I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Thoreau

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Great Egg-scape Part II

Ok, so remember that whole analysis of why Helga was the only one who could escape from the confines of our back yard? You know the others were too fat, or too small, or too old, etc. Nonsense. Toss it out. Sigh.

A couple of weeks ago, after successfully pruning Helga’s wings with very little incident, I thought we had effectively arrested the problem of the chicken escapees with minimal chicken drama. Helga did not seem in the least upset with being re-confined to the yard nor did anyone else appear to be exhibiting signs of wanderlust for the great green grass beyond the fence.

After all, our back yard is nothing to sneeze at, it is roughly a third of our property if not a little more. It is more than enough space for six chickens and there are several trees to get under and lots of shady places to scratch for snacks. Not to mention the “magical” back door opens several times a day and chickens are treated to everything from left over spaghetti (which they love) to raisins and oats (a little more common but equally desired). There is really no reason for a chicken to step outside the confines of the fence except out of sheer nosiness. Let me tell you: a cat's alleged curiosity has got nothing on a chicken's. Those are some of God’s nosiest creatures. There is a reason gossipy old women are referred to as biddies!

So several days after pruning Helga’s wings I was sitting here on the couch working on gathering some homesteading information when I heard some intense chicken squawking and it sounded astonishingly close. Allow me to pause for a second and address that the location of the couch is not close to the back door, instead I was sitting relatively near the front door and it distinctly sounded as if a chicken was attempting to sell me a magazine subscription. At first I ignored it, sound does strange things in the hollow and sometimes people talking several houses away sound as if they are on our front step. Then the ranting became incessantly louder. I thought maybe someone was stuck in a tree so I stepped on the back porch to investigate.

I called “stinky chickens” “stinky chickens” this is what they respond to in the way that a house cat will come to “here kitty kitty” Helga came tearing around the corner of the house at break neck speed, wings stretched out to the side she toddled as fast as her fat little legs would carry her. If you have never seen a chicken run you are missing a real treat, it is hysterical, they wobble back and forth and their fat thighs narrow down onto spindly little ankles and feet that look as if they will give way at any moment. You can see where the cartoonists got the idea of a spinning circle to represent a running animal, their legs appear to spin precariously through the air as they rush to their destination.

Helga was shortly followed by three of the Black Jersey Giants and Momma lethargically bringing up the rear (Momma is in a molt, a topic for a later blog). I called some more and examined the BJGs to see who was missing. Gina-chicken was notably absent from the group so I called specifically for her by name. I gave everyone some oats (so they would cease chattering and pecking my toes) and listened. I could hear a distant ruckus that sounded distinctly like a chicken stuck somewhere. I left the back porch and began walking around the house towards the sound. As I rounded the corner I saw Gina-chicken standing outside the chain link diligently jamming her little chicken head in between the links and fussing as loudly as possible. Good grief. Some days I feel like Charlie Brown perpetually having the football yanked out from under me.

I went back in the house and out the front door, the shortest route to the escapee. As she saw me exit the front door she started up at ruckus that had me in fear of the ASPCA being called at any moment. She was beating her wings on the ground and making enough noise for a dozen chickens instead of one solitary soul. Clearly, she was extremely put out that she had been over the fence for quite some time and no one was heeding her demand of immediate reentry. In fact her fair weather sisters had eagerly abandoned her to her fate as soon as the opportunity to procure some snacks became available.

I am still at a total loss as to how they manage to “fly” out but cannot seem to work out the mechanics of “flying” back in. I walked up to her and gently lifted her under my arm, pinning her wings at her side and allowing me to briefly examine her for injury without being flogged half to death. Flogging does not really hurt (at least not from a chicken that size) but it does present the opportunity for the bird to injure itself and it is really annoying and hard to work around. I checked her over she seemed fine except for being riotously angry.

I considered walking around the yard to the gate or taking her back through the house but in the end the easiest solution seemed to be to just put her back over the fence. I held her wings at her sides and her body out in front and leaned as far over the fence into the yard as possible. (Note: I am still wearing pajamas at this point, all I need are rollers in my hair and I am sure my neighbors will begin taking their morning coffee on the porch to watch the show.) I am not the tallest person in the world so even leaning in as far as I could left Gina-chicken roughly a foot to foot and a half off the ground. Oh well, at that point it was either drop her in or fall in on top of her.

I let her go and she angrily fluttered to the ground, she turned and tried to peck my finger, I assume in protest of her man handling and I thought to myself, “Go ahead sister, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait till this evening.” I figured Fred and I would need to clip everyone’s wings as soon as he got home from work. Helga is the tamest of the bunch and pruning her wings was no treat. I was not in the least looking forward to chasing down and trimming the BJGs.

I checked on the girls several times throughout the afternoon and I had practically convinced myself that obviously Gina-chicken was the only one who could get over the fence so maybe we would only need to clip her and Helga and everyone else would be fine. Then Fred’s mom came to visit. Fred’s mom grew up in Illinois where her parents and grandparents raised most all of their food, including chickens for both meat and eggs. She was our main detractor in our chicken endeavors stating that chickens were mean, filthy and stupid. She and her younger sister had always been left in charge of the chickens and to this day she wants absolutely nothing to do with them.

