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 were 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 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. 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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