Beginning my Adventures with Chickens

While I’ve always been an animal lover, my preference has been for wild animals. Leave the wild in the wild was always my motto, though perhaps that had something to do with the fact that once upon a time even a potted plant felt like too much of a commitment. But my life is far more settled than it was in my anti-potted plant days and I’ve come to love growing my own fruits and vegetables, and catching my own fish and crabs. So chickens seemed like a logical next step; why not add eggs to my line-up of fresh products? 

The first challenge proved to be buying hens. It seemed chicks would be easy to purchase, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for the responsibilities of rearing babies and there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t grow up to be roosters, which I knew I didn’t want. My husband and I searched and searched and just as we were about to give up, his brother in Pennsylvania called to report an Amish farm advertising pullets for sale. Perfect! We jumped in our car and drove the couple hours from Maryland to this farm in Lancaster County. 

It was a rainy day and I was glad I’d chosen waterproof boots for our outing as we followed our teenage guide through mucky fields of knee-high grass, freshly plowed mud, and finally under a barbed wire fence and through more tall grass to a quonset hut-style trailer. What appeared to me as full-grown hens were everywhere – tall, short, plump, thin, shy and curious, flocks of reddish birds poured out onto the ramp, huddled inside, pecked below the trailer or clustered around its edges like some invisible fence kept them within range of the mothership. The farmer’s son stomped up the ramp, a string of chickens following as his rubber boots, suspenders and straw hat disappeared into the shadows at the back of the trailer. There was some squawking, then the boy re-emerged with a hen under each arm.  

One of the red hens from the Amish farm in Pennsylvania.

My husband, who has owned chickens before, grabbed one. He probed its chest, inspected its beak and examined the bird’s wings before deeming it fit. He thrust the bird into my arms. It was then that I realized I had never held a chicken before. What the heck was I supposed to do with this thing?! The chicken flapped its wings violently as I gently tried to cradle it, shifting my arms this way then that to block imminent departure and more imminent thrashing. “Pin down the wings!” my husband offered, and finally there was calm. A big brown eye watched me suspiciously, red waddles quivering as the hen tilted its head for a better view. Seemingly satisfied, it nestled into the crook of my arm and we both visibly relaxed.

The second bird didn’t pass my husband’s inspection. It was ok, but he preferred the bold one watching us curiously from the top of the ramp. My husband swooped up the desired bird, sending less brave hens scuttling and the farmer boy’s eyebrows up in surprise. Apparently ‘city boys’ weren’t expected to catch their own bird, or maybe it was the scrutiny that was unexpected. Either way, this bird passed the test. We tucked our hens under our arms, both arms in my case, and retraced our steps along the downtrodden grass.   

The farmer lifted the barbed wire for me and as I stooped to lower myself and my new avian friend through the opening, I noticed a couple of hens at my heels. I looked back and noticed a couple more, and more, an entire string of chickens filling the trail of flattened grass from me all the way to the trailer like some red-brick road. They stretched up tall, watching intently, perhaps wondering if they too were going on a field trip, or maybe contemplating a rescue mission. I didn’t wait to find out. 

Hence begins my adventures with chickens…

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An Owl’s Tale

Baby Eastern Screech Owl on the roadside.

I’m not sure what caused me to glance up at that moment, nor how I noticed the writhing gray amidst the foliage but it stopped me in my tracks. I watched as tiny wings coated in fluff beat vigorously, but the bird went nowhere. Talons grasped at twigs, yet the bird teetered upside down. Was it stuck? No sooner had this occurred to me than the fledgling tossed its head back and two wide yellow eyes stared directly at me. A baby screech owl. It turned away and struggled again, seemingly too twisted in the branches to release itself and too high above a busy road for me to assist. I stood helpless. The yellow eyes locked on me again, and then the baby launched itself into the air and glided to land beside me on the sidewalk.

I stared giddily at my new neighbor. Had my presence anchored this fledling? Its gaze that second time had felt so intentional, and now the owlet was by my side. Had it been disoriented? Had seeing me upright on solid ground given it impetus to abandon its tedious position? A jumble of questions with no answers rushed through my head. The only thing I knew for sure was that I felt responsible for this baby. Certainly those eyes locked on mine were a plea for help! I studied the branches and trunks of nearby trees for signs of a cavity, a potential nest where I might return my prodigy to its parents. I saw nothing, but it mattered not. The canopy was too high for me to reach. Yet I knew that the bird’s best chance of survival was if its parents could find it in nearby branches.

We stood on a wide sidewalk sandwiched between a high wall and a busy road, a sidewalk frequented by zooming bikes and sniffing dogs – not a safe place for an off-balance owlet. Slowly, gently, I reached a finger down toward my little friend. It hissed a protest that sent it bobbing, but awkwardly it grasped my finger and hung tight. I spotted a break in the vegetation across the road and when traffic lulled, I rushed into the vegetated cove. As I looked around for a sturdy branch, the owl glided off my finger and landed a few feet away. It was as safe a place as any. I hoped its parents would find it.

Baby screech owl recovering in a box.

I went on my way, but I couldn’t get those yellow eyes out of my head. Had my baby owl been rescued? Had its parents found it? I needed to know. I waited a few hours, long enough for the parents to intervene, then went back to the clearing. If it were gone, I would assume all was well. To my dismay, it wasn’t gone. It was mere inches from where I’d left it, looking pitiful as it leaned against a stone. I knelt beside it and those eyes fluttered open to stare at me. There was no protest this time. There was no clinging this time. The baby slumped into my hand, and I once again felt responsible. I gently wrapped the bird in my sweater and took it home.

