Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chickens as Teachers

L strikes a pose with Clover.
When you think of the perfect pet for a kid, you might first think of a hamster, or a dog or cat. A chicken doesn't usually come to mind. But there is something about chickens that fits with kids so wonderfully--and teaches them so much. I try to tell people about the dimension that our hens have added to our lives, but it's hard to explain. "Nice to have those eggs," they say. I agree, but can't help wishing I could explain that it's more than that.

On Tuesday, L and I head to a 4H poultry class. Most of the kids attending say it's their first year with poultry projects. Some are raising meat birds, some are doing an egg production project. All of them have questions. The first part of the class is about record keeping. L will need to keep track of how many eggs her flock produces; how much food they eat; how much she spends on feed, equipment, and birds; what her inventory was at the beginning of her project; and what it was at the end. If she had meat birds, she'd need to keep weight records. She'll have to record income and expenses, and put together photos and write a 2-page story about her chickens before fair.

The presentation is peppered with questions, as small arms shoot into the air. Parents have just as many questions.

"What about grasshoppers?" asks one little girl. "Should we write down when they eat grasshoppers and bugs?"

"How do we know how much they eat if we just keep their feeders full?"

"What if we don't know what breed our chicken is?"

"Do we get to pick the color of leg band they wear for fair?" This is L's question. She has her eye on a blue band that she thought would compliment Pearl, but the leg bands are colored according to size, and it'll depend what will fit on Pearl. Disappointing news.

The topic of leg bands stirs more questions. The kids want to know why they need them, what the numbers mean, if it hurts their chickens to wear them, and if they should write their names on the leg bands. The number on the band will match the number on their cage card. Their chickens will arrive at the fair building on Friday, and will stay until Tuesday. It's a big poultry sleepover.

The presenter tells the story of the time at fair when a boisterous calf pulled down a wall, simultaneously popping open the cage doors for 26 turkeys, who scattered like BBs. It was a turkey trot in the truest sense, and volunteers were running to catch loose birds. They finally rounded them all up, and with the help of numbers on leg bands were able to put the right turkey in the right cage. No easy feat when the majority of the turkeys were white and looked the same.

We work our way through the record book pages and the kids are engaged--moreso than I expected for this part of the class.

But when someone enters the room with a large dog crate, and they hear purring clucks and grumbles coming from the inhabitant, their attention skips from the presenter to the newcomer.

He's introduced as Mr. Dill, a poultry judge and breeder, and he'll be teaching the kids about showmanship--the class at fair where they get a chance to show just how much they know, and must know all the parts of the chicken, need to know the facts about their breed, what kind of comb their chicken has and what faults they have, what they eat...

Mr. Dill lifts the dog crate onto a table, and kids jockey for better seats so they can be close to the bird he pulls out.

Like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, he suddenly produces a large, black, Cochin bantam rooster who looks only mildly surprised by the crowd in front of him.

Hands shoot up in the air almost before he gets the bird settled. The rooster peers around at everyone calmly, cocking his head and settling his wings. He's beautiful and showy with plumage that spills over his body like black ribbons. Mr. Dill holds him a little like a football, stroking the rooster's feathers.

The kids all want to talk about their chickens. They want to know the rooster's name ("He doesn't have a name," Mr. Dill answers kindly. "I only have names for my bad chickens," he says with a laugh.) This appears to take the kids by surprise. No name?! He's a bit apologetic and explains that the rooster has a brother named Bruce. That news is received with smiles.

L asks about what to do if her chickens are moulting at fair time, how to prevent sun scald, what kind of tag will work on a booted bird (Pearl is booted, with feathers on her feet), how much bluing to use on a white bird (just a few drops or you'll be showing a blue bird), whether baby oil is better than Vaseline for their comb...  I think her arm is up most of the time.

I look around the room, seeing the rapt attention of kids that are growing up in the iPod-Wii-Internet age. These kids are learning accounting, business, science, veterinary care, economics, public speaking, and responsibility. They are gaining a personal understanding of where their food comes from, and how much time and money goes into meat and egg production. Some will learn the hard lessons of predation, if a neighbor's dog or a fox takes their chickens.

On the way home, L sits in the back with her friend LA, who also has backyard chickens. They chatter away about the virtues of specific chicken breeds, antics of their own hens, which chickens they want to take to fair, and ideas for coop improvements. I listen to them as I drive home through the darkness and navigate traffic. It's hard to explain chicken benefits to people, but the chickens that we got for eggs have given us so much more than omelets.


  1. Great story! You're a good writer.
    I understand about people not getting it when you tell them how wonderful they are as pets. Our hens each have so much personality and character. My mom keeps telling me, "If only I'd known what great pets they make, we would have had them when you were little."

  2. They do have a lot of personality! I was just talking to someone who said that they had a hen that loved sledding with their kids, lol. Who'd have thought?