A few days ago was a holy day for our family. Not holy in the religious sense, which as Quakers we tend not to spend a lot of time over, but holy in the old Hebrew sense of being “special.” Today was the day we went over and took a look at the Spring Chickens.
They’re not really chickens, at least not yet. So far they’re just chicks, just baby chickens. Chickens tend to reproduce according to a schedule fixed by the increasing day length of the approaching vernal equinox, which means that they tend to show up in the spring. That makes a lot of sense for a bird that has to be able to find enough tender young plants and hatched-out insects to grow and take on the world before very many days have gone by, and so young chickens tend to show up in the springtime. I have heard it said that the term “Spring Chicken” once had a specific economic implication, in that the fryers and broilers that people brought to market were distinguished by being “Spring Chickens,” (hatched that year), versus “Something Else Sneaked Into the Crate,” (like last year’s left-over chickens, which were not quite so desirable). Whether this is true, or whether “Spring Chicken” just meant one that’s pretty young is beyond me. But I do know that newly hatched Spring Chickens are adorable, inexpensive, useful projects for five juvenile Quakers, and make great food for Burmese Pythons. And springtime comes just once per year.
When chickens get ready to break out of the egg, they finish up the last of their development and absorb the last bit of yolk from outside their body. This little bit of moist nourishment is what gives precocial birds like the Galliformes the wherewithal to jump up and run after momma just a few minutes after hatching, like quail, and ducks, and other ground-nesting birds. And if you think about it, getting up and taking off is a pretty important thing to do if you hatch out at eye-level with rat snakes and possums and such. That last little bit of yolk is also what makes it possible to hatch out a bunch of baby birds, drop them into a cardboard box, and then take them to the Post Office to be mailed around the country, like so many Christmas presents, or Valentine’s day cards, or all those other things that non-Quakers associate with the holy days we don’t observe, or at least didn’t used to, or maybe just sort of don’t pay as much attention to now. Something like that, anyway. A box of chicks can be shipped through the mail with a reasonable expectation of profitable survival at the other end, so that’s how it’s done.
The significance of all this to us is that this is the year That We Are Going to Have Chickens Again. Before we had a lot of kids, Shawna and I lived on the edge of a canal bank out in California’s Central Valley, and we had chickens. Lots of chickens. We moved into a trailer in the middle of nowhere and inherited a lot of culture from the previous residents, who were from way in the middle of another nowhere in south Mexico. Among these left-over items were a hand-made clothesline, laboriously braided from many pieces of bailing twine, an industrious stack of concrete slabs upon which to beat our laundry clean, and chickens. They were not ordinary chickens, either, but were Mexican fighting chickens, the kind that were bred specifically for chicken-to-chicken combat in the arena.
These were amazing birds, beautiful dark roosters with golden collars, high combs, terrific spurs, and terrific attitude. They spent their time crowing, herding their personal harems of brown, tan, and orange hens, and engaging in spectacular bloody and often fatal fights with each other. The fights were inevitable, and served to keep the population of chickens down somewhat. I say only somewhat, because these Mexican birds were spectacular not only in their abilities to die, but also in their abilities to raise chicks. The hens were all broody, all of them, seemingly all the time, and would successfully hatch out clutches as large as ten or eleven chicks, over and over. Some hens would disappear for a few weeks, and then reappear with more than a dozen yellow chicks trailing behind them. These hens were mostly wild, and along with the roosters would spend the nights up in the eucalyptus trees, out of reach of the striped skunks and coyotes that otherwise did their best to limit the numbers of chickens too. But the little chicks couldn’t get up into the trees, so their mothers would gather them up in the tall grass in the evenings and spread their wings over them all, doing their besto keep them dry in the spring rainstorms that added hypothermia to the hazards of being a Spring Chicken.
