(The following piece tells in greater detail about the construction of my chicken coop and its inhabitants. The article was originally published in 2003 in the Tooele County Magazine by the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin. I offer it here as an appendix to Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road.)
The weathered hinges creek as I enter my patchwork coop. Its quiet inhabitants, rudely rousted from their roosting, suddenly jabber with a cacophony of clucks, crows, honks, and coos. They run nervously about as I turn over a bucket and occupy a corner of their space.
I sit quiet and motionless, and the chatter calms as their anxiety fades. Soon they ignore me and go about their normal bird business: pecking at mash, scratching through straw, drinking from water they muddied the moment it was poured, brooding on freshly laid eggs, and general roosting.
This is where I come for quiet contemplation. Here I am free from the suit and necktie that pay the mortgage but strangle my dreams. If I sit long enough, I begin to see again a glimmer of who I am.
In the coop, the delicate fragrance of fresh, dry straw soothes my frazzled nerves. An impressive portfolio of molted feathers decorates the room in abstract patterns that appear a mere mess to the unenlightened. Eggs nestle comfortably, softly, in beds of straw—a perfect still life of brown, white, and pastel-green ovals.
I soak in the simplicity and innocence of feathered life. I silently bless the absence of drool and bark and bray. I relish the moment’s escape from trivial chatter and from the weight of the world’s woes. My birds demand nothing of me. I feed them; they eat. I water them; they drink. I leave them alone; they leave me alone. We are together in a four-walled world of quiet being—no doing allowed—happily minding our own business.
* * *
My chicken coop is unique in all the world. It follows no blueprint or pattern. Its configuration is determined wholly by the dimensions of the pallets that previously carried snowmobiles and four-wheelers to the local dealer. The pallets were free, except for one blue fingernail, five stitches in a knuckle, and three dings in my truck. Scrap fiberboard sides the pallets, with old storm windows framed into the south and east corners for winter light and warmth.
The finished product stands twelve by eight, ten feet tall in the front and six in the back, with more pallets nailed together forming the roof. After driving the last nail, I stood back and admired my beginner’s handiwork. Beautiful, I thought with pride. The chickens seemed pleased, too. A month later, Grandpa offered to cover the mottled scrap wood with exterior wood siding, and the roof with corrugated aluminum. He said it would last longer that way—he was right, of course—but I could tell he was concerned about preserving my property value.
* * *
Chickens and ducks share the coop. Sometimes the billed birds peck at the beaked, but the coop is spacious enough to permit these distant cousins to live together in seeming familial friendship. Maybe they merely tolerate each other. I suppose at any moment an invisible tension could erupt into a flurry of feathers.
Despite both being fowl, however, they are really nothing alike. They eat the same food—grain, mash, bugs—whatever is available. But chickens peck with sudden snaps of the neck that bring whiplash to mind. The hungrier they are the faster they peck. At feeding time their heads lurch toward the grain with such ferocity that my head hurts, and I wonder what cushions their small brains from becoming mush against their skulls. Their hunger satisfied, they meander around the coop, casually pecking at straw, feathers, grains of sand, but still with the same mechanical whip-snap motion.
Ducks, on the other hand, definitely don’t peck. In fact, their heads remain practically motionless while they feed. The head merely points the bill, which opens and shuts with remarkable speed, as if plugged into a vibrator. My slow eyes perceive a vague blur as bills pulverize a strand of straw into straw-dust.
In contrast to whip-snapping chicken heads, chicken feet unfold and flex with a smooth, fluid motion. This fact holds true with all chicken gaits, but becomes obvious to my eyes with the slow, searching gait employed in casual grazing and roost pacing. I notice suddenly that each chicken breed has its own foot color. White Leghorn: yellow. Rhode Island Red: orange. Araucana: steel gray. Golden Sebright Bantam: blue-gray.
Red combs flop around carelessly with the chickens’ bobbing heads. Some combs reach over an inch tall; others resemble short, blunt spikes barely protruding from the head. While the height of a chicken’s comb depends partly on its breed, the comparative height within a single breed indicates a hen’s egg cycle. A tall comb indicates productivity. A short comb tells me she’s taking a break for a few weeks.
I wondered one evening, Just what does a chicken comb feel like? I had to know. To find out, I employed my practiced chicken-catching technique to apprehend the subject of my curiosity. I cornered a long-combed hen and inched forward slowly, rocking back and forth on wide-planted feet. With a sudden stretch I grabbed her. Terror struck her: she squawked hysterically, struggling to break free. I cupped her head gently in my hand to calm her down. Then I stroked her comb. It was rough and firm, but fleshy, like an old, cracked rubber scraper. I sat on my bucket and smoothed her ruffled feathers. “Don’t worry, little one,” I whispered. “I won’t hurt you.” I began to savor this simple moment and to appreciate this creature who lives unfettered by the concerns and dysfunctions of humanity.
* * *
One evening, as I sat contemplating nothing, I watched a tiny field mouse skitter along a lateral plank, keeping to the shadowed corners. It paused behind each pallet vertical like a thief slinking behind trees before a caper. Yet I just couldn’t quite make the metaphor work: the tiny black eyes, soft, glossy coat, tissue paper ears, and delicate, bony hands painted a picture of sweetness, not deceit. The tiny creature just wanted a little food, after all—and the chickens’ leftovers would do quite nicely. The image of a poor vassal gleaning the fief’s fields fitted better. But the chickens’ crumbs were far from subsistence: they were a bounty to the contented mouse. Perched on petite haunches, it ate undisturbed from a kernel it turned in its delicate hands.
