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.
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…