Mrs. Cook knocked solidly at my front door. She lives three houses away from me on the corner of a busy street.
"Did you know that you have three roosters on your wood pile?" she asked. The three birds were perched only two feet away from her on a pile of logs stacked against my house.
"Oh, Dorothy, those aren't roosters," I replied. "Those are hens." It took me two years after moving from Connecticut to Maine to tell a rooster from a hen. I feel like an authority now.
"Well," she continued, "they're stopping traffic down on my corner, and they'll cause an accident someday. Linda should keep them penned up, don't you think?"
Linda owns the sprawling farmhouse between Dorothy's house and mine, so I can see how she would think those fancy-free chickens belonged to her.
"To tell you the truth, those chickens are mine," I confessed. Mrs. Cook blushed. "Oh my," she remarked. "They certainly are slowing down traffic, that's for sure!"
Yes, I own chickens, the bantam variety, and we're putting up a pen against my wishes. These miniature fowl that wander freely in my yard (and beyond) have entertained and delighted me for 11 years, ever since my children were young. It began with an old doll house.
When our two daughters and son started school, my husband and I converted the doll house into a henhouse. We boarded up the windows to ward off the local predators - hawks, foxes, and weasels. There have been nights when the door to the henhouse was mistakenly left open, and I'd discover a neighborhood raccoon sharing the roost with a hen. Now we latch all the doors and windows. My kids claim that the henhouse is locked up more tightly than our house. Maybe. But the reason for the henhouse in the first place was because of Elma.
In the fall of 1985, my youngest daughter, Heidi, and I visited a nearby sheep farm. The farmer's wife had a stunning collection of bantam chickens running loose around her front yard.
What distinguishes these ornamental birds from standard chickens is the bantams' dwarf body (only 1-1/2 pounds) and the full-feathered feet that took like fluffy slippers. They generally have a full plumage in vibrant, floral colors with unusual feather arrangements. Some have extremely long or strangely shaped tail feathers. Poultry fanciers raise them chiefly as a hobby and for exhibition. They are the flowers among chickens.
By the time I drove out of the farmyard, it was too late. A buff Cochin - a pert, motherly looking hen - was making herself at home in the back seat of my car. Heidi was sitting beside her, petting her, and assuring me that she'd make a great pet.
This new hen, Elma, was not the last. Two weeks later, we acquired Prouie, a "Mille-Fleur," a multicolored bird with a brilliant set of feathers that look like a "thousand flowers." Her male counterpart, Fast Eddie, was a flaming red rooster with a habit of flying to the rooftop of our house. (I had been assured by the breeders that these little "banties" didn't have the wing power for flight. Right.)
Aggie was a downy, white hen with clipped wings and fluff instead of feathers, otherwise known as a "Silkie." At nightfall, when other birds were busy launching themselves up to the henhouse rafters, Aggie nested under a cupboard near the grain.
Of all our hens, Elma had the strongest instinct for motherhood, whether the offspring were hers or not. Heidi was tardy for school one day because she was so overcome at finding chicks under Elma's portly body. Her feathers concealed the babies so well that the chicks even moved along with her, hidden beneath her feathered legs as she pecked around outdoors.
Elma sat on any eggs she could find. Once she was "setting," it was close to impossible to get her off a nest. She'd turn the eggs with her foot every once in a while and peck combatively at anyone who approached her.
With free-range chickens, you may find nests almost anywhere. I've found eggs on the top of gas cans, in wood piles and toolboxes, under cars, and in packing boxes. It can be an Easter egg hunt every day at my house.
Raising free-range chickens means that you have company when you weed your flower beds. There are always one or two banties hiding under a hydrangea or a rhubarb, and it still surprises me when I come across them.
This year I accumulated glass clippings and weeds from my lawns and flower gardens to cover the floor of the henhouse. I figured it would be a more fragrant and colorful bedding than the hay or wood shavings I've used in the past. They eagerly scratch around in anything new or forbidden, in hopes of discovering a few petals, or maybe even a new bug.
After all these years, the henhouse still sits on a hillside in my backyard. I lug 50 pounds of chicken feed up the banking to the grain bin every few months. In winter, I shovel a path through four feet of snow so I can deliver the grain on a sled, all for just a few hens. But I truly appreciate them. Their steady peep-peeps in my yard are the only sounds of life during a Maine winter. I set these pirates free every morning to peck and scratch around on the paths below the snowbanks.
From my kitchen window, they look simply beautiful against a fresh snowfall. I call them my winter flowers.