A Bird in the Hand

We have constructed an artifice, a Potemkin village of an ecosystem where we perpetrate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the earth. This enables us to imagine that the only choices we have are between brands.
                —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Black chick

This week, I’ve been thinking about chickens.

I’ve been thinking about chickens because we’ve been eating them–experimenting with using dry rubs, letting the breast meat soak that in, and then roasting it on the grill, basting it with a barbecue sauce, letting it slow cook, and then eating it with farmers’ market corn and new potatoes from Randy’s fields. Rubs are new to our chicken repertoire, and the results–tasty and moist, seared on the outside–are a welcome revelation.

But I’ve been thinking about chickens, too, because of the folks we know who raise them. They are varied, these chicken-raising people: artists and officers, class-act retirees,  professors, stay-at-home moms. These are people, for the most part, who have been quietly tending their fowl for a long, long time. Their chicken preoccupations predate the current poultry raising craze by a broad span of years. Their stories, I think, would make a compelling article, and I message my friend Robin to see if she’ll let me come and visit, to interview her about her chickens and her art.

Robin is gracious and welcoming, and so, on Thursday morning, James and I pile into the car and drive north to Mount Vernon.

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Robin lives, with her husband Craig and their sons, Paul and Isaac, in a pretty red cottage on the borderline between town and country. The house perches on a little slice of verdant heaven, and we pull up the long gravel drive and park next to the family van. We walk up a path bordered in green, past a homey looking chicken coop, and up the steps to the back door.

We sit at the table and visit while cinnamon buns bake and Robin makes a second fragrant pot of decaf. Isaac, about to enter his last year of college, tells us about a new bird he’s been watching this summer. It’s wren-like, but with a longer beak and a different perching pattern, and it’s been pecking at his window. He realized, he says, that it had peeled away a corner of the window screen to get to spiders spinning homes in the space between window glass and summer screening. He’s excited because that means the bird has taken its instinctual feeding pattern–foraging in the bark of a tree,–and adapted it to human construction.

Isaac is tall and lean, ponytailed, with piercing black eyes. He is a biologist, studying, right now, fish and their adaptive relationships in Ohio waters, but birds are his passion. He loves video games, too, and Robin and I leave him and Jim discussing a digital world. We take our coffee and warm-from-the-oven buns, and we retreat to a little sitting area at the top of the stairs. It’s where Robin does her sewing, away from everyday house bustle.

Robin moves the sewing machine close to the window, pulls out chairs, and we settle in. Emily, the aging poodle, sweet and friendly, hoists herself up the stairs, too, settles in, falls asleep on the area rug at my feet. Robin shows me her just-finished project, a beautiful, capacious, quilted bag that she puts up on top of the sewing machine and covers. Otherwise, the cat will find that soft and comfy fabric, mash it down, and create for herself a new sleeping spot.

And then we talk about chickens.

Robin and Isaac started raising chickens together twelve years ago. It was a 4-H project for Isaac; he got several Banties, who first lived in the basement. Every day, Isaac and his mom would take them outside and put them in a hutch with a run; every night, they would herd them up and bring them back inside. They grew completely used to humans, those chickens; Isaac took to wandering around with the rooster on his shoulder, like a pirate with his parrot. He loved the chickens and he continued to raise them long after his 4-H time was over.

The Banties were joined by other breeds–Orpingtons and Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Cuckoo Morans, and Rhode Island Reds. Robin loved the birds, too, and even after Isaac went away to school, she continued to keep the chickens. She favors heavier hens who lay brown eggs–they are tougher birds, she says; it’s harder for a hawk to swoop down and carry one away.

Still, they have attrition. One night, as she turned up that gravel drive, Robin’s headlights illuminated a coyote stealing off with a bird in its jaws. It dropped the hen and ran away.  Robin butchered that freshly dead bird–something they do only rarely, although they enjoy the eggs year ’round.

Chickens are one connection, for Robin, to an Iowa farming childhood. She may not have time, with her full-time job at a bookstore, and her commitment to teaching ceramics, to till a kitchen garden or tend to goats or pigs. But chickens she can do.

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We go into the basement and visit the newest chickens–babies just fluffing out working wings. There are eight or ten chicks; they are all hens and all different types–pale and dark, some with patterned beaks, some with feathered legs, some just beginning to sport a comb. They tumble together in a big galvanized tub, sweetly cheeping, running to get food, taking impatient little drinks of water. They are impossibly fluffy and impossibly cute.

