It was wonderful to have my daughter Mauri home from college for Thanksgiving, to hear of new friends, new ideas, and new opportunities. After she left, it really hit me. She’s ‘flown the coop’ – I have a new appreciation for chicken-related phrases these days. Seriously though, she is ‘tasting’ the world. She is learning, and growing. While I suspect, and hope, she will do this all her life, now is the time she should be throwing her whole heart and soul into the process. I think she is, and I think I am ready for this change, as much as I will miss her regular physical presence in my life. Human parents have a long time to get ready for this stage. Some will mourn the empty nest longer than others, but I hope to embrace the changes as gracefully as possible; they’re going to happen anyway.
Animal parents, when they parent at all, have much less time to get ready for the maturation of their offspring. I suppose, though, since all the stages of development proceed at a faster rate than human development, the animal parent is ‘ready’ for the dispersal of their babies, just as we humans are for our children. But what if the mother is used to a gradual realization of this inevitable stage – 18 years in my case – and the child is ready much, much earlier? Say at 4 months of age? Yes, today, shockingly, my baby girls have flown the coop!
I believe raising free-range chickens to be the best option for the health of chicken, but for two reasons we did not want this option. First, we did not want to find chicken poop just any old place, though this is probably not a big problem with just four birds. Second, we were concerned for their safety. My dogs are the main concern, but also hawks during the day, and numerous crepuscular neighbors that would be happy to drop by if I was too late in shutting the girls in for the night. Another option, a larger stationary coop, was undesirable because we do not like the dusty bald patches of ground that are inevitable in such a set up. I also want my birds to eat insects since they are omnivores. So for these reasons, I have a moveable coop located within my 3500 square foot garden.
I move the coop weekly to give the girls fresh grass and access to insects. I also let them out whenever I am in the garden or working nearby. I was getting frustrated about this as recently as two weeks ago because they just seemed too timid to spend much time outside of the coop. I worried they were ‘too chicken’. On one hand, I was happy they felt comfortable in their coop, but on the other hand, I wanted them foraging in the garden, removing pests, and fertilizing as they go about their wanderings.
Well, Monday my baby chicks suddenly became teenagers. I let them out as usual, but I went back inside, keeping the dogs in with me. I checked on them twice in the first hour, expecting to close them back in the coop, but each time they were out and about. One time they were checking out my compost and the other time they were sunning in a mulch patch. They seemed quite content.
Suddenly two hours had gone by and I decided to get them back under cover. They were not out in the garden, which meant, I thought, they were upstairs in the true coop part of their mobile home. As I placed the door back in place, I was talking to them as I usually do, and I was greeted with silence, not ‘a peep out of the kids’. I had a brief moment of panic when I realized they were not upstairs, but there was no sign of an attack in the garden. Then I heard them. Outside the garden! They had walked right through the six-inch square openings of the fence. They really had flown the coop and decided to explore beyond the world I’d created for them. They were quite literally tasting their world, and not willing to be cajoled home.
I tried. I made cooing sounds and I shook their feed, but they just went about their business of ground investigation under the forsythia. Damn their independence! I was their mother and they should come when they are called. In the end I resorted to picking each one up and placing them in the coop, shutting the door, and heading for the next one. The last two engaged me in a comical chase around the coop (chickens are fast), and I was grateful no one was around to see me. I’m ‘no spring chicken’ and I was getting ‘madder than a wet hen’. Well, not really, but I was getting frustrated. As I got the last one in and scolded them, I was already devising plans to reinforce the perimeter of the garden.
The next day I added what chicken wire we had to the side of the fence where they had escaped, figuring that was where they would try first. I would need to buy more wire later to finish the job. Then I let them out. This seemed to work nicely for an hour, so I decided to take a walk, leaving the dogs inside the house just in case. When I returned, there were no chickens in the garden and I smugly went to the coop to shut it up. Alas, I had ‘counted my chickens before they hatched’. No one was home. This time I found them outside the fence, on the other side of the garden. Wanting desperately to be smarter than a chicken, I resisted the impulse to try and catch them again. I went in to get a shower, hopeful they’d come home at dusk.
I have a great view of the garden from the upstairs bathroom of my house. An hour later I watched with parental pride as each of my chickens – chicks just a mere 3 months ago – paced back and forth along the fence looking for a square opening they liked before stepping through the fence back to the safe side. They scampered to their home readily. Once it was dark I shut the outside door and the walkway to the upstairs. My girls were safe for the night. I am happy they seem to be developing normally: foraging, taking dust baths, getting exercise, and knowing to come home at dusk. I might just end up with free-range chickens after all. Now that’s ‘something to crow about’!