Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shadows End and Backyard Chickens

It has been 9 months since the great experiment began at Shadows End. Grimalkin and I actually took the plunge and adopted 2 little chicks into out tiny homestead family. In those few months the chicks have grown to be Millicent and Abigail – two very large and healthy hens. The family name is a bit vague when it comes to the girls. They are specifically Plymouth Rock chickens going back to 1868 New England. Most of them today are bred with the barred feather pattern – hence the common name Barred Rocks. But their heritage can also be drawn back to an older variety. The Plymouth Rock breed was developed by crossing the Dominique hen from Southern England with Cochins and perhaps others. The Dominiques are the oldest breed in America. In some parts of the country the name was localized to Dominikers. With that lineage I am sure Abigail would be happier referred to as a Plymouth Rock or a Dominique, while Millie would prefer the in your face Barred Rock or the homey Dominiker. Abigail prefers a little decorum while Millie is quite the tom girl.

Well, whatever you call them they are large chickens beautifully striped in black and white. They are very friendly and follow me all around and have on more than one occasion even snuck into the house when I left the back door open. Their first experience with Grim the cat was a little disturbing. Not that either party acted badly. Beyond one brief moment of utter disbelief on Grim’s part and Millie being interested in Grimalkin’s front toes, no real drama ever occurred. Ironically, this is a little concerning for me. I was pleased to see them get along so well but maybe it was too well. I mean Grimalkin’s only concern for the hens was that they did not usurp his favorite chair in the garden or disturb his lounging patch of Liriope. The girls basically consider him a mobile lawn ornament and ignore him utterly. This is the problem. Although I love the peace and harmony I worry if the hens are too unconcerned. I mean should they ever meet another cat he most likely won’t be as unimpressible as Grimalkin is.

Of course, balancing out their peaceful nature the girls do have other features. First they are very large close to 6 pound now and headed for 7 or 8. Secondly, they have claws that would make a Velociraptor proud. Finally, any predator would have to deal with a sister bond so strong that one could easily assume them to be a giant two headed chicken as they prowl around completely merged on one side. They lean into each other so much they really do look like conjoined twins. Surely that would count for something against an aggressor.

Speaking of large that is one of the very reasons I chose the breed. Plymouths are known to be large hens and I felt that size would help them deal with suburban dangers like dogs and cats. This is no doubt true. But when I see the amount of garden soil they excavate in a single outing I wonder if smaller hens might not have advantages. In fact, were I to know how well Grimalkin would behave I might have chosen bantam versions. Bantam is not a breed it refers to chickens from many varieties that have been selectively bred to a smaller size. Bantams are anywhere from 75 to 50 percent the size of the original breeds. They are identical in all other aspects. If one was really pressed for space that can make a difference. Also if you felt secure enough about predators, bantams would definitely do far less damage to the home garden.

As profoundly destructive as the girls can be when they break into the violets, as much as I miss casual patches of impatiens and as angry as I get when I see a heather ripped from its bed and tossed on the path to clear their way for digging – despite all this Abby and Millie are great joys. They provide me with gracious amounts of delicious eggs. They are great joys when you see them waddle out together from the coop. Millie is very sweet and gentle when she decides she would rather sit on the nest than run around the yard. I will miss her and go check the coop, sure enough there she is all spread out over an egg or two and looking sleepy and supremely happy. Abigail always seems to know when I am upset at some excessive behavior (usually Millie’s). She can be very calming and tolerant of whatever ungraceful way I scoop her up as I chase the unrepentant Millie back to the chicken house.

Backyard chickens come with plenty of responsibilities and some real problems. But if good healthy food is important or being self sufficient is what you seek then hens are a great answer. If by chance they also become loving and loved pets then you get a truly double blessing. Be diligent in your life’s work but do not forget to stop and enjoy the wonder of it all. Hens grazing in the backyard, cats half asleep in the lacey shade of a maple tree and the smell of basil wafting over the summer breeze – these things are all there for us. If we can stop rushing about for a while and allow ourselves to be aware, the world offers many balms for the trials we all must face.

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