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Chickening and childrening

April 27, 2015

Life with young chickens and young children is always a few steps forward and a few steps back. If you happen to pause for reflection and find yourself a few steps forward, even if it’s early in the evening, I recommend going to bed immediately. Do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars just scurry upstairs and turn the clocks to 7:30 p.m. (as we have been known to do) and usher everyone to bed, so that you can proudly say you made progress today. Why wait those last couple of hours, tempting fate? Quit while you are ahead.

I wrote a month ago that we have been hatching baby chicks and selling them on Craigslist using fertilized eggs from our mentors: Farmers Bryan and Leanne Murdock of Wyoming, Minnesota. I have received a number of inquiries into the financials of my hatchery. As of this week, my chick-selling profit is $750. After the first round of chicken hatching and selling, I decided to raise my price from 5 dollars a chick to ten. Nobody blinked, so I raised it to twelve.

I discovered there is a real run on chicks the week before Easter. And the day before Easter is like chicken Black Friday. I had one customer call me in disgust at 9:30 p.m. to tell me that chickens at the farm store are only a dollar.

“You should just buy some of those,” I counseled her, “because my chickens are very expensive!”

Her response was a huffy, “Well how late are you going to be up? And can I come buy some of yours tonight, because I am afraid they will be sold if I wait till the morning.”

I think there are three main reasons my hatchery is so popular.

First of all, most farmers find it preferable to hatch chicks  in the barn as opposed to the upstairs hall bath. However, this means they hatch a little later when the weather is warm, so the chicks don’t freeze out there in the barn.  Because I seem to be one of the few indoor hatcheries, I got a jump on the other farmers.

Secondly, all the other farmers seem to be located on farms which typically require a drive out to the country, or at least the suburbs. My hatchery is conveniently located in the heart of Minneapolis. I recently learned that there are 3,000 backyard chicken coops in the city of Minneapolis. Chickens are all the rage. And I seem to be the only person geographically positioned to meet the needs of the urban chicken community.

Finally, I am increasing my rate of live birth with every hatch, as I sharpen my chicken midwifery skills. After each hatch I autopsy the bodies of the stillborn chicks and am working to identify preventable causes of failure to launch. There is always a lot of suspense the day of the hatch, because you never know which eggs will make it.  Annie has developed a practice of sitting on the bathroom counter pointing to each perfectly healthy chick that is running around in the cage, long after the danger has passed and repeating, ” I don’t know if that one is going to make it”. Yesterday, she confided, “When I was in your tummy I didn’t know if I was going to make it out. But I made it!”  I had no idea.

I am a little sad that my profit is $750 and not $850. It would have been $850, but two days before Easter I sold a batch of my expensive chicks to a happy father and son. About 15 minutes after they left I got a text message that said, “Do they always sleep on their backs with their feet sticking up in the air?”

I responded, “Send me a video.”  I said this because this is what my mentor, Farmer Bryan, said a month before, when I texted him to ask if it was okay that one of my chicks appeared attached to his shell by a string and had been dragging it behind him like a trailer for two days. I don’t know what I was looking for in the video but it was shocking to say the least. I would post it, but the contents might be too disturbing. In the video  you can clearly see each chick dropping dead while a cheerful voice in the background says, “Oh that is so cute, they are sleeping on their backs.”

Horrified, I forward the video on to Farmer Bryan who diagnosed the problem immediately. An industrial sized heat lamp from Fleet Farm, lovingly positioned over a tiny oven-like Tupperware full of chicks had essentially cooked them. The dad was so stricken, and the little boy was so sad, that I couldn’t not give them another batch of chicks. I suggested to the dad that he just slip them in during the night and declaring the risen chicks an Easter miracle.

When I told him, Farmer Bryan was not happy that I gave away chicks for free, but I think he is in no position to talk. He never lets me pay for all these eggs that are making me so rich, and last year he gave us two free chickens after the hawk got Dumps. So there!

In spite of the Easter chick debacle, $750 dollars is a step forward. I should’ve sat real still holding my money, or gone quickly to bed with my money under my mattress. But I used some of the cash to pay a friend to build a bigger run onto our existing chicken coop. The idea behind the bigger run was that if my chickens had more room to frolick I wouldn’t feel so sorry for them and let them out to roam the neighborhood placing them at risk of another hawk attack, or in Dan’s words “inviting a blood bath.”

But I had to shoo them out of the coop and into the yard while the finishing touches were put on the run.

In those few hours before I could get them back in, that demon hawk had killed two of them while my back was turned. And not just any two: Ella Lehmer and Ella Wang! And he didn’t even eat them. Just killed them for sport.

