Friday, February 29, 2008

Hawks in a Country Chicken Pen

Hawks in a Country Chicken Pen
©Ken Harris, 2007

North San Juan, California, mid-1990s.

I locked myself in the chicken pen one morning. Unintentional and all that, but there I was, locked in the chicken pen with a flock of Rhode Island Reds.

They are nice birds, Rhode Island Reds. When I was a little boy my dad had a flock of Bard Rocks. Scared the bejeezus out of me. They were almost as big as I was – I was four – and a whole lot meaner. I thought their favorite food was four-year-old boy. I never went near them unless I was with my dad. Dad was treetop tall in my four-year-old eyes, more than a match for those mean chickens. They couldn’t hurt him, but they surely could have put some beak-sized dents in me.

Later on we had some Rhode Island Reds. I was bigger, so they weren’t so menacing. Moreover, they were nice, gentle birds.

In my married life we have had chickens on several occasions. We bought them mail order from Murray-McMurray in Iowa rather than going down to the feed store and buying whatever they had there at the time. We even bought an experimental flock once, the X-9s, supposed to lay eggs right through the winter.

But our favorite birds were still the Rhode Island Reds, and when we settled into our home in North San Juan and fenced off a space for our vegetable garden, we found we had room for a hen house and chicken pen. After we built these structures, it followed that we needed some hens to fill them.

We ordered Rhode Island Reds from Murray-McMurray. Their packages usually arrived within a week, but they were sometimes delayed by hatching dates. The system works well provided the birds arrive when the post office is open. But in this instance, the birds arrived on a Sunday.

Early Sunday morning we received a phone call from someone in the Nevada City post office who said a package had arrived for us from Iowa and it was cheeping.

We drove into town to collect our chicks. The post office was closed since it was Sunday, but someone opened the back door and hand delivered our birds. All this happened in the 1980s. The population of Nevada City in 1980 was 2431 and not much higher in 1990. I doubt if we would get such service in Tucson in 2007.

The chicks were all very healthy and lived to become a flock that went on for years. As the spring garden got into gear we supplemented their diets with thinnings and later with trimmings. They especially adored Swiss chard leaves. Three hens once got on top of a Napa cabbage plant and countersunk it. Ate it right into the earth.

In winter things were tougher for the birds. Garden trimmings were rare and the ground was wet and muddy. The sun seldom put in an appearance.

On days when the sun did deign to reign, we’d let the chickens into the garden. The couldn’t do the vegetables any harm at that time of the year, and they really did a number on the sowbugs and earwigs. Chickens are T-rexes of the insect world. They are earth scorching machines. Attila the Hun must have gotten his ideas from watching chickens.

One late afternoon as darkness approached, we shooed the chickens to bed. But one hen wouldn’t go in. She was happy where she was, dusting in a garden bed. She was hunkered down in a relatively dry vegetable and happily flicking dirt into her wing pits. Joanne picked her up forcibly and then had to endure chicken insults as the hen protested volubly.

There was only one problem with letting our birds roam in the garden. We were chumming for hawks. One afternoon we went into the garden area to discover a hawk dining on one of our hens. He had just killed the bird and ripped open the top of her head and eaten the brains.

The hawk wasn’t even slightly afraid of us. He flew up to the top of the power pole that furnished electricity to our garden and surveyed us, probably wondering if we would dare to steal his dinner. His very fearlessness marked him as an escaped hawk, someone whom a falconer had “sent on a mission” and decided he didn’t have to return. It happens all the time, a falconer told us.

“Can’t blame a hawk for acting like a hawk,” Joanne philosophized. Then we noticed that the dead bird’s brain cavity was not very large. Maybe you could put a half dozen beads in it. We debated how many chickens a hawk would have to kill per day if he ate nothing but brains. We decided there weren’t that many chickens in the county. Meanwhile, the hawk fidgeted a bit, wondering if we were ever going to go away and leave him to his dinner.

We eventually left and the hawk dined. But a second hawk raider did not fare so well. I went down to the pen one day and instead of seeing my birds roaming free, found them all inside the house or the pen, frozen as stiff as stuffed. Two stood in one corner and didn’t even blink. Also inside the coop was a red-tailed hawk, also frozen, an “oh, shit” look on his face, with no idea of how to get out of the prison he’d flown into.

Joanne shot him with a handgun and we threw him in the freezer. Later we gave him to a woman at the Chapa-de Indian Health Clinic and Cultural Center. She harvested the feathers to help her children’s Miwok dance group make authentic costumes. Everybody benefited. We saved our chickens, the kids got some great feathers, and the world had one less stupid hawk. We never had hawks bother our chickens again.

Chickens provided us with brown eggs for which there was always a market, and something to do in our spare time. They required a lot of attention. Nests had to be maintained with straw or rice hulls. The ideal situation required that an egg sink into the straw and out of sight as soon as it’s laid. It is not commonly known, but a chicken’s two favorite foods are chicken and eggs. If a chicken were smart enough to realize that the feathered person next to her was a chicken and the round thing under her was an egg, there would be no chickens on earth within weeks.

And you have to remove the chicken guano. They won’t do it for themselves. Instead, we did it using a flat head shovel and a wheelbarrow. And don’t forget water. Sometimes their water looked protoplasmic, and that was with daily changing.

All of these ruminations are not to put you off your feed the next time you address a plate of scrambled eggs or chicken nuggets. It just explains, sort of, how I locked myself in the chicken pen. For some reason I had to enter the pen. The door closed behind me and the hook flipped up and caught the eye dead center.

I wasn’t worried. A momentary inconvenience, nothing more. But I had come down without my pocket knife, and any other tools I might have had were safely locked outside the pen.

I reached for the latch with my fingers. They weren’t long enough. I tried vigorously several more times, and they still weren’t long enough.

Our house was a couple of hundred feet uphill from the chicken pen. Nobody “uphill” had ever heard a cry from “downhill” before, but that didn’t stop me from trying.

After a while I gave up yelling, screaming and throwing tantrums and flashed on the stupid hawk. I had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, two teaching credentials and a master’s degree in mass communications, but I couldn’t get out of the chicken pen either. I took comfort in the idea that while I might be dumb as a hawk at least I didn’t have any feathers to dangle from some kid dancer’s costume.

At last I stopped being emotional about my plight and looked around for something to use as a tool. There wasn’t much, but I finally found a piece of rusty wire I could break off. I used it to fish to hook loose.

And as I walked to freedom, leaving the chickens behind me, I thought about how really great it is to be a human being. We can go to the moon, write classics, solve abstract mathematical problems, and, if we try really really hard, some of us can even escape from the chicken pen.

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