Outside, the mature chickens–a Banty rooster named Earl, Lord and Lady Orpington, and a Wyandotte hen, wander peacefully among the shrubs by their coop, poking their heads out, looking to Earl for instruction when Robin offers feed.  They are big and bright-eyed, strikingly colored,  and beautiful.

Grownups

Robin talks about predators–raccoons are the worst, she says, followed by foxes and an occasional coyote, and they have to balance a healthy, free-range life with the carnivore threat.

She shows me chicken catalogs, with glossy, alluring pictures of beautiful birds accompanied by lists of characteristics. You can choose size, of course, and appearance and egg color; you can choose the level of cold-weather hardiness and you can choose disposition tendencies.

There’s a lot to think about with chickens, I begin to realize. There’s a lot, say Robin and Isaac, to love.

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Robin has taken to photographing the grownups; she sketches from the photos she likes, and then the sketches flow into her ceramic designs.  She’ll throw a batch of mugs, then pull and place the handles, coat them with a slip made from local, Knox County, clay and bisque fire them. When they’re cleaned and washed, she’ll do a wax drawing of a chicken, a drawing taken from life. She shows me a photo of Earl pecking at a nugget of food; she shows me a mug with a perfectly proportioned, stylized rooster in the very same pose.

Wax drawing done, Robin dips the mug into a base coat of glaze, applies a second layer of wax, adds the top glaze coat, cleans the base, and then loads the kiln and fires the mugs.

A  mug takes at least two and a half weeks to create.

Chicken Mugs

You have to love the process because it brings you joy, says Robin, but you’ll never recoup, in dollars, the time you put into it. You have to own an appreciation of the long, slow way of doing things.

It’s true in raising chickens, as in art, of course. We talk about the difference between a factory farmed egg and its free range counterpart–the richer, more deeply colored yolks, the shells’ fragility, the difference in flavor.  The same differences, says Robin, are seen in the chicken meat. Factory farmed chickens are bred to maturity within eight weeks; their meat is watery and flavorless, their bones flexible and rubbery.  Free-range chickens  take a minimum of twelve to fifteen weeks to grow into themselves, and their bones, and their flesh, are firm. The flavor, Robin says, is incomparable.

It’s a dilemma, she acknowledges, because to buy a free range hen for roasting, you’d probably pay something like $6.99 a pound–a cost most families can’t embrace.

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Long ago, I read that United States Americans seldom think about where food comes from. They just eat it—a lot of it.

And I think about the chickens–food chickens–in this context: I’m reading Robin Wall Kimmerer.  In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about the relationship between a person and her food. In her native American tradition, when she gathers food, Kimmerer asks permission and she gives thanks. And she never takes everything.

So she’ll go out to gather wild leeks to make a risotto for her visiting daughters, and when she locates a patch, she will ask the plant’s permission to take her harvest. Then she’ll dig up a tiny portion; if the plant has granted her permission, it will be whole and healthy. Kimmerer will leave a gift of tobacco and judiciously harvest what she needs, leaving enough to perpetuate the food plant’s life.

It’s a philosophy, a practice she calls the Honorable Harvest; she applies it to the eating of plants and to the eating of animals. We need animals, she acknowledges; we need their flesh and their fur and and their hides and their feathers; we need their bones to make our stock. But we need to use them wisely, judiciously, reverently. “Gifts from the earth,” she writes, “or from each other, establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”

And I wonder if this has something to do with the pull that draws many to the raising of chickens–the ability to hold the tiny chick in your hand, to feed it, to allow it to run and explore and take dust baths in the bare spot under the rhododendrons. To get to knows its quirks and foibles and to enable it to have a natural life, a wholesome life, a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. To say thank you when the eggs are harvested. And, when the hen or the rooster is butchered for food, to make it happen in a quick and respectful way. And to use, as Robin says, every part of that chicken that can be used–even the heads and feet in a stock that, she affirms, is more flavorful than any you’ve ever tasted before.

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Knowing the bird on the plate before me has to make a difference, to slow me down, to make me appreciate, force me to savor. This is not just one of a million identical bred-to-eat birds, I acknowledge. I know this bird. This was an individual who flapped and pecked and socialized, a being who gave us joy in life and sustains us by his dying. We gave him freedom, sunshine, and companions. He feeds us. We knew this rooster’s name.

In Birdland

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so.
Mary Oliver, “Bird,” in Upstream

They are here, everyday–even in Winter, when some wing southward, the steadfast ones remain, shivering the slender branches of the bushes, teasing off the winter red berries, flying off into gray laden skies. A concurrent civilization: the birds are here with us, but not part of us. We are landlocked; they are sky-bound. Our lives intercept, but they are not parallel.

