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Crookston Times - Crookston, MN
Buzby's Blog
Dumb Cluckers
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By Buzby's Blog
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June 3, 2014 12:01 a.m.
Feb. 11, 2014 8:53 p.m.
March 27, 2012 12:01 a.m.

Recently a friend “pinned” a photo of a darling, gingerbread-style child’s playhouse on their Pinterest board. At least that’s what I saw at first glance. The little white house was surrounded by colorful wild flowers and a white picket fence. It had clapboard shingles and charming scrolled cornices. The windows were framed with curved shutters painted robin’s egg blue. A beribboned grapevine wreath embellished the door. Warm childhood memories of my own playhouse began waltzing in my mind until… 


a Paul Harvey moment dissolved those sweet thoughts. Under the photo was the caption, “The Girls new CHICKEN COOP.” Heavens to Betsy! That adorable playhouse was actually a pimped out HEN HOUSE?!!  The photo linked to a urban family’s website   which spotlighted their backyard hen house. Head shots of the beloved ‘Girls’ were displayed prominently along with their names, “Cleopatra” “Daisy Mae” “Liza Eggbelly” and “Lucille.” Each hen’s individual personality was described with words  such as “flighty”, “ditzy”, “spunky”, “curious”, and “shy.” Adoring family members mugged in photos, cuddling, petting and kissing the chickens. KISSING chickens? Has the cheese slipped off this family's cracker? I could only shake my head. What a contrast to raising chickens on the farm forty years ago....





As a little girl I looked for three sure signs of spring --- melting snow, the musky scent released by warming soil, and my mother’s March trip to town to order 100 baby chicks. My mother raised chickens every summer for the express purpose of feeding our family. 

In anticipation of their arrival we’d work together to prepare the chicken coop. Layers of overlapping newspapers were placed on the roughhewn wood floor. Newspaper was an ideal surface for a new chick’s spindly legs and tiny clawed feet. Broad, curved red heat lamps were hung from the low angled roof. Shallow metal pans were scrubbed fresh and set out, ready to hold grower mash and chicken grit. Water-filled glass jars sat atop galvanized water portals. The inverted jars would emit glugging burps when rising air displaced the water. This intermittent sound would cause the chicks to chirp excitedly and skitter away to huddle in the corners of the coop. I just giggled quietly at the ‘jar farts.’ The ‘fart’ was one of many bodily functions that were not spoken of in my family. As the youngest child, and keen observer of four older siblings, I knew the ‘fart’ as one of many words on the family “do not use” list. I digress….


I looked forward to the day the baby chicks would arrive. After a reclusive winter, watching the baby chicks in the warm chicken coop was an entertaining diversion while the early spring air was still cold and the yard too muddy for outside playtime. I was always excited, but my Mom was all business when we picked up the freshly hatched chicks at the Peterson Biddick feed store. She would let me help lift off the top of the shallow vented cardboard box and help inspect the dozens of quaking chicks. Once Mom was satisfied they were healthy, the vibrating flat was placed into the trunk for the quick ride home. Carried into the coop carefully as a decorated sheet cake, the box was placed on the floor and opened under the warm lights. The mass of chicks would huddle together quietly, a glowing pink puff under the red lamps. Soon there would be one soft peep, then two, and three, until a chorus of chirping erupted. Courage and curiosity gathered, the tiny chicks would tumble over the edge of the box and roam about their new surroundings. Eventually fluffy cliques would gather again, securely hunkering down under the warm lights. 


Even after they were settled into the coop, the chicks startled easy. Going inside the pen to feed or water them would cause a tsunami of yellow fluff to ripple into the farthest corner of the coop. Anxiously scrambling, their tiny clawed feet sounded like hundreds of old-fashioned typewriter keys tapping erratically across the newspaper carpet. Baby chicks were very sweet and entertaining to watch. 



Years later my Mother confessed that she'd sneak out to the coop sometimes to just sit and quietly watch the chicks. She said it was the only the peace and quiet she could find away from us kids. None of us ever thought to look for Mom in the chicken coop.


Within a few weeks, the prelude to adult chickenhood would begin, evidenced first by a yellow feather fog that danced around the coop floor. By the time their fluffy yellow coat was half molted and grownup spikey white feathers began poking through, the novelty of new chicks would be worn off. Newspaper flooring was switched up when their legs grew long enough to high step through thick straw bedding. Once daytime temperatures moved into the 60's we’d open the little chicken door leading to the fenced outer pen. The adolescent birds would venture outside to strut about, scratch and squawk, and eat flies, mosquitos and grasshoppers to their heart’s content.  


Why didn't I think of that?
A typical kid, I did not like taking care of chickens. Cleaning a chicken coop on a hot summer day was a job best suited for someone passing through purgatory.  The job I hated the most was putting the chickens back in the coop at night and when the weather turned bad. I was no good at herding chickens. It annoyed me that they were so dumb that they didn’t know when to go into the coop for shelter. I found the job of shooing flighty chickens up a narrow ramp and through a 12 inch door into the coop as exasperating as chasing mercury beads loosed on a floor. I swore that the chickens conspired against me. As soon as I’d approach the chicken prison yard they would escalate into an anxious frenzy of flapping clucking screeching. I’d squint my eyes and pull my shirt up over my nose and mouth to hold back the turbid airborne mix of feathers, dust, straw, feed residue and god-only-knows-what-else. Some of those dumb cluckers were aggressive and would launch at you, beaks pecking, and chicken poo flicking from their yellow snake skin clawed feet. 

