Saturday, January 07, 2017
Charismatic Chickens Explore Their Wild Side
For a long time, our chickens stuck to the straight and narrow. They lived as everyone expected them to, spending their days scratching and pecking at bugs and worms in the yard, nibbling seeds off the grass, turning all that foraging into eggs, then dutifully returning to the coop each night to sleep, or whatever trance-like state chickens attain while roosting.
We in turn would dutifully feed them, open and close the coop door each day and night, and gratefully, somewhat guiltily, make off with the eggs. My respect grew for these gentle Araucanas, going about their days, so purposeful, so competent, so giving in their convenient repackaging of nature's abundance. When arctic air swept through, they would roost in the unheated coop as always, then step spryly out of the coop the next morning, impervious, as if antifreeze coursed through their veins.
The relationship started to change, though, a year or so ago. Perhaps the four chickens had depleted our yard's supply of wild food. They discovered they could cross over the back fence, and find fresh gleanings in the town park. I began getting reports of the great delight they were bringing to kids and parents. Then they ranged farther afield, three doors up to our neighbors' backyard, where they could gorge on birdseed spilled onto the ground from the birdfeeder. They still dabbled in our tray of standard issue chickenfeed from the farm supply store now and then, but you could tell their standards had changed. They were developing new tastes, new friendships.
They continued returning each night to sleep in the coop, and continued supplying eggs. We thought ourselves so lucky, to be reaping the harvest of eggs and pleasant anecdotes these beneficent creatures produced. They were like salmon, feeding broadly, then returning with an uncanny homing instinct to feed us generously. But then one of the chickens stopped showing up at the coop at dusk. We worried that a hawk might have gotten it, but our neighbors would report seeing it during the day. Another chicken disappeared altogether, considered gone for sure until a neighbor on the other side of the park sent word that it had adopted her yard. She loved how it would come running to her when she brought it food and water. I tried to retrieve it, but the chicken clearly did not want to be caught.
The freedom of coopless living ultimately seduced them all. Our coop lay abandoned by the birds it was meant to protect. We'd spot them sporadically, in front yard or back, or up at the neighbors' as they made their daily rounds. No one knew where they were roosting, nor where the eggs, if any, were getting laid. We thought of catching them and closing them in the coop for a few days to get them back into old habits, but in a way they've outgrown that old domestic servitude, the grind of laying egg after egg to serve the master. They've discovered an old forgotten resourcefulness, awakened dormant capacities deep in their genes. It seems a dangerous life, unprotected at night, and yet they survive. It helps that the foxes don't get up this way, and raccoon sightings are rare.
Last week, I had been up very early and was just heading back to bed at 7am for a brief doze when I heard a blood curdling screech just outside our bedroom window. I ran outside with a coat over my pajamas and peered into the bushes. A coopers hawk burst out, flying right past me and up to a tree nearby. Such magnificent creatures they are. I peered more closely at the ground next to the house and saw the brown chicken, motionless in the window well. Surely it couldn't have survived such an attack, but then its head suddenly popped up. It jumped up out of the window well, gave me a quick look, then disappeared under the shrub. It had lost a few feathers, but otherwise looked fine. The feathers of a chicken, I'm realizing, provide not only magnificent insulation and some modest flying power, but also serve as a shield that confounds predators' attempts to penetrate it. The predator ends up with a feather in its mouth while the bird scurries away, and the rachis--that stiff central stem of the feather--serves collectively as body armor.
Of course, if I hadn't shown up, the coopers hawk would have ultimately had its breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we would have grieved. The chickens' choice of freedom comes with risks.
Just a few days ago, my daughter reported that the chickens were now roosting at night in an evergreen shrub at the corner of our house, eight feet up from the ground. It's comforting to know they are near. Each evening, I stop by to say hello,
and leave food nearby, under a recycling bin that got broken being used as a target for backyard lacrosse practice, then got partly consumed making trail signs for a local preserve, and now has a new life keeping rain and snow out of the chicken feed. There's collected rainwater to drink in the fillable-spillable tub in the backyard.
If a big snowstorm comes, we may pluck the sleepy chickens from their roost and put them in the coop for the night. We're letting them make up their own life as they go along, which may include a return to the coop. Yesterday, I saw the brown chicken walk over and disappear into the coop. Later on, I stopped in to find two fresh eggs, the first laid there in months. Maybe that's how a chicken says thank you if you save its life.
UPDATE: After six inches of snow fell, the chickens looked like they were going to stay up in the bushes all day, to keep their feet warm. We plucked them down and closed them in the coop for a couple days until the snow melted (this winter's like North Carolina, not New Jersey).
Any hopes that two days in the coop would rehabituate them to returning there each night were dashed, however. A few pecks at the cracked corn in morning light and they were back to their accustomed rounds,
then roosting again in the bushes next to our house for the night. It's interesting to see how they keep their feet warm while roosting, by squatting down so their feet disappear under the puffed up feathers.
Eggs from our "Easter egg chickens". In a new twist, the egg on the right has two shades of green.