Last summer, while sitting on the dock, at North Twin Lake in Amery, Wisconsin, I overheard Pete Gregory explaining to young David who, pole in hand, had questioned the morality of fishing, that fishing was okay as long as it was not done “with a bloodthirsty attitude”. There is only one way to explain a hawk that kills for sport: bloodthirsty attitude.

Especially difficult for me was the loss of Ella Lehmer, who I think of as our ‘therapy chicken’. After a long day, Elisabeth would crawl right into the coop and hold out her arms and Ella Lehmer would run right into them, and stand very still for hugging and cuddling. It was very therapeutic. It’s not every day you find yourself the owner of a therapy chicken.

It has been a week now since the incident and our yard is still full of feathers. Charlie keeps forgetting and on the way to the car yesterday he asked with disgust, “Whose feathers are all over the yard?” As if someone had left their socks all over the place.

Elisabeth decided to choose a single gray feather to place in her locket with the pictures of Dan and Charlie to remember her dear feathered friend. She came in proudly waving a feather the size of a quill pen, but because her locket is the size of a fingernail the feather had to be reduced significantly.

The loss of the Ellas was a big step back.

Also a step back recently was the chick that turned out to be a madman.

He was Annie’s chick, and she named him Ella.  When I saw him attacking and bloodying the other chickens I called my mentor immediately, who said (in an ominous voice) that Ella must be put down immediately or many chickens would die.

But how to do this humanely? The last time I had to kill a chick, it was just an hour old and clearly “wasn’t going to make it.”  That time, I invited an unsuspecting Terra Widdifield over and made her kill it, then took her out for pizza to cheer her up.

How did I get her to do that for me? I am not proud to disclose that when I took the “Strengths Finder ” personality inventory at work, I learned that my strongest talent is getting people to do what I want them to do. I had to share these embarrassing results with my team. Can this even be called a strength? I don’t think so. But the incident with Terra and the chick did sort of confirm the results of the test.

Ella the madman, however, was much older and much stronger than the first unfortunate chick, and the method farmer Bryan suggested involved a physical strength and internal resolve that I am not sure I possess.  It would be the worst thing to half-kill a chicken.

I sought help from Dan who possesses both physical strength and internal fortitude, but he felt it was important for me to do this myself. (A decision which calls into question the results of my personality test I might point out).

After much thought and internet research I came up with the idea of releasing the chicken into the wild and letting nature take its course. So under the cover of darkness, I threw him over a fence into the woods by the Mississippi river. But as I walked away, I could hear him cheep cheeping so plaintively that I could not walk away. I decided the only thing to do was to go back for him and call his name. If he ran to me and leapt into my arms it would be a sign that leaving him in the woods was not a good way to put a chicken down. So I climbed the fence and knelt down and called into the darkness ” Elllllaaaa…..” And if that chicken didn’t run straight out of the woods and leap into my open arms…..

I eventually settled on another another method of extermination that could not be quite so easily undone. I will spare you the details but I will tell you it involved a bridge. And a river. And the middle of the the night.

Ella the madman was a step back. But in the words of my mentor, “We farmers must do difficult things other people are not able or willing  to do.” And indeed we do.

In closing, I must confess to an impulse buy.  A Baby Brahma. A Brahma is a giant of a chicken, known for their big poofy bottoms which enable them to sit on a large quantity of eggs. It remains to be seen if this was a step forward or a step back. I wasn’t planning to buy a Brahma. But you know how it is when you are window shopping and you see a great deal on chickens, and before you know it you are driving home, the proud owner of a Brahma. We’ve all been there. And on the bright side, it wasn’t a baby llama, because those aren’t allowed in the city. I checked because I recently drove past a big llama sale on the way to Amery. We named our Brahma Sweet Alice.

The children have been busy with more important things than chickens, but I am out of time, and have to pick them up. To be continued, I guess….

Below: Elisabeth with Ella Lehmer during happier times.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Grammie B permalink
    April 29, 2015 8:44 am

    Words cannot express the emotions I felt as I read this story. I am still recovering.

  2. Craig MacIntosh permalink
    April 29, 2015 11:15 am

    Finally! The blog drought, however short-lived it may have been, is over. The adventures continue. The chicken saga carries on. Delightful prose, some of most uplifting writing which never disappoints. May the “Pepper Fowls” be fruitful and multiply. The cameo pictures are great, too.

  3. Farmer Bryan permalink
    April 29, 2015 5:52 pm

    That is good stuff!! Glad to be part of your journey.

  4. Amber permalink
    April 30, 2015 12:17 am

    Nothing makes me laugh harder Lucy…thanks for sharing your chicken stories. Makes me want to build a coop.

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