Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Chicken War of 2014

©2014 by LeeZard

The Battlefield
The first casualty of the Great Chicken War was – what else – a chicken but, ultimately, the flock would emerge victorious. Yes, I’m still alive to tell this tale but my pride and my skills as The Chicken Farmer From New York City suffered greatly. It was a war of strategy and tactics fought in the dense bushes of Monroe’s Landing and the muddy plain of its chicken pen.

Monroe’s Landing is the name of Wende’s three-quarter acre property located along the shores of a shining little jewel of a lake less than 30 miles east of Seattle. The tiny lake is populated by nesting eagles, deer, beaver, a gaggle of geese, beautiful white swans, nasty, thieving coyotes and the occasional bear.

Wende and Sarah were spending spring break with friends in Hawaii and, as usual, I was left to care for the menagerie – Kota, the sweetest Golden Retriever you’ll ever meet; Tex, the Texas-Bobtailed-Cat who thinks he’s a dog and rules the roost; Tuxie, all cat all the time; Ruby the mouse-eating corn snake, six young chicks and ten fully grown hens.

Wende has a way with animals like no other; they are drawn to her as if she were dripping with bacon grease and she loves ‘em right back – except for the coyotes. This love extends to her chickens. While they are there to produce the most delicious eggs in the world, they are also her pets. Each one has a name and she talks to them – as a group and individually. They actually seem to understand what she’s saying. My relationship with the flock is quite different. Not bad, just different.

My only previous experience with chickens was either fried or roasted but I’ve learned they are not as dumb as you might think and each one has its own unique quirks and personality. While most of them will flee if you approach – unless it’s with food – a few will just squat and wait for you to pet them and/or pick them up for a quick cuddle. There are countless breeds of different colors, shapes and sizes. Some of the feathering is quite striking and beautiful. Likewise, their eggs are different in shape, size and color.

I’ve learned a lot about chicken culture and care and I’m surprised but I've become attached to the little buggers. So, I was even more surprised when they turned on me that week when The Great Chicken War began. The weather turned fowl, the feathers began to fly and the chickens began to flee.

Wende and Sarah departed very early Monday morning. When I went out to check the chickens Tuesday morning I was alarmed to see Oreo, one of the blacks, lying motionless at the bottom of the chicken coop’s ramp. I walked over to check and she was deader than dead, her little chicken eyes staring lifelessly at the blue sky above. I immediately thought coyote, even though the coop is in an enclosed area with a four-foot high fence. But a coyote would’ve tried to drag her out or at least enjoyed a chicken dinner on the spot but, oddly, there wasn’t a mark on the corpse while all her feathers seemed intact. Hmmmm.

Wende takes personally the loss of any chicken; they are part of her big multi-species family. I was particularly saddened by this loss because Oreo was one of the squatters and I’d held her close to me many times. But I was puzzled by her death. I did some investigating and, lacking solid forensic evidence, could only theorize. Is there a chicken CSI?

Oreo's Grave
I only briefly considered frying the victim for dinner. Oreo was special to me. She arrived as a chick and Wende named her Oreo because of the white spots under her black wings. She was a people chicken from the start. Chicks stay in the house until they are fully grown and Oreo loved to sit in my lap and cuddle. So, I buried her within the enclosure and erected a cairn over the grave both as a marker and to keep predators from digging her up.

What to tell Wende? No, WHEN to tell Wende? After consulting with her sister and a close friend I decided to wait until she came home; there was nothing she could do and why ruin her vacation? Now, we were down to nine little Indians. That night it was eight.

When Wende is home during the day she opens the enclosure and allows the chickens to roam the rest of her property. It’s a win-win all around. The chickens love it. They visit “The Spa,” an uncultivated spot where they lavish in a dirt bath and in which Wende secretes medicated powders to keep them healthy and lice-free. In return the chickens forage and peck away all over the place, doing an amazing job of removing the lawn moss while leaving the grass healthy and vibrantly green.

The downside is that they are potential prey but Wende keeps a close ear to their chatter and runs to their aid at the slightest indication of chicken anxiety. Right before dusk the birds dutifully return to their coop for the night. It seems chickens basically stop wherever they are when it gets dark and that’s where they stay until dawn.

So, on this Monday I followed the routine (it was my day off). There was nary a peep all day (you knew I’d work that in somewhere) but, unfortunately, of the nine remaining chickens, only eight returned to the roost that evening. With flashlight in hand I hunted all over the place. Can you say gone without a trace? Damn!

Yup, That's Cinnamon Scouting for the Mass Escape
I worked on Tuesday and so the chickens were on lock-down and my plan was to keep them that way whether I was home or not. They had other plans and they had a ringleader in Cinnamon.

Cinnamon is a serial recidivist; the fence to her a mere playground toy. She jumps it gleefully and regularly. She is not a squatter and runs at my slightest move toward her. She is a pain to lure back into the pen. But when I returned from work that fateful Wednesday I learned to my utter dismay that Cinnamon had organized a mass escape; only three chickens were in the pen. Arrrggghhhhh.

There was plenty of daylight left and off I went in search of the escapees. Most of Wende’s property is lush with bushes and trees and I knew the birds had their favorite spots, usually in the underbrush. There is plenty of that in the front yard under a few majestic evergreens and a humongous Rhododendron bush. Well, it’s not really a bush; the damned thing is more like a tree with thick long branches extending for several yards in every direction.

As I looked around the tree-bush I heard the telltale nickering of roosting chickens and I knew my targets were nearby yet, they were nowhere to be seen – until I looked up. Sure enough, well up in the Rhody’s branches, and safely out of my reach, were the five offenders – three on one branch and two on another. Were they laughing at me?

I reached up as high as I could to reach one of the branches and began shaking it as hard as I could. There were loud complaining squawks and much wing waving but those chicken feet were not to be moved. They clung to their chosen nighttime roost like there was no tomorrow and all I got for my effort was a pine needle and stick shower from the neighboring trees. Pissed and frustrated I left them, knowing they would find their way down in the morning to once again enjoy their freedom.

The next day I was home so I left the gate open, hoping the chickens would come to their senses and their hen house. By dusk only one chicken had returned. I knew where the others were and I’d be ready for them the next morning.

I was up pre-first light and, grabbing a wide rake outside the garage, I stationed myself just outside the underbrush under the roosting Rhody. Sure enough, after a short while the victorious and unsuspecting former inmates clucked their way down to the ground eager for some free-range breakfast worms.

As soon as all seven offenders were on the ground I made my move. Using the rake to herd them left and right I directed them to the backyard where I’d left the pen gate open. Victory was mine! Or so I thought.

With all eight birds safely enclosed I tied the gate securely. When I was done and turned around toward the house, to my surprise and great chagrin four chickens were standing behind me happily squawking away. Indeed, they were laughing at me. 
Neither Robert E. Lee nor Napoléon could’ve felt worse than I did at that moment. This was my Appomattox, my Waterloo; The Great Chicken War was over. The chickens would have the run of the place until Wende’s return and for the rest of the week I heard nothing but chickens laughing.
War is indeed hell.