Friday, May 14, 2010

What Comes First?

There’s an urban chicken-raising craze sweeping the nation. I know this to be true because so many of our neighbors have installed coops and chickens in their backyards, and there’s a “For Dummies” book on raising chickens. Once something has a “For Dummies” book dedicated to it, you know it’s gone mainstream.

When our friends Jason and Chris bought baby chicks back in February, I was happy to meet the girls. Rosie, Lily and Poppy were fluffy and cute, as baby chicks are. When Jason built them a chicken coop—the most elaborate coop you’ve ever seen with multiple doors and windows and a ladder to a loft area with cedar chips and hay for cozy nesting—I marveled at the quality of the construction. “It’s a chicken condo. No, a chicken penthouse!” I declared.

When Jason and Chris sold their house in April and found themselves moving into an apartment, I was happy to provide the chickens with a new home. After all, I had entertained the idea of getting chickens myself. How nice would it be to just step outside, into your own backyard, and grab an egg or two for breakfast? I may call myself a vegetarian, but I do love my eggs. Let’s sing together now:
“I love eggs
From my head down to my legs.”

Blame it on Michael Pollan, but after reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I had high expectations for what an egg from a home-raised chicken would taste like. Michael said the yolk would be a rich, radiant sunny yellow, the likes of which I had never seen. And the taste? Well. It would bring me to my knees. “I’ve been eating eggs all my life but only now have I truly tasted what an egg can be!” I would declare, my fist raised to the heavens.

Visions of fluffy omelets laced with herbs and goat cheese, over-easy fried eggs oozing into hash browns, and delicately poached eggs quivering atop golden toasted English muffins danced in my head. This chicken raising business was going to be dee-licious.

But I failed to take into account a few things.

It took the strength of three men to move the chicken penthouse to our backyard. Once it was placed, the ladies were released and given a moment to stretch their legs and get acquainted with their new surroundings.

Then it was time for Leo to get acquainted with his new neighbors. Jason rounded up the ladies and secured them back in the coop. “Release the hound,” I said. Leo stepped out the door, did his usual all over body shake, making his tags clang and rattle as if to announce, “I’m here now,” and milled around a bit, sniffing. He sniffed his way over to the chicken coop and was momentarily a bit puzzled. Then he peered inside. Then all hell broke loose.

He turned into a stark raving mad dog. Biting and clawing at the screened windows and doors of the chicken penthouse, he barked his most menacing bark. When Lily, Rosie and Poppy rushed to the other side of the coop for protection, Leo followed, delivering his attack from a new angle. We all watched this for about a minute, and then my husband dragged Leo—who protested mightily—into the house by his collar.

Oy. Why didn’t I see this coming? “Being a Chow, Leo is very prey-driven,” I remembered one of the Oregon Humane Society staffers telling me when I adopted him. “He can’t live with cats,” she told me. Nor squirrels, I thought; he loves to chase them when we see them in the park. Nor bugs of any kind; he stalks them and eats them. Having the chicken penthouse in his backyard was like having a box of squealing cats or squirrels in his backyard. This was not going to work. Why had I failed to anticipate this?

My husband assured Jason and Chris that he would work with Leo and desensitize him and that everything would be fine. I didn’t see it that way. I threw a hissy fit and took Leo out for his evening walk.

Trouble was, Leo didn’t want to take a walk. Where he usually drags me around town for a half hour to a full hour, sniffing and peeing on everything in his path, this time I had to drag him away from our house. He peed around the block and then headed for home. Nothing could deter him from getting back to those chickens.

The week passed and Leo failed to become desensitized. Every time I let him out for our walks, he made a beeline to the chicken penthouse and resumed attack mode. I would wrestle him as he made one of his passes around the coop and drag him out of the yard for a meager two-minute walk around the block. No more afternoons spent lounging on the back deck for Leo; he was a shut-in now.

The chickens, meanwhile, had to be released from the penthouse every day for some exercise and grazing. I typically let them out while I was making dinner, keeping an eye out the window every now and then to see what they were up to. At first, they stuck close to the penthouse but with each passing day, they ventured farther afield.

Aside from Leo's reaction, I had failed to take into account a few other things before welcoming the ladies into my world. Blinded as I was with Michael’s promise of an egg beyond perfection, I had failed to remember that age-old riddle: What comes first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, the chicken.

And chickens, it turns out, shit a lot. On everything. They fluttered up on top of our garbage cans and shit on them. They shit on the back deck. They made their way to the front yard and shit on our front steps. They even shit on their own water jar and feed trough.

Chickens also root around like pigs. When I let them out for their exercise and grazing period, they uprooted the primroses my husband had just planted, tossed dirt onto the sidewalk, pecked my prized Bleeding Heart to a shriveled shadow of its former self and ate a Hosta down to the ground.

The chickens had to go.

One more week passed and Jason found a new home for the ladies. He took them away in box, leaving the chicken penthouse behind.

“Don’t let the door hit your little chicken asses on the way out,” I said under my breath.

As Jason’s car pulled away from the curb, I let Leo out to inspect the coop. He spent about an hour investigating the penthouse, sniffing every inch from every angle. I left the main entrance open so he could go inside and convince himself that they were really, really gone. He squeezed himself inside, looking rather comical: a large, black furry beast straining inside a too-small structure. The scale was all wrong, and I had to laugh. He swept his muzzle back and forth along the loft area, vacuuming up the chicken poops left behind among the feathers and cedar chips.

When he had his fill, he lay down inside the penthouse, as though it was his doghouse, and took a little nap.

With the chickens gone, life is back to normal. Leo is eager for his long walks again, and can lounge on the deck all day. A quick blast with the hose has washed away the chicken poops. The primroses are dead but hopefully the Bleeding Heart and the Hosta will recover and bloom again next year.

As for me, I’ll leave the chicken-raising to the “For Dummies” crowd and buy my eggs at the farmer’s market. We’ll see if eggs from grass-fed, pastured hens are all that Michael says they are.