Friday, September 25, 2009

Scary Noises and Chicken Nightmares

It was a bad sound that woke me. A chicken screaming in the night. Sending a jolt of adrenaline through my body, that was a sound I would be happy never to hear again. That sound makes my heart wince because I know exactly what it means.

My chickens have fantasies. In their minds they not the pampered domesticated pets that they are. They dream of being free. They imagine that they know how to care for themselves. They feel the ancient DNA of their wild ancestory beating in their hearts. I think it is this feeling that makes them rash. A feeling that says they are safe when they don't return to the coop at night. The coop where they are locked up tight and are free from predators. They fly up into a tree or a brushy bush and roost, still as stone. In the morning they hop down and return to their usual chicken behaviors of pecking and scratching and running to the coop with that certain look of urgency that means an egg is on the way.

The problem is that if they are out of the coop they are likely targets for raccoons and possums and sometimes even coyotes to snatch them in the dark. We know that happens when we hear that horrible scream.

See the thing about chickens is they have NO night vision. Not a bit. The second the sun goes down they are down for the night and no amount of convincing can change their minds. They don't have rods--the part of eyes that allows people and animals to see in the dark. Predators tend to have extra rods so they see even better in the dark.

Without rods, chickens are sitting ducks (or well chickens, if you want to get technical about it). Wherever they go to bed is where they stay until first light cracks the dawn and they can see again. And this is fine if they go to their beds and their people come and shut the door to the coop. But if they remember that tiny bit of wildness living in their hearts and roost on a branch, things don't always turn out so well.

Chickens can find an amazing number of ways to die. I have seen chicks peck the wrong thing and drop dead 30 seconds later. A bout of diarrhea can leave a chicken dead in a couple of hours. All kinds of things eat them--hawks, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, possums and raccoons to name a few that we have seen. They have strokes and die on their roost. Sometimes they even fight each other so brutally that one will die of peck wounds. Keeping chickens is not for the faint of heart. They are so easy to love and just as easy to lose.

All in all though, I think the fun of chickens is well worth the pain of occasionally losing them. They keep me entertained every day. I love looking out my window and watching them do their chicken business. They can always make me smile. About the only thing they do that drives me crazy is poop on my back stoop, but that really is my fault if I let them run around the yard. Where else are they going to go to get out of the rain?

We keep heritage and unusual breed chickens here. Old varieties that are prized for their genetic diversity and interesting characteristics. I like having these kind of chickens for all kinds of reasons but most of all because many of them still have personalities.

For example, I love the white orphington who always seem to be first to the food and tried so valiantly to be a mama this summer.

I also enjoy the gentle black and red speckled girls who prefer a worm over any kind of food. They hang back when the grain is passed out but rush out the coop door towards the compost pile to dig and scrape their way to the worms. We even had a couple of them be successful at hatching chicks this year. A very exciting development.
She has that look about her...

One of my favorites is the cuckoo maran who lays chocolate brown eggs (rather unreliably I might add). And I love the black minorcas which lay a beautiful white egg and have the prettiest black plumage with a little white patch right where their ear would be if they were human. Plus they are just the cutest little chicks I have ever seen.

I suppose to be honest, I'd have to say that if I think too closely about chickens, there are plenty of things to get disgusted the fact they only have one hole down there and everything (and I mean everything) comes right through it. Or the nitty gritty of eggs, I won't even go there.

But they are so sweet and I have such fun watching them hunt and peck and chase each other. I really could go on and on because I love my chickens. So, on days like today, when I have to mourn the loss of one of my little friends, I like to remember the happy moments because I know that invariably, if I keep chickens I will be dealing with death.

If you want to know more about chickens and chicken breeds, check out McMurray Hatchery. I could spend hours on that website debating the merits of my next batch of chicks.

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