Chicken-Sitting: It’s Not For Sissies

Shelly Shively and I are twins, but not just any twins. We’re a rare variety called “mirror twins” a subset of identical twins. As kids, we’d lose the same tooth on the same day, but on the opposite side. We have cowlicks that each whorl in different directions. I’m right-dominate, while Shelly’s left-dominant.

Shelly loves chickens so much she even painted a huge chicken piece for the O Street Gallery exhibit. (Doni, left, Shelly, right.)

Shelly loves chickens so much she even painted a huge chicken piece for the O Street Gallery exhibit. (Doni, left, Shelly, right.)

Shelly is crazy about owning and raising chickens; feathered, clucking little creatures she names, pampers and talks to as if they’re children.

I, on the other hand, make a delicious Chicken Marbella.

Shelly is so passionate about chickens that she was one of the citizen speakers who campaigned the Redding City Council to allow urban chickens within the city limits, a resolution that passed, which is how Shelly came to have a chicken compound in her backyard, complete with shade sails, umbrellas, a Victorian-style hen house and an elaborate water and feed system.

chickens2

Even so, Shelly was a relative late-comer to chicken-wrangling. Actually, she first got the idea for owning chickens back when her husband was alive, and their property had a barn that Shelly thought would be perfect for a few hens. But Jeff harbored some unfortunate childhood chicken memories, so no chickens for the Shivelys.

Soon, that was the least of her worries, because there was a two-year period when Shelly suffered a mind-boggling amount of loss: her 20-year son and 54-year-old husband died of cancer within 18 months of each other. And in short order she lost Levi, her son’s brindle boxer, and even a gold fish that had lived happily on her kitchen counter until one day the fish – Rodney because of his googly eyes – was found floating on the surface of the bowl’s water.

So when Shelly embarked on her quest for backyard chickens, the very thought struck fear in my heart. Selfishly, I couldn’t bear the thought of Shelly suffering more loss.

But she chose life, and she chose chickens, three of whom she named the Supremes: Flo, Mary and Diana, because they were gorgeous black chicks.

shelly with pair of chickens

Happy Shelly with happy chickens

Late one night, when Flo became sick, Shelly Googled the symptoms and learned that perhaps the poor bird was suffering from an impacted egg. I watched in horror as my sister held the lethargic Flo in her lap, and then, with a gloved hand, gently examined Flo’s internal nether regions for the vexing egg. The next day, Shelly took her precious chicken to the veterinarian, who said it was the first time he’d ever treated a chicken. Flo recovered fully.

My greatest fear was realized when Shelly and I were living together after my divorce. It was Labor Day weekend when we’d gone out for a Sunday breakfast with friends.When we returned we heard the sounds of crazy yapping and barking from the back yard. We rushed to the yard and saw a sight I’ll never forget: the bodies of dead chickens – including the beautiful Supremes – were strewn all over the ground. Blood and feathers were everywhere.

chicken-massacre-flo

Inside the chicken yard where two small Jack Russell terriers we’d never seen before; covered in blood, barking and howling wildly.

My sister was heartbroken. The only silver lining is when we counted the chicken bodies, we discovered there was one missing: Abigail, a gorgeous, feisty California White chicken that had a bad habit of flying over the fence. That bad habit saved her life.

Chickens are social creatures. Abigail couldn’t be an only chicken, so Shelly gave her surviving chicken to friend Kimberly, who raised chickens down the street. An aside, Kimberly would eventually return Abigail to Shelly for a simple reason: She kept flying over the fence. Some chickens are just like that.

It was spring when Shelly decided to buy three new chicks. She raised them in a playpen in her house. She named them Cleo, because she had eyes like Cleopatra, and Georgie and Suzie, after George and Sue Economou. And then she got three more chicks, which brought her up to Redding’s legal limit for urban chickens.

Shelly's granddaughter, then 2, holding Flo.

Shelly’s granddaughter, then 2, holding Flo.

I tell you the details of my sister’s loss so you understand the degree of terror I felt whenever Shelly left town, and left her chickens in my care.

The thing is, I’m squeamish. I like the concept of backyard urban chickens, and I’m a good chicken aunt who is generous with my produce scraps that I save up and deliver to Shelly’s girls, which, of course, guarantees I’ll get some of those incredible eggs.

shellys-chicken

But basically, truly, I am happiest when I can love my sister’s beloved chickens from afar, or, at the very least, from behind a chicken-wire fence.

chickens

I do not like the more unsavory parts of owning live chickens, up close and personal, such as flies (no matter how clean the chicken yard), and chicken poop, which sticks to my shoes when I go to collect eggs.

