Friday, March 02, 2007

The chicks in the mail

On Monday during our weekly marketing meeting, my friend Sherri leaned over and whispered to me, "My checks arrived at the post office this morning! I have to go pick them up at lunch."

I looked at her like, "So?" I mean, new checks? Who cares? She looked back at me like, "Why aren't you more excited?" It took a few seconds to realize Sherri had said her chicks had arrived -- twenty-five chicks she'd mail ordered from a hatchery in Iowa. I immediately booked an appointment to see them after work on Wednesday.

You have to understand, barnyard animals are still something of a novelty for me. I grew up in suburban L.A. where dogs and cats were the norm; anyone in possession of an exotic pet like a caged parrot was living on the edge. When I moved to Indiana back in the early 90s, I lived in a small town surrounded by farmland, and I grew accustomed to seeing the occasional cow or horse. I also befriended a co-worker who had turkeys, sheep, and a mule on her small farm and I got to hear many stories about how stupid her livestock was. Sweet, perhaps, and tasty on Thanksgiving, but stupid. I've been back in L.A. for eleven years now, though, and most of my barnyard animal viewing experiences occur at the annual county fair.

Sherri lives about 10 minutes away from me in an unincorporated town north of Los Angeles proper. I don't really know what "unincorporated" means beyond "it's okay to keep livestock on your suburban property." She and her fiance rent a house at a place that boards horses, and for the last 4 years or so Sherri and a couple of her neighbors have shared a chicken coop that is currently home to 14 hens. Every now and then -- Wednesday evening, for example -- I am the beneficiary of Sherri's generosity and get to take home some fresh eggs.

Her new chicks had been born the previous Thursday and so weren't yet even a week old when I first saw them. They are living in a big newspaper-lined cardboard box in her front hallway. The doors at either end of the hallway are closed and the heater is cranked up to reach an optimum temperature of 90 to 95 degrees F. Sherri will be able to lower the temperature gradually as the chicks grow and as it gets warmer outside.

Here are four of the little guys in one corner.

And here are some others gathered around their feeder. (Sorry these pictures are so hard to see. I didn't want to use the flash for fear of scaring the chicks. Sherri scoffed, "Oh, that doesn't matter. Everything scares them.")

I was impressed by how different all of the chicks look. Sherri and her neighbors chose seven different varieties from Murray McMurray Hatchery: Black Australorp, Partridge Rock, Buff Rock, Black Giant, Araucana (a.k.a. the "Easter Egg Chicken" because it lays green and pink eggs), Salmon Faverolle, and Lakenvelder. I asked her what made her pick out these varieties, thinking she'd say something like disease resistance or laying longevity, something boring and practical like that. Her answers were more interesting: she wanted chickens that look pretty, she wanted different breeds than she already had, and she wanted ones that would lay eggs that aren't too small. She showed me a dozen eggs she had gathered earlier from the henhouse and one was noticeably littler than the others; it's from a smaller breed of chicken.

Sherri thinks of her chickens as a hobby, not as pets. Only one time has she ever named one of them, a "horrible Rhode Island Red" that she and her fiance christened Evil-Lynn. She likes her hens and thinks they're fun, but she has no illusions about them. "They're really dumb," she says. "They're not a bright animal at all."

I know she's interested only in hens -- she wants eggs, not to be a chicken breeder. At what point, I asked her, do you realize you've got a rooster mixed in with the new chicks? She wrinkled her nose and said, "When they're a few months old and you suddenly wake up at six in the morning because one of them is crowing." I knew she ended up with a couple of roosters the last time she ordered chicks. What happened to them? "I left them out for the coyotes," she sighed, "but someone put them back in the cage." I think she ended up giving them to her landlord, who lives elsewhere and doesn't mind roosters.

She hopes someday to get some ducklings, although that will involve building a pond and she isn't ready for that yet.


Trooperdog said...

Reminds me of the poultry class I took in college. Scary, huh?

area51 said...

I thought eggs came from the market.