Monday, January 18, 2016

Joining In But Holding Their Own

Years ago my wife took the lead with a new educational initiative in the school district in which she worked.  The 9th grade class of the large and growing high school in the community was split off from the upper classes and re-housed in a separate and dedicated facility.  Whatever the educational merits might have been, I particularly liked attending special events -- especially dances -- where 14-15 year olds, unencumbered with the need to impress older students, could be themselves with each other -- playfully at times, emotionally at times, vulnerably at times.  Ninth grade boys could actually go out with ninth grade girls (never mind the difference in height and other signs of maturation I'll not go into here).  But one of the more interesting phenomena occurred in subsequent years.  As these classes moved on to the upper high school, the older students complained about how bonded these new sophomores were as they joined the larger milieu.  They stuck together.  They looked out for each other.  They held their own.

I've been thinking about that formative dynamic in the past few weeks since the four youngest arrivals to the chicken yard -- two Splash Marans and two Lavender Orpingtons -- were moved into the larger flock.  Much like the freshman school, they had spent a time apart -- just the four of them -- living together in a separately fenced enclosure, sharing their own coop, eating their specialized feed, roosting beside each other at night, and competing with one another for bugs.  Their special needs called for this separation.  As new arrivals they needed to demonstrate that they hadn't arrived with diseases that could infect the larger flock.  As considerably younger birds they needed time to grow in safety without getting challenged or pecked on by the older girls.  And having arrived from their birthplace in southern Illinois, they needed to become acclimated to their new environment.  For almost three months, then, they grew and matured and bonded in their own sequestered world.

And now they have graduated to the larger coops and life with the older hens.  They are clearly outnumbered -- four in the total census of 27 -- and they are still on the small side.  The older girls could make a mess of them if they had a mind to, but apart from a few minor pecking order reinforcements they largely leave them alone.  After all, everyone generally has her own work to do, what with bugs to scratch up or frozen grass blades to sample or treats to enjoy.  The young ones haven't quite matured to egg-laying age although that should arrive any day, and they are the only representatives of their breeds.  But they are, indeed, bonded.  They stick together.

Not entirely.  One of the Lavenders has become emboldened to sleep at night in the larger of the two coops with the biggest crowd of older girls, leaving her three classmates to look after each other in the smaller coop into which they were settled.  But come daylight the four are reunited.  Indeed, they stay up together later than the others; they linger together by the feeders to share their meals; they hang out together in the run through the afternoons.  They are, indeed, a united sophomore class.

I can't say if it annoys the older girls.  Personally I'll admit to some mixed emotions about their togetherness.  There is something to be said, after all, about blending in -- becoming "one" with the larger flock.  But that said, there is something equally precious about having a circle of sisters who, together, "have your back", and who developed a low enough center of gravity to know that they can dance with whomever they want.  Perhaps like the larger country around us -- less, as it turns out, a "melting pot" and more, as we are increasingly figuring out as a culture, a "salad bowl."  These girls get along with the others just fine, but they seem to retain a pretty clear sense of who they are.

And as far as I can tell, they are going to do just fine.  Just like the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Winter Satisfactions

The girls are sticking close together -- and close to home -- these days.  Who can blame them?  The Mercury won't climb out of single digits today, with winds translating the feel to well below zero, and the cleared spaces around the coops are by now well travelled and fully explored.  Short of simple calisthenics, they have little incentive to budge out into the frigid breeze.  The sunshine helps, but only barely.  They have concluded -- as have we -- that there are very few places that are urgent to visit while the atmosphere is this forbidding.  

It has occurred to me that they have a certain advantage in winter weather:  their down jackets are always on them.  Ours we have to stuff ourselves into, only to waddle around like the love child of a penguin and the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man.  They are born with a knack for feathered navigation; we never really get the hang of it.  

The matter is further complicated on days like yesterday when their waterers run dry.  Let me just say -- without getting unnecessarily graphic -- that it's not that easy to schlepp gallon milk jugs filled with water out to the coops, squeeze my jacket-bloated frame through the coop door, squat in the common space shared by a handful of curious and thirsty hens, dismantle, fill and reassemble the water canister, and then extricate myself without snagging my coat or stepping on anything living.  All, I might add, for very little recompense.  I’m collecting only one or two eggs per day through these abbreviated daylight hours.  

Not that I blame them.  I'm not that productive these days either.  And given their limited entertainment, they are doubly happy to see me when I trudge out in their direction.  Ones who have never given me the time of day have started begging for attention, squatting in front of me in hopes I will pick them up and cuddle.  Even the Buff Brahmas, which at close to 10 lbs each is a lot of bird to cuddle, but almost as rewarding as an egg.  

We’ll get through this frigid time.  They, after all, have each other to snuggle up to at night, and a steadfastly reliable me to keep them amply supplied with food, water, treats and occasional boredom busting entertainment options.  And I, with a smile on my face, have a warm house to return to, with even warmer housemates, and a flickering fire with a beckoning hearth.  

Come to think of it, winter isn't so bad after all.