Hot Chicks and Cold Comfort, Part One

Our chicken story begins with gardening, as I suspect many urban chicken stories do. Over the last several years we have been shifting masses of soil and plants, sheets of asphalt, mountains of compost to make what was recently a fairly ordinary garden into a tiny little paradise. I've read stacks of books about gardens, plants, pruning, landscaping, soil. I've taken it on as a project. People who know me well know that projects are my raison d'etre and my cross to bear. Who could forget the ill-fated Chocolate Covered Cherries of Ought-Four? Or the soap-making misadventure the following year? In college I wrote 50-page term papers when the teachers asked for 25. I shot a video for my film class that had a crew of ten people, a cast of three, a child actor to carry the film and a 25 minute running time. I had scripts and storyboards and timelines and budgets; most students were lucky if they had a rough outline. I decided that my first travel abroad should be to the West Bank. Apparently if it's not a grand gesture, I choose to make no gesture at all.

That this could make my life complicated should come as no surprise. The first time I decided to take on gardening, when I really didn't know what I was doing, I ordered a bunch of compost to amend the soil. It was the right thing, because I dimly remembered "composting" from my days in the back yard with my parents who also dabbled in dirt.

What I didn't account for was either the season (February in Portland) or the quantity of compost needed. I called up the company who delivered the compost and ordered a conservative three yards. It came to seventy bucks. They informed me that it was only thirty dollars more to have four more yards delivered; you want that? "Sure!" I said. It was like I was printing my own money it was so cheap!

The next day the truck arrived. It was so big it couldn't back into our driveway to dump the compost because of the wires running overhead, so the driver informed me that he would have to dump it in the street in front of our house.

I watched in mute horror as the dump truck slowly began to release it's load. A waterfall of steaming black compost rushed over the back gate of the truck in quantities too huge to fathom. I wanted to scream, to tell the driver to take it all back, but it was over and dumped before I could gather my wits. He had just left me a pile of compost larger than our car on a public street in front of our house. The pile was taller than me, steam rising in billowing clouds from its organic digestion process and vividly, greenly pungent.

It began to rain.

The next door neighbor, a harpy who took great delight in making everyone else on the block miserable, came out of her house as I was staring at this steaming mountain of personal misery. "You have to move this pile!" she yelled at me. "You're going to block the storm drain and then I'm going to have to call the city on you!"

Move a seven-cubic-yard pile. By myself. In the rain. In winter.

I got my wheelbarrow and started to shovel. I moved it all day, and into evening. My husband came home to a sewer rat of a wife, covered in compost, mud and malice. The pile had hardly shrunk after my seven hours in the rain, but I had carved a narrow channel for the water to run through to the storm drain. My hands were chilled to the bone, my body sore beyond comprehension. I was defeated by my own over-zealousness. Later that night my friend laughed at me. "You got Super-Sized!" she howled. "You should have known better!"

Years later, I've conquered cubic-yard measurements, and have a lovely garden to show for it. And one of my favorite garden authors, a nice obsessive Brit named Monty Don, wrote in The Complete Gardener about chickens and how, for the truly dedicated gardener, it was a rewarding and imperative part of the process:

Any good organic garden needs a supply of manure and preferably an organic one at that...For most people cattle, sheep, pigs or goats are not a practical option, nor that desirable for the average gardener. We want a nice garden, not a farm. But keeping poultry is viable in even a tiny garden and completes the livestock circle.

There it was, plain and simple. Monty Don wanted me to own chickens and knew it was going to make my garden a complete, environmentally friendly success. Plus, I liked birds. There was that. I fed all the little wild cheepers that flew by; owning a few of my own that would benefit the garden seemed like an obvious win-win.

But I must be completely honest, here. It wasn't just my sylvan dreams of an agrarian life. It was a sort of perverse humor that really planted the seed in my head. Monty Don continues:

...Well, almost. Chickens can be beautiful, charming and good to eat, both as egg and meat. But they are also cruel and stupid, have hideous bottoms, cost a fortune and, worst of all, destroy gardens. But I would not be without them. I have kept them all my life, except for one period in London. I even kept chickens in the tiny backyard of my rented digs (they roosted in the outside lavatory) as a student and used to take the cockerel to parties where he bad temperedly pecked people and shit on the floor.

I don't know why I found this so hilarious; I laughed out loud every time I read it. You'd think if I'd read more closely I would have noticed the whole "destroys gardens" bit, but it struck me so funny, taking a chicken to a party who pecked all the revelers, that I was completely bitten by the chicken bug. Hideous bottoms? Bad tempers? Sounds like the perfect pet!

And, true to form, I began my planning.

I bought books about chicken coops. I read websites about chickens. I learned how to draw schematics for coop designs. I bought power tools. And I began to build.

I didn't just make a coop. I made Il Palazzo della Pollastra, the Palace of Pullets. I dug a foundation, made precise measurements, used my level. Joists, roof pitch, eight penny nails, circular saw, speed square, plumb bob, chalk line. I learned how to build. I bought cedar siding, recycled windows, clear corrugated roofing so that the girls would have daylight in the gloomy wet winter months. I figured out that if I wanted to make a proper sign announcing the name of the hens ostentatious casa, I would have to get a router. I stopped there. But only just.