I dripped water from an eye dropper onto its beak. It seemed too weak to respond initially, but resistance faded and it eventually lapped up the droplets. I placed a towel in a box and tucked my baby inside with a lightbulb above for heat. An hour or so later I peaked in at my patient. It had climbed up onto a branch I’d rigged across the bottom and was clearly feeling better. Those yellow eyes glared up at me and the owl hissed an adamant protest to my intrusion, so adamant that it toppled to the towel below. Even its attempts at menace were endearing.

My rejected farewell kiss.

Baby screech owl preparing for transfer to the rehabilitation center.

Staff at the rehabilitation center inspecting my baby screech owl.

I wanted to play foster mom. I loved the idea of raising this baby to release as the yard owl at my new home, but I knew I couldn’t train it to fly nor hunt. My owlet needed the company of other owls. So the next day I offered a farewell kiss, that was heartily rejected, and took my baby to the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center at the Frost Museum of Science. I watched as they measured, scanned and evaluated my owlet. I glowed with pride at the report of good health and a bad ass personality. My baby was going to be just fine. And as a bonus, they even promised to bring it back to the owl box in my yard when it was ready to be released.

Now fully-grown screech owl before release into my owl box.

It took a couple of months, but finally I got the call. I raced to the door when one of the Prey Center staff showed up. I peaked in the cage and my former owlet, now a beautiful, fully grown Eastern Screech Owl, greeted me with the same yellow eyes and adamant hiss.

“This one had attitude!” the staff woman informed me, “It was one of the feistiest babies we had.”

I was pleased. A pat on the head, a couple of photos and my returned owl was gently placed in my waiting owl box. I couldn’t help but visit the box several times. My owl sat at the entrance, gazing out most of the day. I checked again first thing the next morning, but there was nothing to see. By evening it was clear that the box was empty, and I admit to being disappointed. I’d hoped the box would become home, or that the owl would at least stay around my yard, but there were no signs of it…

until two days later. A shadow crossed the dark sky and something settled atop my pool umbrella. I squinted at the owl-sized shadow and imagined the pair of yellow eyes I was certain was gazing back at me.

My baby screech owl, no longer a baby!

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Finding Nature in Paris

View of Paris from the Eiffel Tower

I couldn’t get over how dense and sprawling Paris was as I stared down from the Eiffel Tower at the maze of buildings packed onto Medieval-sized streets below. It was Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III who widened some of the streets to create today’s grand boulevards, improved public works and laid the framework for myriad parks. And it was the large expanses of green, the parks, that drew my eye and beckoned. That was where I would find wildlife in the city; or so I thought.  

The next day I headed to Jardins du Luxembourg, the very garden that provided respite and fodder for Ernest Hemingway during his tenure in the Latin Quarter. Designed for Marie de Medici to assuage her homesickness for Florence, the garden was never as Italian as she’d dreamed and has become quintessentially Parisian today. Impeccably aligned trees bordered lush green lawn that was forbidden to walk upon, neatly trimmed bushes outlined explosions of multi-colored flowers that appeared so perfectly mixed it became clear that they were planted in a pattern and, given their flower-shop ready appearance, were likely recently installed. A grove of citrus trees, some said to be a hundred and more years old, was maintained in the same giant but moveable wood and metal planters used at Versailles to keep winter-sensitive plants alive from one year to the next. The garden bustled with men playing Bocce, their business jackets neatly hung on a rack in the center of the courts. Mothers clicked high heels down the sidewalks looking like they’d dressed for the runway rather than a stroll with baby in carriage. Father and son sailed model boats across the central water feature. And college students grouped the provided green metal chairs into clusters at grass edge, huddled together to study, gossip, or simply enjoy a cigarette. What the garden didn’t bustle with was wildlife. I heard rustling in the bushes, but it inevitably was a Wood-Pigeon, a Rock Dove, or a House Sparrow; all natives here and relatively common urban birds, just as easily seen on the flawlessly manicured and untouchable lawn as in the shrubbery.

Rock Doves at Jardins du Luxembourg

Wood-Pigeon at Jardins du Luxembourg

It was at the Louvre, listening to nestlings peep as I stood under the Carrousel du Louvre gazing across at the main museum and its contrasting pyramid entry, that I realized the folly in my approach. Just like so many people in Paris, nature too was at the museums. A cluster of Common House Martin nests spackled the archway’s ornate carvings above me, parents flying in and out to placate the voracious appetites of their young. Mute Swans waited patiently at the water taxi stop by Cathédrale Notre-Dame where bees buzzed the luscious flowerbeds framing the buttresses and a Peregrine Falcon swooped around the pinnacles. Entryway carvings at Sainte-Chapelle depicted wildlife boarding Noah’s Ark and if one managed to peel his or her eyes from the breathtaking stained glass, the wallpaper below was wading bird-themed. Grand Palais had an entire exhibit on “Jardins” that included a range of garden styles and their wilderness precursors. Even the Grand Palais Rodin exhibit included a statue of spring hares, particularly exciting given my recent sighting in England (see my England’s Spring Hares blog).

“Jardins” exhibit at Grand Palais.

Doorway carving of Noah’s Ark at Sainte-Chapelle.

Statue of spring hares at the Rodin exhibit, Grand Palais.

Wading bird wallpaper at Sainte-Chapelle.

Perhaps with more time I’d find the Rose-ringed Parrots allegedly lurking in Parisian parks, or the wolves reclaiming habitat across France and now reported on the capital’s outskirts. But as a tourist just hitting some of Paris’ iconic sites over a few days, it was fortuitous that the line between garden and museum is blurred in Paris. The gardens, at least the ones I saw, were so strictly curated by symmetry-loving landscape architects that there was little room for nature to be nature, but the museums… well, nature had found its way in.

Flowerbeds around Cathédrale Notre-Dame.

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