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The parking lot is full, after lunch (just imagine–some student up and took ‘my’ convenient space on this cool, gray, rainy day!), so I park in the back lot and tug my bags out of the back seat. I trudge across the rain-slicked lot thinking desultory thoughts,…thinking, “Gotta email John, and set a time for the extra workshop. Where’s my Third Thursday schedule?” when a flicker snares my attention.

I look up to see that there are plump, rosy-breasted bluebirds perched in each of the saplings in the grassy yard behind my building. They flutter into flight as I walk by,  as I stop to fumble, too late, for my cell phone and its camera.

Bluebirds! I marvel. A flock of bluebirds!

I lived in New York State, where the bluebird was the official state bird, for the majority of my life. I had never seen a live, free bluebird until we moved to Ohio. And never before today had I seen an entire flock of them.

The little birds are so bright and boisterous I can see why they’re associated with happiness. Feeling somehow lightened, I march back to my office to tackle my trudgy to-do’s.

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I leave work at 5:30 that afternoon, when nature is beginning to hunker down for the night, drawing close its gray wool covering. And the crows are on the move, en masse, cawing harshly, leaving whatever places they inhabit during the day, gathering in pulsing, heaving, social masses.

They blacken the trees perched on the edge of the slope behind the Helen Purcell Home, the steep drop-off that rolls down to the river plain; they overlook, as the sky darkens, the winking lights of our little city spread out below. The crows gather and they open their beaks and chorus raucously as they sing their late ones home.

Sleek and black and noisy–the crows don’t give me that flicker of hope the bluebirds imparted. Instead, safely inside my car, I duck my head defensively, and feel a cold finger trace chill lines on my back and upper arms.  Foreboding: that’s the emotion the crows bring with them.  I am glad to park my car in the carport and bolt into the house.

Today is one of those days that I remember to realize that birds live all around me.

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I know people who pretty much pay attention to birds all the time.

There is Al, who teaches in the Wildlife program. He leads a troupe of students who build wooden box dwellings for barn owls.  They put these up in the deep, unsettled areas of this rural county; they don’t share the locations because barn owls, endangered and necessary, are shy creatures who don’t cotton to the company of human gawkers.

Al is someone people call when they find an injured bird. He came to an all-employee meeting once with a majestic red-tailed hawk perched on his shoulder; she’d been hurt and was mid-recovery. Her eyes rolled at all the people. Al put her on a tarp and let people sidle carefully closer to observe this emissary from a different civilization. She paced, nervous and wary. When she spread her long, strong wings to try to flap her way outside, away from people, to a free, safe place, I felt the heady rush of wind she created twenty feet away.

Al has other birds, too–hawks and falcons, fallen ones that he nurses back to health and launches back into their wild homes. Sometimes, though, they won’t leave, and Al has a continuing companion, one who, I imagine, keeps his barn free of rodent pests and keeps him, too, carefully within the long, wide shot of their piercing, protective eyes.

There is Eryk, one of Al’s students, whose passion for wild birds leads him to his choice of profession: park ranger. Eryk, in a writing class, taught me about wild ducks and geese. He talked about bald eagles, too, raptors which have returned to this corner of Ohio. When I told him I’d never seen one, he laughed.

“You HAVE!” he said. “The immature birds have dark heads. You’ve probably seen them clustered in fields, and thought you were seeing vultures.”

There are wonderful bird-bloggers, like Kathy Doremus at Backyard Bird Nerd (https://backyardbirdnerd.com/2017/02/20/a-popular-place-to-perch/ ), whose wild bird photography fascinates me.

There are people who have their life lists, who travel to sight the birds they’ve never yet had the chance to see in nature.  We know a very special woman who flew overseas to catch an important migration not so very long ago. She was in her 80’s, with a serious illness, and that illness brought her home early, but, darn it, she took the chance and saw the birds she needed to see.

Some people, I think, share a little of the migratory wanderlust with the birds that fascinate them.

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Mary Oliver writes about rescuing an injured bird, of creating a place for it, giving it a good life in its last broken days. My brothers sometimes brought home broken fledglings when we were children. We would nest them in cardboard boxes from the supermarket; we would try to feed them with an eyedropper. Mashed worms. Warm milk. We would coo them welcome.

They never made it. Often, they would disappear from the box while we slept, our parents not wanting us to wake up to that stiff little feather bundle. There were baby bird graves in our back yard.

