trip to the fair the girls and I had a yard sale to raise money for our chicken purchases and on Friday of Labor Day weekend we set out at 9 A.M.. The trunk contained our outfitting: a wood-sided red wagon, two cages, and a basket, all made comfy with soft straw bedding. I had recovered from the previous tragedies and was looking forward to our hen quest, hoping to find my own objet d’desire, a Mille Fleur Booted Bantam that I’d seen in the chicken books. “Mille fleur” is French for thousand flowers, and “booted” refers to this breed’s feathered legs. It’s a fancy tan, black, and white bird, with feathers that are spangled, mottled, stippled pattern, or sometimes all three. Some of the tail feathers are two toned–tan on one side and black on the other, and most have white tips. Lily says they look like they have white polka dots. She decided she wanted to find a black chicken, to pair with Garrett, and Zora hoped to find either another Cochin or an Araucana.

At the fair, we found a parking spot near the entrance. The morning air was refreshing and the grounds quiet. Andy came along but we couldn’t stay long because he had to return to work. After taking Zora and Lily on a quick run through the Arts and Crafts Building while Andy browsed the new trucks, we headed for the Small Livestock Building. We made a bee-line for the chickens, passing areas filled with pigeons, ducks, geese, turkeys, and rabbits. The sale had begun at 8 A.M., over a fourth of the cages were empty, and buyers milled about. The pressure was on.

Searching through cages of bantams, we found no Cochins or Araucanas, but I located a half dozen Mille Fleurs, and my decision was made. Lily fell in love with a black hen who wasn’t for sale. Her second choice was a little Rhode Island Red. The hen seemed gentle and was handsome–her dark reddish-brown body embellished with black, lacy-topped tail feathers. She was an American girl, something new for our collection. I heartily approved. The Polish breed chickens, referred to as such even though they are thought to have originated in Belgium, caught my eye. They’re the type with the big feathery topknots that resemble haute couture hats from the 1950’s. I call them Dr. Seuss birds. I liked them but Zora couldn’t be persuaded into getting one; she declared them ugly.

She took her time selecting her perfect pullet–a medium-sized mixed breed. The young female was admittedly beautiful. Her body was graceful, tapered, like the Sebrights’, but she was an Amazon. Her long neck displayed a multitude of thin, white, vertical feathers, setting off a body tastefully speckled in black and white. Her wing feathers were tipped white, and her tail feathers black–the latter sticking up at a haughty angle. She had long, slate blue legs, and her head featured sharp golden-brown eyes, small red comb, and wattles. After being around them a while, one can sense a bird’s personality. Lily’s Rhode Island Red and my Mille Fleur were easy to read–they were mellow. This bird was different. I detected an attitude of arrogance.

“Are you sure?” I asked Zora. “Why don’t we look around one more time?”

“I want this one,” she said.

I looked at the price on the cage. Twenty-five dollars. The hen I’d picked out was ten and Lily’s was only six. But I knew there was no use trying to persuade Zora otherwise, she was a girl who knew what she wanted. Always had been. From birth.

As we were paying for the birds a photographer from the Pueblo Chieftain came up and asked if he could take a few pictures. Enthusiastic, but wary of having both Zora and Lily hold birds they were unfamiliar with at the same time, I asked that he photograph Zora first. She happened to be wearing an ensemble–a black and white patterned dress with white collar and matching beret, both embellished with small, red cloth roses–that perfectly matched her new chicken. Then he photographed chubby little Lily, whose hair needed brushing (though I didn’t notice it at the time), and whose dark brown, blue, and black-checked dress probably made the Rhode Island Red nearly disappear on film.

As a final shot he posed them together. It became the final shot because Zora’s bird got away and had to be chased down the long aisle of caged birds by a man with a net. While this took place, Andy returned. He’d been gone most of the time, visiting the hot tub display.

“What’s going on?” he asked, eyeing the photographer.

“Oh, nothing. Just memorializing the occasion.” I replied a bit bitchily. “This photographer asked if he could take pictures for the newspaper.”

“Pictures for the paper?”

“Yeah, and you missed it.”

