The cattle farmer who despised chickens

| 30 Aug 2017 | 12:57

Cows signify affluence and stability; hens scatter and squawk By Barbara Felton For most of my career as a cattle farmer, I’d despised chickens. Our farm had been without chickens for 25 years, our former flock having left when our chicken-loving employee retired. Chickens returned to our farm a few years ago and again they belonged to others – our partners, Jack and Peg – who installed a flock in a red house we’d placed in the cows’ eastern pasture so the hens could eat grubs and other things endemic to pasture life. Jack and Peg would feed and care for them and collect their eggs. All I had to do was tolerate them. When our cattle discovered the chickens on their first day at our farm, the cows kept their eyes on them while they grazed. Several walked to the fence edge to stare at their feathered pasture-mates. They didn’t share my distaste for chickens, it seemed. The hens, for their part, took no notice of the cows. Their disinterest confirmed my suspicion that chickens were pathetically deficient in intelligence. I found it perfectly natural to talk to cows. Cows are stately beings, intrinsically dignified, their movements deliberate and their posture regal. In Renaissance landscapes cattle provide natural beauty; their presence signifies order, affluence, stability. In real life, their large nostrils breathe in and out at more or less the same height yours do. Their huge heads invite conversation: their big eyes and giant sloping foreheads are perfectly designed to receive communication. “Good morning, ladies! What did you think of the frost we had last night?” “I don’t see much clover in this pasture, do you?” “That mud’s a little slippery underfoot, isn’t it, big girl?” The cows’ fur-covered ears moved toward me as I passed them. Certainly they were listening to me. At the least, they retained their dignified stance while spoken to. They didn’t scatter and squawk. After Jack and Peg moved their hen house into our pasture that summer, I watched the sun rise over it each morning as I drove out to the deli for the paper. For the first several days of the hens’ residence at our farm, I slowed down as I drove past, listening for the muffled sounds of the chickens inside. Eventually, it seemed a shame to leave the chickens closed in just because Jack hadn’t gotten there yet so I took on this simple task – opening the hen house – as a daily chore. Jack would close them in at dusk since he had the feed and could ensure they’d be happy indoors overnight. Each morning, I’d climb over the electric netting, open the door to their house and watch them begin their day. They flew out or flopped down to the ground and began pecking at bits in the grass, strutting across the yard to favored weeds, jumping up on the red bucket to dip their heads and drink water. As the hens’ morning caretaker, I didn’t find them more intelligent or companionable – certainly they seemed no more worthy of conversation – but something had begun to change. One morning I found a chicken already out of the hen house before I’d arrived to open it up. As I approached the pasture, preparing to climb inside the electric net and open the hen house door, I realized the solitary hen was dead, stuck partly in and partly outside the electric netting. Instead of going inside the chicken house for the night, she’d apparently stayed out, and, impelled by who knows what fancy, had flown over the netting, beyond the protected area. I couldn’t fathom why she hadn’t flown back in over her fence the same way she’d flown out: had she forgotten, had she gotten overtired, was she distracted by fear, having encountered a fox or raccoon? Her effort to fly back in through the netting instead of over it was a fatal error. “Oh, you poor stupid girl,” I said. Speaking aloud, I was startled to hear my voice in the otherwise whispery quiet of the pasture. Stranger still, I found pity in my voice. I detached the electric clip so I could remove the hen’s body from the fencing. I kept talking to her as I searched for a place far from the hen’s yard to lay her body. “Where were you when Jack said it was time to go in? Were you hiding under the house?” “What were you thinking?” Maybe, I thought, when her fellow chickens all moved inside for the night, she’d entertained visions of a night life, succumbed to a rebellious wish for an adventure under the stars. I found a spot on a rocky ledge in the woods for her final resting place. The next morning it was drizzling as I approached the hen’s yard, making me doubly happy that there were no chickens stuck in the fence. As I opened the hen house door I told the chickens, “It’s raining now but it won’t last long. It’s just a drizzle and there’s no lightning, so come on out.” The hens left the house as usual, flying or flopping their way to the grass. “Greet the day, my dears.” Was I talking to the chickens because I’d come to like them, or had I come to like them because I’d begun talking to them? It was impossible to tell. In any case, it seemed perfectly sensible to let the hens know what to expect of their day. Barbara Felton co-owns Lowland Farm in Warwick with her husband, Will Brown