One might ask how a girl like me–living on less than a quarter-acre ten minutes from downtown St. Pete, with a somewhat questionable neighborhood profile–would end up getting chickens in her backyard. I have to blame it on Mabel. But for my fellow readers to understand and appreciate her fully, I should give a little back story to this chicken. So settle in with a good cup of coffee, prop your feet on your desk, and take a break. This post is dedicated to Mabel the Sabel Black Label.
The First Egg-Layers
Once upon a time–just kidding.
Here’s how it started. I have a fairly regular routine of weekly visits to the barn to visit Amadis, my equine pet of fifteen years (or, as my dad says, my “hundred-thousand-dollar horse,” a phrase I vehemently denied–until I did the math). During those visits, I spend a good deal of time mucking stalls and feeding the resident four-legged creatures, maybe fitting in a ride on m’boy during the morning.
The barn is a private facility owned by an amazing family of three: Emma, Skip, and their daughter Erin. They are some of my Very Favorite People on this earth. Good eggs, one might say. And it was exactly this favorite family who introduced me to farm-fresh eggs. One day as I was finishing up barn chores and putting a very tired, sweaty horse back to pasture after a cleansing bath (for both of us), Emma placed a container of eggs in my hands. I brought them home, tucked them safely on the back of the top shelf (behind my store-bought organic eggs), and it was another week before I tasted them in my Sunday morning scramble.
Some people describe their “eureka” moments in life: their child being born, the day they got a second chance at life, whatever. My eureka moment? Tasting those golden eggs. And they were like gold to me. Each week when I returned to the farm, I’d open the barn fridge faster than a teenager home from high school and search for the wonderful, magical bounty of oval deliciousness. Most times there would be a dozen, sometimes two or three dozen! Sometimes none, sadly. It all depended on the time of year, the stress level of the hens, other factors I had never heard of before.
It wasn’t long before I got to meet the producers of my golden eggs. Pants, The Twins, a couple of Goldies–maybe a dozen hens in all. They were blessed with a free-range lifestyle, by day browsing the barn aisle and stalls for grains and seeds and fresh grass growing in the crevices, clucking and pecking and scratching and generally putting on a show. They’d roam the farm and lounge in the aisles in their glorious fluffer-nutter-ness. And every night at dusk, the lucky rooster, Chantaclair Tiger Woods V. (quite the ladies’ man), would herd them back to their Key West-style coop in the backyard of Emma and Skip’s house, where they’d be safely locked up for the night.
It eventually came to be that the flock thinned out, whether due to natural causes or the occasional fox raid. And so Emma and Skip snatched up a dozen or so baby chicks from the local feed store to keep the legacy of golden eggs going. Around the same time, a friend of Emma’s gave her a couple of Americauna chickens that she couldn’t keep.
Enter Mabel and her sister, barely three months old and sporting that awkward phase of gangly teenager–somewhere between adolescent and pullet (yearling). They were introduced to the new flock of chicks and roamed the barn freely, sleeping on hay bales and perching on rails. Of course, I was drawn to the fuzziness of the hatchlings and barely noticed Mabel and her sister at the time. And the major change of environment did nothing to settle them at the barn–they were wary of me and just about everyone who dared come near. And so I left them alone and instead snatched up a feathery chick every time I could, smooshing her fluffiness into my face to feel her downy feathers and kiss her little hard head. And then I’d collect my eggs from the fridge and head home.
The First Attack
It wasn’t long after the new chicks arrived that the local fox clan must’ve smelled fresh blood. One night, the flock was out too late–not quite trusting their instinct to “go to roost” at dusk–and he foxes made off with most of the chicks. Mabel and her sister survived.
The Second Attack: Time to Replenish the Inventory
Emma and friends made their way back to the feed store and bought up another dozen chicks. Brought them home, introduced them to Mabel and the Survivors. All went swimmingly for a few weeks. I bonded with a small golden chick that I named–of course–Goldie. So did Mabel. She and Goldie would roam the barn aisles and explore the bountiful stalls before I had a chance to get in there with the manure pick. Eww. But what can you say? Chickens are opportunists. But so are foxes. Within three weeks, out too late at the witching hour, the local foxes made another appearance, making off with just about every chick–except Mabel, Goldie and another newbie that had the good fortune to stick with the pros.
Back to the Feed Store
By this time, Emma and friends had enough. No more free range at night. The new batch of chicks (oh yes, of course there was a new batch) would be kept in the Key West condo in the backyard and turned out only during the daytime. The foxes were on to us, and it was time to protect the inventory. And so Mabel, little Goldie, and the new chicks settled into a routine of enclosed safety every night followed by a few hours of turnout every day.
Around this time, it would be an unexpected treat to arrive at the barn and see a few chickens running around. But there she’d be: Mabel, lounging on the top of the 7-foot-high stall wall or nestled down inside the hay cart preparing to lay an egg. We learned to keep the hay cart just half-full, clearing a little nestable area for Mabel to lay her eggs. I would pull the hay cart up and down the aisle, tossing a few flakes in each stall, while Mabel perched on the back of the cart, clearly enjoying the ride.