We loaded the chickens into the cages and basket, then into our little red wagon. In the car the girls each happily held a caged bird, and I kept my chicken-in-a-basket with me in the front seat. It crossed my mind it would be very weird indeed if we got into an accident with three chickens riding with us inside the car. The girls chattered in the back, picking out names for their new pets and talking about being in the newspaper. Lily declared, “Now we’re going to be famous. We won’t have to go to school anymore!” We all laughed, but I had a sinking feeling. Knowledgeable about photography, I felt almost certain they would use Zora’s picture. Either way, one of them would be disappointed, unless they used the one of them together, which I thought unlikely. I tried to broach the subject, but the girls were too jolly to consider anything negative.

Zora named her hen Aphrodite, after the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Lily’s favorite goddess was Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, so that became the Rhode Island Red’s name, and they christened mine Hera, queen of the gods (we’d been reading Greek mythology that summer). I loved their choices. One urban chicken farmer I knew of had named all her hens after country and western stars–Reba, Dolly, and so on, so I was pleased that the girls had picked up a theme of their own, without my help.

Since the chickens were all females, introducing them to the flock went off without a hitch. That night at dusk I slipped them through the door and after a few clucks and rustlings everything went quiet.

The next day they began to get to know one another and re-establish the pecking order. I wasn’t sure who was at the very top, it was either Zora’s Kayley or Lily’s Garrett–but Aphrodite asserted her dominance right away. Towering over them all, she stretched her neck high and challenged them to question her authority. The girls screamed as she pecked at each and every one of the other chickens, including the males, when they were so insolent as to not bow down to her majesty. After a few kicks and pecks sent back her way, however, she realized that the boys were supposed to be the leaders and she began to take on a more ladylike demeanor. And I stopped calling her Mighty Aphrodite, which irritated Zora. My bird, meek Hera, queen of all the gods and goddesses, immediately sunk to the absolute bottom of the order, and in her position usually stayed several feet away from the other chickens most of the time. She was the last to approach the daily pan of table scraps. Gentle and wise Athena took a middle rank.

The day after we brought them home, in late afternoon, Zora and Lily came running into the house. “We found an egg, we found an egg!” they yelled excitedly, holding the small, light brown gift from Athena. It was absolute magic to them, as if they’d discovered a jewel in the nesting box straw. I felt proud too–our very first egg.

I called the paper and found out that it was indeed Zora’s picture they used in the Saturday edition. Lily was upset when I broke the news, but not as upset as when we finally got our copies of the paper in the mail the next week. There, on page 5A, we saw a full-color, six-inch by nine-inch picture of Zora holding Aphrodite. An accompanying article flashed the headline: “Lots of Cool Chicks at the Fair.” Lily took one look and ran out of the house. We could hear her through the opened back door, at the swing set, crying as if her heart would break. Taking only a few seconds to marvel at the picture (we were expecting a small black and white) and how fun it all almost was, I went to try to comfort Lily.

She was swinging, and crying so hard her face was blotched red and white. I had never seen her so upset. “Why did they use Zora’s and not mine? Everybody thinks Zora is better than me.”

“That’s not true, Lily. Her chicken just happened to show up better against her clothes. I’m sure that’s why they used it. Please don’t cry, honey.”

I told her that no one in this whole city of Colorado Springs would even see the picture because you can’t even buy a paper from Pueblo here (I’d checked). I told her that no one we knew would even know Zora was in the paper unless we showed them. I told her about other members of the family who’d been in the paper or on television for fun things and that her turn would surely come soon too. Of course nothing I said was good enough to soothe her. I learned yet another lesson in motherhood. I did not expect Lily, who had always been very easy-going, to be so jealous, so traumatized. I felt incredibly stupid.

I wondered if a summer of ups and downs in the arena of backyard chicken raising had been worth the roller coaster ride after all.

My answer came several weeks later when Lily’s preschool teacher asked if I could bring the bantys in for “Sharing Time.” I decided to bring the three gentlest birds, Kayley, Jane, and, of course, our egg-layer Athena.

I prepared for the talk by gathering some feathers, boiling a few eggs, store-bought large and bantam for size comparison, and hauling out our globe so I could show the children where all chickens originated, the island of Java. As I lugged in the wooden cage holding Kayley and Athena, Lily looked up at me with sparkling eyes. The teacher told me I had five minutes. First I presented Jane, the Silkie, who was in a separate basket. I talked about his unique feathers and where his breed was from (the same place the Disney character Mulan was from!) I passed around feathers and eggs. Then, as I went to get Kayley, I asked Lily if she’d help with Athena. She deftly gathered up her little hen and was immediately surrounded by classmates who wanted to pet and hold her. It was Lily’s turn in the spotlight.

