Long ago, when all my children were much younger and we were homeschooling in Vermont, the state guidelines for this unconventional form of education allowed for a great variety of options for covering any given subject area. Science was especially fun. Mostly, we observed, discussed, recorded, wondered about, read about and formulated ideas about the natural world around us. The topic might be snowflakes or mushrooms or the area’s watershed. It might involve an insect collection, a hydroponic garden, or electricity. It was almost always related to something else we were doing or somewhere we were going. The interdisciplinary approach made all the sense in the world to me.
Most of the time, we created the opportunities to observe, discuss, record, wonder about, read about and formulate ideas, such as when one of the dads led a month-long unit study about astronomy. We met weekly at their house on clear nights — how exciting to be meeting at night! — and took turns looking for planets through his telescope and finding constellations from our perches on their back deck. We compared what we saw to what our books told us we would see, and speculated how different the sky would look half a year hence.
But sometimes, opportunities came to us. Once, during a dinner we were hosting for a furloughed missionary, the phone rang (this was when phones still had cords attaching them to the wall). Kristin Freeman was a fellow homeschooler who was more unconventional than we were. “Hi,” she said in her very straightforward way. “If you want to see a calf being born, come now.” We had not yet had dessert (which I doubtless had carefully prepared) and leaving at that moment necessarily meant leaving all the dishes where they were (a struggle for me, I assure you), but nature called, and off we went! Who among us can say we have seen such a wonder?
We did not live on a farm, and I did not grow up on one, but it seemed to me that farm animals have a lot to teach us. Chickens seemed a safe choice — a reasonable backyard farm animal, easy to contain, they don’t live forever and they give eggs. Plus they are just funny. If you get the chance, find some and watch them for a while. First of all, they act as if no one ever feeds them, petitioning you for food continually. Also, watch the way they move — the slight head jerks, the proud posturing, the light and careful steps as if the soles of their feet are especially sensitive. And watch the way they tear into greens of any kind. You’d think they have teeth. I dare you to check for yourself to see if they do or not.
Kristin was my go-to for anything farm-related, and somehow through her we got four day-old chicks. For two years we fed them and they gave us eggs. This wonderful arrangement ended because we were going to be making an extended trip which would prevent us from holding up our end of the deal, so Kristin took them back. Chickens then lived only in my memory until we moved to Golden Hill and Bradley and Lincoln built the coop. The Rhode Island Reds and Bardrocks that we started with loved their home, needless to say. During the day they wandered about outside the coop, pecking at random (and presumably tasty) objects, dusting themselves, getting out of the sun by hiding under the cars (not that there aren’t a thousand trees that provide shade, but I will not stoop to disparaging remarks). These birds had the life. At the end of the day, Beth would clap her hands while standing near the coop, and they all came running — and I mean running! — to get inside and go to roost, which in my understanding of chicken language means go to bed. You would think that running to bed was the best part of their day. (Oh, that children would take a lesson from this.) Chickens are hilarious when they are running, by the way. Their weight shifts back and forth from foot to foot while at the same time they propel themselves forward quickly. It is not sleek.
Brad and Beth enjoying a moment with the birds.
One of that first batch had a mutant third leg. No kidding. Naturally we called her Tri-pod (who wouldn’t?). She did not actually walk on that leg, as it was only about half as long as her two normal legs. The way it was attached to the upper part of her right leg reminded me of the way arborists graft tree branches onto an existing tree. They set it in where it stands the best chance of surviving, and if this process is done well, the odd branch thrives. Chances are good that Tri-pod and all of her coop-mates were equally clueless about the odd leg among them. But for the rest of us it was very cool! How many people can say they have seen a chicken with three legs!? Watching that girl run was even more hilarious on account of her extra appendage being at the same time both stiff and floppy. There is never an end to the entertainment around here.
Dr. Kathy Samley, a veterinarian soon to be practicing in New Hampshire, enjoys Tri-pod in the summer of 2013. I promise you that’s the right chicken, even though you can’t see the third leg… (we will find that photo!)
Cottage guests had great fun with Tri-pod. We’d pick her up and made a show of it when she let us, though I imagine she was not overly thrilled with being on display. All our hens cluck and fuss when you get near them — again because they need to convince you that they are starving and you should feed them something yummy like mealworms or strawberries or lettuce — but all that clucking and fussing is as hilarious as watching them run to bed. Also they are very curious and very social. They want to be wherever you are, checking it all out, reminding you with gentle little pecks on your leg that they are part of your world and want to be noticed. “Hey, remember me? I give you eggs!” They like to be underfoot especially if you are trying to do something that is better done without them underfoot, like laying the foundation of a cottage, as we see Brad doing below.
Evidence of one Red getting underfoot…or above shoulder, as the case may be.
Brad and Beth relied on Zadie a good deal to shoo them away. There is nothing like a good dog when you have chickens wandering around. Zadie is a very good dog, especially once she learned that chickens are not toys to be taken by the neck and shaken for fun (and she is a quick learner — only two chickens were required for this lesson). She became their Great Guardian and Protector. If she was outside, which she generally was all day, we did not have to worry about the hawks, foxes, raccoons and other would-be assailants.
Of course, Zadie was not always around. We think it was a raccoon in the middle of one night that lifted the hatch door into the brooding boxes, entered, attacked, stole, dragged away, feasted, and repeated this violent crime three times before, let us presume, finally being full enough to stop. A fourth hen was slightly mauled, but survived (her comb was never the same). Bloody paw prints in perfect raccoon size on the siding of the coop and randomly strewn feathers on the ground made us want to get out the yellow tape to cordon off the crime scene (needless to say, this was too awful to even think of taking a picture of). One can only imagine how terrifying it was for the birds. Truthfully, we humans are to blame for this one. We did not imagine that a predator could lift that small wooden door and get inside. But one did! Immediately the next day, we of course put a latch on it and things calmed down in Golden Hill Chicken World after a time. But it does prove once again that there is seldom a dull moment around here, and chickens are a big part of that.