I hated chickens.  


But it didn’t matter that I hated the chickens. There was no opting out of chores. If you had two arms, two legs and liked to eat, you qualified to do farm work. Additionally, my mother knew that a tired puppy was a well-behaved puppy and applied that philosophy to child-rearing. By the end of the day, we'd all helped with daily chores and were worn to a nub. Lord knows, that kept us out of trouble.

I did my best, inventing various methods for chicken herding. First I tried the if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em method. Arms flapping, I’d run haphazardly around the chickens making high-pitched clucking sounds. When that didn’t work, I switched up my repertoire to angry clucking and added the two cuss words I knew. Much to my aggravation, the angry herding method wasn’t effective either but I did discover that the chicken pen was a great place to practice cussing and being bossy out of earshot. As the youngest of five siblings, that was a perk.


Chickabunga !


Frustrated, I decided to try a gentle, Ghandi-style approach. I would enter the pen quietly and move very slowly. Speaking softly, I’d lavish kind affirmations on those hens. “You are such pretty girls…. Surely there is a handsome roosterman out there for you…What good chickens you are... Your beady red eyes are soooo lovely….” Uttering this chicken drivel was as distasteful as shoveling the chicken manure. The Chicken Whisperer method didn’t work either. Those dumb cluckers pecked, fluttered, flapped and flung poo at me with their scrawny feet just as much as when I stomped cursing around the pen.

When all else failed in life, I would take my problem with me to Sunday church. There I’d try to pray, but would end up daydreaming. Doodling “Jesus loves me” on the edge of the bulletin, I listened as the pastor gave practical examples of God’s omnipresence in our lives. In that moment I decided that if God was everywhere, then doggonit, He could get into that chicken pen with me and lend a hand. Inspired, I began retooling the lyrics to Jesus Loves Me. Surely a Lutheran inspired serenade would magically snap those uncooperative chickens into a submissive trance, quickly drawing them one by one up the ramp into the coop. Sung to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me”, the child-like chorus went like this:


I love Chicken! This I know,
For my tummy tells me so;
In the fryer is where you belong,
So while we’re in this coop let’s get along.
Yes! I love Chicken!
Yes! I love Chicken!
Yes! I love Chicken!
My tummy tells me so.


As you can well imagine, the Lutheran version of Jesus Loves Me worked no better than the other methods I’d implemented in vain. The magical thinking I used to cope with and solve childhood problems  had been worn thin by my frustration over those dumb cluckers. Humiliated, I resigned myself to the fact that the chickens had the upper hand in the relationship. 


Then, one night over supper I listened to my Mother relay concerns about predators to my Dad. She was worried that the summer surge in fox, weasel and raccoon activity would breach the security of the chicken coop and kill the chickens. Dad reassured her that the chickens were adequately protected by the reinforced hexwire fence, the coop’s design and, Snoopy, our protective Norwegian Elkhound. 


Then it clicked. The dog! Why had I not thought of the dog before? I don’t think I heard another word of my parent’s conversation as I dug through dessert, planning a new tactical approach for getting those dumb cluckers into the coop that night. My plan literally in my hand, I left the table taking with me a leftover chicken leg.


That evening just before the sun fell into the horizon, I called Snoopy to the house. She came quickly, tufts of fluffy Elkhound fur tumbling through the grass behind her. I pet and teased her, allowing her to only lick the chicken leg which I’d snatched from the table. To keep Snoopy from jumping on me, I hopped on my blue Huffy bike and rode across the yard to the barn, Snoopy's tail waggin’ and tongue hangin’ beside me. In the barn I used the chicken to entice additional recruits, two tom cats that had not yet been fed that night. Excited, I quickly pedaled the remaining forty feet to the chicken coop, my newly formed militia eagerly following me.


Good old Snoopy


I took great care implementing the next part of my plan. I knew that if chickens were killed I would end up in deep chicken doo. Chicken leg in hand, I coaxed the cats inside the fenced pen, keeping Snoopy outside. Immediately the melee let loose. Chickens screeching, wings flapping levitating them off the ground, poultry doing the high-step, sprinting helter-skelter to the edges of the fence. Just as I’d hoped, the cat’s joined in on the ruckus, stalking and harmlessly batting at their new feathered toys. While the cats worked the crowd of cluckers, I used the chicken leg to lead Snoopy alongside the outer edge of the fence. Her panting presence caused the hedged chickens to run back toward the middle of the pen. There I watched a miracle unfold, as the stalking cats stealthily worked the perimeter and chickens hustled up the ramp into the coop for the night. Never had a hundred chickens gone into the coop so quickly. Never. Ever. 



For weeks I’d chased, cussed, wooed, and sung to no avail.   
All that time the furry solution was right under my nose.  
From that night forward, 
the four of us repeated the routine and 
made quick work of putting those dumb cluckers to bed. 
I chuckle to think that all I had to do
 was shake a leg. 




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