In the car a little while later she said, “Mom, I learned something today.”

I looked in the rear-view mirror at Lily in the backseat. “What’s that, sweetie?”

“That happiness can make tears come to your eyes.”

“What?”

“I was so happy when I saw Athena I felt like crying–and then I couldn’t stop smiling.”

* * *
It had been one intense summer. If someone had told me what was going to happen in our little experiment–the profound highs and lows, the multitude of things to learn, to question, and to feel, over something so seemingly, inanely, simple–I wouldn’t have believed it. Like an egg incubating under the warm down of its mother’s bosom, the process of learning, of experiencing, took its own sweet time. I ended up reviewing a simple lesson: the most rewarding experiences in life are never, ever easy. And one more. That if you are ever adventurous enough to find yourself doing something a little deviant, a little unexpected, say raising chickens in the city, you just might find you end up with something to crow about.

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The Chicken Chronicles – Part II

Gold and Silver Laced Sebright Bantams, from Wright's Book of Poultry

Gold and Silver Laced Sebright Bantams, from Wright’s Book of Poultry, 1902

As we left the story in the last post, I (well, actually, a borrowed neighborhood hen) had failed to hatch a clutch of eggs. Eager to start my backyard farm and teach my daughters about LIFE, I impulsively bought a half-dozen exotic breed bantam breed chicks from a feed store.–Sandra Knauf 

* * *

The girls named the chicks within the first hour of their arrival–the Sebrights became Jessica and Suzie, the silkies Jane and Zelda, the little black one Julianna, and the yellow chick, Kayley. “Great names for roosters,” I said. We wouldn’t know their actual gender for about six weeks, when the males were supposed to begin their first attempts at cock-a-doodle-doo-ing.

I admit that at first I was just a teensy bit anxious taking care of the babies. The temperature in the box had to be regulated–about ninety-five degrees the first week, dropping about five degrees weekly for about a month until they feathered out. I monitored the temperature daily, and fussed with the position of the light each time I entered the room, which was often. I checked on them twice each night before I went to bed. I worried whether they’d have retina damage due to the constant illumination. I read about baby chick diseases and learned about something called “pasting up,” a condition in which runny droppings get stuck to their bottoms, causing elimination problems. So with a bit of tissue I pulled dried baby chick poop off their butts. I can’t believe I’m wiping chicken’s asses! I thought. I had metamorphosed into their mother.

Peeking into the room during the day, I continually spied Lily with little black Julianna in her small, chubby hands. “Put that chick down and go wash your hands!” I said over and over. They had a lot of leeway to play with them, but with no admonishments they would undoubtedly try to take them into the bath with them. Already I caught them putting them in the doll house cars (they said the chicks looked out the windows), the doll house motorcycle, and in and on top of the doll house. They asked if they could take them out to the swing set. My biggest fear was that one of the chicks would accidentally be killed, ruining the whole experience and no doubt creating fodder for adult therapy sessions.

Soon Zora and I began digging worms for their breakfast. We all gathered around the box and one of us would dangle a wiggler until a chick grabbed it ran around the box–the others peeping excitedly in hot pursuit. Zora gave them voices. “No, Julianna, you can’t have it,” she’d have Suzie say, “It’s my worm, it’s mine! It’s mine!” The girls, laughing uncontrollably, squealed as the chicks raced round and round. Zora exclaimed protectively when her favorite chick got a worm and the others tried to take it away. “Stay away! It’s Kayley’s! No!” She’d block the others off with her hands and I’d say “Don’t!” We’d all gross out when one would have a long worm almost swallowed and another would pull on what was still hanging out of its mouth.

Then we discovered we could buy live crickets at the pet store. We’d buy a dozen or two at a time and dump the contents of the plastic bags into the box. The chicks would be on them with lightning speed. I recalled reading somewhere that the skeletal structure of chickens was very much like some of the meat-eating dinosaurs, and it wasn’t hard to imagine little Velociraptors lurking under the fluff. The girls and I, accused of being bloodthirsty in our enthusiasm by Andy, knew we were just doing what any good mother hens would do.

