We went on a chicken date this week, and it was just as romantic as it sounds.
Jeremy was looking at Craigslist one evening, which is generally a red flag. I’m not sure exactly what he was looking for – probably a variety of “interesting” searches – but I do know what he found: chickens. Specifically, Cochin bantams. These were young birds, not chicks exactly, but the preteen version of chickens. Cochin bantams are a pretty cool little round ball of feathers, and we had talked about them before when we saw some at Roots a year ago. (That was the day we came home with the accidental rooster.) Before I knew it, Jeremy was on the phone with the owner. If you know Jeremy, you will be as surprised as I was at this next detail. It was a long conversation, but Jeremy didn’t do much of the talking! He responded occasionally, but spent most of it listening, glancing at me and mouthing “Oh my God!” The owner, a woman named Heather, was rattling on about all of the chicken varieties she had, which went way past Cochins and seemingly included every variety we have ever coveted. Before he finally hung up a half-hour later, Jeremy had arranged our chicken date for Tuesday evening.
Afterwards he went on and on about how nice Heather seemed and the many, many chickens she apparently had. Tuesday after work, he was ready to go the minute I walked in the door. I believe his words were, “Let’s get going! We have a chicken date!” Yes, with exclamation points, again no surprise if you know Jeremy. So we put some cardboard boxes in the car, set the GPS, and headed toward Buck, a little town south of the city of Lancaster. During the ride, our conversation was very chicken-centric. Jeremy verbally rearranged our whole poultry operation in multiple configurations in order to adequately house our growing flock, including an unspecified number of newbies that were going to be coming home with us.
Bantam chickens are primarily pets. Their small size makes them unlikely for the table and their eggs are tiny, too. They and their eggs can be eaten, of course, but it’s not very practical when standard chickens serve both purposes much better. Most varieties of chickens also come in a bantam version. We have bantam Old English Game chickens right now, as well as bantam Silkies. The rest are standards. Our bantams reside in two separate runs and do not get the run of the chicken yard because they are so small that they would easily fit between the fence pickets and escape. Bantams are known for going broody (wanting to sit on and hatch eggs,) and being good mothers. They are often used for this, hatching eggs other than their own, but we haven’t because our standard chicken eggs are infertile, as we don’t have a standard rooster. Our Old English Game bantam hen hatched 4 of her own eggs last summer. If you think a standard chicken chick is tiny, you should see a bantam chick. They are mouse-sized.
This explains the allure of bantams to Jeremy. Jeremy stands 6’2″ and is a big guy, both physically and in his personality, and he is absolutely smitten with tiny things. I tell him he is part magpie, drawn to little shiny things – small bottles, boxes of teeny watch and clock parts, miniature Wade Tea figures…anything tiny, really. The same is true for animals, especially farm animals. He would, in a heartbeat, have a miniature donkey, a Babydoll sheep (it’s a real thing; Google it!) a pygmy goat, miniature horses and cows, tiny Call ducks. They are all admittedly adorable and hard to resist, so this is not a problem for me in theory, but the fact is that our small town yard is just not suitable for them, so we have stuck with chickens (and ducks, quail, doves, and rabbits.) The Call ducks are surprisingly loud beyond their size, so we’ve held off on those. The one species Jeremy doesn’t prefer in miniature is dogs, although, given the right circumstances I’m not sure he would be able to hold out even there.
But bantam chickens we can handle, so Jeremy was pretty excited for this date. We pulled into the driveway of a rather normal house that sat on a hillside. Up behind the house was a series of fenced areas and we immediately saw goats and 2 ponies, as well as chickens. Lots of chickens. As we approached the fence, we were greeted by an immense and beautiful Great Dane, grunting a few cautionary woofs under his breath. He was immediately followed by what can only be described as a flock of Dachshunds, yapping their tiny heads off. There were at least 6, but could have been more, as they never stopped moving to get an accurate count. Heather greeted us and took us into her basement where she has two enormous brooder boxes set up, with probably 40 chicks between them. As we were discussing the options, she mentioned others in her flock, and Jeremy asked if we could see them. She lead us out of the basement and into her backyard, which can only be described as a barnyard, minus the barn. There were at least 6 coops of assorted shapes and sizes, plus the two fenced pastures with the goats and ponies and their shelter sheds. She has 3 acres in all, but this part was probably about a half-acre. There were dogs running in circles, chickens scratching around everywhere, a baby pygmy goat with the most pathetic little bleat, a pair of golden pheasants, and bunnies in their own run. It was overwhelming and awesome and muddy. We walked and talked and petted and looked for about a half hour and then headed back in to pick out our birds.