My mother fed the birds in that yard. She kept a container where we threw stale ends of bread, crusts and heels, and she would crumble those up and broadcast them in the hard-packed areas of the yard that we’d worn grassless playing wiffleball and kickball.  The birds would swarm–mostly robins and starlings and sparrows. She would stand, smoking, in the kitchen window and watch them, marveling at the way they integrated and shared and communicated.

Feeding the birds is not a habit I’ve perpetuated. Seeding the lawn with edibles would invite a whole additional set of visitors beyond just birds. I don’t want to encourage raccoons and squirrels and field mice who might just turn a speculative eye toward the house from which such bounty emanates.

And my appreciation of Mom’s bright-eyed perky sparrows has been jaded, too, since talking with our nature-loving friend Grace. Grace is zen-centered, non-aggressive, and willing to live in peace with most of God’s creatures, but Grace despises the English sparrow. They’re not supposed to even BE here, she says; they stowed away, most likely, on rickety wooden ships making the sea voyage to the New World, debarked, checked it out, and decided to stay.

And propagated.

Sparrows, Grace says darkly, are the Cosa Nostra of the local bird kingdom; they will wait until a bluebird has settled in a box, and a lovely warm home has been created. Then they will viciously attack, killing the grownup birds, destroying eggs and tender babies, and smugly taking the comfy site over for their own. They will nest, says Grace, right on top of the carcasses of the birds they’ve killed.

Now when I see the sparrows hopping and pecking, they look sinister, not perky. What are they plotting? I wonder. Or–what have they already done?

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For there is, certainly, a cold and  bloody side to our beautiful bird friends. We have seen, walking with our animal-loving granddaughter, laughing crows sweep in and steal a baby wren from its nest, dangling the sad little thing, staying a few feet ahead of its frantic parents, cawing and taunting as they take turns flying in to peck at their little captive.

“Put it DOWN!” our granddaughter wailed, running after the carnage-crows, but they laughed and taunted her, too.

And one day, Mark stood on our sunporch, talking on the phone to his brother in California. He was watching a couple of chipmunks cavorting in the rain across the street, when a hawk swooped in, grabbed a chipmunk without breaking flight, and pumped away, lunch in its talons.

“Whoa!” Mark yelled. “What did–? I can’t believe that just happened!”

The other chipmunk skittered away, and the sky, Mark said, was vastly empty.

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I have read that birds are closer to dinosaurs than any other creatures living, and I imagine those prehistoric creatures cocking their heads, rolling their eyes, hopping delicately from treat to treat like the funny little birds on my lawn.  I picture T-Rex with a coating of bright feathers. I wonder if its tiny arms weren’t vestigial, if the T-Rex sported wings whose flesh and cartilage, in time’s furnace after death, wasted away, leaving tiny arm bones for scientists to find and speculate upon.

Maybe birds once ruled the world.

Maybe, in their perception, despite our houses and cats and environmentally unfriendly habits, they think they still do.

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But how would I know what birds think? I barely register sharing space with them most days. Unless it is spring and they are boisterously calling; Mark swears we have a dysfunctional bird couple that returns to roost in our trees each year.

“Judy Judy Judy,” he calls, pleading. But, “Cheater Cheater Cheater!” she shrills back at him.

You’d think, Mark says, he’d learn–or she would.

We used to have hummingbirds that visited; then I hung a hummingbird feeder. I haven’t seen one since.

I am not, naturally, a nature girl; a too-close high school encounter with a nasty bird who targeted my shining red hair leaves me permanently bird-wary–and left me, too, with the nickname “Condor” for quite a number of years. So I do not know how to lure and keep feathered friends returning to my yard; they make me a little nervous, in themselves, and  I worry about the habits of the friendly prowling cats of this pet-loving neighborhood.  But I feel the prickle of awe when I see a calm, majestic hawk perched on top of a power pole. I marvel at the gawky, prehistoric flight of one of the herons I see on summer evenings, lazily winging away from the river.

We are earth-rooted; birds are, as Mary Oliver writes, sky-citizens, ambassadors from a wholly different culture, testifying quietly in our midst. I am glad for the glimpses I get into their world, for the visit of a bluebird bunch, for the awkward heron flapping. I treasure the photos and the facts more knowledgeable people share. They remind me, birds do,–when I am awake and aware–that MY world is also THEIR world; that we live side by side with all kinds of wonders,  with beauty and with treachery.

And we do not know everything. And we are not alone.