My son, the chick magnet

To say that my six-foot-tall son "digs chicks" would be an understatement.

Our 16-year-old is crazy about those long-legged lovelies who turn a steady gaze his way whenever he is near. I've noticed the way they look at him. How their dark eyes brighten. How coyly they tilt their heads.

Not to mention how they eagerly peck the very ground he walks on with their yellow-orange beaks.

Never mind dating. My son Roman has - for the moment, at least - taken up with some chickens. The barnyard variety. Two chickens, actually, and a rooster. All three of them, believe it or not, currently roam free in our fenced suburban backyard. Pecking. Clucking. Roosting on the patio chairs. Head-bobbing near the barbecue.

I'm watching them right now, through the kitchen window, thinking back to a few short months ago when they arrived. They were supposed to be snake food. Three tasty, feathered morsels for my son's pet boas. At least that was the plan when we headed home from my brother-in-law's house in the country.

Roman's Uncle Arthur raises chickens in his off hours for fun and a small profit, often selling them to reptile owners as "feeders."

"Here, Roman, take a few home with you," Arthur said, reaching into the warm light behind a glass door of a small enclosure where a bevy of fluff-balls-with-feet cheeped and huddled.

"I usually feed my snakes frozen rats." (Author's note: Don't ask.) "But, hey, why not?" my son shrugged with a quick look in the direction of me and his dad.

Thanks to Roman's long history of unusual pets, my family's experience with the way the food chain works has been more vivid than most. I know for a fact that certain lizards prefer crickets as an entree, as do some tarantulas. And I realize, too well, exactly what that sizable lump is, there in the middle of a lip-smackin' boa.

The chicks rode home with us that night, cheeping now and then as they bumped against one another in a brown grocery bag, little guessing that their new middle name was "Lunch."

When we got home around 10, my son set up a temporary home for the birds, a kind of Motel Three. On the side of the house, he hurried to outfit a long-unused, igloo-style doghouse, with a plug-in heating pad and a corner layer of pine shavings. He filled a plant saucer with water and sprinkled a few fistfuls of chicken feed, compliments of Uncle Arthur, near the dog house. Then with one hand he lifted up its swinging, clear-plastic door, and with the other, gently shepherded the chicks inside.

"There now. There you go." I heard him coo. (This from the same teenager who typically responds to motherly "I love you's" with "Yeah, OK. Whatever.")

"Those chicks are too cute," he said the next morning after checking on them before breakfast. "Whadaya say we keep them for a while? At least until they use up all the chicken feed?"

So the chicks were given a reprieve. And a few days later, I noticed a new bag of feed - this one the 40-pound economy size - in the garage. Roman had bought it, with money from his part-time job as a Web-page designer.

Every morning he'd scatter a couple handfuls of the stuff in the chicks' general direction. Every night before bed, he'd slide open the patio door to round them up and tuck them in. The chicks were smart enough to push their way out the door of the doghouse each morning, but the concept of returning to it for the night was apparently the barnyard equivalent of quantum physics. Left to their own devices, they crowded together near the trash cans, staring wistfully at the doghouse door and squeaking now and then.

Patiently, tenderly, my son took it upon himself to give them a nightly refresher course in Roosting 101. A new papa could not have been sweeter. (This from a guy whose idea of a great movie is anything with the word "lethal" in the title.)

Days passed. Weeks, too. And we suburbanites became accustomed to seeing chickens in our backyard. We discovered that chickens are really fun to watch - what with all their strutting and clucking and that one-eyed way they have of peering at you through the screen door.

I couldn't bring myself to remind my son why all that poultry was here in the first place. Didn't have the heart to say, "Isn't it about time you tossed those cuties to the snakes?"

And so, they continue to thrive. Having outgrown the doghouse, they now sleep under a tarp Roman rigged up - too fat and happy to be brunch for anybody's boas. Someday - perhaps when the rooster finally gets that crowing thing down pat - we'll herd them into the minivan and head back up the freeway to Uncle Arthur's.

But for now, our high-tech household has the distinction of being The Best Little Chicken Ranch this side of the Information Superhighway. And one teenager's mom is glad for the glimpses of tenderness that have led her to believe those other "chicks" in her son's future - the ones with far fewer feathers - will be fortunate, indeed.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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