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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 14, 2008

Our backyard Taj Mahal houses hens as well as happy memories

By Jo E. Prout

Kids need chickens. That’s the plain truth. I realized it five years after buying a suburban house where the zoning did not permit livestock of any kind.

I walked through the Altamont Fair for years, and spent inordinate amounts of time in the Poultry Barn to get my chicken fix. Each tour brought back memories of my childhood chore of gathering the eggs out of our chicken coop.

My strongest memory is of the odor in the coop. The smell was enough to turn anyone off of any poultry in any form, if there hadn’t been benefits to going inside. Granted, I had no choice or I’d have heard about it from my father, but reaching into the roosting tray and finding an egg treasure was worth holding your breath for a full minute. If I really had to, I could make two trips, but it was best not to force myself inside the coop more than once a day, so I scooped up as many eggs as I could holding only one breath.

Those chickens were a bit frightening to a young girl. They never pecked me like they did my little sister, who was just a baby but who I thought was a Big Baby, so I finished my chore each day without fuss and let her do the crying.

While odors instill strong memories, stronger interests evolve over time, with nuances missed by young children. As a kid, I thought chickens were dumb birds that stank up the coop while they provided eggs, and stank up the house when they were plucked for soup. Then I went to the fair.

There were silkies with soft and fluffy feathers, and tiny bantams, and Araucan birds from Chile that lay blue eggs. There were big fat hens, just like the rhyme, and even bigger, grander roosters that deserved their blue ribbons and fierce reputations. I loved their colors, their forms, and their varieties.

So, we sold our suburban house with livestock restrictions, and moved to a home where there is no zoning at all. I told my city-raised husband that children need to think that seeing chickens walk around is normal, and he followed my whim.

Then, I asked for a chicken coop. We only needed a few chickens, so we only needed a shed. Husband looked at sheds at the home stores and decided that they were too flimsy. We needed a sturdier structure, he thought.

We found a blueprint of a decent coop online at a Virginia state university cooperative website, and Husband got to work. He is not known for being handy, and he had never built anything in his life, but Husband built the Taj Mahal of chicken coops.

Finally, the coop was up this spring and the chicks were bought. What kind did we get? Who knows? I didn’t bother to consult the list of rare breeds I had painstakingly compiled. I merely went to the ag store one day and bought up what they had left.

The chicks are supposed to be bantams, but are they true bantams, or merely small versions of other breeds that are nicknamed bantams? I think they’re a mixed bunch, for sure. We probably got several someones’ leftovers, and that suits me fine. They walk around and eat bugs and make comforting chicken noises, and that’s why we bought them. If we get any tiny eggs, we’ll have treasures, too.

My son says that the chickens are sweet. He feeds them out of his hand and pets them. They all have names. My parents never allowed us to name the animals on our farm, because they processed all of them. Our chickens now will never be soup birds, so names are harmless.

When we walk through the Poultry Barn at the fair this year, we’ll eagerly compare the beautiful birds we find to our little chicks, and look for their names on their crates. Birds at the fair are members of people’s families, and they’ve been groomed and cared for by those people for years.

I’m glad their families enter them each year, so that suburban dwellers can show their children beautiful pets, or working animals that provide food. We’ll meander through the aisles of crates, looking for winners and wondering why others didn’t win, and knowing that the kids who need chickens can see them there. I won’t even hold my breath.

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