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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   March 2009


Utopian Chickens

A novice learns a lot about raising chickens, and a little about human beings.

By Gaye Rock

I love watching our chickens. We have 14 hens, plus a rooster. They are, essentially, pets. They give us eggs and entertainment, and we feed, water and shelter them. Upon moving to New Mexico last April, they were the first addition to our modest ranch. We rescued five downtrodden, mangy chickens and a rooster from, shall we say, less than Trump-style conditions. The hens were missing most of their feathers; they were bleeding in places and extremely scared of humans. I, myself, had never had any contact with chickens before, but my husband had a farmette in Ireland, so with that knowledge, and armed with Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, we began to "have chickens." It's a good arrangement, with very little downside.

which comes first?
Egg inspection time at Camp Chickmo.

The hardest work involved was putting up the chicken coop and run. First we had to dig the trench to put up the fence. The soil is full of granite, so the trench digging had to be done with a pick. Have you ever tried to dig in the hot New Mexican sun with a dog sniffing around you every 10 seconds? Then, to fashion the chicken coop, we put railroad ties upright in a square. Once the tin roof and door were fastened, I painted the door turquoise (hey, they're Southwest chickens!) and stenciled a chicken on the front of the door. The chicken-wire was strung, and camouflage netting went on the top of the enclosure. Because of the camo netting, we dubbed the run "Camp Chickmo" — our own little prison camp for chickens, or so I thought. Dubious about the amount of space needed for a chicken's happiness, I nonetheless acquiesced to my husband's superior experience.

The chickens really liked their new home, complete with an uncrowded house, a tree for perching, and unlimited food and (vegetarian) table scraps. Because they had been housed with many, many chickens in the previous home, they appreciated the space and attention they were now receiving. Like any living creature, they responded to the love and attention lavished on them, which we now dubbed "The Rock Treatment," after our surname.

Now that they had a home, we needed names. Pets have to have names, right? But what do you name a chicken? We decided that since they were in Camp Chickmo, we would name them after characters in a prison drama on the BBC called "Bad Girls." The chief prison warden's name on the show is Mr. Fenner, so that became our rooster's name. Mr. Fenner turned out to be a grand rooster who took his job very seriously. The rest of the girls were named after characters Denny (the bully/enforcer), Shell (the blonde one) and the two Julies (never separated for long), plus our one exception, Gypsy.

As it turned out, a little bit of room was dangerous for unfettered chickens. The chickens escaped from Camp Chickmo a few times in the early days when the fencing had holes in the top of the enclosure. Mr. Fenner proved his worth right away. He trotted off — sometimes as far as a half-mile into the forest wilderness — to round up the girls and bring them back to the fold. Gypsy was a wanderer who escaped at every chance. In particular, I recall when she was thought lost to natural predators in the forest. She and Fenner finally returned from that sojourn, and it was quite a sight to behold! Down the forest road, as fast as chickens can hustle on their two forked feet, came Mr. Fenner, scolding and clucking, behind Gypsy, running full tilt as she scrambled in front of him, squeaking and squawking the whole way home.

He also took his lockup duties seriously, and at 7 p.m. he would round the girls up for nighttime lockup. Around 5:30 a.m. he began reminding us that lockdown was over. He took serious affront if we were 10 minutes late, crowing for hours after being let out of the coop.

Things were going along swimmingly until the hens discovered a weak spot in the fencing and escaped. All six of them were out around the house, happily pecking away at bugs, and wandering farther and farther away from Chickmo. Having lots of experience with putting dogs in crates, I thought you'd just round them up the way you do with dogs — chase them to a central spot, and either herd them into the pen or pick them up and plop them back in. Yeah, right. I chased them, all right — to, fro, backward, forward, around the house, under the trees, behind the run — you get the picture.

There was NO making them go where I wanted them to go. After and hour and a half of that foolishness, I got sneaky. I put a Hansel and Gretel trail of grain up to the front door of the enclosure. Two of them fell for that. Now I had four out and two in. Progress, I thought. Until I got another up to the door, opened it up to let her walk in, and the other two flew back out. Then it was back to square one.

Next I tried enlisting the help of Kristy, my dog. I asked her to round them up, and between the two of us we managed to trap two of the chickens under a scrub oak. Unfortunately, as I lunged for Jules #1, Jules #2 went the opposite direction with a loud squawk, and I missed on Jules #1 as I got speared in the head with a branch. Two bloody knees and a gouge in my head were my only reward for that effort.

By this time I was pretty frustrated, and the girls were now spread out on about five of our 10 acres. Kristy and I were exhausted, and the chickens looked like they had a marathon's worth of running left in them. Tearfully, I called my husband and explained the situation. He told me to calm down, that when dusk came, they would all come home — just leave the front door open and the porch light on (reminded me of the Motel 6 ads). Huffily, I complied.

Sure enough, around dusk they all (except Gypsy) filed back into the house to roost. Fenner would escape two days later, retrieve Gypsy, and bring her home. That was no small feat, as the forest is a treacherous place for a chicken; hawks, coyotes and bears populated that space. They were to escape a few more times before we got the Camp totally secured, but generally speaking, they were fairly maintenance-free. There's a lot to be said for the security of home when you're a chicken living next to a forest.

I began to enjoy the chickens as individuals. Each one showed traits unique to herself. Shell was the victim, always willing to be harassed. Denny, the bully, was always happy to oblige when Shell submitted. Fenner took a couple shots a day at Shell, and after he was done, the four remaining hens took turns pecking her — Shell just took it, like a true victim. Denny even pecked at our feet when we carried in food and water. The Julies hung out together, night and day. Fenner ruled the roost with an iron claw. To give him his due, he always let the ladies eat first, watching over them until they'd had their fill. Then he would eat.

One day my husband arrived home with three new little chicks. They were so small all three would fit in the palm of your hand. We set up a dog crate inside the Camp to separate the chicks from the hens, yet still put them with each other. At night they would all sleep together, unfettered by the cage. This gentle introduction worked like a charm, and the chicks grew exponentially. In fact, they would eventually grow so large that they outweighed the largest hen three to one. We named them Fingers (the gangster-like bruiser), Nugget (the affectionate one) and Patty. Fast-food inspired names, but they just fit. Hey, these guys would never see a machete or beer-batter breading! The little ones grew quickly, and so our little burgeoning brood thrived in harmony. Humans could definitely learn a thing or two.

One of the Jules stopped coming out of the house during this time, and a few days later she passed away. We have the satisfaction of knowing that her last days were stress-free and she was well-fed. We buried her in the forest, and while the other Julie mourned, none of the others seemed fazed.

Denny, who had been the bully — of chickens and humans — stepped up to the plate around this time. The three little chicks were still so small that they escaped into the goat pen by pushing through the chicken wire. They were wandering around seeking bugs, and Denny escaped along with them. I rounded up the three little ones (it's a lot easier than chasing adult chickens!) and put them back in the pen, intending to go back for the adult chicken. When I went back to get her, I discovered she had followed them into the pen; her only intent was to keep an eye on the little ones. There must be a nanny in there somewhere. See? The mothering, nurturing instinct was alive and well in even the nastiest chicken on the block. After that, Denny got nothing but praise and thanks from me. Why, she even grew a respectable array of feathers on her back with a little encouragement.

With the arrival of Fingers, Nugget and Patty, Shell was no longer the weakest nor the most outcast. She began to exhibit signs of self-respect, and no longer awaited her beatings with resigned martyrdom. She hung out with the youngsters, and even Denny gave her some room to run around. She began to fatten up and grow her feathers back. Denny and I came to an understanding: She looked after the health of everyone, and she got first go at the table scraps.

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