Part of chicken-sitting includes rustling up the chickens when they escape, which is what happened a few years ago, and I’m ashamed to say I enlisted the help of my 3-year-old grandson, who’s comfortable with chickens, to herd them back into their chicken parcel.

Chicken-sitting is just hard, sometimes messy work, often with little gain, such as the peak of summer – or winter – when egg production goes down. Case in point, during my most recent chicken-sitting job, Shelly’s six chickens only laid four eggs in four days. eggs

I’m not a fan of lugging 50-pound sacks of chicken feed, or bales of straw, or stepping up to my ankles in wet holes created by chickens to stay cool, which contain all matter of brown wet straw, wood shavings and chicken goop that makes me consider amputation.

shellys hens

In short, the fact is, when egg we twins were conceived, and our egg split to make Donielle Leilani and Michelle Leinani, one of us got the farming gene, and the other did not. I think you know by now which was which.

Once, when Shelly went to Norway for a special wedding, she asked me to pay close attention to Flo, because the bird was acting puny again.

My prayer was simple: Please God. Do not let my sister’s chickens die on my watch. I prayed that, knowing that prayers often go unanswered, as nobody knew better than my twin.

Days passed. Flo wouldn’t eat or drink. I knew the end was near. I urged Flo to take food and water. She refused. I filled a kiddie pool with fresh water, hoping to entice Flo into it, then forgot to roll up the hose and twisted my ankle as my high heeled shoes landed on the hose as I carried a casserole to my car for a luau that night.

I had bigger problems than my swollen ankle. Flo was still sick. I went to bed that night with a heavy heart, and woke the next day with dread when I checked on Flo. There she was, sitting in the hen house, head up, looking fine. She stepped off the nest, and lo and behold, she’d laid an egg.

An answer to prayer.

I texted Shelly the news, which she read with laughter during the Norwegian wedding, which caused one Norwegian man, who didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, to ask, “Aren’t chickens supposed to lay eggs?”

In these past seven years, Shelly has acquired a vast wealth of chicken knowledge and wisdom. She’s pragmatic, and knows that nature can be cruel. Sometimes chickens – like people we love – get sick and die; sometimes for no good reason.

She says that, but I know she’s still crazy about her chickens. So when she left town recently and I house sat for her, it was deja vu all over again when I noticed that one of her chickens, Sunflower, was staying in the hen house.

I texted Shelly, who said not to worry, that chickens sometimes get “broody” which means that even though there’s no rooster around to fertilize eggs, sometimes hens get it into their little heads to sit on an unfertilized egg until it hatches. which, of course, it never will. No rooster. No hatchlings.

sunflower in a box

Sunflower would die and pigs would fly before one of those eggs would produce a baby chick.

I called upon an expert, my daughter-in-law Kat Domke, who really ought to go into the boutique chicken business, because this woman knows chickens like nobody I know: even Shelly.

Chicken-wrangler daughter-in-law Kat Domke with her husband and kids.

Chicken-wrangler daughter-in-law Kat Domke with her husband – my son – and kids – my grandchildren.

I texted Kat for help:chicken text cropped1

Kat texted her diagnosis and treatment plan:

chicken text 2

TWO MONTHS!!?? Right. Key words: She’ll either lay and enjoy it and climb out when she’s ready or get out right away.

The term, madder than a wet hen came to mind.

chicken text 3

Hahahaha, My ass. What you can’t see in this text is the series of little emoticons that Kat sent that included a pile of poop with a swarm of flies.

I did just as Kat said. I stuck my hands under the poopy chicken. I lifted the chicken into a pool of fresh water I’d prepared for her. Sure enough, it worked! Sunflower shook her wings, stretched her neck, clucked and squawked, and then ate some food and drank some water.

Meanwhile, Kat texted me that she would bring some fertilized eggs for Sunflower. They live in the county, so they can have roosters. All was well. The broody Sunflower would soon have some fertilized eggs to sit on.

And I could go take a shower, wash off the chicken poop and be proud of the fact that my bravery to overcome my squeamishness and chicken poop aversion had probably saved Sunflower’s life.

