Chickens face challenges, too

It ain?t easy being a chicken. Especially one of my chickens. I?m really glad they can?t read about those pet chickens that are so popular now. You know, the ones who have heated coops with padded perches, get daily gourmet meals prepared by a chef, and whose owners actually believe that chicken sweaters are a cute and useful item.

Some of those chickens even have harnesses for going on walks with their owners, and a few get regularly bathed and blow-dried indoors.

I?ve got what you call utili-chickens. They?ve got to be tough because I sure don?t pamper them. The coop isn?t wired for light or heat, there?s no running water down there?unless you count the creek, and I don?t?and their food comes from a bag from the co-op. Sure, they get kitchen scraps and whatever bugs they can find. They take dust baths like normal chickens. And I refuse to waste good yarn knitting chicken sweaters.

My poor chookies have had a rough time of it this year in more ways than one. We?ve had several possum attacks, losing several chickens at a time. The storm this September scared some of them so badly that we couldn?t get them to go back to the coop, and they soon disappeared. So far this winter, we?re down to seven laying hens and four roosters.

Until lately, I?ve tried to maintain a wad of guineas to eat bugs and keep an eye out for predators. Sure, they?re annoyingly loud, but there?s just nothing like a guinea when it comes to tick patrol and informing the section that you just moved your wheelbarrow.

I tend to keep them free range 24/7, partly because the things are aggressive toward my chickens, and there just isn?t room in the coop for that many things to not get along. Besides, that way you can be sure to hear them as they thud along the roof at 5 a.m.

We raised a batch of eight to join the remaining two adults from last year. When we released them, they flocked together rather well, until one night when seven of them simply disappeared. No feathers, no noise, no nothing. Then there were three.

As it turns out, they were all males. I only mention this because I rather like the females? less strident calls (they sound like ?buck-WHEAT?). The males just sound like they?re yelling their fool heads off while someone is trying to strangle them. Now that I think about it, it?s exactly what you want to do after they?ve yelled their fool heads off at nothing all day, so I guess it?s fair.

These three males owned the yard, or so they thought. They?d drive the chickens away from treats, not to eat the treats, but just to hassle the chickens. I had full-grown roosters hiding behind my legs to get away from the guineas. Eventually, they worked out an uneasy d?tente, simply trying to avoid each other. Until one day, when there was only one guinea that thumped across the roof in the morning.

He still tried to act like he owned the yard, but without his henchmen, he didn?t get away with much. I actually gave him a name: Oswald (as in Lee Harvey) The Lone Guineaman. Oddly enough, Ol? Oswald changed his behavior a bit as a single bachelor guinea. He roosted closer to the house, and you could tell his heart really wasn?t in it when he charged the hens.

Darling Hubby said that one day he noticed Oswald hanging around outside the chicken coop, and even inside it. I saw him a few times in the morning waiting by the door, but he always ran off when the chickens came out. Of course, he was never there when I went to shut the birds in at night, so I didn?t think much about it.

Then Darling Hubby told me Oswald had spent the night in the coop. I thought he was joking, until I let the chickens out in the morning, and almost got beaned by Oswald himself making a flying exit from the coop. I?m here to tell you, a guinea flying straight at your head is more effective than a pot of strong coffee when it comes to waking up in the morning.

A week later, Oswald was spending his nights in the coop. My hens are off their laying, so I assume he?s still trying to feel important and running laps around the nestboxes. I now duck when I open the door. But still, nobody is hurt or missing, and that?s always a good thing. And a good lesson: Even when someone is different, and you don?t really like them, give them a chance. Often the ones who need kindness the most show it in the most unkind ways.

Shana Thornhill lives on farm near Marion. She can be reached at shotah76@yahoo.com.