Feathered affection

A city girl discovers the gift of chickens.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

Sunrise touches my frost-rimed deck. Steam rises off the hot tub and drifts toward the chicken coop below, where a drawl of "prock, prock, prooooock" breaks the silence. The sound comforts like a mother's lullaby.

My four hens aren't chicks anymore, yet I still call to them with a soothing, "Here, chicky, chicky" as I tap the old ice-cream container filled with sunflower seeds. Across our large yard, their heads lift – two rust-colored, one gray and white speckled, the fourth a golden halo. Then my favorite Rhode Island Red collects her legs under her for a pell-mell dash toward me. The others follow, more cautious, less enthusiastic, but gathering determination as their momentum propels them to a screeching halt at my feet. The leader, Henny Penny, allows me to caress her soft feathers. She clucks approvingly and pecks at my shoe. I offer the seeds, and she buries her beak in them.

Each evening, with some coaxing, I lead the hens back to their chicken tractor (a movable, floorless coop) and herd them inside. Peep, the golden Americana, is skittish as usual, and I have to chase her until she finally gives up and squats, frozen in place. She tolerates my hands tucking her against my chest. She stays stiff until I place her gently inside the wire prison. "It's for your own good," I tell them, "so predators can't get you." But I know if I let them, they'd roost till dawn in the trees and probably be fine.

Still, I can't let them range freely all the time. They might decide to lay eggs down by the creek or under the deck, and eggs are the reason we have the hens, aren't they?

The chicken idea began as a 4-H project for my 10-year-old son, Tyson, who wasn't especially fond of animals but became enamored of chickens when he got to collect a neighbor's chicken eggs while the family went on vacation. So my son and husband researched chicken houses and decided on the mobile tractor, which was supposed to have wheels but ended up with skis. We heave-ho the structure to a new location every week, fertilizing meadow grass and saving on cleaning.

I'm a city girl. I'd never held a chick until last spring, and I had no idea how to take care of our little bundles of fluff. Tyson and I handled the chicks warily, ever mindful of pokey claws and sharp beaks. We'd bought two Americanas (for their green-colored eggs), two California grays (white eggs), and two of the common, large Rhode Island Reds (brown eggs). All too soon, feathers replaced fuzz, and cheeps deepened into throaty crooning. We moved them to the brand-new, blue and orange spray-painted chicken tractor, then promptly ran over two of them when we tried to move it with the four-wheeler. We felt terrible.

That's when I realized the hens had become more than a project, more than food producers, more than an attempt at "getting back to the land." They were my girls. I loved to sit in the grass while the young hens gamboled about me, rooting for grasshoppers and chasing moths. I soon lost my trepidation of holding them, though they haven't lost theirs of being held.

My favorite, Henny Penny, would follow me anywhere. My husband might complain of chicken feces on our deck and chicken-beak-sized holes in the thistle feeder, but it's a small price to pay, in my opinion, for the sight of my girls awkwardly lifting off in a flurry of wings when their spindly legs can't carry them fast enough to where I stand.

Chickens can't offer the kind of affection my Labrador does as he buries his wet nose in my lap. But in their bumbling, chickeny way, they seem fond of me. And almost every day, even when I've left them outside in zero-degree weather with frozen water and only thin plywood walls for shelter, they offer me four miracles – produced mysteriously and for no particular reason, but with squawks of pride nonetheless.

Four gifts – one green, one white, and two brown. Four perfect ovals that my son arranges artistically in multihued patterns nestled in recycled cartons. It might seem odd to call eggs beautiful, but they are – almost too beautiful to eat, but of course we eat them anyway. And as yolks sizzle in the frying pan like little suns, I find myself giving thanks for nature's unexpected offering – not just for the eggs, but for their makers.

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