In the time it took for me to soap up my hair, Sunflower had already returned to the nest, where she stayed, until Shelly’s return.

And I? I spent the rest of my time looking at recipes for one-pot chicken dishes.

I love chicken.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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36 Responses

  1. Deb says:

    Hahaha this is brilliant, Doni!  I’m glad Sunflower made it 🙂  Did she get to be broody on fertilized eggs?

    My husband’s daughter and son-in-law have chickens (here people are apt to call them “hennies”).  They love ’em.  Me, I’m more like you.  Chickens are nice to look at – and to eat – but I don’t want to carry one around!

    I am so sorry for your sister’s many devastating losses.  It’s good to know that she found joy in something as simple as raising chickens.  There’s something really lovely about that.

    • Deb, thanks for being our early-reader from the other side of the world. Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. Today’s a Noni Doni day and the 3-year-old just left.

      I love the word “hennies” for chickens. Maybe it will catch on here.

      So, Sunflower. THAT girl! The update is that since the fertilized eggs were put under her, she now hops off the box for hours at a time, leaving Shelly to scramble and try to put the fertilized eggs under other, non-broody chickens. (Kat wisely marked the eggs with a Sharpie.)

      We shall see where there are chicks born in a couple of weeks. I’m hoping that Redding’s heat will make up for Sunflower’s neglect.

      And you’re right about it being good that Shelly found joy in her chickens after so much loss. It is lovely, and makes me so happy.

       

  2. Beverly Stafford says:

    My husband wanted back in the chicken game this year.  His previous flock of six had dwindled down to one thanks to hawk and fox encounters plus whatever it is that causes chickens to just die.  The remaining one – I named her Hen Solo with a tip of the hat to Star Wars – was obviously lonely; so our next-door neighbor made arrangements for Solo to be given to a friend who had a flock.  Solo thrived among her new friends.  Soon, said next-door neighbors decided to become chicken farmers and took two hens from the previously-mentioned friends, and one of those was Hen Solo.  So our chicken had come almost home to roost.

    Fast forward to last April when my husband bought six day-old chicks, all of whom were supposed to be girls.  However, it’s difficult to sex day-old chicks, and after a couple of months, it was obvious we had three boys and three girls.  He didn’t want to put the sort of stress on the girls that three boys would cause; so two of the boys ended up in the freezer.  Dispatching the roosters was done while I was out of town.  So ‘long about October, we should be seeing eggs in the nest boxes.  And I’m wondering if, since the eggs might be fertile, if Husband will let the broody hens hatch some of them.  I’m staying tuned . . .

    • Hi, Beverly. 😉

      Sorry about the loss of chickens to critters. (Skunks will do unspeakable things to chickens, too, btw.)

      I love the Hans Solo name. Your husband was brave to raise chicks, and I’m not surprised to hear half the batch were roosters. That’s a problem in the city, where even one rooster is forbidden. (Though, personally, I think an incessant dog barking is more annoying than a crowing rooster.)

      You’ve got a fun mystery on your hands: whether the eggs will hatch or not. Good luck!

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        Ditto the barking dogs.  So much more annoying than a rooster’s crow.  Our one remaining rooster is learning to crow, and the first time I heard him was while on the phone to Jim when I was in Redding.  I had no idea what I was hearing.

        Back to barking dogs.  Yep, a dreadful annoyance – where the heck are the owners?  But even worse to me is the genius who cranks up his radio to the point where it blasts out what passes for music but isn’t.  It goes on and on in our neighborhood which is a bit of a surprise since we have a house a mere two blocks from the new cop shop. Surely our officers can hear that when they leave the office and climb into their prowlers.  I don’t call to report the noise because I figure LE has more important stuff to deal with, but since it is something that affects dozens of Parkview dwellers, perhaps I should make the call.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Alektorophobia is fear of chickens.  Coprophobia is fear of poop. I’m not sure if there’s a specific term for fear of chicken poop.

    We’re getting ready to move back to Palo Cedro, and hens may be on the horizon.  We had laying hens out there before—it’s nice to have the eggs, but hens can be pains in the butt, especially if you want them to be free-range chickens (e.g., when you find a favored pooping station in a place where you don’t want a huge pile of chicken s***).  And I’m certain it’s cheaper to just buy eggs at farmers’ market.