We started out with seven of those birds in the first winter, and by the next fall they had ballooned into a noisy flock of over 60 birds, of which more than half were beautiful roosters, ornate, loud, and vicious in their interpersonal relationships. The coyotes, skunks, chicken hawks, and rainy weather took them down to about a dozen by the following spring, but then they blossomed back up into another flock, this time over 70 birds. The population booms and busts were distinctly tuned to the seasons, to the hazards of being a chicken in the country, and were at best only somewhat under our fairly hands-off control. Under a philosophy of benign neglect, we tended to let the chickens do what they did best, which was to live out their lives in our company mostly as picturesque companions out on the canal bank, along with a vast menagerie of other neighbors. We provided feed, grit, and nominal protection from the skunks. The dogs kept the coyotes away on a part-time basis. We couldn’t do much about the hawks, but they had trouble lifting more than the smallest of the birds, anyway..
But these elegant fowl provided us with an endless supply of eggs, and a source of fresh meat for our neighbors and for some of the members of our meeting who didn’t mind being handed a headless, half-plucked dead bird a few minutes before worship. So there were advantages to sharing our canal bank with chickens, after all, besides the entertainment value, or the novelty of returning home to find a freshly-laid egg on the bedroom pillow, or on the kitchen table.
And this is where we return to the current story. I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t eat chickens any more, even the unhatched kind. But there are five growing primates in my house now, most of whom are quite happy to eat a chicken. Two are teetering on the edge of vegetarianism, but haven’t yet made the leap into grass-eating that I committed to years ago. So I think along with my practical and lovely wife, there are enough mouths interested in eating chickens in my house that we decided to go ahead and finally get some more.
And so we gathered up our own brood off to the farm supply store, and looked down into the yellow mass of baby chicks scrambling about under the heat lamps inside the watering troughs that the store personnel use in preference to the more universal but less sturdy Cardboard Box. The kids all peer into the tanks, ogling the babies, like looking into the middle of a glass-bottomed boat, except with less water. There are a several different kinds, mostly about a week old, I judge, with developing pin feathers in the wings. That’s good—if chicks are going to die from the stress of handling, they’ll do it sooner rather than later. These older birds will be strong stock and hardy.
“What kind of chickens are these, exactly?” I ask because I know that there are more different kinds of interesting chickens than there are stars in the sky, but I’m looking for cold-hardy free-range breeds, with hens that go broody and love to roost in the trees. No need to reinvent the wheel, after all.
“Farm supply store chickens, mixed, Reds, Bantams, Cornish, you know, whatever was left over at the hatchery that was cheap that day,” says Shawna. “These are the sexed pullets, and those over there are straight-run, pullets and cockerels mixed. The straight-run is cheaper, so that’s what we’re getting. But not today. We’re just looking, today.”
This sounds good to me, because I know from years of experience with smaller animals that they love to die, and that chickens are as bad as hogs in terms of dying in immense numbers, just not with as much devastating financial costs per animal. And right now we don’t have as much as a wire pen to put them in. So if we’re just looking at chickens, then that’s the best of both worlds, all the benefits without the long term commitment.
“I want you to build me a moveable pen that I can pull around the property,” says Shawna.
“What kind of pen,” I ask, carefully. “And how big?”
“Just something about eight feet long that I can put the chicks into until they’re big enough to fend off the cats.”
“I can do that. You want a little hoop-house made of poultry netting, right?”
“I’ll show you when we get home.”
And so I’ll leave the rest of the visit for discussion at another time, the debates about wood versus metal fence posts, and which garden vegetables, and whether to fence the donkey in or the goat out, if we should begin construction on the giant bat house this year, and all the other various discussions that naturally come about in the spring time at the farm supply store, including my observations upon chicks and Burmese Pythons. Because it’s more important to live life than to plan it, sometimes, and I know that by the time we get home the peepers will be calling down by the creek, in the clear and chilly water tumbling down the evening-shaded channels from the springs on the western ridge. I love to walk down to the water to hear the peepers in the spring, the smallest and the loudest of the amphibian heralds of the new year.
And springtime comes only per year.