Owning chickens has greatly deepened my understanding of the English language.
I had no idea, not consciously at least, of the volume of poultry-inspired idioms still used on a daily basis until I brought home our first batch of baby chicks.
I plopped the little cardboard box filled with peeping birds on the bathroom floor and gently opened it. I reached in slowly and carefully grabbed the first chick.
She immediately pooped all over the box.
“Whoops,” I said to Mike. “Guess she’s scared shitless. Oh, no! Wait! She’s chicken-shit! Ha! Get it?? CHICKEN shit?”
Mike rolled his eyes.
The birds continued to…relieve themselves…with fear for the next several days whenever I reached into their pen (aka our spare shower) to change their water or refill their food. And thus, my interest in chicken idioms was born.
As the birds grew, we moved them from the shower, to the garage, and finally to a real coop where they could stretch their wings, prance around, and dig in the dirt. It was a nice coop, with a large roosting area, a covered outdoor space safe from predators, and a fenced-in run which they were only allowed into during the day when we could keep an eye on them.
They immediately figured out how to jump on a rock for height, then awkwardly flap themselves out of the run.
“Ah,” I said, a knowing glimmer in my eye. “You flew the coop!” The birds cocked their heads at me, pooped (really, they poop a lot), and promptly forgot exactly how they had escaped. They ran in panicked circles around the run’s fence, charging the chicken wire like a bull trying to get back in. Over and over again.
I clipped their wings and had a good, long chat with them about safety (it’s for your own good, bird, unless you want to become coyote/fox/neighborhood dog food) and the chickens agreed to (mostly) stay in the coop, but they showed their displeasure by (you guessed it) pooping. Everywhere.
Or perhaps it wasn’t displeasure, per se, as our birds seem to be of solidly content disposition, at least in the moments they’re not pecking the shit out of each other (more on that later) but have I mentioned these birds poop? A lot?
“When are you ever going to clean out the coop?” Mike asked me one day.
“I just did!”
I went to check on the birds, and sure enough, the coop floor was again covered in poo. The voices of my three younger brothers echoed a strange, but oddly appropriate childhood insult in my head. Turd bird, turd bird, tuuuuuuuuurd biiiiiiiiiird.
Turd birds, indeed. Muttering, I pulled out the poopy coop bedding for the umpteeth time and as I did, I noticed that one of the Jersey Giants was refusing to leave the nesting box. Usually, when I interrupt their laying, they just give me a dirty look, hop out of the boxes, and come back to finish their business later. This chicken, however, had no intention of going anywhere.
“Uh-oh,’ I eyeballed her. “Are you broody?” Broody hens decide they want to be mothers and stubbornly sit on their eggs for weeks. Even when they don’t have a rooster partner and therefore will never be mothers. It’s a difficult conversation to have with one’s chickens, the whole “You’ll never have chicks” thing. No one likes hearing they’ll never hatch an egg.
The Jersey Giant just glared at me.
“No ma’am. We’re not doing broody. You can’t just sit in there and hog the nesting box.” My mind detoured long enough to think, “Oh! Hog! Another farm animal!” then returned to the hen at hand. I grabbed her out of the nesting box and sat her on the coop floor. She hunkered down and puffed out her feathers so that she was twice her usual size. I could barely see her little chicken head. Just enough to know she was still glaring at me.
“Well, that certainly ruffled your feathers,” I told her, then giggled at my own cleverness.
The Jersey girl growled at me as only something descended from a dinosaur could do.
“You knock that off, missy. That kind of behavior is for the birds!” Ha! Not only had I become the kind of crazy chicken lady who talked to her birds, I was the crazy chicken lady who made puns with her chickens. Bet you crazy cat people can’t match that.
I put the broody hen in chicken jail (a dog kennel with no nesting materials), the only quick way to break her of desire to hatch an egg. She fought me. The rest of the flock watched with interest, squawking, clucking and bwaaaaaak-ing incessantly.
“Shhh.” I muttered.
“Chickens! Knock it off!”
Cluck, Cluck, Cluck, BWAAAAWK.
“Oh my god! Chickens! Shut up! You’re making me crazy!”
Our birds are so vocal that that it’s almost guaranteed that any time I go outside, Mike will be yelling at them.
“Stop begging. Stop. Chickens! No! I DON’T HAVE ANY SCRAPS FOR YOU SO SHUT YOUR BEAKS!”
Those birds talk too dang much. The place is a total henhouse.
They’ve learned to beg because we do throw all our scraps to them. They thoroughly enjoy using these scraps to play a fun game called, Everybody-Fight-Over-The-Same-Tiny-Piece-Even-Though-There’s-Plenty-To-Go-Around. It involves one hen grabbing a piece of food and the rest of the flock running around and pecking the living daylights out of her, while ignoring the rest of the food they could be eating. The bird with the tasty tidbit generally succeeds in swallowing her treat.
But she usually leaves the game feeling rather henpecked.
Revenge, as far as I can tell, comes at dusk when all the birds head into their coop to for the night. The favorite spot to sleep? The top roosting bar. The best way to get there? Peck the shit out of all the other birds’ feet until they fall off. The winner of this rather violent version of poultry footsie…well, she rules the roost.
I could do this all day.
Our outdoor coop has a roof that only covers half of it.
Me in a rainstorm: “Look at those birds running for cover. Hey – they’re madder than a wet hen! Ahahaha!”
Mike: “Omg. Stop.”
Mike doing farm finances: “The more chickens we get the more eggs we sell. But the more eggs they lay the more feed they eat. The more feed they eat the more money they cost. I’m not sure if we’re making anything off them.”
Me: “Would you say it’s a…chicken-and-egg type situation?” (Wink, grin.)
Mike: “LeeAnne. Seriously.”
Me: “Someday, I’m going to do a blog post on all the idioms related to chickens.”
Mike: “Better get on it. Time’s a-wasting. And you’re no spring chicken, yourself.”
Me: “Okay, this isn’t fun anymore.”
Mike: “What? Now you’re going to get all sensitive? Don’t make me feel like I have to walk on eggshells around you.”
Me: “Don’t you cop a cocky attitude with me.”
It’s around this time, if we’re out in public, that whoever has had the misfortune of sitting near us usually picks up their beer and moves to another table. It’s one thing to listen to a bickering couple. It’s another entirely to listen to a couple bickering in chicken puns.
But we don’t brood over it.
In reality, (and in all seriousness) owning chickens and, in the bigger picture, running a farm provides these little daily connections to the agricultural roots of what life used to be like, captured in sayings that previously, folks would have understood on a literal level. Four seasons into the farm, I have a new appreciation for a situation being a “tough row to hoe” and I very much hope that we do, indeed, “reap what we sow” this year. As opposed to sowing a bunch of stuff and then reaping nothing because it gets destroyed by hail, dried out by wind, or torn up by jerk-face chickens who escape their coop and eat everything in sight, tomato and pepper plants included.
But time will tell. In the meantime, we just plow ahead (whoops, there’s another one) do our best, and hope for a good outcome.
We wouldn’t want to count our chickens before they hatch.