    My daughter and son-in-law were the organizers of CLUCK (Committee for Legalizing Urban Chicken Keeping), responsible for getting chicken-keeping legalized in Sacramento.  The coop I helped them build after the ordinance passed violated at least one term of the ordinance (minimum distance from fence line), but the neighbors said they didn’t mind.

  4. Ginny says:

    When are you going to write that true to life novel about you and Shelly!?!

    You made my sleepy morning wonderful; thank you.

    • Leave it to you, brainy Towers, to come up with a pair of phobias to describe my aversions.

      You’re right that chickens are nice for the egs, but yes, I’m hear to tell you that even the most expensive farmers market eggs will still be far cheaper than building a coop, buying the chickens, buying the feed, and protecting them from heat, cold, skunks, raccoons, hawks and illness.

      But hey, for people like my sister, it’s all worth it.

      Your daughter’s organization sounds great. (Shelly has been talking for years about organizing a Tour de Coop of chicken yards.

      You’re also correct about having to follow a city’s ordinance regarding set-backs (I don’t remember what it is in Redding), but Shelly finds that the best way to have her neighbors feel OK about her chickens is to bring eggs.

      With or without chickens, have fun with the country life.

       

    • 🙂 Thank you, Ginny.

  5. Cathy says:

    What a wonderful and descriptive story; a great way to start the day! Never having raised a chicken in my life, this was both humorous and educational.

  6. Doni – you are such a talented writer and as I told you I consider you one of the national treasures of Redding – consider that a huge honor because they don’t have many around this town – love this column and learning more about you and Shelly – how sad for what she went through – you are so lucky to have each other – and Pets – no matter what kind will save us every time – God bless you both!

  7. AJ says:

    And a great morning to you too! Great wake up story, BTW! I have to say, I’m with you on the chicken business. Scrambled or stewed is my preference.

  8. Peggy Elwood says:

    Love chickens, chicken paintings, baby chicks with hens, clucking sounds, fresh eggs, and chicken stories!!!

  9. Curtis Chipley says:

    This article was so good and true to the life that you and your sister have led…. I too had the idea that I wanted chickens,  oh for the fresh eggs and all of that other wonderful ideas you get into your head… but of course my wife NEVER wanted chickens, another childhood chicken encounter.  Fast forward to us living off of Lake Blvd.  One day I notice a chicken !  A real live CHICKEN in our backyard, I am in chicken heaven!  I told my wife this is an omen that I am to have chickens!  So I rush off to the feed store and buy chicken scratch and food.   I am going to be a farmer!!!   Well  of course I have read that free range chickens are happier so that is what my chicken will be, I named her Cluck, Cluck… now mind you I am a man in his mid 40’s,  happier than a pig in mud because I finally have a chicken.  Fast forward to having said chicken one week….. Well in one week that free range chicken pooped on EVERYTHING in my yard/ patio.   All over the patio, the patio furniture, in my flower beds, well I quickly realized that I was not cut out for having a free range chicken,  I did not like Cluck Cluck, pooping all over my patio furniture,  so I would have to clean it off every morning when I went out to have my tea.  My chicken adventure lasted one week, and then Cluck Cluck disappeared, just as quickly as she appeared,  I do not know where she went but I was just glad that she took her pooping machine chicken butt and flew the coop….. so like you Doni, no more chickens for me I just buy fresh eggs from my neighbor who does not mind the chicken poop on everything…..

    • Very funny, Curtis. You made me laugh. I hear you about the chicken poop. When the chickens are allowed to roam freely, they poop freely and often and in great quantities. A high-powered hose is about the only thing to really remove the mess.

      I see the wisdom in buying eggs from a neighbor, and leaving your yard free of chicken poop.

      RIP, Cluck Cluck.

  10. Grammy says:

    Friends have me bring over my lawn trimmings every week (big yard lots of cuttings).  No flies, and a clean pen is the result.  The chickens love the fresh cut grass, glover and violets that are in the mix.  Plus it lowers the cholesterol in the eggs.

    Twenty-five years ago we somehow ended up with a few banty chickens.  A few quickly resulted in chickens everywhere and we couldn’t find the eggs.  They roasted in the trees at night so we were not able to locate the nesting areas easily.

    One night we decided to capture them.  With spot lights, ladder and long poles we were able to capture them (around 100!).  Next day they all got new homes with people who kept them in a hen house.