I got the chickens, too. When I heard that the first spring chicks were in, I raced out to get them. I bought three, different breeds. We set up a brooder with a heat lamp in the basement, and they peep-peeped around. I was completely enamored of them.

The first hint of my folly came about the time that one of the three became extremely aggressive. Stella seemed to take great delight in running on tiny little legs to attack whatever was nearby. Chick against chicks, human hands, my four-year-old.  A tiny bundle of fluff and fury. It became clear we were going to have to say farewell to Stella; once she got bigger she would be able to take eyes out. Blinding our son in the name of poultry humor was completely unreasonable. Plus, I began to suspect Stella was really Stanley, and Stanley's were not allowed within the city limits.

Two chickens does not a flock make, at least in my mind. So back to the store, this time picking up two more chicks to hedge my bets. Turns out, sexing chicks is not science. So we got ourselves a second rooster, this time named Garbanzo. We were quite fond of Garbanzo, and he took good care of his ladies. And he was a sweet boy, not sick with blood lust the way Stanley was, drunk with rooster thuggery.

But we learned that roosters crow early in their careers, and continue practicing their craft with verve, pursuing perfection with a fanaticism bordering on my own. He crowed at dawn to announce it was time to go outside, he crowed in the mid-morning to stretch his vocal chords, he crowed and crowed and crowed through the afternoon, and then again as he was rounding up the girls to put them back in the coop at night. It started as a high pitched scratchy squeak when he was an awkward teen; he sounded like a morbidly wounded squirrel being tortured by cats. But he kept on practicing, and wouldn't you know, in time he became a true pro at the classic barnyard cock-a-doodle-doo.

Garbanzo had to find a new home before the neighbors began throwing old food at us when we left in the morning.

In the farming world, boys are often culled, or eaten. But it my world we loved Garbanzo. He wasn't just a nuisance, he was a sweet little chicken who by accident of hatchery-sexing gone wrong turned out to be roo. He was a funny little gentleman, spritely and proud. He was just a loud mouth. I could be accused of the same.

Apparently all the other soft-hearted city slickers like myself were finding placement for their mistaken gents a little difficult too, as I read through multiple listings for little unwanted city roosters. The people who wanted to take the roos off our hands mostly wanted to eat them, which is reasonable considering chicken is a huge portion of the human diet. But us city folk, we were emotionally attached to the little fellows; the idea of Garbanzo stew was distasteful: you can't eat someone you've named.

I felt I had already used up my "Get Rid of Rooster Free" card on Stanley, who had found a nice home on a farm caring for a rather sizable flock of much larger ladies. But he was so downright unpleasant, I wished I could eat him and send Garbanzo out to live with the girls. Unfortunately for roosters, the balance of power is multiple ladies to one roo; there just wasn't enough room in the flock for the both of them.

So I pulled out my best writing skills to make a shining, glowing sales pitch for Garbanzo. I emphasized his unusual beauty and delightful personality, his gentlemanly nature and small stature. He was the rooster you wanted for your ladies, he was the one who would make your farm complete. I really sold him. All my pitch skills honed from years of editing commercials came to the aid of this one little rooster.

No one answered my ad. And that rooster just didn't know when to shut his beak. He just kept on crowing as if his life wasn't hanging in the balance between life and tabletop. I had to make the hard choice; it was Garbanzo or our neighbors permanent ire, and we're just too attached to our neighbors to give them up.

It was with great sadness that I drove little Garbanzo to the feed store. Roosters are often dropped off at farm supply centers where others can pick them up for a cheap dinner or whatever it is genuine farmers do with roosters. It had been a week since I had placed my ad for Garbanzo on Craigslist, and there were no takers. The little bean had to go.

Garbanzo

Garbanzo

I drove home feeling like I had just sold our rooster down the river. I had abandoned him to his fate in a lonely jail cell, his only crime being male. I was crushed.

My husband was reading through his emails when I got back. "There's a woman who wants Garbanzo," he told me. "She sounds great, and she wants him to protect her flock of hens, not to eat him."

We began a flurry of correspondence, a Checkpoint Charlie Cold War adventure, directing the woman to the intercept location of our rooster, who's time was limited: anyone could pick him up at any time for free from the feed store simply for the asking. He could be on the dinner table by evening. But the woman needed to adjust her schedule around work, and had to drive far out of her way to get him. Rooster's race against the clock, would the woman make it in time?

She wrote later that evening. Garbanzo, now "Henry" was living on her farm with her girls. The hens had kicked the crap out of him when he arrived, but he was safely ensconced in the coop for the night. She had raced on her lunch break to pick him up, and shared an apple with him in the front seat of her car on her break. She was clearly as besotted with unrealistic chicken fantasies as I was. Garbanzo had found the perfect home.

To be continued....