They grew rapidly. Like Grandma Ruby said, it was almost like watching popcorn. Halfway through third week the Sebrights sported fully feathered wings, Kayley had a tiny comb and a few snow-white wing and leg feathers, Julianna had black tail feathers, distinct but tiny, sticking straight up, and the Silkies’ down was even fluffier, especially on their large blackish-grey feet. When I found one of the Sebrights perched up on top of the box one morning, I knew it was time to take them to their outdoor home.

At first I kept a light on near one corner of the chicken shack because summer nights are chilly in Colorado and the chicks were not totally feathered out. As in their box indoors, they piled up to sleep, snuggling under the light. Within a couple of days, however, Julianna and one of the Sebrights started to roost away from the crowd. One night, after a couple of weeks, I turned the light off. The terrified peeping that ensued alarmed me. I then realized how tenaciously they clung to the warmth- and light-giving bulb. They would have to be weaned from Mother Illumination. I first lowered the wattage to forty for a few days, and then I actually made a trip to the grocery store and spent over three dollars on a twelve-watt nightlight bulb for chickens who were afraid of the dark.

They were spoiled in so many ways. We brought them table scraps and other treats on a daily basis and found out their absolute favorite (non-living) foods were corn on the cob, cantaloupe, and homemade split pea soup. They grabbed bits of ham from the soup and ran around covetously like they had with the crickets and worms. The girls and I began catching grasshoppers for them and discovered there were five different species living in our backyard. I showed them how to distinguish grasshoppers in the nymph and adult (with wings) stages.

We checked out books on chickens and found out our Sebrights were not Golden, but Silver. According to the illustration, almost every feather on their bodies, wings and tails would become a bright white, edged completely around in gloss black. The body shape would become sleek, like other birds, not rounded like most poultry breeds. The homeliest of the chicks, as they matured their slight builds and distinctly patterned feathering began to take on an elegant, even aristocratic, appearance. We learned they were a breed developed over thirty-some years by Sir John Sebright of England in the early 1800’s. The birds were remarkable in the poultry world for the fact that the male and female had the same feathering, shape, and coloring. However, we soon noticed that one of them was definitely growing a more pronounced comb and wattles–we had one of each sex.

Right from the beginning with the Silkies, Jane (my personal darling) was bigger than Zelda. But it was three months before there was enough distinction in his wattles and comb to declare Jane a John since Silkies also have near-identical plumage. The breed is prized for its gentleness and broodiness, and the hens are often used commercially to hatch eggs, especially pheasant eggs. In my reading I learned that broodiness, the desire to set on a clutch of eggs, to become a mother, had almost been bred out of many modern breeds of fowl.

Frizzled Fowls, Silkies, Sultans from Wright's Book of Poultry 1902

Frizzled Fowls (top), Silkies (right), and Sultans (left) from Wright’s Book of Poultry, 1902

Lily’s Julianna, with “her” tail feathers growing more pronounced every day (Grandma Ruby’s own foolproof way of determining a male), was also a he. Julianna was a Black Rosecomb, a breed named for their unique combs. It lies low on their heads, is square in front, terminates to a pointed spike at the back, and is covered with small bumps. Julianna’s comb and wattles were vivid red, and he sported white disk-shaped “ear- lobes,” part of the rooster’s dangly parts, as I called them, below the ear holes. His earlobes were perfectly round, enamel white, and added a jaunty, pirate-like air to his already cocky countenance. With lustrous green-black feathers, including long, arching tail feathers, he was handsome, and knew it. He was the first to crow. Lily renamed him Garrett.

Rose-comb and Sebright Bantams from Poultry by Edwin Megargee

Rose-comb (left) and Sebright Bantams from Poultry by Edwin Megargee

Zora’s bird also turned out to be a cockerel, though she remained in denial for a long time. As snow-white feathers on his rounded body and large orange feet began to replace the down, we soon I.D.’d him as a Cochin, of the bantam variety once known as Pekin. We read that Cochin chickens, originating from China, were the cause of an episode of “poultry-mania” in England in 1845. Presented as gifts to Queen Victoria from that exotic land, the public was quite taken with the breed’s beauty, size, and gentle nature. Nearly overnight many Victorian yuppies longed to own one, and before the mania died down, some paid up to the equivalent of more than an average worker’s yearly pay for a single “Shanghai Fowl.” Kayley, like the description, was sweet-tempered and could be scooped up without fuss by simply bending over and sliding a hand or two under his soft breast. When he began to crow his voice was deep and unobtrusive, but also somewhat fit the (obviously exaggerated) description of Queen Victoria’s birds who were said to “roar like lions.”