    Dogs killing chickens, turkeys and attacking cows has been the BIG downside of living out in the country.  Why do people who have dogs think that just because they live in the country it is okay to let them run once in awhile?

    Right now we have a jack russell that is chasing the deer and fawns away every morning.  Neighbor doesn’t speak English so that makes it hard to tell him to keep his d— dog contained.  Plus he is really nice man otherwise.  As you probably know jack russells are escape artist and can climb fences.  A hot wire on top of the fence is about the only way to keep them contained.

    Pit bulls are not tolerated loose.  One tore the milk bag off a wonderful milk cow.  That dog was captured by animal control and put down.  Neighbor never faced up to ownership.

    Another time two dogs from two different neighbors killed 15 full grown turkeys.

    The law states that you are entitled to ten times the damage but do not believe it.  Court system will not back that up.  You have to prove what you paid for live-stock and cost out of pocket.  Not on cent more.  We have there, done that!

  11. That’s good information about the clippings.

    About the dogs. That’s a very sore subject. These dogs actually dug from the alley, under the chicken enclosure, and then CLIMBED a snow-fence system Shelly had rigged up along the back. That’s why, when the dogs got into the yard that way, they couldn’t get out, so they were trapped there when I arrived.

    I did the worst possible thing, in my freaked-out moment, and opened the gate, which let the dogs escape to high-tail it home.

    We called Shasta County Animal Control, and a nice guy came out and gathered all the chickens and took them away. (I mean, you can’t exactly put five dead chickens in the city garbage can.)

    We actually found the house where the dogs lived (and saw a small broken fence in their yard, which was probably the escape point), and when we confronted the owners, they basically cussed us out.

    Yes, technically, Shelly probably could have filed a suit – loss of livestockf/farm animals, but she didn’t. The people were such jerks about it, and the loss was traumatic enough without adding a lawsuit.

  12. Debra says:

    Doni

    LOVE this story! And I can sympathize with your bird sitting dilemma

    Brave you!

    All the best.

    Debra.

  13. cheyenne says:

    This must be the new fad.  Cheyenne just approved this summer for in city chicken coops and there must be a lot of them.

    Roving Fidos are a big problem and cause more damage to livestock than the so called super predators like wolves, bears, and cougars.  In sweet revenge a woman walking her dog here in Cheyenne was attacked by two pit bulls.  Being a CWC she pulled out her gun and shot at them wounding one and chasing them away.  She called the sheriff and they met at the vets.  While filling out the report another woman walked into the vets.  She was carrying her pit bull who had been shot.

  14. Susan Olson Higgins says:

    Great writing, Doni!!! 🙂

     

     

  15. name says:

    Take scissors and clip off around 4-5″ of feathers from one (or both) wings, and they will not be able to fly over a fence.  It will not harm the bird.

    • Yes, actually, somewhere I have a great video of son Joe and his Aunt Shelly clipping Abigail’s wings, but I don’t know whether they didn’t clip enough, or if Abigail’s feathers are super-fast growing, but she was back to flying the coop in no time.

  16. Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Wait until you have chickens of your own, and then you’ll understand!  I loved this article!  Chickens and family and history.  Thank you so much Doni.

     

  17. Karen C says:

    Beverly, the City of Redding, like all cities, has a noise ordinance on the books.  Get the address from where the noise is coming from and call RPD.  Tell them you wish to remain anonymous to the offender.  I would call when it is happening.  Usually they have officers nearby, who can respond,

    Doni, I love your stories about the chickens.  I grew up with hundreds of chickens who lived in two huge chicken houses on my grandfathers property.  He provided fresh eggs for a local Purity Grocery Store in Eureka, CA.  I loved it when the baby chicks arrived in the spring.  A big truck pulled up in front of grandpa’s house, and out came the chirping, fuzzy babies in boxes.  They were taken down to the chicken house and opened up.  The babies instinctively new to run for the huge incubator in the middle of the building.  I was much older when I learned that all those glorious chicken dishes grandmother made, came from one of those babies.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      Thank you, Karen, for the advice.  Unfortunately, the noise is from cars which move from place to place; so it’s difficult to key in on where it’s originating.  Also, it’s often late at night, and I’m not wild about driving around the neighborhood searching out the culprit.  But I appreciate your suggestions.

  18. Gwen Tough says:

    Doni, what kind of hen laid the dark brown egg?

    ALso, am getting my blog back in operation and hope to “see you” soon!