One afternoon, as I sat cross-legged on the freshly swept barn floor and decorated one of the stall chalk boards with a random Bazany sketch, my arm crooked and raised in the air as i drew, Mabel sauntered up to me, cocked her head and gave me the eye, neatly jumped up onto my arm, and perched, settling her feathered bulk onto my sleeve. For a person who has never held a chicken before, you can understand the slight dilemma I was in. You can’t really draw with a chicken on your arm. You can’t pull your arm away from the blackboard for fear of dropping the chicken. And how does one hold a chicken? No clue. So I sat there dumbly and in a state of fascination and simply watched her. Hard not to when you’re staring a chicken straight in the beak at eighteen inches. She watched me, too. Blink. Blink.
Eventually, as all feeling drained from my arm and I considered amputation for survival, I slowly lowered it to the ground. Mabel woke up, jumped off, and did a sort of hop-jump into my lap, where she settled. I just hoped there wasn’t an egg coming at this point in the game. Nope, just seeking another soft spot to snooze. Now this I could do. With five cats, you get used to creatures perching in your lap. And after tiring of my incessant fumbling and readjusting of my weight to bring feeling back into my numb legs, she grew tired of the whole thing and waddled away.
The next time I was at the farm, Mabel again approached me with some manner of avian intent in her beady eyes. I had just finished cleaning stalls, was filling water buckets. Mom and Dad visiting on a nice Saturday morning. Mabel following me around, clucking and clicking to me in her special chicken language. Up and down the aisle. I stood near the stall window and held my arm about two feet from the ground, inviting Mabel for a ride. She’s no dumb chicken, so up she went: bopp! Landed right on my arm, settled in for a quick snooze. (See photo.)
Couple of days later, Mabel walked along next to me, practically wing-in-hand, and when I turned to her to ask exactly why she was becoming my shadow, she dropped to the ground and lifted her wings away from her body. What the? So I reached down to pet her. She stayed put until I was done. I stood up, hands on hips, then walked down the aisle. She jumped up and trotted after me. I found out from Emma later on that this was Mabel’s “pick me up” pose.
Well, dangit, now it was serious. I really liked this chicken.
The Third Attack
Nobody’s perfect. One night when the family stayed out a bit too late to enjoy a special birthday party, the chickens got a little extra stay-out time. Unfortunately, the foxes were out at the same time, and thus, made off with a batch of newbies. Survivors? Mabel, Goldie and a few of the chicks. I have to think that they, like the last batch, stuck with the pros and lived to see another day. A new batch of hatchlings arrived at the farm the following week.
By this time, I had discovered that St. Petersburg had recently passed an ordinance allowing backyard chickens. I had also started researching http://www.backyardchickens.com, found a few coop designs that I thought might fit if — IF — I ever decided to have at-home chickens, considered the cost involved in upkeeep, thought about the potential of being seen as an animal hoarder, etc., etc. There was no way I was going to get chickens. Are you absurd? Are you crazy? No way.
Then Emma called and said that I could take Mabel and Goldie and another chick or two when I was ready. Are you kidding? I get Mabel?
Two weeks later, Dad and I started constructing the Coop De Baz.
The new batch of chicks was getting along swimmingly. Restricted to Emma’s Key West Inn 24/7, they tasted the freedom of free range only under strict supervision.
One of the coop’s desirable features was its 12-foot by 12-foot fenced-in open-air run, free of cover, open to the sunlight. The chickens roamed this run during the daytime, locked into the safety of the full-mesh coop at night.
The Fourth Attack
One morning, as Emma reported later, “I just heard chickens screaming and hollering.” She ran outside to see what the ruckus was about. Foxes. At least two. They dug underneath the fencing and managed to make off with some of the chickens. The rest of the feathered frenzy flew off in scattered directions — some into the pasture, some into the backyard. In the chaos, Emma didn’t know who went where. She called them. No answer. No feathery fluff appearing from behind a tree trunk. So she secured the remaining hens in the coop — including little Goldie — and retired to the house, completely distraught. How was she to break the news to me? Mabel was missing.
The Miracle Chicken
Shortly after noon, Emma was relocating the remaining chicks into a new, completely enclosed half-inch-mesh Fort Knox-like stall in the barn. They would be totally safe here — no open-air run, no chance of fox or hawk attack — until they were big enough and wise enough to learn the art of roosting in the coop at dusk. Wringing her hands, clenching her teeth, avoiding the telephone and the bad news she’d have to deliver to soon-to-be-Mother-Hen-Sheri.
She looked down the barn aisle. A brown fluff of feathers was waddling along toward her. Mabel. Back from chicken hideout. She immediately ushered her into the safety of the meshed stall, and this is where Mabel spent the next two months until relocating to Coop De Baz.
After much discussion with Emma, we decided to bring Mabel home with two of the new chicks (instead of Goldie) because Goldie was one of the only hens of egg-laying age still at the farm, and because she didn’t seem to get along with young chicks as well as Mabel did. Best to keep Goldie on the farm and bring Mabel home with a couple of youngsters she could boss around. Enter Marguerite and New Goldie!
And that’s the story. Mabel the Extraordinary. Didn’t I tell ya?
To read past blog posts, click here! You’ll find ’em as far back as February.