We call the author of How to Speak Chicken by her first name, “Melissa,” as if we know her. She writes so clearly, her voice rings out in the nook where we prop the book during breakfast, read it aloud, highlight words, look things up, and reread. Melissa says chickens are not birdbrains and have a lot of different vocalizations; I’m going to keep track of their coos, clucks, and squawks to see if I can figure out what they mean. Right now, we’re making pre-chicken decisions. So far: “no” to roosters, “yes” to baby chicks versus full-grown layers, “yes” to 6 chicks, and “yes” to “they’re pets and egg-layers, not meat.” Also, we found a place that will “sex” the chicks so that we don’t get a male.
“Sexing” IS important. I remember the time Mom and Dad surprised us with gerbils for Christmas.They had been assured by Stella, the gerbil guru, that they were girls. Mom hid the gerbils and their “Critter Trail 2-Level Treadmill Habitat” downstairs in the tenant’s apartment until Christmas morning. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we all peered into the cage: 12 tiny sausage-style newborns nursing from one of the gerbils while the other one careened round and round on the treadmill and critter trails. We kept having gerbil babies every few weeks, buying more Critter Trail Levels and Habitats—they all connected. We tried to give them away to make space for the newborns. Eventually everyone we knew—even strangers—had gerbils: we tacked FREE GERBILS! signs all over town, we had so many to get rid of. Then came the inevitable and fateful day when someone left the cage open. Mom-and she’s a scientist; I thought she’d be the last one to lose patience-shouted Enough! and we gave everything back to Stella. Unfortunately we could find only 12 of the 20 runaways.
So sexing the chicks will eliminate unwanted population explosions. We learned that girl chicks are born with 4000 eggs in them. They don’t need the rooster unless we want more chicks—which we don’t. Um, the male rooster fertilizes the eggs when he mates with the girl chickens; absent the guy, the girls just, well, they lay their 4000 unfertilized eggs one by one which we’ll then eat one by one, I reckon. I discovered another “you’ve got items in your cart” message on Dad’s laptop—the preliminary chick order he’d started on the website My Pet Chicken: “More people than ever want to raise chickens…reserve your order soon!” Zia tells us which type would work best for our yard. Mimi places our order. Then the two of then discover Melissa’s blog, Tilly’s Nest, and read aloud more tidbits of information.
Next we pulled the playhouse out of the storage unit from our old apartment. After a ton of back and forth hemming and hawing, we agreed on where to place it in the yard. While Mimi reads aloud from the notes we’d organized from our many YouTubes on Playhouse-to-Coop transformations, Pop, Oliver, and I get to work.
QuickQuickQuick we: tacked wire fabric—also called hardware cloth in, over, and between all of the cracks, openings, orifices, holes, and spaces a predator could squeeze through; raised it off the ground; dug down all along the edges and buried more hardware cloth in the ground to discourage predators who burrow; constructed and attached a nesting box outside one of the playhouse windows; made two little ladders that cross-crossed each other just above the flooring inside the “coop.” Ladders are handy because they can be steeper than a ramp. One of our ladders turned out to have rungs 6 inches apart—the chickens will hop from rung to rung on that one. Another has rungs that are closer—the chickens will walk up that one. One ladder goes from the roost downwards; the other ladder goes from the window opposite the roosting box to meet up with this ladder. This window will be the chicken’s doorway to their run. Both ladders repose against each other and hover over but not on the floor. To keep the ladders in position we suspended a wire from the ceiling to one of the ladders and screw-eyed it. Finally we spray painted it Robin Hood Green with faux mahogany trim.
Working all of this out was engrossing, companionable, zany, and mesmerizing. The playhouse was morphing in front of our eyes.
The reason we raised the playhouse up on a platform is so we could make a sliding poop floor to catch the droppings from under the roosts. First we tacked “runners” to a plywood base, an inspired touch—thanks Mimi. Then we cut another sturdy piece of plywood and put drawer handles on the outer side to push it in right under the roosting box side so it rested on the platform with runners. We measuremeasuremeasured. Measure once, cut twice says Zia. I really got into this detail work being excellent at visualizing and figuring on paper. The twins “helped” but mostly laughed about poop floors and pounded nails into a tree stump. Not to be too explicit, but the pullout floor is clever. The chickens poop—well, we all poop!—the “bedding” on the floor absorbs it, and then every day or week, not sure of how often yet, we ease the floor out—a two-person job—and carry it to the compost pile, dump it, scrape it with an old hoe, and then slide it back in. This means we won’t have to use tons of bedding on the bottom of the coop. It also means our compost will have more manure/fertilizer and less shavings.
All during this hubbub coop-making day, Mom and Dad stories percolated up and out of the Way-Back seats of our memories. Mom’s love of fresh eggs. How she always picked up fresh eggs on her way home from the lab. Dad’s special ingredient scrambled eggs—cottage cheese. Sexing. Chick Names. Why 6 chicks is better than 10. Egg recipes. Forest green or Robin Hood green—and what’s the difference between them anyway?
Oliver never got to meet Mom and Dad and I could tell he was loving this orgy of happy tales. Were Mimi and Pop right about this chicken thing as poison antidote? Did it switch my focus? Was I seeing the beautiful Mom and Dad who loved and lived with us up until a few weeks ago? Yes. Yes. And Yes. It was like temporarily taking the needle off the broken scratched up revenge record and bathing myself in sunlight. (I know about records; who doesn’t? We even have a turn-table so we can play Mom and Dad’s original Credence Clearwater albums they bought the year they got married.)
But! Note my use of the word temporarily.