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Monitor Board of Contributors: When chickens put on the charm

Mel Graykin gets the attention of her flock of chickens with a handful of feed.

courtesy

Mel Graykin gets the attention of her flock of chickens with a handful of feed. courtesy

We keep hens. It’s great having a steady supply of fresh eggs. But to keep that supply coming, we occasionally have to refresh the flock. A hen starts to slow down after three or four years. She’s still got a few good egg-laying years ahead of her, and we aren’t as ruthless about culling as some might be. As long as she can manage an egg every now and then we figure she’s worth her feed.

My husband is a middle-school teacher. Every year he takes in a few of our eggs to hatch in the classroom. He sets up the incubator and every day the kids turn the eggs and wait for that magic day when the cracks start to appear. We keep a few of the chicks to add to our flock and adopt out the rest. This year we wound up with seven.

Now, you must have a rooster around if you expect your eggs to hatch. As a general rule, just one. They don’t tend to get along very well with each other. The ratio of males to females in any random clutch of eggs is about 50/50. This necessarily means that in any hatch you are going to wind up with a lot of extra chickens who are fated for the stew pot. Not a bad thing as long as you don’t allow yourself to get too attached.

Chicks are, of course, adorable. When they hatch in the classroom, the students can’t wait to hold them. Our seven came to us very well accustomed to being handled. Friendly, curious, good-looking birds. It takes an expert to sex a chick. Otherwise, you just have to wait until the signs of gender start to emerge in the maturing chicken. Legs that are a bit longer, a larger comb and wattles, longer tail feathers, all are signs that you have a future rooster on your hands.

And then there is the crow. There is nothing more pathetic than a cockerel’s first crow. Of our seven, the first to make the attempt sounded a bit like the squeaky wheel on our clothes line. I can imagine our own mature rooster hearing that and shaking his head in utter contempt. He may not be worried now about the competition, but he should be. He’s getting along in years and, like hens, roosters need to be replaced from time to time.

That’s a tricky business. If you aren’t careful, you can get a rooster who is mean. You want one who will look after his ladies, who will sound the alarm when danger approaches and put up a fuss. But you don’t want one that takes his duties so seriously that he attacks the farmer or the farmer’s small children. A rooster that attacks is like a dog that bites. Not desirable.

So as our seven matured we’ve kept watch on their personalities. And personality they have in abundance. What a crew! As soon as I go out in the morning they come rushing up to say hello. When my husband and I sit out on the deck, they come hopping up and gather round. They’ll perch on our knees or shoulders, scrutinizing us with their golden chicken eyes, begging for a bit of sandwich or cookie if we are eating our lunch. Helping themselves if we’re not careful. They follow me around the yard as I do chores, making their immature chirping sounds, half-way between a peep and a cluck. Free-range chickens are great in that they vacuum up bugs, ticks and worms. Unfortunately, they also scratch up your garden and peck at your produce. Alas, they love strawberries. Having them wander the lawn is fine; they fertilize it as they go. But hanging out with us on the deck is a bit of an issue, because they’ve turned it into a poop deck.

The time is coming when they will be big enough to integrate into our flock. The hens we know we will keep, but we’ll have to choose among the roosters. Each is lobbying hard to be the one, attempting to ingratiate himself by being charming in a pushy sort of way. I know at this point that we have at least three cockerels. The one with the biggest comb and wattles has worked his crow up to a kind of “cacka-da-da.” The one with the lovely partridge plumage has a lower “coo-ca-choo.” The red one’s crow is still at squeaky wheel stage.

Chickens are not supposed to be pets. You don’t name them or let yourself get too fond of them. Without periodic culling, you end up paying a lot for upkeep and get few eggs to show for it. It becomes an emotional trauma when you inevitably lose them to foxes, weasels, disease or old age. And when you have to choose among the cockerels who is going to be the rooster.

I’m in trouble.

(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives in Deerfield, and practices free-lance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)

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