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Just Hatched, In Need of A Good Home

EVERY year, right around the time when the ground was thawing into mud and life hung slack in the late-winter doldrums, our local Southern States farm supply store would send its yearly postcard announcement. This card, like the brave crocus and daffodil spears in our yard, was a welcome herald of spring's imminent arrival. Chick Day was once again upon us!

On Chick Day the sweet sound of little peeps filled the old wood-floored store. Somewhere among the fertilizer bags, the racks of shovels, and the pine-bark mulch were cardboard boxes filled with live chicks. These minute balls of yellow fluff gave no hint of their future selves - the mature and squawky rooster or hen. Only time and growth would reveal just how many potential egg layers and how many strutting barnyard bosses were among them.

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But on Chick Day all thought of future poultry chores and pecked hands were forgotten as I gazed down with eager eyes at these day-old chicks. Their plaintive peeps were calling for someone to come and take care of them, and I could never resist. With the purchase of one 50-pound sack of chick feed, I received one of those intriguing, peeping boxes full of 25 chicks free.

Walking to our pickup truck, I felt that tender exhilaration that all baby animals seem to inspire - a combination of pride and protectiveness. The pride came from knowing my family was moving one step closer to self-sufficiency by producing our own eggs. In this post-agricultural urban age, so much is done for us. We lack the basic connections to the sources of our nourishment. In pushing a button to microwave our dinner, what we gain in time we lose in experience of the organic process that's so satisf ying to the most earthy part of our humanity. And the protectiveness I felt came from knowing the fragility of young life. This demanded my best efforts to safeguard and nurture these young, assuring their healthy growth.

As I drove home, my three-year-old begged to see the chicks, so much like stuffed toys. And the baby, strapped in her car seat, called out, "Chick! Chick!"

Once home, we settled our chicks into their new home in our dark, cement-floored basement. My husband and I had built a wooden pen, four feet square, and bedded it with fresh straw from our fields. We suspended two heat lamps just one foot overhead to keep the chicks as warm as they would be under a mother hen's wings. We filled a long wooden feeder with crushed grain and kept a round aluminum waterer filled with clean water. All day these little chicks, with the insatiable appetite of the newborn, moved

in an endless circuit to peck feed, sip from the waterer, snooze briefly under the lamp, then back to peck and sip.

My husband, a farmer busy with the bigger responsibilities of field and barn and orchard, delegated chick care to my daughters and me. Twice a day we'd refill feeder and waterer, then stand back to watch the show. Usually we'd take out a chick to hold and rub softly with one finger and study up close. The girls loved to bring a few upstairs into the kitchen where we could watch them daintily hop across the linoleum, shiny black eyes darting here and there.

During those last days of winter, spring seemed to well up from the roots beneath the earth: Buds swelled on bare branches and daffodils and violets touched the gray landscape with first color. The chicks seemed to grow hourly. Soon they looked taller, less fluffy. Once their first pin feathers emerged, we knew that, like teenagers, it would soon be time for them to move out of their now-crowded nursery and into the larger world of the chicken coop, where their roaming days would begin. It was around thi s time, too, that lengthening red combs first distinguished the cockerels from the pullets.

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For three years, we raised the standard white Leghorn, a champion egg-layer and most people's image of a chicken. Then we decided to be adventurous and order some rare-breed chicks from a catalog. The pages were illustrated with pictures of fowl of every shape and color: plump-breasted white and barred rocks, stately Polish with their vivid topknot of plumage, and lean, jaunty bantams. These breeds express the pride of generations of American farmers who, in the last century, bred their flocks to combine

usefulness with attractiveness so as to outdo one another at country fairs held all across the country.

We decided on a mix of fancy breeds, including speckled Sussex, barred rock, Rhode Island red, and turkins - a breed with an embarrassing lack of neck feathers that lays pale green eggs. Convincing ourselves that we would triple our egg production and could sell the surplus, we placed an order for 75 chicks.

Two months later, we received an early-morning phone call from the post office. "Please, come and get your chicks!" the man on the other end implored. "The noise is driving us all crazy!"

At first, they all looked pretty normal, except for the poor turkins with their scrawny pink necks. In a few weeks, though, they had grown enough to be turned out into the chicken house, and it was obvious that ours was not a typical flock of poultry. Those 75 chicks, ranging in color from yellow and orange to black and white to red, moved like a living tapestry across the straw-covered floor.

The racket they produced perplexed even the dogs. All day long my daughters, older and more independent now, would run out to see our feathered menagerie. Their friends begged to visit. One family from town even adopted two chicks for a few weeks, keeping them in their laundry room - a nature lesson in living color.

As this batch of chicks matured, their differences emerged, becoming more pronounced with each day. The turkins looked like little ostriches with long bare necks and, on their heads, a tuft of feathers like an old woman's hat. The barred rocks, my favorites, were speckled black and white in contrasting wavy bands. The speckled Sussex came in tan and orange mixtures flecked with black and brown. The Rhode Island reds were red and showed up brightly against the newly greening grass.

We had always allowed our chickens to range freely over yard and field, knowing this saved on feed and added nutrients to their diet. In the chicken house, where most of the flock retired to roost safely at night, we provided a tray of ground-up oyster shells that added calcium to make their eggshells firm. On this regimen, our hens' eggs had deep yellow yolks, and the taste was clean and earthy, making the store-bought eggs seem bland.

We soon got used to seeing chickens everywhere we looked, and the dogs, protecting their own food bowls, kept them off the steps leading to our porch. They were always a shock to visitors, though, especially the black turkins who looked like vultures strutting through the yard.

One day a new friend from the suburbs stood open-mouthed on our back porch, which, being four feet off the ground, afforded a panoramic view of the yard and surrounding fields. There, scattered all across the scenery, were chickens of all sizes, shapes, and colors, clucking contentedly, pecking grass and bugs, scratching the dirt beneath our shrubs, and doing all the chicken activities we had come to take for granted.

My friend, once she could speak, asked all the usual chicken questions about breeds and habits and eggs. But what she could never understand was why. Why in this day would we want to fool with chickens and let them disturb (and befoul) our yard?

I knew I couldn't explain sufficiently the late-winter joy of chicks, the satisfaction of collecting still-warm eggs from the nest, or the comic absurdity of looking up into one of our trees at dusk to see the branches weighted down under full-grown chickens sleeping in a row, heads tucked into wing. Nor could I explain the homey, rural pleasure of waking up to rooster crows.

Not all of us are susceptible to "chick fever," but come late winter I will always find my thoughts turning to just-hatched chicks looking for a new spring home.

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