Friday, July 31, 2015

Chick Rescue and Bantam Hens

  One late autumn day a hen appeared in the yard with two tiny newly hatched chicks following. With winter fast approaching and temperatures plummeting nightly, there was no chance they would survive the unfriendly chicken house environment. Mother scooped them up and looked at them thoughtfully.  Then, crunching her way over the frozen grass, she shooed the hen into the chicken house and took the little handful of chicken fluff into the house.

  At first they lived in a little box beneath the wood stove, but as the winter progressed they graduated to the rung of a wooden chair, a piece of newspaper conveniently located beneath to catch droppings. They trained well and unlike the rambunctious pig, were excellent house guests.

    When the frozen puddles they crossed over the season before thawed and filled with melt water, the sun grew warm and the days lengthened the two little chickens were gently tossed out into the yard to make their own way in the  world of my father's farm.

  Spring became summer, and late that season Mother heard a great commotion outside the door.  She hurried over to see what all the ruckus was about, but when she opened the door a little hen, who had been waiting in desperate anxiety ran into the house, through the kitchen, and onto the couch where she promptly wriggled her backside behind a cushion and deposited her very first egg there in the room she considered home. That job completed, she hopped down and made her way to the door to be let out. For the rest of laying season, she came every second day and left her gift on the couch.

  What strange things go though the minds of little creatures.

Years later I had my own chicken, Kurychka. Kuryachoha means little chicken in Ukrainian. She was a bantam hen, the only one in my Dad's flock of white, flighty, mean tempered leghorn egg layers. Poor little one, she was at the very bottom of the pecking order and her sisters were not very kind. She couldn't eat or drink in peace, and survived the winter huddled in the top of the roosts, in the far left where it was darker and she wouldn't be noticed.

  In the morning she would fly out of her private corner and aim for the sturdy plaid cap on my Dad's head. He would remove her from there and gently toss her in the direction of the feed trough. He would shoo away the bullies, and as soon as she had her fill of grain chop and water back she would fly, until after school.

  Then it was my turn to go out. My chore was to gather the eggs. I truly hated that job. The hens could peck with deadly accuracy, hard enough to leave little v shaped welts, making me hide my hand in my coat sleeve to reach under. They glowered at me and pecked harder, but my coat sleeve protected me from them. The thing the sleeve didn't protect from was chicken lice which occasionally infest the nest boxes. They would scuttle up my arm, barely visible, but causing me much distress. I do not like chicken lice. They would be duly reported, and dealt with accordingly, using nicotine extract, the only truly useful thing I think tobacco grows for.

  The thing that made the job tolerable was looking forward to spending time with Kurychka.

    She would joyfully fly down and run to the feeding trough. Some days I would take her a bit of boiled potato that she thoroughly enjoyed. When she had eaten I would hold her and talk sweetly. She would turn her head this way and that, and peer into my face. I would scratch her under her little pointy beak and she would make appreciative little chicken sounds.  When it was time to go, I would set her on a roost rail and up she would hop up to her hiding place.

  The winters were long back then too, but always they would come to an end, and the day would come that the little exit door at the back of the chicken house would be opened, and one by one the hens would poke their silly heads out the door and scan from side to side and above for danger. Eventually the bravest would hesitantly exit, and then another, and another, and soon the opening would be crowded with hens eager to stand in the warm spring sunshine,  dabble their feet in the icy melt water, and sing their joyful chicken-in-the-spring songs.

Kurychka would bide her time, and then would run out to freedom, dodging  ill tempered pecks, and disappear into the glorious outdoors. She would not see the inside of the building again until winter cold and lack of food drove her in. Discreetly choosing a hidden nesting spot she would produce eight to ten little white eggs and sequester herself for the customary twenty-some days it took to hatch those eggs. During that time we would catch fleeting glimpses of her, and I learned patience in order to spend time in the yard, watching, and pretending not to watch. She watched me watching, and would  slip discretely away at an appropriate moment. Sometimes it took a couple of weeks, but  I persevered, and eventually would find her secret.  She never begrudged me the find, and I would put food and water conveniently accessible for her.  When the days came to the full she would march out proudly, leading her little band of leghorn/bantam cross chicks, such a variety of colours; the odd striped one, in true bantam fashion, some black, or yellow or brown, and everyone of them adorable. She spent the summer raising them, but when decent weather succumbed to winter she again took to the relative safety of the hostile  chicken house.

                                      She was a fine, resourceful little piece of motherhood, and   
                                      I remember her with affection almost fifty years later.

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