Monday, May 05, 2014

Going to the Birds

By Zinta Aistars
(Read at Bookbug author reading,
"Verses and Vibes" on the theme of 
food and raising food, March 2014) 

Communing with my girls (Photo by L. Rozins)

Reading at Bookbug
On how many playgrounds have children taunted each other with the label: “Chicken!” On the playground, chicken means a lack of courage. But on this blue-misted morning in late October, I am the one short on courage—even as I am tingling with excitement at this new adventure.

I am on my way, at the break of a cool dawn, to a poultry farm in nearby Zeeland. During the previous summer, the toolshed on my 10-acre farm had been converted into a roomy and comfortable chicken coop. Two rows of nest boxes had been installed. Chicken feeders and waterers were in place. Straw was strewn across the floor for warmth and comfort.

Ever since I moved here at the beginning of 2012, I’ve been dreaming chickens … and fresh, organic eggs.

I had read the instructional books, joined chicken-raising forums, visited a friend’s poultry farm, even participated in a day of processing meat chickens to learn the literal ins and outs of all things chicken. I was as ready as I could be … but for a jelly edge of fear.

One day old chick at Z Acres
My fear was about handling these soft balls of fluff. They are, after all, living beings. Tender little things that chirp and peep, delicate and light as a golden feather. Will I know how to raise them? Will I be a successful mother hen? Will I know how to keep them safe from predators?

Where I live, deep in Michigan country, coyotes roam nights in hungry and howling packs, raccoons peer from behind their black masks around moonlit trees, and sharp-eyed hawks loop in the sky overhead, watching for tell-tale movement.

I’d heard the horror stories about wily raccoons pulling witless chicken heads through the wire fencing—and pulling their little heads loose. Oy.

The moment I walked into the chick building at the poultry farm, I recalled why I wanted to try my hand at raising chickens. Other than fresh eggs in unlimited supply, of course. That sound … that soft clucking and peeping, it was as soothing as any sound I’d heard. I knew I didn’t want a rooster crowing at the break of every dawn (not soothing), but this soft murmur of hens and chicks was almost meditative.

So I brought them home: six day-old chicks, six tiny bundles of downy feathers with tiny beaks and skinny little toothpick legs. After the first day and night of checking on them every few minutes to be sure that the chicks hadn’t suddenly keeled over and died on me for any number of irrational reasons, I began to relax.

And enjoy. The little chicks were growing so fast, truly before my eyes. Every day I saw a visible difference. By golly, they weren’t stupid birds at all—weren’t chickens supposed to be silly? Think the sky was falling upon their downy heads? With each day, I saw them interact more and more with each other, peer out the window at new light, cock their heads to listen to the crow cawing outside, trot over to take a closer look at my camera lens when I photographed them. They scratched in patches of dirt to find grain, they bumped beaks with each other in some measure of interaction. My presence drew immediate curiosity.

As their wings grew and developed feathers in place of the down, the chicks flew higher up to roosts, and finally flew up and out of the open box where I kept them in a warm greenhouse. Sooner than I had expected, they were ready to move into the grownup chicken coop.

Four months later, I discovered the first brown egg. I stood, perfect egg in palm, and stared in wonder. This was why I was raising chickens, after all, I knew this was coming … and still, I was bowled over by the wonder of it. The good egg.

No egg ever has been more carefully cracked into a hot pan of bubbling butter and fried. None more lusciously eaten, licking lips at every bite. Rich. Creamy. Buttery. The yolk was a deep orange, evidence to the diet my growing hens have enjoyed: all organic grains supplemented with greens and vegetables, berries and fruits, and the occasional bug and worm as spring begins its hesitant thaw. Oh, the joys of free-ranging soon, soon!

But it isn’t just my daily basket of eggs that I now so enjoy. It’s the chicken communion. Before I gather those eggs, I commune with my girls. I listen to the pawk pawk of their conversation. They chatter, they hum, they toot and chirp and cluck in contentment. When my day grows stressed, I visit my girls, and they hop on my knee or sit on my shoulder or arm. They pick the dust from the seams of my jeans and the pebbles from the soles of my boots. They look into my eyes as if they saw some sense there. They give me a peck, hard, when I take too long to answer. They are not too chicken to do that, to me, a mother hen a hundred times their size.

Boiled, poached, sunny side up with crispy lace edges, or swimming in lemony Hollandaise sauce. Doesn’t matter. Chicken or the egg, I want both. Both have made my life a richer experience and, more than once, kept the sky from falling.

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