The great thing about raising chickens was the satisfaction of routine and consistency, and the ultimate payout of fresh eggs. It was the same familiar, exciting process every year: Each spring we would return to the feed store and pick out another chick. One year, our mom surprised us Easter morning with baby ducks. Another year, my sister picked a goose, named Butter, instead of a chicken. But it was always the same routine of raising the chicks: We would keep them in the house in a plastic tub, as babies, and we would play with them every day. I remember having a bright green doll couch that perfectly fit a chick, a nice spot for a nap, resting its head on the armrest. Or my brother would put a chick on a tiny skateboard for a chicken photoshoot. When we would get a big rainstorm, the end of our property would flood and my sister would take Butter out to swim in the water. Butter would follow dutifully behind her to the pond. They would sit together while my sister read books, and Butter would only swim close to shore to stay near to her. My sister was definitely Butter’s favorite person, but as a male goose, he was pretty mean to my brother and me.
Once the chicks’ feathers started coming in, we moved them out of the house, to the chicken coop. We always had to watch this transition carefully, as the new chicks needed to be integrated into the pecking order of the other chickens in the coop. You could always tell who was at the bottom, as the other chickens would peck their feathers out. This was a natural thing that always happened, and there wasn’t much we could do about it – another consistent pattern with the chickens. The chicks, now established as full grown chickens in the coop, joined the daily routine of our flock of free-range chickens. In the morning, we would open the door to the chicken’s run, where the chickens would be pacing, waiting behind the chicken wire to come out. When I opened the door, they would flood out, pecking at the ground and exploring. I’d head into the coop to gather the eggs in a basket, and give them new water and food. Meanwhile the chickens would start a circuit, working their way down one side of the house, to the garage, out to the bushes in the front yard, and around the other side of the house back to the coop. Throughout the day they would complete several laps, always in the same direction and always sticking together. Sitting at my desk, with a window looking out toward the driveway, I could watch the chickens mosey past. Sometimes they would sit on the windowsill and watch me do homework. As the sun went down, they would all find their way back to the coop. Closing up the coop at night was as easy as counting the chickens on the roost and closing the outside door to keep the coyotes out. If a chicken was missing, which was rare, we would walk the circuit around the house, usually finding her under the bushes in the front yard. She would know it was time to go back to the coop for the night, and it would only take a bit of coaxing and chasing to get her back home. This was the daily routine, an easy roaming circuit.
Raising chickens was a lesson on life. We did end up losing chickens every few years to the coyotes. We would hear the chickens squawking in the yard, and sometimes we would get out fast enough to scare the coyotes away. Other times we would be too late, and we would come out to feathers all over the ground and a chicken missing. Both our ducks were taken by coyotes, and all but one of our chickens were eaten by coyotes. This was simply part of having chickens close to the forest.
As we got older, the coyotes came more frequently. The last chicken left was Opie, whom we gave away to another family with chickens, so she wouldn’t have to be alone.
Even though we lost chickens to the coyotes, we would always have another year, new chicks and new life. Our hens would also get “broody,” times when their maternal instincts kicked in and they would sit on their eggs. The broody chickens would sit in the nest box all day, forgoing the daily circuit to keep eggs warm. We didn’t have roosters, so the hens never had fertilized eggs, and our broody chickens never hatched chicks. But we did get to watch the process occur, another lesson on life from the chickens.
- Anna Y., Medical Student, USA