We ended up with 4 new chickens. We have a buff Cochin and a silver-laced Cochin, both bantams and both hens. There was one blue Cochin that I wanted, but Heather was keeping her. In addition, we have a pair of Mille Fleur d’Uccle, a rooster and a hen, also bantams. These were the surprises of the trip. Mille Fleur actually refers to the feather pattern of the chicken, which is spotted like “a million flowers.” None of these look like much yet, awkward eighth graders that they are, although their feet are already heavily feathered, a trait of both varieties.
On the way home, chicks riding safely in their cardboard box, we pondered names. Mille Fleurs are actually a Belgian variety, but since they speak French there and have a french name, we decided to go Francophile in naming them. (We have pretty much exhausted Downton Abbey names, and sadly there won’t be any more now that it is over.) We considered Napoleon and Josephine, and Louis and Marie before appropriately getting back to our theater roots and dubbing them Marius and Cosette. I wasn’t sure about the origin of Cochins, but it sort of sounded like it could be French when said with a French accent, so we decided to stick with the theme and named the Cochins Babette (the silver-laced,) and Belle (the buff), from Beauty and the Beast. (Jeremy thinks the silver-laced looks a little like the feather duster and besides, who doesn’t love the name Babette?) I realized when we got home that, besides Patty and Nugget, we haven’t named the 3 other new chicks yet, so we will have to get busy with that. Perhaps we will continue the French theme, even though a quick Google search indicated that Cochins are of Chinese descent. C’est la vie.
We now have two brooder boxes in the barn/garage, with 9 little mouths between them. They are still skittish but Jeremy is hard at work taming them with meal worms. Succulent meal worms are irresistible to chickens, their deliciousness outweighing all sense of terror at the giant hands coming into the brooder box. We raise meal worms specifically for this purpose, and in fact are waiting for delivery of 3,000 more any day now. The little ones, the box of 5 chicks, are the most fun to watch. When one of them gets a worm, she immediately begins running at full speed in circles to keep it away from the others who are always in hot pursuit. We like to put a handful of worms in there at one time, so they all get one. They all start running in circles, not realizing that none of them are being chased. Pure entertainment.
Yesterday Jeremy’s dad came in and we reconfigured the whole chicken area, moving a fence and the coop and building a new chicken enclosure. It was an all day project, accompanied by a running commentary from Neighbor Dan, the Dirty Old man, from across the fence, (who told the same set of inappropriate stories and dirty jokes probably 25 times throughout the day, a new record,) but the results are great. We are now able to keep the dogs out of the shade garden and patio area, where Guinness had been mutilating every plant trying to sprout and crushing even the bigger shrubs. The chicken yard is a little smaller but also self-contained, and we now have more room in the back for the patio area in the shade of the red maples and, eventually, another little pond. The project required removal of the existing fence, which freed the poultry to explore the yard for a few hours, and they were in Heaven, scratching in the red maple leaves like little machines. Guinness and Barney were also free to mingle among them. This isn’t really new to Barney, and he really doesn’t care about chickens or ducks, but Guinness was fascinated. The chickens more or less ignored him, so he didn’t bother them, but the ducks didn’t like him and waddled away whenever he approached, so of course he had to chase them. It was fun to watch, although maybe not fun for the ducks, but there was no harm done except to duck pride. He will never be a herder, but Guinness gave it a go yesterday.
By the end of the day everyone was where they were supposed to be, and not where they weren’t supposed to be. For a while, Guinness figured out how to open the new gate and was back into the forbidden area before I could walk away from the gate from sending him out of it, multiple times, much to Jeremy’s amusement, but we installed a latch and that should fix that unless he grows a thumb. There is still finishing work to be done, but probably not today, as this first day of spring is to be cold with a chance of snow or rain. We are hopeful that some of the mangled plants in the now protected shade garden will come back, but we’ll have to wait and see.
There will be no more chicken dates, unfortunately, at least not this year. The farm is full. Well, almost full. When we were on our date at Heather’s, she had the most amazing little rabbit, called a Hotot rabbit, a dwarf with short ears, pure white except for a thick line of black around its eyes, exactly like eyeliner. We were on a chicken date, not a bunny date, but I assure you, we will have a Hotot rabbit soon, as soon as we can arrange a bunny date. It is a dwarf, after all.