As long as I sat quietly, the mouse seemed to not be aware of my presence. I noticed that the loud crowing of the big rooster registered not the slightest tremor in the mouse’s calm nibbling. Neither did the soft hen clucking or high-pitched Bantam crowing. Hmmn, I thought, and whistled a few notes. No sign of rodent distress. A little humming—still no observable trauma. It must have thought I was just a big, motionless chicken, as oblivious as the rest. Then I snapped my fingers with a crack. The mouse jumped with a start and disappeared. But my little friend soon peeked its dark bright eyes—small, but huge on its tiny snout—out from behind a board. The mouse blended naturally with the setting: warm straw, yummy grain, lots of places to hide, and freedom from felines.
* * *
Not only roosters like to roost. Roosting, among chickens at least, rises almost to the exaltation of eating. Old two-by-fours form their roosts, crossing the coop at different heights and angles. As evening comes, the chickens instinctively return to the coop and hop up to segregated spaces. The full-grown chickens claim the highest roost. This Spring’s juveniles take the middle. No one chooses the lowest.
I have never actually witnessed any pecking to this pecking order. But I surmise that, when I am not watching, the mature birds throw off any pubescent ones who presume to attempt the highest roost, in a sort of king-of-the-roost affair. I engineered some equity in their social order by positioning the roosts so as to protect the younger birds from getting dropped on by their roosting superiors.
Ducks don’t roost. They prefer to cuddle comfortably together in the straw. Long necks sway their heads back to settle in a fluff of wing feathers. From this position, the ducks’ heads appear to rise neck-less from the middle of their backs.
* * *
The crowing instinct has recently possessed my daughter’s young Bantam. With no one to coach it, it is learning nonetheless. But its attempts require an effort painful for me to watch. Dropping its wings slightly, the young Bantam’s crow unfurls from the tip of its tail feathers through its small body, which contorts like a crawling caterpillar, and releases itself as a wheezy little croak, sounding like an old bicycle bulb horn. Between crows, it struts around confidently, like a politician at his election party.
* * *
The big Araucana rooster paces inside its rabbit cage, to where it was banished for its summer misdeeds. An amiable young rooster, the adult became arrogant and aggressive. As I gathered eggs one morning, it flew at me, claws first, like an eagle swooping upon a giant rodent. My denim-clad legs felt like they’d been struck with a willow switch, and I was glad I hadn’t worn shorts. But the unprovoked attack annoyed me more than hurt. A swift boot kick ended the fight, temporarily at least. Each visit to the coop replayed the scene: flying claws; boot kick; peace.
Pulling weeds in the flower garden one Saturday, my seven-year-old began screaming hysterically. I spun around to witness her racing across the grass with the big Araucana trotting after her like a miniature painted ostrich. Its face devoid of emotion, I nonetheless divined its malicious intent.
With the rooster now securely in the rabbit cage, my children safely gather eggs from the irritated hens, whose pecks, after the rooster attacks, seem to them friendly taps. I’ll some day expand the coop so the Araucana can enjoy life without ruining it for others. It is a beautiful bird, after all, with luminescent blue-black tail feathers and a rich golden mien. In the meantime, it paces endlessly in cramped quarters that cramp its tyrannical style.
* * *
For the children, discovering the first egg was as exciting as finding hidden candy, not just because it was our first egg, but also because it was green. Araucanas lay pastel green and blue-green eggs. Some call the breed the Easter egg chicken, for obvious reasons. Pre-died, you might say.
Despite the eight identical nesting boxes that line the rear wall, the hens insist on laying in only one box—the second from the right, to be exact. Even when one hen is brooding a newly-laid egg, another hen, in answer to nature’s urge, oozes herself into the same one-foot by one-foot cubbyhole to lay. Although they soon both give up on brooding, they continue to lay in the same box, day after day, egg upon egg. Left uncollected, the eggs soon form a neat, multicolored pile, with the other seven boxes vacant. The plastic eggs I placed in the other boxes to induce even distribution were pecked open and kicked out.
Each day, the children thrill to gather the eggs in their skirts and run to the kitchen. At least one egg inevitably suffers a casualty, cracked or dropped along the way, sometimes before it even leaves the coop. The chickens rush upon the broken egg, devouring its spilled contents in a cannibalistic frenzy.
Each broken egg tempts my irritation. But a moment’s reflection reminds me that I love my daughters more than my chicken eggs. Anyway, the majority of eggs usually weather the trip without incident. I figure we have the chickens not just for the eggs, but for the experience of having chickens and eggs: to earn the rewards of work; to care for something besides ourselves; to nurture life; to find simplicity and peace in the midst of a frantically materialistic world.
Soon to come will be a pallet patchwork addition, with rooms for pheasants, jungle fowl, pigeons, quail, and maybe an exotic breed or two, like the iridescent Japanese golden pheasant. We’ll admire their remarkable beauty and diversity. We’ll cry when a raccoon spreads feathers and feet through the field. We’ll curse as young roosters spur to defend their turf. And we’ll witness the process of life as old birds die and new life emerges from thin, round shells resting in the straw.