Monday, March 30, 2015

Free range eggs! Organic, fresh chicken for dinners! How great does that sound?

I grew up in the suburbs outside Detroit but have lived in the country for a while. At the start of my country life, I made the mistakes city people make when they move to the country. Most of these errors were pointed out to me by experienced country folks but I did what most city people do when they’re given advice by country people—I ignored it. The errors were most obvious when I started raising chickens. The up side to these blunders is that they make for good stories at parties and added a lot of humor to my latest novel, Unfinished Business.

Free range eggs! Organic, fresh chicken for dinners! How great does that sound? To someone who’d moved from the city and has no idea what’s involved in raising chickens that sounds fantastic and like a whole lot of fun. After deciding I wanted to raise chickens, I bought some books, went online, and talked to people. Things I learned: how much space each chicken needs, what type of heat lamps are best to keep chicks warm, and the best atmosphere for nesting boxes. One piece of advice I ignored: put the nesting boxes in a cozy, dim corner because hens prefer darkness. That simply didn’t sound right. Surely the hens would appreciate my thinking of their happiness and providing them with a cheerful coop.

After weeks of preparations, I brought the chicks home from the feed store and every morning, afternoon, and evening I checked on the adorable baby birds. I fussed over them and let myself be charmed by the silly peeping and the ridiculous way they fall asleep standing up.
It wasn’t until the chicks’ sweet yellow fluff had been replaced by brightly-colored feathers and the birds were old enough to venture out into the yard that my errors became apparent and I learned a few things that are, in retrospect, painfully obvious.

Chickens can and will fly. Right over the fence. My perfectly measured yard? Abandoned. The birds’ favorite place to spend the day was my herb garden, scratching and digging up all the tiny tender seedlings I’d carefully planted earlier that spring.

Something else I learned is that hens really do prefer dim lighting for egg laying. My cute tin nesting boxes, bolted to the wall of the coop in the pretty morning sun–empty. Instead of filling the boxes with eggs, the hens flew off, far away from the coop in search of cozy corners. Where did they find them? In my garage. On top of the trash bins. Or in the barn. Way in the back by the lawn furniture I’d bought at a garage sale years earlier and kept meaning to refinish.

The harshest lesson? Roosters really are mean. They look cute in cartoons and are pretty perched on fences, crowing at sunrise. But they’re mean. They don’t appreciate the hard work of taking care of them and they don’t want to be friends. Given the chance, they probably will hop up and scratch you with their spurs. It was this lesson that found its way into Hayley’s story.

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