“Notice anything different about this one?” Shelley asks, holding a newly-feathered chicken with both hands. It’s an Australorp, she tells me. I examine its big feet, its black feathers, and its budding red comb. I look at the other young chickens inside the mesh cage, at their minuscule combs, and back to the one in Shelley’s arms. Yep, this one just might be a rooster.
Like many, Shelley has been sidelined by the virus. Her grade school music students sent home, private lessons suspended, and the classes at Joy of Movement on hiatus. Yet her protein quotient remains stable, and chickens are a great way to bridge that gap.
For a long time, her coop stayed empty. She’d had chickens in previous years — big laying hens and roosters she’d gotten as chicks — but like most backyard flocks they came and they went. When that happens a couple of years in a row, it sorta takes the wind out of your sails.
There is no need for a rooster if all you want is eggs, and especially if you value quiet. Hens lay eggs with regularity whether they have been fertilized or not. Some find the idea of consuming a little embryo a little hard to stomach.
Others insist the roosters provide essential protection, but I have seen some very scrappy hens as well as timid cocks. But Shelley wasn’t taking sides in any of these arguments and so she ended up with two impressive roosters a couple of years ago.
I enjoyed my role as the chicken aunt in those days. When Shelley was out of town, I crawled through the hen house door and gave the water and feed dispensers a good shake. The birds were friendly and unafraid and sometimes touched my hands with inquisitive pecks. I peeked in the nesting boxes and harvested the eggs. “Keep as many as you want,” Shelley said, and I did, putting the rest in her refrigerator for her to eat and give away.
Shelley’s tuxedo cat, Lucy, kept me company. It has been a long time since I had either livestock or pets and I reveled in the purposeful routine of animal care.
Shelley’s boyfriend Eric had been house sitting when those birds perished. Every last one shredded by what must have been a fox. Mercifully, he was able to remove the carnage before her return, but the episode stunned Shelley and she went a long time without birding back up.
A couple of months ago, when Eric saw a shipment of chicks arrive at the Pittsboro Post Office, he seized the moment and put a reserve on half a dozen pullets.
Covid-19 has put so many out of work and turned grocery shopping into such an ordeal, that chickens have become quite trendy. Our two local feed stores can barely meet demand. The chicks come in and fly out the door. Eric was not taking any chances. If she didn’t want them, he could rescind the hold.
Eric enjoys tinkering with cars and homesteading infrastructure. For example, he turned this blue barrel into a lettuce planter for Shelley’s birthday last year.
But of course, Shelley did want the chicks. She already had the setup and even a little feed leftover. Plus, she was home where she could keep an eye on them. And now she had a rooster to help fend off the predators.
“Look at this comb, and these wattles. I’ve been wondering why they were growing so fast, and now I think I know.” She cradles her little guy and beams. “They’re supposed to all be hens, but this breed is hard to sex.”
Shelley puts the little black cockerel back and reaches for a Barred Rock pullet. It’s obvious she is smitten with the backyard chicken bug and they seem to enjoy being fussed over.
It’ll be a couple of months until her babies begin laying, but she’ll still be ahead of the game. With store-bought eggs approaching $5 a dozen, she will have a steady supply for only $1.50 a dozen.
The virus is not done with us yet and nobody knows what will happen when the weather gets cold and forces us inside. Best to be as self-sufficient as possible.