Farm News

Intergenerational Inspiration

photo of two hens and their chicks in a barn

This is the year of the chicks. In her own, independent way, Lullaby went broody first. She selected an old milk crate half full of bailing twine and crumpled paper. Then BB (Black Beauty) followed suit. She more sensibly chose one of the beautiful new nest boxes our friend Chuck made, located inside the night roost. Across the other side of the barn, Thelma began sitting on a clutch of eggs and exactly a week later, her sister Louise decide to take up residence just two doors (er, nest boxes) down. It wasn’t many days afterward that Cormorant, the slender, tall Black Shamo, quietly snuck off to an old metal tool box to hunker down.black hen and chicks

We thought that was the end of the spring nesters, but then Gracie, after a few false starts, settled in and last Sunday, Midnight the Australorp began her twenty-one-day sit in. Our fledgling flock of forty chickens may be up to sixty before the year is out. It’s a good thing we build our night roosts with plenty of room to spare.

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Early mornings are one of my favorite times at the farm, partially because you get to see a different side to all the animals. There’s usually a lot of snoring up in the piggery. Rosie and Polly are not early birds, so to speak, and Mabel the barn cat can typically be found curled up on a tractor seat, with her nose tucked under a paw. Down at the chicken barn is different story all together. By five-thirty a.m., a symphony of clucks and crows is rising. And if I’m not appearing promptly by 6:00 a.m., the clamor will be punctuated by the braying of hungry donkeys.

I’m accustomed to this morning-song. But it’s certainly changed over the years. It used to be a low whistling murmur because I only had a few hens. Then I added roosters to the farm, and their continued pronouncements brought boldness to the morning music. Now, in this year of the chicks, there are more soprano notes than ever before. Every morning I am greeted by an insistent peeping that fills the poorly lit rafters of the barn with a sort of unfiltered youthful exuberance. This new melody has an air of gleeful impatience. It’s the revelry of the young, awake and ready to rush into the experiences of life.

speckled hen and two chicks in hayBefore I let the chickens out, I fill the poultry feeders, making sure to spread a healthy amount of grain right on the ground in the corner for the littlest of our flock to find. I make sure the waterers are full, both the five gallon ones for the biggest of roosters and the one quart ones, just the right size for tiny beaks. Then, I open the doors to the night roosts. This takes agility—you’ve got to be fast to avoid being smack dab in the middle of a rollicking rush of feathers racing to the breakfast table.

Every time I watch these little chicks navigate this big, adult-sized world, I am mesmerized. Their interactions with hens and donkeys, roosters and flying bugs, the compost pile and their own mother fascinate me. These little intrepid explorers wing their way into oversized grain feeders and high roost boxes and even a fir tree branches that stretch my sense of what is possible, of how capable the smallest among us really are.

At breakfast time, you might think those little chicks, some weighing about 1 ounce, would hang back, nervously, while the six pound roosters and the dominate hens fly out first. But you’d be wrong. Those little birds clearly don’t see themselves as minors. They are usually right in the middle of the action, just as fast and maybe more confident and determined than any member of this flock.

My enjoyment isn’t simply because baby animals are adorably cute. What I love most about this flock of chickens is the diversity of breeds, of personalities and of ages. I realize how foolish I’ve been in the past, to so carefully keep young chickens segregated from the larger flock until they were nearly adults. When our hens raise their own chicks, there is no holding them back. After only two days, Mom exposes the family to the big, bright world, and the big bright world better be ready.

Lullaby weaned her chicks when they were one month old. The pack of four sticks together, but clearly they know they are the “big kids” on campus. A whole host of unrelated hens and roosters tolerate their dashing, fluttering play, and a few even allow the teenagers to snuggle close to them on the roost at night. Meanwhile the newly hatched chicks, any two of which would fit in a tea cup, find their way to the big chicken feeders, hopping right in to eat amongst the biggest roosters, scurrying between legs and enjoying themselves until they lose sight of mom. Every one has been lost for a time, insistently peeping mournfully. But through their own persistence, they eventually navigate their way across the barn yard, or under a fence to be reunited with their family.

Thelma and Louise are Silver Leghorns. The only way we can tell them apart is by the curve of their comb. Apparently their chicks aren’t sure who is who either, because a few days ago we noticed these two have decided to co-parent. They roost together, and spend their days together, taking dust baths and allowing their 11 kids to climb over and scurry under them for safety.

This additional layer of diversity, full of song and companionship, is also full of surprise. These baby chicks and their supportive flock have taught me how incredible young creatures are. We’ve come out to lock the flock into their night roosts, (to keep them safe from predators), and found the teacup sized smallest of chicks six feet high on the roosts, or even more amazing, on top of a hen!hen with a chick riding on her back

Hardly anyone I talk to has a story which involves a nice rooster. But I have an entirely different perspective. I love our roosters and have come to appreciate the important function and role they play in creating a healthy, happy flock. Our roosters—there are at least seven with Dashing as their benevolent king, show a respectful deference to us, do not attacked others, and aren’t cruel to the hens. It’s a peaceable place for the most part, my job being to keep the ratio about 10:1 hens to roosters. Meanwhile, at the small chick waterers, on any given day, you may find three little chicks drinking right alongside Pillsbury, the biggest rooster of them all.

With over fifteen heritage breeds of poultry, our showy roosters and these new chicks, our poultry population is booming. When I only had a few hens, I never realized how empty my chicken yard really was. There is something inherently joyful about this robust extended family; it makes perfect sense. I don’t like monocultures in my fields, so why would the barnyard be any different? I’m thoroughly convinced: intergenerational learning works the best, especially when the natural world is the classroom.

We are enriched by our community; we can only be as healthy and well adjusted as our community is diverse. They say birds of a feather flock together, but no one ever said anything about all those feathers being the same size, the same age, or the same ability. At my farm, I say birds of all feathers, come flock together. ~ AJ

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