So we ended up with only two hens and four cocks. Although their crowing was not yet a problem, we knew we probably wouldn’t be able to keep the males, though I told the girls we would for as long as possible. As the days passed, though, I began to hope that maybe we would be able to keep them until next spring and try for chicks again–Sebright and Silkies, and maybe a few hybrids. I was amazed to find out that most of our neighbors had been totally oblivious to the “Morn of Grandma Ruby’s Rooster.” I let them know what we were up to and asked them to tell me if the roosters became a nuisance.

For about six weeks we basked in perfect poultry happiness. Then one morning when I went to feed them, I found a cat crouched on one of the fence posts of the chicken yard. The birds were huddled in a corner, terrified. I shooed the cat and counted them–one was missing. My heart raced as I frantically searched the backyard. Nothing. I searched the alley, thinking that perhaps the cat took one over via the tree she came across. Still nothing. Zora came out and I calmly told her what happened, and that the female Sebright was gone. We looked some more and as I neared the girls’ inflatable three-foot-deep swimming pool I spotted her–floating, wings spread wide, eyes closed, her graceful neck resting motionless on top of the water. In a low voice I said, “Oh, Zora. I found her.” Zora came over and we stood there, looking, fighting back tears. I went into the house to find something to pick her up with and Lily followed me out. It then occurred to me there was no reason I should be squeamish to touch her–I knew her. I lifted her out and placed her tenderly on the paper towel. The girls petted her. There were no signs of injury. Apparently the cat had frightened her into flying over the four-foot fence and into the pool.

We buried the Sebright near a semi-circle of small Siberian Elms the girls used for their outdoor “castle” area. I gathered smooth, pretty rocks to cover the grave and Zora found a red and white plastic Fisher Price farm set chicken to perch on top. A few minutes she added part of a small, broken crystal sphere from the kitchen windowsill collection of odds and ends.

“I got this because Jessica liked shiny things,” she explained. We gathered around the grave on our knees and I said a few words about Jessica’s sweetness and goodness, how we all loved her and would miss her very much. Privately, I also felt disappointment at losing our male Sebright’s mate and fully half our hen population. There would be no Sebright chicks next spring.

It never occurred to me that the pool was a danger. Grandma Ruby cautioned me about the four-foot fence (“Oh, they’ll be able to get over that pretty soon,” she said on her first visit) but I hadn’t been very concerned. We had a six foot fence around the yard and secured the chickens in their coop each night. Besides, Grandma Ruby’s chickens ranged her yard freely among her young cat Tweety, two miniature poodles, and various neighborhood felines (her ninety-some-year-old neighbor next door had thirteen). The only problems she’d had came from a marauding raccoon who killed a rooster the year before, and a time years earlier when some obviously psychotic teenage boys abducted and murdered another.

We had our own pet carnivores, but I’d never seen our cat, Merlin, a seventeen-year-old bag o’ bones Siamese, hunt for anything other than a good place to nap. He showed absolutely no recognition that a flock of chickens had invaded his turf. Our fourteen-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Cato, was not only a creampuff, but he’d been blind in one eye since age two (he was kicked by a horse), and was now nearly blind in the other from a cataract. He sometimes stood at the chicken fence, on now unsteady legs, and barked a few times, tail wagging. I imagined he saw blurs of chickens and surely smelled them, and was making the canine assertion that he had some authority around here yet. Our only potential problem was Alice, the one-and-half-year-old Dalmatian we adopted the summer before. A spotted hell-on-four-paws–she was my outlaw shrub pruner the winter before–we nonetheless adored her. Alice menaced an injured wild bird early that spring, but only by bouncing around and barking, she never tried to hurt it. Knowing her potential for frolicking destruction, however, I kept close tabs on her.

When Andy came home from work I told him about the ordeal we’d been through and that we had to build a covered run the next day, on Saturday. After a morning of almost non-stop nagging on my part, we started the project. It took us only about three hours of constant bickering to put it together. I mixed the concrete for the fence posts and stapled the chicken wire and Andy cut and assembled the posts and rails.

The very next Saturday Alice dug under the run. The chickens escaped and again I ran around, heart racing, hunting and gathering. This time I found only three.

(To be continued . . . )

 

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