Friday, July 30, 2010

The Driveway Chicken Had Chicks

I should preface that statement by explaining why we have a driveway chicken. A few years ago my husband built me the Taj Mahal of chicken coops and we’ve raised chickens on and off ever since. Last spring we started over with a fresh batch of chicks. I honestly don’t know the breed. They were the leftovers at Tractor Supply, and the man who sold them to me wasn’t sure what kind they were. We have also inherited a handful of chickens, mostly Arucanas, from friends who were moving and a rooster from another friend who had too many. More than one rooster is too many, but because I live with a husband and three sons - all of whom I adore – I try to keep that opinion to myself.

The purchased and gifted chickens total between 15 and 25 hens. The range is so high because at any given time said hens can be found roaming in the goat yard, visiting our unendingly patient neighbors or strolling up and down the driveway scratching for bugs. Only a few ever stay in the coop. My chickens stretch the definition of “free range,” and as a result the boys and I gather eggs from under the riding lawn mowers, beneath a blue tub and even occasionally on the seat of the bobcat - rarely do the hens actually lay their eggs in the chicken coop.

My husband pointed out that if I clipped the hen’s wings they would have to stay in the chicken yard, and I wouldn’t have to have an egg hunt everyday. My eight year old loves chickens and looks for any excuse he can to catch them and hold them, so I enlisted his help clipping the chicken’s wings. Not content to do a halfway job, we meticulously clipped the ends of both wings of every chicken. We were almost finished and feeling like good farmers when my irritatingly amused husband said that we should only have clipped one wing so the chickens couldn’t fly. I said that unless he was in the chicken coop working with us he should keep his opinion to himself. As much as it pains me to admit it, however, he was right. With both wings clipped the hens can’t fly as well, but they can fly over the fence bringing me back to the driveway chicken.

We have a pretty black hen with buff feathers around her neck who spends almost all her time scratching up and down the driveway. One day she went missing and as her absence continued I worried that something had eaten her or that she had run away for good. A few weeks went by and I had forgotten about the little black hen, when I went out one morning and found her resuming her normal place at the edges of the driveway. Now, however, she was followed by five fluffy chicks scratching beside her. I squealed like a little girl and the chicks darted under the hen. She puffed up to twice her size and did the chicken equivalent of growling.

My boys instantly fell in love with the chicks and tried desperately to catch them. For future reference it is not necessary to tell children they can’t catch chicks. The mother hen will take care of that, and it took only a few pecked hands before the boys were content to watch the chicks from a safe distance. Protecting her chicks is just the last part of a hen’s mothering cycle, one that would put most of the rest of us to shame.

I don’t know why a hen “goes broody,” but when it happens, it is a ferocious instinct. When a hen decides she wants to be a mother she will sit on a clutch of eggs with trance-like devotion, and she won’t move until she has chicks. She will sit on her own eggs, other chicken eggs, and even eggs from other fowl rising once a day to eat, drink and relieve herself. She will stay there for the 21 days it takes for the chicks to hatch, turning the eggs and warming them with her body. If at any point she decides she doesn’t want the job and leaves, the chicks won’t hatch. A mother hen has to concretely demonstrate her commitment to motherhood before she is rewarded with chicks. Some breeds are much better at this than others, but when a breed of chickens fails at being broody it is generally because we have genetically selected against broodiness (We raise chickens for eggs and broody hens don’t lay.) Heritage breeds are usually better mothers, and some chickens never seem to want the job. As far as I can tell the other chickens don’t try to make them feel like less of a chicken for this choice.

Being a competent parent is really difficult, and sex feels really good. Perhaps it would be better if the two things weren’t so intimately connected. After a rooster and hen mate the hen can store the sperm for over two weeks and all the eggs she lays after that will be fertilized with the potential for producing chicks. If you buy your eggs from the farmers market, you are in all likelihood eating fertilized eggs. Many people with small flocks keep a rooster, and if a rooster is in with the hens they copulate wantonly. Wouldn’t you? And while all that chicken love results in the potential for offspring, nothing happens without a broody hen. There are no morning after pills for chickens. If a hen doesn’t want chicks she doesn’t sit. If she does she sits whether she produced the eggs or not.

If human reproduction was more like chickens and parents had to prove their ability and commitment to putting their offspring first before they could have them this would be a different world. There would be no unwanted children because in order for the child to exist someone would have to have wanted him or her desperately. My childless friends wouldn’t have to wonder at the unfairness of pregnant 16 year olds when they are having trouble conceiving using expensive fertility treatments. Teenagers wouldn’t face impossibly difficult choices simply because they did what many of us have done (had premarital sex) and got caught.

I’m not advocating irresponsible sex. There have always been sexually transmitted diseases with dire consequences including fatality. But for those of us in committed, monogamous relationships, it would be nice to enjoy sex without the niggling “what if” in the back of your head. As somebody who has had birth control fail more than once (with blessed outcomes) I can tell you that the best sex I have had happened after I had my tubes tied. In one of Robert Heinlein’s novels, he wrote that when making love a woman wants to lay back and secretly hope she “catches.” I can’t help but think that was written by someone who was not woken bleary eyed for the fourth time by a hungry / wet / colicky/ normal infant. For most of us, I think passion is best flamed by keeping sex and pregnancy separate, excluding of course the few weeks or months in your life when you are actually trying to become pregnant. One of my male friends described that as being given a basket full of tickets for the fair rides. I would humbly argue that when it comes to reproduction, chickens have the right of it.

After the driveway chicken hatched her chicks, one of the barn chickens hatched six of her own. I have another hen sitting on eggs where the riding mower usually lives. I am in awe of these feathered ladies. I love my children and did all the things I was supposed to do while I was pregnant including in my case avoiding French fries and cookies. I even spent the last part of my third pregnancy on modified bed rest. I don’t know, however, if I could live up to the chicken’s standards. A mother hen’s capacity for selflessness is beyond me.

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