“Oh man, I wish I could come, but I’m on chickens.” The chicken duty rotation has again landed on me and my only date this week is with some feathery girls. People are usually too confused to ask what “chicken duty” means. When I tell them I have to tuck them in for bed, I get an even more perplexed reaction.
Chickens are the timekeepers of the farm. They’re the first ones up, arousing life from the field and coaxing tired farmers from the warmth of their beds. They also signal the day’s end with their march back into the coop, offering the farmer the peace of mind of knowing it’s too dark to work anymore.
Our chickens roam free through a grass enclosure where they forage for bugs, eat vegetable seconds and grains and lay eggs. They are extremely susceptible to predators, especially on Shelter Island where our girls have to worry about fox and hawk pressures. Some roosters will fight to the death for their hens and most will signal to take cover when a predator is near. But since we don’t have such a stud, we farm apprentices act as the hens’ protectors.
It’s my first night this week. I arrive at the field at twilight, the most magical time to walk alone through the crops, popping cherry tomatoes with leisure. Everyone is home and it’s just me, the chickens, the pigs, and a full bush of ripe blackberries with no one to out-hunt. The light on the growing winter rye still wet from today’s showers looks unworldly. It’s quiet.
I walk the perimeter of the chicken area, scanning the fence line looking for any suspicious holes or entryways. I have to rely on a cliché and tell you fox really are sly. I once got to the field to find five chickens dead in their tracks with no sign of predation or gaps in the fence. Fox slip in and out, snapping the chickens’ necks before I can even see their bushy tails creep under the fence. Tonight, as always, the hens are happy to see me, still alive and pecking at my feet in search for grain.
Zero casualties. Now that they’re under my watch, our hens can relax for another night; the fox will not approach while I trudge about.
Now I wait. Chicken duty is very zen. You can’t force the chickens into the coop. (Well actually you can, but chicken wrangling requires a lot of running I prefer not to do during my relaxation field time).
The sun begins to set and they continue foraging. While they poke around, I roll down the sides of the greenhouse and water the plants in the propagation house, replenishing growing heads of lettuce and baby brassicas. I usually play music and occasionally poke my head out to make noise in an effort to deter any looming predators. I usually yell something like, “HEYYYY CHICKIE MAMAS!” They seem to like that. And reggae. They love reggae.
Now I wait some more. I walk through the field, assessing our vegetables without the pressure of the daytime hustle. Something about the lazy light makes the whole field walk feel much more calm.
They feel the fleeting moments of today’s light turn in and they too embrace the rest of darkness. I watch animal instinct in its most pure form through their descent.
All of a sudden the sun seems to fall down, as the last bits of dusk slip away like soil fanning through the cracks between my fingers. Then magic! Like clockwork, the chickens know to go inside. I watch them, one by one, instinctively hop into the safety of their nest.
Everyone always asks, “How do they know when to go inside?” They feel the fleeting moments of today’s light turn in and they too embrace the rest of darkness. I watch animal instinct in its most pure form through their descent.
Bursts of sporadic flapping echo from the cozy coop through the sunset haze. They patiently wait in line at the door as each hen settles inside at her place on the roost. Twelve more hens to go.
The energetic clucks fade into a lull-like purr, gently welcoming sleep and remind me how tired I am from today’s harvest. I wonder what’s for dinner. Eight more.
The field is dark now, but still familiar. I know every step through the vanishing rows. Did I remember to grab that hoe I found in the pathway earlier? With each tiny chicken step, another muscle lets go and I sink into the grass. Five chickens left.
I look up from the whizzing thoughts that keep me company throughout my wait to find one last chicken prancing around the door. There’s always one stubborn bird I have to practically tuck in and read a bedtime story to. Tonight I feel patient and don’t rush her.
Several seconds later and she’s in. I poke my head into the sound of muffled clucks and see a ball of feathers on stick-like feet, huddled together for warmth and safety on their roost.
I check under and around the coop and find no stragglers. I close and lock the door, automatically jiggling it to make sure it’s truly shut. It’s dark now and the cone of my flashlight paves my path.
And so I fade away too, to rest and wait for the morning’s cock a doodle doo.