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Chicken Train

by Carol Dunn

LA VETA- About eight years ago, we landed ourselves a few acres of dry California land. The area was rural enough that one of our neighbors had some chickens. A lot of chickens. Most of the locals referred to the place as “the chicken ranch.” They sold eggs. One night an animal rights group took credit for sneaking in and liberating 200 chickens. They were not missed; the chickens there numbered two MILLION. We were optimistic that a dozen hens might fit nicely into the community.

See, people who have never actually raised chickens long-term have absolutely NO idea what chickens are really like. We were some of those people. Sure, chickens look delightful in magazines, and baby chicks are some of the cutest things on the planet. But grown up chickens are mean. They have a mob mentality governed by a brain the size of a tic-tac. From our first flock, one chicken flew out of the pen into the mouth of a stray dog. Another just HAD to have something on the other side of the fence and strangled itself. The hens had no idea what a nesting box was, so they insisted on roosting on it at night and laying their eggs in the dirt during the day.

And of course, like every new flock owner, we simply had to have a rooster. Our first rooster was absolutely terrified of everything in the world outside the roosting shed. He was totally freaked-out every day about everything. He was a high-strung Type-A rooster. Our daughter named him Roadrunner. One morning we found him dead under the roost. He had expired, evidently of a heart attack (although we never ruled out the possibility that the hens hatched a plot to scare him to death).

The next leader of the flock was a reddish, colorful fellow who was quite calm but had no compunction about spurring the hand that fed him. It didn’t take him long to become downright vicious. Yes, we were just as surprised as you are. When we entered the chicken pen to gather eggs, we always went armed – I don’t mean with a shotgun or a hand grenade. We believed he could be ­-rehabilitated through chicken therapy – getting smacked with a stick if he tried to spur us. Sadly, this type of therapy didn’t reform him. He did respond quite well to axe therapy, however, and he never again punched holes in our legs or made us girls cry.

The hens threw a party to celebrate his demise. Our Colorado roosters have been more tolerable. Danny has never actually attacked us but retains the right to do so to save face in front of the hens. Brutus (who resembles the character on Popeye), sleeps on the floor because none of the other chickens will roost next to him. He gave up trying after getting kicked off the perch about 176,003 times. At some point in this abuse, all his tail feathers fell out (or were pulled out by the hens). He spends most of his day chasing hens who would rather hang out with a Norway rat.

There is some morbid part of us (well, me) that finds raising chickens enormously entertaining. A chorus in the Ozark Mountain Daredevils song, “Chicken Train” goes like this: “Chicken train, runnin’ all day, can’t get on, can’t get off, chicken train takes the chickens away.” We’re on the chicken train, and we can’t get off.