Sunday, May 18, 2014

Quality Time With Chickens

I did something last evening that I haven't done in a very long time: I hung out with my chickens.
It's a busy life (who knew writing full-time would consume so much time?) and like any farmer with an off-farm job, we don't get to spend enough time with our livestock.
The rabbit spends her summers outside in her "cottage" so yesterday, we cleaned it out and moved it to a new patch of lawn which we will allow to grow up, jungle-like, in her cage so that she can spend the summer living in and consuming the tall grass. The ground where the cage had rested since last spring, now exposed, cried out for one thing.
"I'm going to let the chickens out so they can get into that," I said to my husband.
"They're going to get into your gardens," he replied.
Ah, but little did he know, I wasn't just letting them loose (because he's right; it's not the pecking and scratching the hens do that annihilates gardens, it's the dirt baths they like to take). I was going to be a shepherd to my flock.
A chikherd, if you will.
And with the help of a long stick to discourage the occasional dasher from making a break out of the prescribed area of before-bedtime foraging, the hens and rooster and I spent a pleasant hour wandering the back lawn searching for worms and beetles.
For some reason, the chickens love the shallow ditch that runs between their fenced pen and the rest of our yard.
I have always found hanging out with chickens very relaxing and I'm sure other chicken keepers, like my friend Heather, will agree that unless they are a naughty rooster or a nasty hen, chickens create a stressfree environment. They are content with green grass and fresh water, and a little bit of dirt. They are equally as excited by bread crumbs as they are by grubs. They hold their own quiet conversations and when Brewster tells them it's time for bed, they follow him obediently back to the coop.
There are always stragglers in our coop, those hens who are the first out the door in the morning and the last to go in at night. Just like us humans who want to enjoy as much of these long days of spring as we can.
Last Sunday at supper, I made a comment about an upcoming newstory about robots doing the work on farms and my father-in-law talked about going to a nearby farm and seeing a robot milking the cows. I've been thinking about that a lot, first as a columnist then because I think it's a shame to leave something to important, so intimate, so fundamental as milking a cow (or butchering a pig or collecting eggs) to a machine.
Then, as the talk of cattle always does, seeing as that is the livestock I have a bit of experience with but not nearly enough, it reminds me of one of my favourite Harry Thurston poems in which he writes about going to barn to feed his bull calf. I love this poem because it speaks to the connection we make when we are hand in hand and eye to eye with that for which we are caring. TV and video games and smart phones aside, we wouldn't really leave our children's upbringing to machines, would we? We'd lose so much connection that way, we'd lose so much of that knowledge that comes only from close interaction. So how can we do that to those animals who provide us with our food?

From Revelations, by Harry Thurston:

"And as I always do
I get down on my hunkers
to watch and listen
to him feed awhile.

His snout flecked
with the grain
he looks up, see me
slumped down -- asleep.

And in the whole great sounding box
of the barn, there is only
the music of his soft face
in the trough."

(from the collection Animals of My Own Kind, Signal, 2009)

FYI: This is what a dirt bath looks like. You can see how they quickly destroy a garden.     

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