Monday, January 25, 2010

The Persistence of Chickens

For the past six months, we have been reducing our flocks, as I have mentioned several times before. We have gone from having 30-ish turkeys and nearly 200 chickens, to 12 and 60 now, respectively. Over the years, we have put quite a bit of work into selecting and breeding these animals, so it has been difficult to examine each group and make the decision of who to keep and who needs to go. I am pleased to say that many of these guys have gone to excellent homes, and with folks I am confident will appreciate them and treat them well.

But, beyond examining their more obvious production qualities, I have to recall their personal stories, how they got here, who they are. Obviously, this can sometimes make it harder to "get rid" of them. I was thinking of the story of the "Potatoes" recently, and their mama-

It was about this time of year, actually Mid-February, three years ago, when the winds blow cold and constantly across the the farm. This hen, one of a group of 100 or so Buffs, decided that she just had to hatch some chicks. She made a nest way up high on the stacks of hay in the livestock barn. We tried to dissuade her, we put her back in with her group every day, and every morning she returned to her nest. So, we let her set, despite the driving winds and the cold rain, and she set stalwart and unmoved by the harshness of the weather.

Hens set for 21 or so days, and as the time for hatching grew near, we checked on her every morning. We brought her little sips of water and nibbles of feed. The location she chose seemed pretty secure for her own safety, but once the chicks hatched, we wondered how she would even get them down from the hay bales, so we set up a brood room for her in the hen house, thinking that once she hatched her brood, we would scoop them all up, and remove them to safer environs. She was one of our very first truly broody birds, and one lesson we have learned since then is that when chicks or poults begin to hatch, they peep, and that is a dinner bell for many different predators.

One morning, Farmer Steve set out to check on all the critters, and a short time later, came running in the house, his shirt full of eggs, and told me that something had killed our hen. As he put the eggs into the dinky styrofoam incubator we had at the time, he said, "three of them had already hatched". As I zoomed out the door, he called after me "they're already dead!" I went on anyway. I observed the kill scene, where mama hen had, most likely, tried to lure the predator away from her nest, or possibly had just panicked and run. I gathered up the the three cold and limp little bodies from the nest.

Well, I just don't give up easily, so cradling their seemingly lifeless bodies in my hands, I booked it back to the house. I ran upstairs to the bathroom, laid them out on the floor, and turned my hair dryer on them. Miracle of miracles, after a minute or so of this, all six little legs started kicking! In a moment that I sincerely hope will be included when they make a movie of my life, I threw open the upstairs window, and yelled: "STEVE!!! GET THE HEAT LAMP!.....THEY'RE ALIVE!!!!

Yes they were, and they did just fine. Of the 24 (!) eggs that hen was setting on, 14 of them hatched and 12 of those lived. So wait, what about the "potato" thing? As they hatched in the little incubator, we removed them to a potato box with a heat lamp over it in the spare room. When they were toughened up enough to be moved to the brood room, already set up for them, we set them out of the box on the floor. In a comical moment, they all contemplated the box in a serious manner, as if thinking, ah, Potatoes-so that's what we are! Maybe you had to be there. Anyway, it stuck.

Of the twelve, 3 were boys and 9 girls. We kept the the best of the boys, Sweetums, who last year went to live on our friend Will's new farm. The other two, we et. I know it seems harsh, doesn't it?

Some of the girls have gone to live on other farms, also, but two of them returned to the house. They were put in with all the other Buffs, but found their way "home" to my yard. I tried to return them to the group more than once, but they would just come stomping back and huffy, shooting me dirty looks. They are as determined as their mama was. So of course, I want to keep these two.

I acknowledge that I am not cut out to be the very best of poultry farmers. I know my work well, and I am capable of being objective and practical when it comes to making selections. Last week, I helped choose 50 more birds to send to slaughter. What I can't do is ignore the inner voice that says, in this case, I know you, little ones. I know how much your mama wanted you and how hard she worked to get you here. I know your story and I care.

Of the 50 we just sent, I knew many of their stories, too. I may very well be the only one who cares, as I am the one who knows them best, but I will remember, and write them down so I don't forget. As, I am sure, you all have your own book of stories that you hold dear.

(My great grandfather, with chicken)


Will said...

Thank you for the stories, Sara.
Sweetums is still a badass.

ACE said...

that's it - that's exactly who you are.