Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When All Else Fails, Wait for Mom

Chicken tracks in the snow are adorable.

It looks like little dinosaurs have traveled around your house, which isn’t so far from the truth.  

The girls seriously dislike the snow.  I can open the door to the coop in the morning after a snowfall and they look out with an attitude of “Yeah, well, no.”  Only after I have cleared or packed the path a bit will they start to come out.

One of their favorite hangouts is underneath the porch of the house.  There the dirt is sandy, loose and begging to be dug into.  In the summer it’s a great spot because it’s cool.  In the winter its appeal is that it’s loose dirt amongst nothing but frozen ground and this annoying, cold white stuff.  

With the weather we’ve had this winter – some snow, lots of rain that becomes ice – the chickies have stayed around their coop.  Over the summer they kept me company as I convalesced on the porch, by hanging out in the front yard, working their way up the porch steps until I yelled at them, and roosting on the pioneer fence.  They endeared themselves to me on a whole new level.  Because they were only five of them, personalities became distinct. 

We still have Wheezy, the chicken I nursed back to health after a weasel attack several years ago.  There’s Broody, the only one out of the original flock who has shown any inclination to set on eggs.  She’s the smallest and Queen of the Coop.  There’s Spot, named only because she has a dark spot on her lower eyelid that’s noticeable. The other two are indistinct – sorry – and nameless.  They're all hale and hearty and coming through the winter in great condition.

A few weeks ago, the girls started coming down the path through the snow and going under the porch again.  When I came home for lunch, I’d hear them coo under the stairs and sometimes they'd stick their heads out looking for a treat.  The other day they got the motherlode of my failed attempt at King Cake, devouring it with great relish.  I know I'm supporting negative behavior with positive reinforcement (pestering me for treats and getting cake for their trouble), but I’m beginning to feel sorry for them given the winter we’ve been having.

One day last week, as dusk was approaching, I looked out the kitchen window and saw three chickens by the woodpile.  It was an odd place for them to be hanging out.  Usually by that time of the day, they have instinctively put themselves on their roosts in the coop for the night.  I threw on my coat and went outside.

It had snow lightly but constantly all day, and the ground was covered with about four inches of very light, fluffy snow.  I saw a set of chicken tracks come out from under the porch, pick up the path, and make the left turn between the trailer and woodsplitter to go down the path to their coop.  But these three birds somehow – maybe snowblindness, maybe the depth of the snow threw them off – missed the turn and continued straight just a few more feet, to the other side of the woodsplitter, and ended up in a dead end area by the woodpile.

Even they knew they were in the wrong spot.  They just couldn’t figure out how to get to the right spot.  

I was going to herd them around the corner and down the path.  But as I approached them, they didn’t move.  Two things had happened:  the magical chicken bewitching hour where it’s bed time and they stay wherever they happen to be for the night, and (I think) they had gotten very cold, up to their chicken thighs in the snow, as they all had one leg curled up underneath their bodies like little black and white flamingos.

So I had the opportunity to do something very rare.  I reached down and picked up Wheezy and tucked her under my arm.  She didn’t put up a fight.  I picked up Broody, who flapped for a second but then gave it up, and tucked her to my midsection, holding her against Wheezy and me with my arm.  Then I reached down and one-armed a No Name and brought her to nestle with the other two.  I officially had an armful of chickens.  For a second I thought they would do their usual chicken freak-out at being held, but then I realized they felt content.  They were warming up.  They relaxed.  They felt secure.

I carried my load of poultry to the coop and gently put them on the floor.  The other two chickens (who obviously had the smarts to find their way back earlier in the day) were on the roost and looked at them like “Where were you idiots?”  Wheezy fluffed up her feathers.  Broody got something to eat.  No Name gave me a blank, tilted-head look.

Lots of people laugh at chickens’ goofiness, and all animals have their amusing moments.  But when you have animals in your life, the moments that really have meaning are when you have those times of connection, of when you know they trust you.  I've had many with horses over the years.

Chickens aren’t particularly cuddly, at least mine aren’t.  But having that opportunity to “rescue” them (and there have been others) and hold them to me for a few minutes was a reminder of how the universe is a sum of its parts, and to appreciate those moments.

It's nice to help out when someone takes a wrong turn.

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