I told her about how Helga and now Gina-chicken were getting outside of the chain link. I shared with her that I was afraid one of them would panic and get hit by a car or worse that one of the roving neighborhood dogs would sneak up on one of my girls while they were waiting to get back in and maul them. She agreed that those things were possible and then she shared with me a charming story about how several of their leghorns had broken their necks attempting to get out of the fence and falling short only to land with their heads stuck on the top of the fencing. She said they would come home from school to find dead and half dead chickens swinging by their necks on the gallows of their own design.

That did it. Everyone was getting pruned the second Fred got home from work. I was NOT coming home to find one of my birds swinging on the fence line. Poor Fred, I did not even give him an extra second to stop, he sat his lunch box down and I handed him the sheers and hustled him out into the yard. Now here is the second part of our dilemma. The BJGs do not particularly like Fred. In fact, they tend to flee from him at amazing speeds. I told him they can smell the chicken on his breath. I honestly do not know why they do not like him other than he just is not around them enough for them to get comfortable with him. Whatever the issue, it was like they could sense something was up the second we stepped outside. They headed for the big pine and hunkered down.

It was a comedy of epic proportions as we tried to flush the BJGs from hiding all the while Helga was underfoot like the annoying pup from the Bugs Bunny cartoons “Where ya goin’ hey, hey, what ch doing? Can I go? Hey, hey, what cha doing?” and Mamma stood on the sidelines watching the excitement. We had decided we did not need to clip Mamma, as old as she is and being in molt I was afraid the additional stress of clipping her wings might make her croak. It is funny how they can sense that something is amiss. Only the BJGs hid as their inner radar alerted them that they were the ones about to get the business.

I told Fred just to wait I would go in and get some raisins. I stepped back out on the porch and shook the box. Of course, like me, their bellies overrode their common sense and they came barreling out of the pine onto the porch. Fred snuck up behind them and while they were eating he grabbed Autumn-chicken. Of course the other three quickly made for the pine tree and Autumn-chicken began to fuss & carry-on like it was the end of the world. Fred flipped her upside down and instead of relaxing she kind of stiffened in a really good imitation of rigormortis. I struggled to stretch her wings and trim the feathers, she jerked a few times and began to drool.

Now, let me tell you, I have NEVER seen a chicken drool. I did not even know they could drool. It was pitiful. In the few second it took me to clip her feather she had drool a great big slimy puddle on the porch. Fred eased her back to her feet and she was so shook up she just stood there for a few minutes. She would not even take a raisin offered right in front of her beak. She finally staggered away, made it off the porch, shook herself and ran full tilt for the pine screeching at the top of her lungs.

We realized that we were not going to immediately catch any more chickens so we waited about thirty minutes before once again trying to bait them back up on the porch. We thought we had a pretty good system. Once they were on the porch they were cornered so it was only a matter of snatching up one and doing the pruning. Ha, anyone who tells you chickens are stupid is probably a moron. They are not going to solve the NY Times crossword anytime soon but they are not brainless and they do remember things.

I coaxed them back on the porch and they were moving around so furiously we could not determine who was who, and who had already been trimmed. As Fred made a move to grab one they panicked so badly they began running into the railing of the porch and knocking over my potted plants. They were so distraught that two of them managed a feat I would not believe if I had not seen it with my own eyes. They squeezed between the porch railings and hopped a good three and a half to four feet to the ground. Their body width is easily twice that of the space between the slats. It was like watch a train wreck and being unable to look away as wings were wrenched backwards and sheer terror propelled them through the bars.

I thought surely we had some injured chickens on our hands, but no, other than being terrorized they seemed fine. We managed to capture and trim one more before we finally gave up and decided to grab the other two after they had gone to roost that night. Somewhere in the midst of this mayhem I came up with the bright idea of painting the toenails of the ones we had trimmed so that they would be easily discernible in the dark. We painstakingly applied pink polish to the middle toe of the left foot of both the clipped BJGs and left them alone until dark.

Once the sun had set and the girls had gone to roost we snuck out with our Coleman lantern and our kitchen scissors and determined to get the job done. They were on to us, The whole thing about chickens being comatose and docile after dark? BUNK! They had huddled as far away from the coop door as possible, piled on top of each other against the far wall, blocking the small door and outside of arms reach of the nest box. And did I mention? There was not a painted toenail in sight.

We sighed, set the lantern down and began the arduous task of climbing around the coop in the dark and wrestling unwilling chickens into submission. It was a nightmare they were terrorized and for our trouble we were pecked, flogged and drooled on. Feathers flew everywhere and it is amazing that everyone escaped without injury. Needless to say none of us are looking forward to the next time pruning is necessary. Also probably needless to say, we did not see eggs for several days and when we finally did see eggs again they were hidden all over the yard like a vindictive and deranged Easter Bunny had escaped the institution and gone on an egg hiding spree.

There is a steep learning curve in the chicken raising business and so far I feel consistently on the bottom of the bell. Oh well, they are not dead yet so we must be doing something right. Stay tuned.

Much love,


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