The Chicken Gazette, 1.19.08

Fancyimagedbcgi_2 If you're stopping by here for the first time, welcome. I usually write about children's books and other literary matters, but on Saturdays I talk about chickens, too. With a small coop in the yard since last summer, I have been documenting my son's and my adventures as suburban chicken-keepers. And to excuse this self indulgence stay helpful book-wise, I include picture books featuring barnyard fowl as part of the post.

I picked Patricia Polacco's Just Plain Fancy as today's book. It has a neat setting: the Amish community in Pennsylvania. Two young sisters find an unusual egg in the pasture and put it under their hen to incubate. But they misunderstand some adult rules, and become very worried about their flock's unusual new hatchling. Polacco writes with empathy about children's fears and other emotions, all the while telling an engaging story. This book is a third-grade read-aloud at my son's school, and like the rest of Polacco's work, the reading level is at least that grade or higher.

If you'd like to hear about our backyard chickens, keep reading after the jump.

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A Smaller Flock, and a Christmas Surprise

I never thought chicken-owning would be so, well, emotional. A fox, or maybe a coyote, got Bossy and Petunia the Barred Rocks just before Christmas. They had spent the day out free-ranging with the others just like they'd done many times, but did not return to the coop. I found one, no longer living, in the neighbor's garden, and saw something fox-like trotting away. Heartbroken, Junior and I sniffled our way through the next couple of days, indulging ourselves in the occasional maudlin moment—"Remember how they liked dust baths?" I couldn't even look at their pictures on the computer without getting choked up.

Because I'd found only one, I called our town's animal control officer, and reported a missing chicken, just in case one of the girls turned up somewhere. Wishful thinking, right? (Okay, "nutty" does fit in here.) We then went out of town and had a splendid Christmas down south, and didn't think about poultry for a few days. Our friend chicken-, cat-, and goldfish-sat, and we knew everyone was in good hands. When we returned home, there was a message from the animal control officer that a neighbor a few blocks away had our hen and would be in touch. Unbelievable!

The neighbor did call, and explained that a chicken had taken up residence in his garage about a week ago, the same time as the fox incident. We had a long conversation about when to pick up the chicken, which had dashed out of the garage, and decided to wait until the next morning when he would try to shut it inside again. For some reason, I said, "It's black and white, isn't it?" And he said, "No, it's really more brown." I thought maybe he just wasn't used to describing chicken colors; after all, how many stray hens can there be in one town?

And that is how we came to own our new chicken, Brownie, an adorable little thing. She was definitely brown, definitely not Bossy or Petunia, and since she looks quite a bit younger than the two big Orpingtons (who were unharmed by the wily predator), we are keeping her in a separate pen for now. Needless to say, nobody will be free-ranging without strict supervision.

Little did I know when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which inspired me to start the flock, that I'd be in for such adventures. Even if we have to give Brownie back to her original owners, finding her so soon after our own pets' demise gave us great joy.

In an attempt to stay (barely) on topic, I usually mention a picture book when I talk about the chickens here at home. Today's recommended reading is a favorite of Junior's—Daisy Comes Home, written and illustrated by Jan Brett. It's about a hen in China who has her own great adventures and a little girl who rescues her.

Waiting for Snow

With four to eight inches of snow forecast, schools around here have declared a day off. Three hours into the school day, there is no actual snow. But Junior does have boots, so we're ready—after an emergency snow-boot run this morning.  (Memo to me: do not give away boots without replacing them immediately.) I wish I could interest him in reading Katherine Kirkpatrick's Snow Baby, a biography of Arctic explorer Robert Peary's daughter, Marie, but with a new (to him) pair of  skis to try out, he wants to head to the backyard slalom course.

I don't know what the chickens will make of the snow. Yesterday they free-ranged right into the neighbor's yard, where Zeno crowed for a while at the top of his lungs. I summoned them back home with a piece of their favorite delicacy, cheese. To see chickens come running when you call is too funny. Last week the now very large Zeno flew onto the top of my head when I was sitting down and handing out snacks; since then, I throw the pieces from some distance away. Nothing like a spoiled rooster to make you re-think your feeding strategies.

Happy snow day from all of us here at the coop.

Coop Talk

Img_0422 The wild turkeys who visited earlier this week have ventured into our yard often this fall. They're not full-sized, so I'm guessing they are last summer's babies. Although they eat grain that was accidentally dropped on the ground near the coop, the chickens, for the most part, pay them no mind. I wonder, though, if the chickens were out free-ranging and the turkeys came by, would the chickens decamp with them? Sort of like running away with the circus? I hope not. Our guys have been very good about their curfew, returning to their coop when it gets dark.

