Hot Chicks and Cold Comfort, Part 2

When last we left our story, Garbanzo the rooster had been placed in a new home by the hair of his wattles....

The chicks were growing. The brooder in the basement had been made out of a large plastic bin, which for the littlest chicks, one day old, was perfectly acceptable.

But within a matter of two weeks, they started leaping out to freedom. The chicks did not know they were flightless fowl, and were convinced their wings were not useless. They would fling themselves up to the edge of the brooder and over the side where there were so many tools, danger zones and good places to hide I would scramble to capture them. Like popcorn kernels they would shoot out; I'd catch one and stuff her back in, and out would come another, pooping all the while. They pooped on me, over the edge of the brooder, on the table, on the tools. They pooped on each other if one was in the way. Flying pooping popcorn, and their desperate, dumb guardian trying to keep the lid down.

I would clean out their brooder, fill up their food dish, and they would have grown while I was upstairs changing their poopy water. Within three weeks, they looked nothing like chicks and were mangy and scruffy, new pin feathers poking out like quills through their downy fluff. Juvenile delinquents with boredom and the devil to spare. They weren't cute anymore--they looked like vultures or some Ralph Steadman approximation of a chicken. And they grew.

They grew with a speed that took my breath away. They grew like mold spores, and they were big. It became clear I needed to wrap up construction on the coop; I had a hard deadline in the shape of the chicks who were about eight inches long, combs coming in, with feet the size of snowshoes. I worked every day my son was in school, rushing to complete the finishing touches before the chicks rose against me and took over the basement.

I introduced them to the coop a scant month after they were introduced to the household. I had assumed that I had two full months from egg to feathering out to finish my masterful coop; I had not anticipated that chickens grew with the accelerated speed of wrestlers on steroids. One short season, and you got yourself a full grown chicken.

Four weeks in, and those little balls of fluff had turned into creatures more saurian than avian. Their eyes took on a reptilian beadyness, as they cocked their heads to stare at me and my grub-like fingers. They attacked spaghetti with bloodthirst, their natural instinct to devour worms blossoming into full frontal attacks on defenseless pasta and trying to wrest it from the others in a battle beyond Thunderdome.

I began to suspect that I might not find companionship here, but rather a symbiotic relationship built on my pipe dreams and their cold assessment of my value as a food dispensary.

shoulderchicks
shoulderchicks

I loved them though. I coddled them, and held them and carried them on my shoulders like a flock of parrots. I would haul them upstairs and take them outside to watch their little antics as they fumbled for bugs. They were all they were cracked up to be, and more.

So much more.

When I began to lead my family down the chicken path, we took a field trip to a nursery which would be selling chicks in the spring. The nursery had little bantam chickens themselves, and we wanted to see their setup.

I've blocked this out of my mind, but my husband assures me that it is so: the proprietors  recommended in no uncertain terms that we get the bantam chickens instead of the standards. Why? Because they were only a quarter of the size, and therefore more reasonable in an urban garden. The standard chickens were just too big.

Did I selectively edit this conversation from my mind? Did I choose to unhear it? Because I remember picking out the standards with no hint of waffling. I wanted the big hens: big eggs, big girls, big poops for the garden. Monty Don told me so.

By the time they feathered out I realized what "standard" might mean. They were only two months old but already the size of the bantams I had seen at the nursery. They had three more months and many more pounds before they reached egg-laying maturity, and would still have a pound or so to gain after that. They were going to be the size of our cats, maybe more.

Each chicken foot became a scaly taloned back hoe, equipped for scraping massive amounts of soil in their eternal quest for bugs. Since they were still small, they were relatively delicate in between the shrubs as they searched for creepy crawlers. But they were insistent and dedicated; they would scratch until they reached China if they thought there was a grub under there.

Every time a friend would come over to check on my chicken experiment, they would be shocked at the chicks rapid growth and tremendous size. They would look at the chickens, busy ignoring the humans and cats, noting our impotence in the face of such impassivity to their keepers. Our friends would give me a look of kindness and a little pity; they could see what was unfolding, though I gamely kept my chin up.

The chickens were one step ahead of me. I had built the coop with an inner sanctum for roosting and an outer one for general relaxation. But my girls didn't want to relax on a genteel veranda; they wanted to relax in a deep pile of dust they'd scratched up under my lovely choisya shrub.

I let them out to free range because they were a part of my interior landscape, the missing piece of my complete garden circle. But they assiduously ignored my memo about which areas were off limits. The first garden bed to go was the one closest to the coop, as they discovered in its deep recesses plenty of places for their afternoon dust baths. They carved up the earth under the cedars and covered themselves in clouds of dust, and if I decided it was time to cram them back into the coop, they would flee from my clutches under the safety of its boughs. I would chase them in circles; now they had far greater range in which to duck and weave through my amateur grasp.

A puppet dictator, I was a figurehead but barely running the show. Instead, four avian kingmakers were having a laugh at my expense as they ran around my beautiful garden one step ahead of my exasperation. They struck at the shade garden with particular malice; hosta, windflower, cute little fragile groundcovers became the lightening rod for their deadly beak accuracy. They came for the slugs; they stayed for the flowers. All my soil was kicked out onto the paving stones, the plants eaten or scratched to the root.

I was beginning to think I would find neither companionship nor garden benefit for my folly. But I was wrong....

Tune in next time...