Chicken Delinquents




Much bustling and gossiping greeted me and the steaming bowl of grits I carried. I shoved the door to the chicken’s run closed with my foot and slid the brick in place to hold it. Dumping their cold morning treat into their outside pan, I left them to it – harassing each other, screaming hissy fits, sure the morsel their sisters carried in a grit-crusted beak was far superior to their own. I opened the gate to their adjoining run, the one I called their Elysian field.

Up until last spring, this flock of six – three Ameraucana of the blue eggs and three, chocolate egg laying, Cuckoo Marans – foraged the gardens every afternoon with the manners of refined young ladies out for a stroll. Always mindful of their curfew, twilight signaled their return home to roost. Then one warm April morn, they rose from their slumbers possessed by the likes of Madame DeFarge and began to lay waste to the countryside. And the ringleader, one fat Cuckoo defied the sun, defied her curfew, refusing to start home without a chase.

I come from generations of chicken stewards, and with the exception of a sparse number of years bondage in city and suburb, I’ve always kept a small flock. And I’ve always allowed them an afternoon’s foray into the wilds of my garden. Obeying one of the commandments for healthy poultry, I gave them more than adequate housing room and room to roam. But after weeks of second chances, I’d had enough of their marauding and pillaging.

Shortly after, John bought more poultry wire and began enclosing an area adjacent to the existing run, enlarging it to the chicken equivalent of the Superdome, with real turf. Our self-established field mixture of rye, Bermuda, dandelion, ground ivy, wild onion, clover – left to its own devices – would encourage edible critters and provide a gourmet feast for our delinquent fowl. Add in the additional botanical accouterments planted by a hard grubbing gardener and the result was chicken paradise, an Elysian field.

In one corner a ‘Brown Turkey’ fig provides shade in the summer and tempts a greedy flock with it low-hanging fruits come Autumn. An unknown, Arbor Day Foundation crabapple does the same from the center of the run. Better yet, a voluptuous cerise colored bloomer, the Gallica rose ‘Hippolyte’, shelters the hens from predator hawks. For those chickens who prefer a white boudoir, Damask ‘Madame Plantier’ climbs the fence and tangles itself in the Stayman Winesap apple tree outside the field. When the all clear sounds, the hens can shake themselves free of their Chicken Little fright and use the dirt underneath the roses for a dust bath, keeping them free of  mites.

The girls have finished, now, and joined me in Elysian field. One spots a floating seed head and doddles off to sample it. On such a day with the sky pale from the cold, I find it hard to envision a coming spring. The almond trees and the pecans and peaches look gaunt, color absent from their trunks as if preparing for death, beautiful in their resignation. But at the tips of their branches, I see a flush of color like fingers thawing from frostbite. No need to bargain with the gods yet, resurrection is nigh. Maybe it will speak to second chances.



The chicken eye view of David Austin’s ‘Munstead Wood’