The hens are now about six months old, but so far they have not laid any eggs. I check every day. Zeno the Rooster crows all the time; he has gotten very big and is quite a beauty, as is his sister, Fuzzy. She is a light gray color. One set of neighbors now owns a puppy who barks a lot, so maybe her barking has masked the crowing. No one has yet complained. Petunia and Bossy, the Barred Plymouth Rocks, remain the friendliest of the group and the first to snatch a snack when it is offered. Somehow all of them have become enamored of string cheese, and will come running over if they think we have some.

I always like to mention a chicken-themed picture book when I talk about the flock on Saturdays, and the selection today is Goodnight Lulu, by Paulette Bogan. The chuckle-inducing art—done in watercolors and ink—features an array of irresistible crayon-box colors, and all the spreads are big two-page affairs. Finding it hard to settle in for the night, Lulu, a wee chick, expresses her fears to Momma Chicken.  "What if a big, brown bear comes in while I am sleeping?" Lulu wants to know.  The next pages show a fierce Momma, eyebrows knitted, going after such a creature. "Then I would flap and cluck and scare it and chase it all the way back to the forest where it belongs," Momma says. Lulu imagines more frightening animals, and Momma reassures her every time.

As a comma enthusiast, I am bothered by the lack of one between "Goodnight" and "Lulu" in the title, and in general think the copy-editing could have been tweaked in this picture book. But the story is fun, and the repetition of the lengths that a mother would go to protect her child makes this a swell choice to share with preschoolers. Sometimes my son reads aloud to the backyard flock. I wonder what they'll make of this one. I hope it will dissuade them from running off with turkeys.

Photo: Zeno Incognito, Fall 2007

Suburban Yardbirds, 10.5

Img_0347Finally, I have some time to catch my breath and talk about chickens.

First, a picture book recommendation. In Silly & Sillier: Read-Aloud Tales from Around the World, author Judy Sierra includes "Kuratko the Terrible," a story from the Czech Republic, about an oversized chick with an insatiable appetite. Kuratko eventually picks the wrong thing to eat.  Uh-oh. I've mentioned this book before; the twenty tales hold up well, even after many readings.

In news of our real-life backyard coop, we can officially say that we have 3 females and 1 male, the former Loretta. One day last week when I noticed how his neck feathers had grown in (different from the hens'), I knew. In the photo, he's the one on the right; Petunia is on the left.

Junior re-christened him Zeno, which I think is a great name for a rooster. Almost immediately after the name change, Zeno began to crow again. Talk about empowerment. He sounds like a (human) toddler imitating a rooster; it's sweet. Zeno has grown, too. He is now the biggest chicken in the coop.

However, Petunia and Bossy the Barred Rocks are not about to let Zeno assert himself and, say, get the first grape offered at treat time, crowing or no crowing. As far as they're concerned, he is still a pipsqueak. Step outta the way, you. Both Zeno and Fuzzy, who I now think are both Blue Orpingtons, are flightier and higher-strung than the other two. Perhaps there is a Self Esteem for Chickens class in their future.

Img_0315 I did not want a rooster, but Zeno is our pet and we're very fond of him. If he gets too loud, we will find him another home. And I do not mean in a casserole dish. To the left is a picture of Zeno as a wee chick. You can see how big he has gotten since then.

The Flock, Wings & James Marshall

Imagedbcgi_2 A few weeks ago I wrote about Bossy the chicken and her reluctance to free-range solo. Bossy is just one of my backyard flock of four, which is led by Petunia. The group also includes Loretta, who may be a rooster, but is permitted very little slack by the others, much like a first-grader on a school bus with all fifth graders. Fuzzy the Blue Orpington completes the crew, and she is becoming quite a beauty. If Fuzzy cared, she could possibly swipe Petunia's chieftain role, but Fuzzy is a free spirit.

Anyway, free-ranging. I've discovered that the girls like to go out as a group. What fun is going to the mall by yourself? I suppose it's like that. They don't go far, and they all stay together. Sometimes they run/fly/skedaddle back to the coop. Which is fine, because it's not that easy to get them back in, unless they are of a mind to do so. After school Junior likes to let them out to free-range while he sits outside and does homework. So far our September afternoons have been mild and sunny and full of chickens. It suits us pretty well.

I like to mention picture books featuring barnyard fowl on Saturdays, and today I chose Wings: A Tale of Two Chickens, by the late James Marshall. Here is what Marshall's editor Regina Hayes had to say:

Almost all of Jim’s books included some spectacularly dim-witted characters, and I felt he had a particular affection for  them and gave them the best lines: the Stupids; the Cut-Ups; the wonderfully dumb chicken, Winnie, in Wings: A Tale of Two Chickens. Winnie meets a fox who introduces himself in “a silky voice,” reassures her that “plump is nice,” and declares at the end, “Unhand that chicken! She’s mine!” Winnie  is rescued by her sister and given an informative book to read. “’Oh, my stars!’ cried Winnie. ‘Mr. Johnson was a fox!’” It is so deadpan that it’s hard to say what’s so funny, but many lines from Wings became bywords around the office, where Jim was a great favorite.

