Chicken Diary: Entry 2


            I grew up in an allergic household. We never had dog or a cat. But when I became a latch-key child in 4th grade – welcome to the ‘80s — I begged so loudly for an animal that my parents consented to a guinea pig. She had orange hair and a deafening squeak, and my parents insisted on calling her Aretha. I had wanted to name her Fluffy. They made the right choice.

             I loved Aretha desperately, because I desperately needed something to love. I fed her carrots, did cross-stitch embroidery in her honor, lifted her out of her aquarium cage so she could run around the kitchen and play. I’m not sure she loved me back. She definitely liked the carrots, but when I put her on the floor, she would dash to the corner and poop, and in retrospect, I don’t think she appreciated it when I spun her in a Lazy Susan.

            Still, I tried hard to imagine that something about her regular morning squeaks, or her ferocity with the salt lick, proved that she was an unusually interesting guinea pig. Maybe she was. The standards aren’t especially high. And it didn’t matter; whatever our pets are, we hope that, if they don’t love us back with equal fervor, they’ll at least give us some approximation of a human relationship.

             This is how I feel about the chicks. We sit in the overheated bathroom, watch them peck and eat and take brief naps, call them “Chicky Baby” and “Dudette,” and try to figure out their personalities. At 13 days old, they’re growing fast; they’re still small and fuzzy, but their wing feathers are starting to come in, their tails are puffing out, and something about their lengthening beaks telegraphs “bona fide poultry” instead of “tiny baby animal.” I can imagine them as chickens, the way I can sometimes look at A and imagine her as a teenager. But I don’t want them just to be chickens. I want them to be individuals.

            And they are. In the earliest days, A discovered that they had different rituals for pooping: One of the yellow Buff Orpingtons would lift her wings before she let go, while one of the Barred Rocks would stretch a leg. Then A decided that DeeDee, the smaller yellow chick, was the most curious. Then we started wondering if Lanie, a black-and-white chick, was getting pushy. A week later, we know that DeeDee, still the smallest, is also the calmest, though she chirps the loudest when you pick her up. BeBe stretches her heads the most, in possible greeting, when we come into the room. Lanie is still most likely to flap her wings and push her sisters out of the way. And whenever I reach in to pull wood shavings from their food bowl, Lou almost always leaps onto my arm and climbs up to my shoulder. Maybe she’s just looking for food. I want to think she’s curious.

            If they don’t have complete relationships with us yet, they surely have relationships with each other. At one point, Dan read that Barred Rocks are more aggressive than Buff Orpingtons, and warned that we needed to watch out for bullying. But Dee Dee is the one who will grab a wood chip and run around the cage, as if she’s teasing. I’ve caught myself leaning over their bin and saying, “You guys have to be nice to each other.” Maybe they get a vibe? The other morning, when I opened the door to check on them, I found them sleeping comfortably in pairs: one black and one yellow apiece, snuggled together.



Chicken Diary: Entry 1



We have chicks.

Four of them.

This happened spontaneously, in a way: After nearly a year of hemming and hawing, visiting neighbors’ chickens and doing leisurely online searches, Dan came to me early last Saturday morning and said, “Let’s do it before I talk myself out of it.”

He had found a feed store in Walpole, Massachusetts that sold chicks and chicken supplies. It was 9 a.m. We had plans midday. I roused 10-year-old A from the TV, where she was engaged in her weekly Disney Channel binge, and said, “Turn it off. We have a mission. You’re going to like it.”

She did. I did, too. We lost our cat two years ago, and we desperately need pets. The betta fish in the living room is nice, but insufficient. Dan doesn’t want another cat: he still has residual trauma from cleaning cat pee. We’d love a dog, but we’re waiting until 5-year-old J graduates, himself, to a less dog-like state.

But he loves animals. We love animals. We love animals that can live in the backyard. In warm-weather days, Jesse spends as much time as he can digging through the flower beds, collecting snails and caterpillars, inchworms and earthworms, lining them up and watching them go. Snails are decent entertainment — they come out to say hello, waving antennae, slimy and beautiful — but they disappear in the cold-weather months. Chickens will sustain us through the winter. They’ll huddle in cold weather and keep themselves warm. Our friends on the next block have three chickens that survived last winter’s Polar Vortex, many times over. They make adorable noises. And – fringe benefit — they lay eggs. Dan asked me to look up “Buff Orpington,” a hearty New England breed, and friendly. One website said the chickens like to sit on people’s laps. I was sold.

Soon enough, so were the chicks. We found them milling around, pecking at air, in a heated container near the entry of the store. We’d imagined getting three, but the store attendant recommended four, the better for winter huddling. He lifted a quartet of five-day-olds and put them in a box: Two Buff Orpingtons, classic-chick yellow, and two Barred Rocks, black with speckles of white fuzz. We bought a giant bag of medicated feed, an even larger bag of pine shavings, a heat lamp bulb, and containers for food and water. The chicks made cheeping sounds and pooped in the box, which A held on her lap for the ride home.

I rifled through the basement storage area and found a big plastic bin, filled with Lego Duplos. (Another fringe benefit: This was the motherlode of Lego Duplos, handed down to us by someone or other, elephants and cranes and train tracks, long forgotten, now beloved.)

The chicks have a new home: a bin in the bathroom, covered by wire, warmed by a 250-watt heat lamp, which will sustain them for week as they grow, and buy us time to find a coop by the time they’re ready to move outside. They have names, which A and I settled on that day: Bebe, DeeDee, Lanie, and Lou.

A is already a champ at cleaning chicken poop. And J is quickly learning what it’s like to be a parent.  “I don’t ever want them to get big,” he keeps saying. I know exactly how he feels.