Chickens, as stated earlier, do not live forever, especially because Brad and Beth took Zadie with them when they moved to Seattle. We who remained, clearly unable to foresee how very tempting helpless chickens are to very aggressive animals who must also eat, did not realize how effective Zadie (during the day) had been in holding off said predators. We continued, after Brad and Beth’s cross-country road trip to Seattle had begun, to let the hens roam (during the day). We came home one afternoon to find a big old hawk sitting on the garden fence post gloating over one dead hen at its feet and undoubtedly preparing for its next attack. We yelled at this very large bird and off it flew, hopes surely dashed. The rest of the hens took a while to come out of their hiding places and back to the coop. All to say, between raccoons, hawks, and natural death (really, a few of them just plain expired), slowly the flock dwindled to the point where only five or six remained (including Tri-pod) and it was time for some new chicks.
Chickens may be funny a lot of times, but they can also be very nasty to each other. “Pecking order” is very real, and it means that if one chicken thinks another chicken is inferior in any way, she just pecks her. This is apparently quite likely to happen if you introduce new chicks into an existing flock without precautions (a huge no-no to those in the know). Imagine our surprise and disgust in finding that one of the new young chicks had been pecked so much on the back of her neck that she was bleeding! Another one was killed outright before we could intervene. I admit I did not have kind thoughts after that about the old hens who, by the way, had also stopped laying eggs (a bummer for my cottage guests). I admit I wondered if there might be any hawks in the vicinity. I admit I might have let them out once or twice… Somehow, let us not think how, soon just one remained (and sadly, she did not have three legs). She became “Old Red.” We humans were smarter this time and kept her completely separate from the 16 new chicks we got at the end of last summer, and only very very slowly (and always with supervision) allowed her to be with them as they got bigger. Old Red is proof positive that you can teach an old chicken new tricks because she did learn to get along with those newbies.
And what amazing newbies they are! Ten Bardrocks (one of whom did not survive chick-hood for reasons unknown) and six Americaners, a.k.a. Easter Eggers due to the greenish color of the eggshells they produce. Here is what they look like in the first week.
And here, getting a little bigger. The Americaners look uncannily like birds of prey to me, as if they are a cousin of the eagle but did not enjoy the advantage of high birth.
I am not sure if cottage guests love the chickens best or their eggs best. I loved this card that came in the mail to me recently from Heather and Ray, who had her mother, Deb, and their five-year-old niece, Heidi, with them. Heather is an amazing artist whose card captures some of the whimsical fun of the cottage experience (lucky for them, the garden strawberries were just coming ripe when they arrived recently).
Either way, chickens are an asset to the experience of staying here. The chickens may even be “just what the doctor ordered” sometimes. When Jeff and Ashley planned to bring their children and their dog to the cottage to celebrate Ashley’s birthday last October, they did not know that Sam, their beloved dog, would pass away just days before the trip. Suddenly there was a damper where one had not been before. They came anyway, and found to their delight that Sophie and William (ages 8 and 5) were enamored with the 6-week-old chicks. I awoke both mornings at about 7am to the sound of those two children laughing and playing (come to find out inside the coop with them each time!). That I, through this airbnb venture, can sometimes enable delight and healing and joy brings me more satisfaction than words can express, and adds greatly to my motivation to continue running the cottage this way.
Sophie and William with the chicks…
The Coop at Golden Hill became a happy place again. Kyle and Heather’s goldendoodle Winnie enjoyed the chickens as much as any child. If her wagging tail is any indication, she felt downright frolicky while watching them from around the outside of the coop during their visit this winter. Kyle caught it on video, and someday perhaps that will appear on this site also. By the middle of February, there were eggs again too. Oh, glorious eggs! Now the bowlful that guests find in the fridge contains some brown eggs and some green. Naturally I purchased a copy of Green Eggs and Ham and keep it on the side table for all to enjoy. We no longer have a three-legged chicken but now there are equally cool green eggs! I like to think Dr. Suess would be pleased all around.
Fortunately, chickens are not the only cool thing in the world. Not everyone can have them, after all. Not everyone wants them either, despite how cool and funny and productive they are, this I grant. But anyone can find or invent a cool-factor if they want to. It doesn’t have to strut or peck. It doesn’t have to have feathers or be social or mutated. Cool comes in all forms and many varieties. Cool makes life fun and funny and interesting. I am here to say: Embrace something cool. Make it your own, celebrate it, show it off, stand proud when you look at it or present it to others, remember it fondly. Let it set you apart from the crowd as a person who steps off the beaten track with a skip and a smile.
You don’t have to
- Make the best salsa east of the Mississippi, as my friend Lisa does
- Convert your Mercedes to a vegetable oil fuel system, as my friend Marty did
- Host a pool party, name it something silly like Bobbapalooza, and make it an annual tradition, as my friend Bob did
- Travel across four time zones by yourself in order to visit the deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia, as my daughter Marie did
- Invent the world’s best sleep fan, as Tim Peery (Beth’s dad) did
- Ride a horse at top speed through the countryside, seemingly racing with a train, all while being filmed for a Hollywood movie, as my friend Peggy did (the movie was Giant, 1955, with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, and that scene was filmed just a few miles from here)
You just have to follow your heart, do what you love, and reap the unspeakable joy of creating something, learning something, changing something or making people happy. And don’t forget, this lesson came from chickens!