That's from a profile of Marshall in The Horn Book's July-August 2007 issue. Hayes wrote it in honor of Marshall's winning this year's Laura Ingalls Wilder medal, which "honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children," according to the Association for Library Service to Children, the award's administrator.

The Chicken Gazette: Loretta Crowed

At least we think she did.  Yes, it was awkward, and yes, it could have been a prolonged squawk. Or cough.  ("What was that?" my son asked.) I don't know. More observation is necessary. Hens do not crow.

Back in August I brought four chicks home to live in the yard in a compact little coop and run. Eggs, fresh eggs are what I was after. All the chicks were supposed to be pullets, but the seller said something along the lines of don't get mad at me if they're not. Not a commercial hatchery, needless to say.

Ever since she was a wee chick, I have suspected that Loretta may be a rooster. Her wattles started growing in before everyone else's, even though she was younger than the rest.  She is fond of the flying chest butt with the other chickens. She used to take off like lightning.

Hmm. Perhaps a Rhett is among us?

On the other hand, Loretta (a Black Orpington) is not much of a leader as roosters usually are. That falls more to the Barred Rock Petunia, but perhaps that's just the seniority effect. (The other Barred Rock, Bossy, is the most cautious, which sort of explains her reluctance to free-range last week.) Fuzzy, the Blue Orpington, is the trail-blazer: the first to try yogurt, the first to roost in the rhododendron bush (and the last to leave it), the first to sample grape tomatoes, now a favorite treat.

While we keep close tabs on Loretta,  I can with certainty recommend a picture book: Zinnia and Dot, by Lisa Campbell Ernst. Zinnia and Dot are two fat hens who argue about everything. They've lived together forever but never particularly liked each other. But! An intruder into the coop brings the two together, reluctantly at first, then with growing camaraderie. The picture of the two clucksters sharing nesting duties is worth the trip to the library. Dot looks to be a Barred Rock, by the way, and Zinnia a Rhode Island Red—and definitely both are hens.

At Home with the Flock

Yesterday was supposed to be a big day. I decided that I would permit one chick to free-range. Standing, I unlatched the front door of the run, and told the girls that one of them could come out. "But not you, Loretta," I had to add, because she is still too lickety-split for me to catch. Petunia stepped forward cautiously, but soon had second thoughts and ran back toward the coop, flapping her wings.

Then I sat down on the ground, and they all dashed to the front, clamoring to get out like a bunch of Wednesday matinee-goers at a Broadway show. We'll miss the bus! Hurry! Despite the fact that I am the daily cafeteria attendant and housekeeper for the group, they think, "Predator?" unless I sit. I had forgotten.

While I held the others at bay, Bossy emerged. She pecked at my watch, she pecked at my Read bracelet, she free-ranged approximately four inches from the run, and then lay down beside it. After pacing around the entry way on the other side, the remaining group clustered in a corner, and then they lay down as close to Bossy as they could get.

Free-ranging was going nowhere. I returned Bossy to the others. Feathers were fluffed and realigned, legs were stretched, and the chickens resumed their previous, desultory activities.

The chicken whisperer was back at elementary school. I'll have to ask his advice.

The picture book of the day is the classic Petunia, by Roger Duvoisin. Petunia the goose thinks that she is brilliant because she carries around a book. She dispenses wacky advice, which brings chaos to the barnyard. After a while, the situation explodes. A fowl comedy indeed.

Saturdays with the Flock


This is Bossy, who's about 9 weeks old. She's a Barred Plymouth Rock chicken, usually referred to as a Barred Rock. Bossy and Petunia, the other Barred Rock, are the calmest of our small flock. They do not take off like a rocket when out of the run. (Ahem, Loretta, are your ears burning?) Junior is training Bossy to jump for a grape, and it's working, much to my surprise. Bossy likes a good snack: watermelon, tomatoes, and dainty bites of cheese. Bossy has ridden in a wagon, slid down the slide on Junior's lap, and participated in a playdate (not her idea but she went along with it). Bossy is a good egg.

In regard to literary matters, the book of the day is The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza, written by Philemon Sturges and illustrated by Amy Walrod. A great choice for a preschool-4's or kindergarten class, the picture book was featured on a Just One More Book!! podcast. The husband-and-wife team of Mark and Andrea say, "The colourful cut paper illustrations and the playful narrative make this funky, urban retelling of the Little Red Hen a hoot to read aloud."