Friday, January 18, 2013

The Year of the Chicken

2012, according to the Chinese zodiac, was the year of the dragon, but by the time the Chinese dragon had traveled all the way to our household in Princeton, NJ, it had lost its teeth, its snarl and habit of breathing fire, and had become a chicken. Or several, to be inexact.

In order to enter our household, said chickens had to pass customs, or at least one custom, of parents saying no repeatedly to a 12 year old's seemingly impractical requests. But pass they did, as very cute chicks, which quickly grew through the summer into beautifully feathered chickens with the promise of eggs to come.

How could we have known, all these years, that the patio's old brick walls and slate-topped counter were really meant to be the roof and front entrance to a chicken coop, fashioned from scavenged wood and extended into palatial homegrown extravagance with scrounged corrugated fiberglass roofing? Finally, a use for all those fine building materials spared from a trip to the landfill.

And how were we to know how gentle and ingratiating chickens would turn out to be? Our yard, which had otherwise gone underutilized and underappreciated, proved to be perfect habitat for these birds.

Through the summer, they showed an endless fascination with the good earth beneath the wildflowers, the tangles of squash vines, and dense shrub borders. Hens all--roosters being too noisy, and unnecessary for the miracle of daily eggs--they chased with passion any stray bug stirred by their rousting about.

Once fall came, and eggs began to appear, colored brown, blue or pink, (the golf balls were placed in the nest to inspire the chickens) what seemed like completion turned out to be prelude to more appeals, for a bird of a different feather, which given the approaching winter seemed all the more impractical, and had to navigate past even more stringent customs officials posing as parents.

But navigate they did, arriving by mail from California in a box: ducklings, uncannily rubber duckie-like but very thirsty. Though only a day or two old, they were improbably ready to waddle behind us for miles if need be, instinctively trusting we'd lead them to water.
The ducklings were soon living outdoors in an insulated "room" of the chicken coop.

Our dog is still appreciated despite the competition, and is finding the backyard considerably more interesting these days, as are we all. If he had been a puppy this year, Leo might have grown up thinking himself a chicken, with his Flying Nun ears, and spent his life wondering why he couldn't lay eggs.

Note: I've researched Princeton policy on having chickens, and will elaborate on this and provide other demystifications in upcoming posts. It's important to have your neighbors on board (eggs can help with this) and, of course, be able to provide consistent care for the birds. Roosters aren't allowed, but aren't necessary for eggs.

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