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Chicken Wisdom

07/16/08 5:55PM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST) Humans have been living with chickens for millennia, which may explain why our language is rife with chicken metaphors. After twenty years of tending poultry, commentator Deborah Luskin has learned to question the truth of some bits of chicken wisdom, and to revere the truth in others.

(LUSKIN) We've kept chickens for years. This summer, we're tending three flocks: the current laying hens, the future layers, and two dozen birds for the freezer. In addition to providing me with eggs, manure and meals, these birds have taught me important life lessons.
    
For instance, I once had remarkable success incubating eggs from my own flock. While I didn't exactly count my chickens before they hatched, I started calculating my profits as soon as twenty healthy chicks emerged, and planned to hang one of those "Eggs for Sale" signs at the end of the drive. By the time I discovered more than half my chicks were roosters, I'd fed the birds a small fortune in grain.
    
"Chicken feed" is in fact a significant expense. Chickens do eat like birds, but that means picking and pecking around the clock. So I don't keep track of what I spend, nor do I sell the eggs. No one could afford what them.
    
Roosters, famously, crow at dawn. The crowing of a cock, however, is not entirely reliable. All the roosters we've ever had crowed well before sunrise. There's an old saying, "Roosters crow, hens deliver." Nevertheless, roosters are worth keeping. Hens lay better with a rooster in the coop. But there must only be one cock of the walk. For safety's sake, it's best if the single rooster is a small fellow who can be hen-pecked, because hens do establish a pecking order. So do humans.
    
For years I managed a small flock of office workers cooped up behind desks. One woman or another would be dominant until the pecked upon complained. There'd endure a few days of ruffled feathers and broodiness, then we'd settle back down to scratching around our desks, preening for the boss, and returning to our usual high productivity.
    
We women took care of ourselves, but chickens are easy prey. Their worst predator is the weasel. It eats the birds' brains and blood, leaving limp carcasses strewn across the hen house floor. Having witnessed this depravity first-hand, the verb "to weasel" is not one I use lightly.
    
But for all the difficulties, there are pleasures to keeping chickens. In addition to fresh eggs, there's comfort just watching a flock pluck grubs from the lawn.
    
And as they reach the edge of the property, my poultry inspire contemplation of life's profound questions, like why does a chicken cross the road? But I have to confess that I still don't know; I'm simply grateful that mine don't. Nor has keeping chickens revealed which came first, the chicken or the egg. I suspect that it's a question that will be with us for as long as we keep chickens in our backyard.
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