written on Feb 27, 2012
A few days ago, on a walk with Larry, we passed a neighbour and as is the custom here, stopped to chat for 20 minutes on the side of the road.
I mentioned that we were out of eggs and I was off to Digby to buy some. “Oh don’t bother doing that,” said my neighbour. “I’m housesitting for our other neighbour whose hens are producing lots of eggs and we can go over there to get some right now.”
We walked over to the little barn behind the house where a small flock of brown and black & white chickens shared an airy space with little fluffy rabbits hippity-hopping through fresh smelling straw. We gathered a dozen still-warm eggs.
“What’s happening with the rabbits?” I asked. “Well, I think they were supposed to be for meat, but they’re so cute that now she’s selling them for pets.” I picked a tiny white one up that just fit in the palm of my hand. So sweet, so soft. It was all I could do to not slip her into my pocket and bring her home. (“For our cats?” asked Larry)
I keep pestering Larry that we need chickens too, but he sees the work involved and how tied the owners are to caring for their birds. The cost of a chicken coop, the feed, the care, the extra eggs, the hyper-vigilance that needs to happen to thwart the occasional fox, hawk and even dog attacks. All of this would pay for a lot of eggs raised by other folks.
But some chicken experiences are, well, priceless. And I’m not talking here about the gardener’s glee in watching chickens eat ticks and slugs and cucumber beetles. I’m talking about what they can teach us. Like how to care for a child. Like how to meditate.
I would not have believed meditating chickens unless I had seen it with my own eyes. Yesterday I visited a friend’s broody hens who are waiting to hatch their own eggs.
I made a movie, but it didn’t look any different from this photograph. Why? Because it is dead quiet in the pen, the hens don’t move at all. And get this. They ALL sit facing the same way – South. Normally, chickens are constantly on the move, scratching, checking out their surroundings, hunting for tasty worms or bugs or new lettuce shoots. Not these hens. Every so often, they carefully turn their eggs and make sure that they are always warm. Then once a day they will eat and drink, but they won’t abandon their precious eggs. It’s like walking into a meditation hall but it feels eerie.
Meanwhile, in a sunny part of the barn, a new mama hen is teaching her week-old chicks how to eat an apple; how to scratch for seeds; how to peck.
When I appeared, she clucked for quite some time until deciding that everything was OK. She is constantly showing the chicks what to do–how to drink, how to eat, how to scratch– and they peep continuously. One of the 3 chicks is her biological offspring. The other two were fertilized eggs from another hen and rooster. Does she know? I wouldn’t be surprised if she did! And although hens lay an egg at least every other day, they stop laying during the incubation period (21 days) and during the training-the-chicks period. Imagine! That means their thinking and emotion must alter their own hormonal production. I find that astonishing.
And this is how Mother Nature intended chickens to be. Connected to their chicks; mothering their chicks and having a break from the constant production of eggs.
This chicken behaviour is partly dictated by their breed. These ones are heritage so they’re closer to original chickens in behaviour, intelligence and instinct.
The poor overbred chickens in conventional factory farms never get to even hatch their chicks, let alone raise them. This ensures they will never want to meditate, to nurture a chick or to pass their chicken knowledge on to the next generation.
I feel so fortunate to be able to learn some chicken lore at this point in my life and to have friends who are so excited about caring for chickens and observing them and letting me share in that.