Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Egg and I

I've just finished reading "The Egg and I" by Betty MacDonald, that "enduring classic" about a Seattle woman who marries an older man in the late 1920s and moves to a rural part of the Olympic peninsula to raise chickens. It's a very funny book, although less about chickens than about the rough backwoods characters who inhabit the farmland around her house near Chillicum, Wa. Her portrayal of Ma and Pa Kettle is so wickedly funny that it inspired a TV series on the slovenly, lazy but warmhearted hillbillies (and not surprisingly, a lawsuit by the real-life Kettles, who settled out of court, according to

You can also read the book another way -- as a woman's revenge against her first husband for taking her out to the woods and making her live a life of perpetual hard labor in a remote, gloomy outpost in primitive housing, surrounded by uneducated hicks.

If you can get over her portrayal of Native Americans, which is rather uncomfortable, it's a pretty funny read.

From the book:

Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Cooperation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing with hen, feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-gray-head look in her eye. I made all manner of futile attempts to dislodge her--sharp sticks, flapping apron, loud scary noises, lure of mash and grain--but she would merely set her mouth, clutch her eggs under her and dare me...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Just like TV

Here's a surprise about owning chickens: They're fun to watch.

We find ourselves spending a lot of time out at the coop, watching the girls do their thing. What, exactly, is their thing? Well, it involves a lot of scratching up dirt, chasing any bug that flies into the enclosure, eating greens we throw into the pen, chasing each other when one bird has an especially delectable morsel, standing up and beating wings in the air, going to the door of the coop and then flying down into the pen, and just generally being busy. Greg set an old bench up at the end of the coop, and we sit there in the late summer evenings, watching the girls and occasionally poking a worm or some chickweed through the mesh. They really like being hand-fed.

My theory is that we like to watch chickens because they're sort of like us: industrious and curious. They never stop looking for something to do.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

How to catch a chicken

How hard is it to catch a chicken with your bare hands? Pretty hard, it turns out.

Gertrude/Chika slipped out of the chicken run this afternoon when Greg opened the door to throw in a handful of greens. Gracie the schnauzer, who was wandering around the yard, immediately gave chase. We've always wondered what would happen if there was no chicken wire between Gracie and the birds, but now was not the time to find out. I made a heroic, diving leap to grab the dog before she caught up with the bantie, scratching up my knee.

After tying Gracie up, Greg and I gave chase. Gertrude weaved in and out of the laurels, through the raspberries and over the raised beds. She darted in and out of difficult areas. I despaired of ever laying hands on her, and yet she clearly wanted to go back home, because she kept circling around to the pen. Eventually, we got her lined up near the door to the coop, Greg opened the door, I flushed her in, and all was well.

If our yard was enclosed, we could probably let the chickens out to roam. But it's not, and every so often a big dog -- liked the mixed breed next door -- rushes into the yard, leaping back and forth in front of the pen and scaring the chickens half to death. If they were out wandering around, they'd be dog food.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Big chickens

We came back from a one-week vacation, and the chickens were much bigger - rounder, taller, more full of themselves.

The kids have been careful observers, and have their own analysis of the chickens' personalities. (And different names for them, too.) Lauren thinks that Gertrude (alternate name: Chicka), the banty, may act like the helpless little chicken, but she's wily and sneaky and clever. She sneaks her way into treats and gets what she wants when nobody's looking. Lauren insists she has the longest attention span of the flock.

Mildred (alternate name: Gangsta), the Americauna, is aggressive and insanely hungry and gets what she wants, but loses track of almost everything immediately.

Wilma (I forget Wilma's alternate name) has the least personality of the three. She's still just a little bit bigger than the others. She jumps impressively high when food is poked through the fencing at the top of the coop.