Poultry Days

There’s a rhythm to the start of my day on the farm. Slide on the tall, rubber chore boots, slip on my blue Buff to keep the wisps of hair out of my face (and the bugs at bay), and snag the chore gloves. Then it’s up the hill to the garage to fetch the golf cart, piling the bed in back with bags of custom-milled chick grower and layer feed. I nab an empty yogurt container and scoop out some grit (small, crushed rock) and ground oyster shells and head out for chores.

For me, each day on the farm starts with my poultry friends. Little black Australorp pullets (soon to grow up to be laying hens) chirp cheerily in their coop, eager to be let outside. No longer looking like fuzzy chicks, these chickens-in-miniature are feeling their teenage status—unable to decide if they should peep or cluck. Sometimes, they’ll employ both vocal methods in the same chicken sentence!

I can hear the big momma and poppa turkeys growing restless in their coop, wings brushing the side walls while “gop, gop!” calls announce their need for attention. “Open this door, would ya? We don’t want to stay in here all day!” Upon the completion of their request, the birds file out into their run, inspecting the day to see if anything has changed. Well, the dust hole is still there…and the feather I left yesterday…but the eggs in the corner nest are gone…hmmmm…

I think that turkeys spend a considerable time on “hmmmm.” Of all the barnyard birds we have, theirs is the smallest head for the biggest body. The troop of teenaged heritage turkeys in the yard spent hours one day inspecting a piece of cardboard that had blown onto their mesh fence. The cardboard had bowed the fence over, making it easy for them to have walked right out to explore the world, but instead they stood there perplexed by this invader of their happy home. Could you eat cardboard? Did it bite? The turkeys stood in a ring about this mysterious object, twisting heads to the left and then to the right for a better inspection.

Of course, at night, everyone in the poultry community gets securely locked up to keep them safe from predators. So in the morning, they all have to be let out again. Ducks file out in a big whir of white wings and quacks as they do their morning stretches. Then, of course, it’s off to check the kiddie pool to see if there’s fresh water. Currently, the ducks have the raspberry patch at their disposal, which they’ve gleefully turned into a personal playground and hide-and-seek ducky theme park. At the same time, they’ve removed all the pesky nettles in the patch—it seems that one human’s nuisance is a duck’s idea of dessert.

There’s waterers to carry to the hydrant at the barn to fill, and feed bowls (ducks), trays (turkeys), and hanging bucket feeders (chickens) to fill. Our custom-mix feed comes in 50 lb. brown bags, and there is a real art to pouring these awkwardly-shaped, handle-less vessels. First, I line up two five-gallon buckets on the ground next to the golf cart we call “The Blueberry” (it’s blue). It seems that 50 lbs. of feed fit just right in two of these buckets, making the product easier to carry around and pour.

Then I take the grit and oyster shell mix and sprinkle some in the bottom of each bucket. Chickens, turkeys, and ducks don’t have teeth. Instead, after snarfing down their breakfast and packing their crop (said “craw”) full of feed and small rocks, the food moves on to the gizzard, which is a strong muscular organ that grinds the food and rocks together, using the rocks to crush up the food, much like our teeth do for us. No need for turkey dental work! They carry their own grist mill around with them, on the inside.

Ok, now we’re ready for the feed itself. I tip the bag up in the bed of the Blueberry and examine the strip of sewn heavy paper at the top. There’s a little secret about which side to start pulling the string at so it comes out like undoing knitting—vs. the side that will leave you grumbling, muttering, and just plain old tearing the bag open by hand in frustration.

Ok, so, now the top’s open. A big person could just grab the bag and pour, but I’m a little person, so I have to grab the bag around the middle like a hug and tip my whole body over with it to aim the feed into the buckets. I’ve had feed in the grass, feed down my boot, feed blowing back into my face, but over the years I’ve made improvements in getting the feed into the buckets. The songbirds and chipmunks don’t seem to mind an occasional spillage, though.

The hens in their mobile units built on hay wagons explode from the doorway upon release, feathers flapping amidst eager squawking. Colorful eggs need collecting from grumpy nest-sitters, while most of the ladies skedaddle to scratch in the duff around the hedges and bases of trees, seeking tasty bugs. It’s molting season again, when the ladies grow fresh feather coats for the winter, and the old feathers are everywhere—all over the yard, in the coop, flying through the air.

Out at the tractors, the meat chickens and turkeys press up against the front of their shelters when they see us approaching. Here comes the chuck wagon! As our intern Olivia and I pull the tractor pens forward onto fresh pasture, eager bird eyes seek juicy grasshoppers while the hungriest of the bunch eat their feed so fast, it gets up their nose and they sneeze.

“I love chicken sneezes!” Olivia laughs. It isn’t a wonder that the French think chicks say “Pew, pew” instead of “cheep, cheep”—at least that’s what these sneezes sound like.

At the end of the chores run, the birds are all happy, scratching and feeding, and the back of the Blueberry is full of empty feed sacks, buckets, and pails. After all that work, it’s now time for the people to have their breakfast. And after tucking the feathered crew into their coops at night, we’ll start the process again in the morning. Uh-oh, I feel a feed dust sneeze coming on… See you down on the farm sometime.