Chickens on the front lines

Not since World War II, when it briefly became patriotic to raise poultry on the home front, has the chicken seen so much press. My thoughts naturally turn to chickens in the springtime, but only recently have the big urban newspapers followed suit.

It was springtime, two years ago, when The New York Times reported that a chicken had mysteriously turned up in the New York City backyard of its restaurant critic, William Grimes. Reporters and photographers flocked to the scene and periodic news flashes ensued, as the hen made herself at home and eventually began to lay. Just as Mr. Grimes was figuring out what hens eat and that they don't need a rooster to produce eggs, the newly famous Australorp abruptly flew the coop. Was Grimes' chick a poultry victim of city crimes? Or was she simply fleeing freedom of the press?

Then, last winter in Maine, a couple noticed that a hen had taken up residence under their porch, evidently hiding from a hawk. When that hen also disappeared, they blamed the predator. A few days later, however, the hen turned up, alive and well, under the hood of their pickup truck, where it was presumed to have ridden back and forth to work a few times. Ordinarily, hens in the backyard are not news in Maine, but this commuting hen was an exception.

About that same time, I accompanied my mother to a doctor's appointment and was surprised that the subject of chickens came up again. It turns out that her arthritis medication is comprised of chicken combs.

My mother, a food columnist, had been following both the Grimes' hen and my own small flock of Rhode Island Reds, better known as "the ladies." When she thought that the spring in her step might spring from the combs in her knees, she wrote, "I feel like cooking up a big spaghetti dinner as a thank you to the ladies."

Hens, as even food critic William Grimes didn't know, love to eat spaghetti, probably because it looks like worms. An ear of corn is also entertaining to offer. My hens, upon first encountering corn on the cob, went into an immediate huddle to discuss, at great gossipy length, whether it might be a grenade. When it hadn't detonated after 10 minutes, they designated one hen to try it. She bravely pecked at it, squawked, "Corn, you idiots!" and they all joined the feast.

Now, it's winter, 2003. Grenades are showing up in suitcases in London and we're all feeling as jittery as a pullet with an unexploded ear of corn, and chickens have made the news again.

Our US soldiers in Iraq just adopted 250 chickens to carry atop their Hum-Vees when they head across the dusty oil fields. They're calling this Operation Kuwaiti Field Chicken (KFC). These patriotic little hens have been drafted as the early warning devices of chemical warfare.

Here on the home front, the snow is melting and my free-ranging hens can expand their turf once again. One spring, they nearly fell victim to an avalanche when a huge load of snow fell off the roof onto a bit of lawn, where only minutes earlier the hens had been picking up sunflower seeds. ("No single snowflake would have felt responsible," to paraphrase the old Almanacs.) I rushed out to find they were just practicing their early warning signals. ("Squawk! The sky is falling!")

Meanwhile, our US troops near Iraq are busy strutting their stuff, planning their first response, and installing poultry pens on Hum-Vees. This year, we're sending chickens to the front lines and I, for one, plan to keep a beady eye on the front pages.

Martha White is a freelance writer and editor from the coast of Maine.

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