My First Fowl

Introductory information

Jane and I were graduate students together while I was getting my masters. She went on to work--in Manhattan--with the behavioral interactions (especially vocalizations) of chicks with the hen from the day before hatching until the day after hatching. So she did not really have much use for 3-day-old chicks.

It was sometime in the spring of 1978 when my friend Jane asked me if I'd like some baby chickens (White Leghorns--pronounced "leggerns" except by city slickers, so I've learned). After the initial excitement of dealing with my landlord--"of course you can have a dozen eggs a week"--I called Jane and said "Sure, I'd love 'em."

This led to 24 little balls of fluff in a cage in the living room, as they must be kept warm (hot!) until they have all their feathers. Gave 13 to a friend, whose dog eats them three days later, and now there are 11 chicks in my house, all growing white feathers and the majority looking like they'll grow up to be roosters. At 10 weeks of age one rooster was named Desmond and the other five given away. (Unless you are a very hardy soul it is not wise to ask the receiver of excess cockerels about their future.)

"24 little balls of fluff in a cage in the living room"

By this time two other major events have occurred in my infection with "chickenitis." The first was the arrival of six Brahma bantam chicks (bantams are miniature breeds of chickens) and the second was the need for a home for six leghorns approaching the size of vultures! This called for the slightly devious business of having an outdoor party, as my landlord's ex-duckhouse was too heavy and unwieldy for a few people to move. It then took 18 people half an hour to argue back and forth the alternative methods of moving this coop some 500 feet over the sloping and cluttered ground behind my house into its future home in a little valley in the front yard. Approximately three minutes were required when we finally picked it up and carried it, having realized that we couldn't put it on rollers and there was no way it would fit in the pickup.

After two more days of woodworking modifications, fence post pounding, and chicken-wire unrolling, my yard only needed a derelict washing machine to be admitted to an honors class in living "Appalachia-style." On the third day I learned that Leghorns can fly. The fourth day was spent putting up a higher fence and it has continued in this vein ever since. Experience is a wonderful teacher.

A Leghorn-proof pen

When all this started, I thought it would be nice to have some hens scratching around in the yard and fresh eggs are really good. Suddenly I discovered I was completely addicted to chicken-watching. Hens aren't the brightest of creatures, but each one has a distinct personality and the social order in a group of growing fowl is highly engaging. Soon there were 30 birds in my flock, 9 of them young roosters. Desmond was the supreme authority. Whenever another cockerel tried to mate a hen, Desmond arrived in a flurry of feather to soundly beat the upstart and chase him around the yard. And the hens had no hesitations about whom they liked. The Leghorn hens all crouched to mate when Des approached, but let Freckles--the second-in-command rooster--come by and they attacked him. Victoria would crouch immediately for Desmond, but run squawking in terror from any other rooster of like mind.

I am, I must admit, a bit over-protective of my flock. Every day for a couple of weeks Victoria would walk up and down the fence cackling like mad and when I let them out for their afternoon run she would disappear for half an hour. One night she didn't come back. Having lost one bird to a raccoon because it didn't go into the coop at night and get locked up, I took the dog and went off up the hill the next morning to find and bury a little pile of feathers. When I found the pile of feathers it was alive and well and sitting on 11 eggs. The next step was to gather up the little family and ensconce them in a nice raccoon-proof cage, well remembered from Desmond's youth. Victoria was a model mother--for three days she never moved off those eggs, but she was young, only six months old, and eggs need a three week incubation period. What youth could do that? On the fourth day she got bored. That was that . . . she never set feather to them again. So it wasn't until the following year that there were chicks following the hens about my yard.

"Victoria" a year later!

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