It's early evening and the unseasonably warm spring sun continues to blaze proudly down on our little patch of paradise. I sit beneath the shade of an acacia, its delicate grey-green leaves soft and fern-like, while the chickens (my erstwhile companions) guard me from all things itchy. They've discovered a new scratching place beneath the acacia where the soil is rich with decades of leaf mulch. Two backward scratches reveal what seems like a million tiny mites bouncing and flapping about like fish out of water. I call them mites but actually I have no idea what kind of insect they are and have no intentions of getting close enough to find out. Bugs love me. They seem to go out of their way to make me itch and sting and scratch while completely ignoring Oliver. So, I happily keep my distance while "the girls" enjoy their feeding frenzy.
One of the many things to surprise this city-slicker since moving to the country is what lovely pets chickens make. I always thought it would be great to have fresh eggs daily but I never could have imagined what colourful, cute and sometimes crazy personalities they have. Sure, chooks can harbour parasites and diseases we humans can catch, but they're really no more hazardous than keeping a dog or cat. Let's face it, even children bring home hair lice and lurgies.
We have two sets of chickens; a brood of fancy rare-breed chickens and one of straight Isa-browns. The Isa-browns live in the veggie patch in a shed that can be wheeled around between rows. The idea is that not only will the patch reap the benefit of their poo, the chooks also eat the unwanted weeds and grass bit by bit. We thought the Isa-browns would become our worker chickens but in fact they free range just as much as the fancy ones who live in a chook shed of palatial proportions built by Oliver and his mate Andy.
The chook shed was one of the first things Oliver built on the farm and as such we've had the fancy girls for close to two years. The Isa-browns are a new addition, just a few months old and still in the lovely stage where they both fear and adore us. There's something very sweet about feeling their warm little bodies rub up against my boots as I top up their food and water and watching them come running when I enter the veggie patch is hilarious, especially if the grass is tall and they have to hitch their tiny legs up like women in long skirts running out of the ocean. Sometimes they'll adopt the weirdest submissive posture when we come near. They squat down with their wings tucked back while their legs pump up and down as though they're literally shaking in their boots. The other day I was weeding dandelions from the blueberry patch. The combined effect of the afternoon heat, my low blood pressure and my head down made me dizzy. I lay down on the grass and within seconds the little chickens had gathered around to see what this crazy lady was doing now. One gently pecked my T-shirt, one stepped up onto my boots, another onto my leg. I rolled my eyes and thought if Oliver came home right now he'd think I'd passed out and was left to suffer the undignified death of being eaten by chickens.
Cute as their fluffy little bottoms are, sometimes the chickens drive me mental. Like when they scratch up the mulch around my lavender walk and I'm forced to rake it back every day. Or when the fancy ones go broody. The Isa-browns have had their natural motherly urges bred out of them. The same cannot be said for our gorgeous Wyandotte, Winnie. Every year, maybe twice a year, she gets it into her head that she wants to raise her unfertilised eggs. She has no idea this is impossible. We don't have a rooster and so no amount of sitting on her eggs is going to make them hatch. We always know when Winnie's broody. She gets this crazy, don't-mess-with-me look in her eyes and pecks us if we try and remove her from the nest. She doesn't realise she's harming herself (by not eating or drinking) for no good reason. It drives me up the wall, mostly because I'm afraid she'll waste away like that. Oliver tells me not to stress. It's just in her nature, he says, and then I feel bad for denying her the right to have babies! I once had a friend who welled up every time she so much as held a child, that's how badly she wanted children. Was I putting Winnie through the same punishment? On the other hand, if we got a rooster and let the hens raise chicks as nature intended, what would we do with all the male chicks?
In the end we're forced to lock Winnie away in solitary confinement until she snaps out of her trance. It's usually only for a couple of days and not really a big hassle when you consider what we get in return in the form of beautiful fresh eggs daily. I've never eaten eggs that taste as good as the ones backyard chickens lay, even organic free-range eggs bought from the shops. This is because the eggs gain their flavour from what the chooks eat and a backyard chook gets not only her pellet and grain food but also lots of bugs and weeds when she free ranges on top of the scraps she receives from our kitchen - our girls go especially crazy for cheese, we can get them to go anywhere with a little cheese persuasion.
The fancy chooks don't lay every day like the Isa-browns do, but even so we now receive between eight and eleven eggs per day. That's a lot for two people. Anybody got any ideas for recipes that use plenty of eggs?
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