A Socratic Rancher 2-22-10
Trail-toughened ranchers seldom spare a nod to chickens, except when eating eggs.
We had a few chickens, though we never bragged much about it. Though I realize there are lots of folks who show fowl and are deeply involved, all I’m saying here is that most ranchers, as a group, tend not to shed much admiration in the direction of chickens. And, as creatures go, chickens aren’t typically thought of as possessing a deep richness of personality.
Now that I’ve said all that, I have to mention Cecily, a Rhode Island Red hen we had for several years until she disappeared. Born to a squawky hen who insisted on laying her eggs anywhere but the egg boxes (and who finally managed to hatch a clutch of seven chicks which she raised somewhat feral) Cecily roamed and scratched with her chicklings over a wide range, but always came back to the barnyard to get a peck of the fine goat milk that we put out for the other hens, and the three roosters, all named Walter.
From the original clutch of seven, all the feral chicks eventually came into the fold except Cecily, who stayed outside, never daring to enter the chicken house. She perched atop a long, skinny fence post, safe from most terrestrial predators, and stayed there even in wicked weather. I once saw her flap off a hawk descending on her for dinner. Cecily laid her eggs in one, predictable location which we habitually harvested, a fact that never caused her to trick us by laying in another feral nest. She always laid in the same place, and we always gathered them, which might explain why Cecily bore an expression of being perpetually scandalized.
For this story to make sense, I must introduce our beagle, Donaldina (aka D), who managed to run off and get pregnant (as an apparent pup) before my wife could get her spayed. D found a pleasant little cave in the base of one of our haystacks and squirted out five pups, each about the size of a new potato. She nursed the pups for a few days, then returned to her regular routines of inspecting holes, deceiving gophers, chasing rabbits and barking.
On her daily rounds about the yard, Cecily encountered the pups during one of D’s absences. Deciding the pups must be in need, Cecily perched over them, spread her wings, and set, and now laid her eggs among the pups.
I happened to come by one morning when D and Cecily were sorting out the conflict of species inherent in the situation, made all the more complicated by their distinctive natures. Cecily, as noted, was a hen who could whip her weight in wildcats, and D, a humble young canine still begging to be enlightened, lacked experience in the realm of mothering a litter of pups.
When I encountered the two of them, Cecily set like a fixture over the squirming pups, confident of her duty and position, while, a few feet away, D shuffled about in the hay stems like an inappropriate spectator. Finally, D became so agitated she did the Lunatic Dog Dance to emphasize her concerns which had exactly no impact on Cecily, who looked at D as if she was, say, a wounded grasshopper floundering about in front of her. Even when D barked and nipped in the direction of Cecily, the hen sat like the Sphinx.
The pups, who were hungry but blind, heard their mother and understood the need for action, so they crawled out from under Cecily’s wings in enough different directions that the hen couldn’t contain them. The pups eventually gathered around D for breakfast while Cecily clucked and flapped until she wore herself out and had to go up to the barn for nourishment.
Thereafter, the dog and hen worked it out so the hen set on the pups, keeping them safe and warm while D was off doing her Important Dog Business, and D nursed her litter while Cecily went to the barn for a peck of mash.
When the pups came to their sight and size, Cecily couldn’t do justice to setting upon them, but for several months after the pups left the nest and became frisky, they followed Cecily around, sometimes in a curious, if amusing, entourage. The pups even tried to eat laying mash with the hen, but shook their heads in disgust, and that seemed to cement their final separation.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.