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Chicken Envy Gets a Reality Check

I assumed that because I live on 20 acres in the country and my twin lives within Redding city limits, I’d be the one with chickens (and goats and cows and other farm critters) and my sister would have a cat or a dog or goldfish or whatever.

But alas, Shelly has chickens while I remain chickless.

This is so weird. Because I’m seven minutes older than Shelly, most of our lives I’ve been the trail-blazer, which is typical of twin situations. Usually, the older twin takes the lead.

For example, while nobody’s around to say for sure, I’m fairly confident I crawled, talked and walked first.

Nevertheless, sometimes twin timing gets screwed up, such as when we were 7 and scheduled for identical tonsillectomies. The surgeons postponed Shelly’s tonsillectomy for another six years after I almost hemorrhaged to death on the operating table.

And at 19 we made appointments for matching Dorothy Hamill haircuts, and I braved the scissors first – eager to be transformed into an ice-skating beauty asap. But after Shelly took one look at my pale, bare neck and short bob, she decided to keep her long and luxurious and gorgeous hair.

I’m almost over that.

But we were talking about chickens. I don’t recall which of us first professed our fantasy to have some laying hens, but it appealed to us both. We talked about how cool it would be to wake up each day and head for our tidy hen house in search of fresh eggs. We’d return with our vintage wire baskets filled with beautiful pastel-colored eggs.

My chicken desire heated up after Bruce and I built our home in Igo. All that ruralness — chickens just seemed so right. My chicken lust grew even stronger after I interviewed Sharon Chesnut -the Chicken Whisperer – who spoke so affectionately about her love of chickens.  Interesting that the women I knew who had chickens were absolutely smitten with them. Funny, but I also noticed that many men have a great dislike for chickens (live ones, not fried, roasted or Kieved).

But wanting chickens and getting chickens are two different things. To quote my husband – the chicken-hater – people in hell want ice water, too.

So here we are.

Shelly the city-dweller beat Doni the country-dweller to chicken ownership. She did more than wax romantic about chickens. Last spring she took the initiative to drive to Palo Cedro Feed where she selected a trio of little black fluff ball chicks (the traditional yellow ones were already taken).

As a group she named her chicks The Supremes, hoping that all the little black chicks would one day grow up to be laying hens (not roosters, which are forbidden inside city limits).

She’d never buy eggs again. And at a cost of just $2.25 per chick, The Supremes were a bargain – less than the price of a Banquet chicken pot pie.

But like many seemingly inexpensive earthy endeavors (vegetable gardening, or olive oil production, for example), Shelly’s chicken expenses shot up from there. The list is long, starting with the purchase of the book, Keep Chickens! ($16.95), and a 250-watt infrared heating lamp ($13.75), a plastic 1-quart water jug ($1.90), a drown-proof plastic water jug base ($1.50), a 12-chick feeder trough ($3.50), a heat-lamp clamp ($4.25), 10 pounds of “chick start” food, 20 pounds of pure pine shavings ($8) and something called a hooded brooder for $11.25.

For the life of Shelly she can’t recall what the heck a hooded brooder was (is).

She also spent a pretty penny on a locally made Victorian hen house ($325), and a dog run (chicken run) situation around the hen house ($80) and enough chicken wire to construct an aviary-like chicken yard that Pavel, my daughter-in-law’s brother, called a chicken prison ($30).

Initially Shelly kept the infant chicks in a big plastic storage bin ($10) inside her house, lest a cat or raccoon or something carry them away outside.

As an aside, let me say that any time one brings farm animals indoors, one can count on one’s living room taking on the air of a barnyard.

My, how The Supremes grew. 

Now they are so big and sassy that no cat or raccoon or opossum would dare mess with them.

Right on schedule The Supremes blessed Shelly with eggs right around Thanksgiving. Shelly learned from chickensecrets.com that a chicken only lays one egg per day, which would be just about right.

Not to get too off subject, but can you imagine the internal process required to actually form an egg inside your body – hard shell, yolk, white, etc. – and then expel one every day? Every day?! Makes childbirth look easy. So glad I’m not a chicken.

The thing is, Shelly’s never gathered more than two eggs a day, which means one of The Supremes is lying down on the laying job. It’s not like she can catch them in the egg-laying act. They do it in private.

Anyway, the more I watched Shelly with The Supremes, the more slowly I fell out of love with the fantasy of actually owning chickens.

As much as I envied Shelly’s fresh eggs, there were aspects about poultrydom I didn’t envy. For example, I don’t envy dealing with chicken poop around her yard, or having to double check soles before entering the house.

And because Mary, Flo and Diana like hanging out on Shelly’s back porch more than their hen house, I didn’t envy how she needed to build a sturdy chicken-wire barricade between the porch steps and backyard.

Nor did I envy the way Shelly worries about her chickens when she’s out late at night.

“I hope they go inside when it’s dark” she’d say, or, “I hope The Supremes come in from the rain” – which I’ve seen firsthand is a real concern because Shelly’s chickens will actually stand in a downpour and get absolutely soaked just inches from the shelter of their warm, dry hen house.

Apparently chickens weren’t as bright as I thought, either, which reminds me of a story my daughter shared recently about one of her chickens.  It went missing for a few days but was later finally found upside down inside a large basket. The chicken had fallen head first into the basket (chickens are nosy – er, beeky), with its chicken butt and chicken feet facing skyward. 

Two things were amazing about this discovery:

1. Sarah’s chicken was alive (still is).

2. Nature’s call for that chicken to lay an egg was so strong that the poor chicken resumed her duty, even in that horrible position. Some time during her basket ordeal she’d laid an egg, giving the impression of an egg-excruding feathered fountain, if you will.

Other body functions resumed during that time, too, which initially made the egg somewhat difficult to see.

But back to Shelly’s chickens. When she leaves town, she arranges for a chicken-sitter to check on The Supremes. And even when she is home, Shelly does a hand-clapping chicken round-up each evening to coax The Supremes into their house for the night, and come morning, Shelly opens their pen so they can have the run of the yard. 

The more I observed Shelly and her chickens, the more I noticed that Mary, Flo and Diana were far more meaningful to Shelly than as mere egg-producers. Rather, The Supremes have become my sister’s beloved pets.  They cluck happily each morning when Shelly appears. They shadow Shelly as she works outside. They fertilize Shelly’s yard and eat bugs and chase pesky squirrels and provide hours of entertainment for Shelly’s granddaughter, May.

(I have a serious case of grandchild envy, too, but that’s another column.)

As touching as Shelly’s love is for The Supremes, I can admit that perhaps chickens aren’t for me, after all. For one thing, they require more care than I’d imagined. And we’ve also discussed the fact that they’re not cheap (cheep! – couldn’t resist), either. Finally, truth be known, I must not be a farmer at heart because I don’t have the stomach for enduring so much chicken poop. 

All of which begs the question for me:

Is all that mess and hassle worth just two or three eggs a day?

I’m thinking – uh, no.

Now goats … surely goats would be easier …

Perhaps I can talk Shelly into getting a couple.