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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Don't be a chicken...

Before bringing our fifty turkeys and fifty chicks home from Rooney’s in May, the Farmer carefully prepared the coop. He swept out the cobwebs, removed any dangerous objects from the floor, and built a little circular enclosure, about the size of a toddler’s swimming pool. He divided this structure in half with a long board, and placed food and water and a heat lamp in each section. Then he hung heavy blankets over the windows, to eliminate drafts. I had never seen him being so careful before. Just how delicate are these creatures, anyway?
When he brought the beasties home, he put the chicks on one side of the divider and the turkeys on the other. They immediately rushed the circle of heat created by the hanging red lamp, piling on top of each other. The birds on the bottom of the heap were smothering. The Farmer frowned. He raised the heat lamp a few inches, to increase the surface area of the heat circle. Suddenly everyone had room. He looked at me.
“We’re going to come in here every morning and every night to check on them, but make sure you don’t let in a draft. If they get chilled, they pile on each other and die.”
He told me we might lose half our chicks. I couldn’t believe how weak and wimpy they were.
This is really my first experience with poultry – unless, of course, you count Taiwan (and I don’t). Walking to the subway in Taipei every morning, I had to pass by a street vendor who took great delight in beheading a chicken just as I was walking past. I looked straight ahead, never gratifying her antics with my attention. I didn’t want to see if the chicken-with-its-head-cut-off stories were true. Those Taiwanese chickens always seemed to be monstrous, huge and fierce, in my memory: nothing like these wimpy chicks on our farm.
I must admit I wasn’t as interested in the baby chicks as I was in the baby lambs that I bottle-fed last February. They just don’t have the same endearing personalities. They’re soft, and fluffy, to be sure. But they are just too tiny and terrified to be cute. For the most part, I have let the Farmer look after the birds.
After a week or two, Farmer Fisher lifted the enclosure and set the chicks free to roam about the coop. Finally, he moved them to a room at the back of the barn that was open to outside for fresh air. They could escape fairly easily if they tried, but only the turkeys have been roosting on the wall and they don’t seem to have the motivation to flee. They are quite content at this resort, where food and water are provided daily.
We only lost four birds in the early coop stages, when they were clustering for warmth.
We lost one more during a group attack (don’t ask – it isn’t pretty).
The one chicken death that I found the most interesting was the one who died of a heart attack. My husband said he just went into the coop area, perhaps a bit too abruptly, and the movement startled the chicken so much that he had a heart attack and died.
This, to me, is ridiculous. But apparently it happens, a lot.
The chickens are nearly ten pounds each, and the time is approaching when they must meet their maker.
We carefully and quietly entered the coop the other night in order to spread fresh hay over the floor. As I hauled myself over the half-wall into the coop, the chickens skittered sideways en masse, muttering to themselves in a high-pitched, gurgling whine the whole time: “ohh….what’s she doing…..she’s coming closer….” And then every once in a while there would be an intermittent squawk from one who just couldn’t hold in the anxiety anymore. But none of them had heart attacks, thankfully. Not even when I accidentally dropped my pitchfork in their midst.
The Farmer has rented cages for transporting the chickens to the processing plant.
I can’t say I will be sad to see them go, but I can at least rest easy that they had a good life while they were on the Fisher Farm Chicken Resort.

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