The decision to get chickens was perhaps made too lightly. Their main purpose was to eat ticks and maggots, the former reducing the risk of Lyme disease to human and horse, the latter decreasing the number of stable flies come September.
I envisioned a property so devoid of biting insects that I might even be able to wear shorts. Call it a dream.
The first chickens were big girls, bred to eat, sun bathe, and lay eggs. Did they eat unwanted bugs? Perhaps, but they preferred ripping the legs off toads and chasing swallowtail butterflies while I screamed, “No, no, no, no, no!” to obviously deaf chicken ears.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, they dug dust wallows in every corner of the yard until my flower gardens and lawns took on the appearance of a lunar landscape. Holes everywhere, with upside-down hens sticking their silly feet toward the sky, fluffing dirt through feathers, eyes closed in chicken bliss.
And the poop. With five acres available to them, they chose the front walk and the lone lawn chair as their personal bathroom. It smelled, especially when adhesed to jeans and jammed into sneaker treads, tracked into the kitchen, ground into the grout.
But all was not lost. These big girls had no talent for avoiding foxes and red-tailed hawks. They provided a chicken buffet so tempting and so easily plucked from the shelves that a young pair of foxes moved into an old shed just over the property line and raised three kits without ever having to forage beyond our lawn. Meanwhile the hawks raised a single obese chick who, I believe, to this day hasn’t flown more than a hundred yards. We could feel the aftershock when she hit the ground, squashing a slow-moving hen to nothing but a smear of feathers and half-digested corn.
That sort of carnage gets to a person after a while, so I gave the big hens away and bought a starter flock of bantams – small, agile birds who could better avoid predators and, hopefully, have a smaller impact of the landscape.
The first thing we learned was that it takes three bantam eggs to equal the volume of one egg laid by a hen of average size. And the banty eggs are heavy on yolk, light on white.
The second and more important fact is that bantams are prolific. There’s no danger of losing a flock of bantams to predators, because they’ll make more.
It doesn’t matter if you gather every single egg every single day. Somewhere beneath your radar, a hen has a stash. And in twenty-one days she will walk proudly into the yard followed by eight chicks, seven of which will be roosters. And the very first chick to die in the claws of the neighbor’s elderly, limping, half blind cat will be the lone pullet.
We, of course, couldn’t bear to have the little fluffy lives snuffed out, so we did our best to protect them. And as more and more hens managed to slip their clutches past us, we gained more and more roosters, until every mockingbird in a thirty-mile radius learned to crow, and the neighbors referred to us as the crazy rooster people in the old Grant house at the bend in Brookline Road.
Sure, I occasionally suck it up and harvest a rooster. But they dress out to a whopping eight ounces, including bones, and they have to be stewed for a minimum of twelve hours if we expect to have something that can be chewed by ageing teeth. So it’s hardly worth the effort and angst and ensuing nightmares.
But the eggs – so rich with the chickens’ diet of green grass and bugs (and toads and baby birds), that the yolks are nearly fluorescent. Jim and I are low-carb dieters, so the abundance of banty eggs started out as a boon. We had omelets for breakfast, quiche for lunch, soufflés for supper. We made homemade ice cream sweetened with stevia, ate cheesecakes, frittatas. We scrambled and poached, made crepes and filled them with cheese, fruit, even bacon.
This is in the past. Because after two years of fevers and rashes and an unimaginable amount of time spent in the smallest room in the house, I finally realized.
I’m allergic to eggs.
We still have a yard full of chickens, and so far this year we have no chicks. I’m vigilant. I remove all the eggs every day. I plant dummy eggs in the nests – a selection of porcelain pretenders with grease pencil Xs on their sides, that give the broody hens something to mother and a reason not to hide their clutches in the woods.
So far, so good. It could be that I finally have a handle on keeping bantams. Or, only slightly more likely, maybe all eighteen roosters are shooting blanks.