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Christmas Chickens

Back to field trips

I remember the difficulty of finding Christmas presents for my parents.  They had what they wanted and what they did not have, they did not want.  I am sensitive to the challenge our four children have buying Sue and me presents for the same reason; I tend not to wait for special events to ask for items of interest, I just buy them or if they are too expensive to buy, I do not want them.

That being said, there are casual comments made during a conversation that could be interpreted as a desire for something when, really, it is just conversation.  Surely that was the case when one of my children heard Sue or me offhandedly mention the idea of owning chickens.  I guarantee the comment, whatever it was, was in no way an expression of interest in having poultry in my back yard.  I already had been through a harrowing experience with a pet turkey, Henrietta, that I had to put in a dog kennel and drive an hour and a half away to have her “processed” and bagged for consumption.  One would think the child, the same one who bought the turkey, would not have thought four biddies for Christmas would be better than a book about South Carolina or an ice scraper for the car. I was content with two dogs and didn’t want another pet.

Every morning when I get up, Jennie the boxer and Gibbes the yorkie and I walk around the back yard to see what new has happened during the night.  Sometimes a limb is on the ground or Penn Branch creek is particularly high or low or sometimes nothing at all.  For Jennie and Gibbes, a highlight is new scat from one of the many critters that pass through our yard as if no fence exists.  On this Christmas morning, though, it was raining too hard to consider going out back, so Jennie and Gibbes danced outside and got back in as quickly as possible while I watched from the side door.

So I had no idea there was a new structure in my back yard, this rainy and cold Christmas morning.  It became our turn to open presents and one child announced our gift was in the back yard and to go look out the living room doors.  I had no idea what she was talking about until I saw a rabbit hutch sitting in the middle of the yard, and through the rain I could tell something was living inside. “Chickens!” the children exclaimed.

It turned out two siblings worked together.  The only child who actually knew where to find a rabbit hutch was also the only child who could have pulled off showing up tardy for a family event after having dragged a wooden structure off his truck, by himself, in the dark, into our back yard and then appearing as if he just got up.  It was no surprise he and she had worked together for the chicken gift.

I quickly settled into a routine now that I had livestock in the back yard.  In the early mornings while Jennie and Gibbes were checking the yard for overnight intruders, I would talk to my chickens and give them feed.  Sue insisted I feed them organic feed which I will not explain how much more expensive and how much more trouble it is to find.  They particularly liked food from our kitchen but on principle, I refused to give them leftover chicken.

A few months later as they got old enough, we were rewarded with eggs, sometimes four a day, sometimes fewer.  A Rhode Island Red chicken will lay about 270-290 eggs each year, so each bird took off a day here and a day there on her own schedule.  We almost always got at least one egg. 

I loved having so many eggs in the house.  As long as they are not washed, fresh eggs can be kept on the counter.  A room temperature egg and a cold egg from the fridge behave entirely differently when put into a recipe. I began searching for recipes that called for large numbers of eggs, and found custard was a great thing to make with them.  I bought fancy vanilla beans and heavy cream and learned how to make good custard which is greatly appreciated by the ill, or even by the hungry, and is a wonderful foundation for homemade ice cream.  At our family dinner one Sunday night, I made custard two ways, one using whole eggs and the other using just the yolks and we had a blind taste test. Sue bought a stamp that said “Hodges Farm Fresh” and a bunch of blank egg cartons, and we’d package them up as gifts to neighbors and friends. We also noticed that our children would show up for eggs rather than go to the store.

Alas, after months of having fresh eggs every day, tragedy struck in the back yard.  On a Sunday afternoon, I decided a nap was in order, but first, I let the chickens out of the pen to play in the back yard and to hunt down worms and other delicious bugs that add to the eggs’ flavor.  Unfortunately, Jennie decided to take a nap with me instead of patrolling the back yard.  She is afraid of chickens and will go nowhere near them, but she is not afraid of cats, owls, opossums, raccoons, foxes or whatever else considers chicken to be delicious.  By the time I went back outside, a grisly chicken murder had happened by the fence, and there were three extraordinarily nervous and unhappy sisters flapping around the back yard.  Needless to say, I got no eggs the next morning.

We then lost one chicken to natural causes and one to an odd sort of drowning in the pen, don’t ask, and we were down to one chicken.  I have learned you do not want to be the last chicken in a pen.  One night there was a very loud and a very violent event in the pen that a neighbor heard from her open bedroom window.  That chicken was eaten; her entire body cavity gone.  Gone also were our daily eggs, our early morning fun, and our custard to give away.  And now, I couldn’t wait to get more chickens in the yard.