Caring for friend's chickens can be tough work

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 18, 2011

es, of course, I’d love to take care of your chickens while you’re out of town.”
I was excited about being the chicken sitter. Having my own chickens some day was a dream. Taking care of Neta’s babies for a week would give me the opportunity to see how wonderful it really was.
On Sunday morning, at 7 a.m. the day after Christmas, I walked over to Neta’s while appreciating the quiet beauty of the fresh fallen snow, feeling remorseful about leaving my big boot prints behind.
My morning chicken duty was to change out the chickens’ water because it froze overnight. I had to fill the one that had defrosted the day before with water from the kitchen. Neta had made me a key and given it to me a few days before. I put it on my “other people’s keys” holder. I know one of the keys on it is to my mother’s house, and I think the other was to a neighbor’s house from when we lived in Virginia.
After trekking through the snow that first morning, I got to Neta’s, stomped up the back porch steps and attempted to open the door with the key. When I tried to open the dead bolt — nothing. When I tried the key in the knob — nothing. It would turn but not unlock. I tried the dead bolt again, turning clockwise and counter-clockwise — nada. I tried the knob again — nope. I knew I should have tested that key when she gave it to me. I started to panic. How was I going to get water to the chickens? For crying out loud, I was going to fail my very first day on the job. I decided to calm down and try the key again. Duh! I was trying to open Neta’s door with the key to my mother’s house. Relief swept over me. I tried her key, and voila, the door opened with no problem.
I filled the water container, checked on the cats, then made my way out to the coop. I had to be careful when I opened the door to the chickens’ covered, fenced-in area. I didn’t want any of them slipping out past me while I was trying to get in with the water. I am happy to report that I was lucky in that regard. No chickens escaped on my watch that week. I changed out their water without incident, and they seemed to be unimpressed by the snow or their new caretaker.
My afternoon duty was to collect the eggs. Again, I walked over. The roads were clear by this time, but the gravel driveway was too steep for an attempt in the snow. I had no problem getting in the door now, and I found the towel-lined basket that Neta had left for me. Collecting the eggs proved uneventful except for the one broody hen that was trying to set the nest. I had to lift her up and push her off the eggs. She didn’t like it, and neither did I.
My second day of duty presented a new problem. Rhett Butler, the rooster, decided that he didn’t like me. In the morning he pecked me on my boot. Startling, but not painful. I scolded him and got out of there quickly. That afternoon he still wasn’t happy to see me , and he got me in the leg. Now, I was nervous but determined, too. I had a job to do, and I was going to do it despite that mean ol’ rooster.
The next morning I brought in the water and a treat. I had saved my vegetable scraps from making salad for dinner the night before. I threw them out to the chickens and did so every day following and got no more trouble from Mr. Butler. Sometimes bribery is the best answer.
As the week progressed, the snow began to melt. Icicles formed overnight and hung precariously inside the chickens’ fenced area. I worried that one of those frozen daggers would fall straight down on Ginger’s or Juliet’s pretty little chicken head and take one of them out. I could reach the icicles, so I knocked them down in the morning, but I still worried.
On Wednesday morning, I searched the shed and brought out a ladder. With a broom, I reached in as far as I could and tried to scrape the snow off the canvas roof over the chicken run. It took me quite a while to work my way around, and there was still a lot of snow down the center. I remembered Neta saying something once about it being dangerous for the chickens to be wet. Well, all of that melting snow was making their habitat interminably wet. More worries.
I finished out the week, and both the chickens and I survived. There’s a wonder about gathering up an egg still warm from a chicken, and I think Neta’s babies are beauties. I still even have a fondness for Rhett Butler. However, the dream of having my own chickens some day, well, I think I’ve gotten over that. Having livestock is a big commitment and just a wee bit stressful.
Michelle Maher is a writer and tutor living in Salisbury.