One summer in the midst of the back-to-the-land movement, during a time when my life was in limbo, friends who owned a little homestead farm allowed me to pitch a tent in the woods. Allan and Alison were inexperienced at farming, and both were employed full-time, but their home included a weedy garden plot, a free-range chicken coop, open fields, a pond and a large front porch.
Nothing evokes tranquility like chickens scratching in the dirt, so my friends celebrated the purchase of their home that spring by running out and purchasing a few dozen bantams from a local farmer.
As spring progressed, Alison became aggravated that no chickens showed a sign of raising a brood. Afraid their vision of self-sufficiency would fade before winter, she sent away for a glossy poultry catalog, complete with striking 19th-century illustrations of each breed. One evening, relaxing on the porch with a pitcher of margaritas, Allan and Alison ordered more chicks while enjoying the intoxicating breeze, the buzz of an insect chorus and a few too many frosty beverages.
Allan sensibly selected a couple dozen heavy breasted birds, which would certainly fill their freezer when mature. He then added a few dozen more good layers. Alison convincingly argued more laying hens would speed up retirement, so she selected three more breeds she believed Allan underestimated.
Then they arrived at the section on ornamental fowl. The tequila and Alison's passion for hats sparked an infatuation for the Golden Polish, with their impressive head plumage blossoming out and covering their eyes, sheep-dog style. She wanted just one, but the required minimum was six, and one or two might not make it, so she ordered eight. Their final chick order was 92.
There was some debate about if 92 would be enough, but in the end Allan and Alison decided they could always order more later. The next day, after the check had been mailed, the little bantam hens began to retreat to the woods to lay eggs.
Shortly, 92 day-old mail-order chicks arrived, and a chick nursery was formed in the living room, convenient to water and electricity. The adorable little chicks had our full attention for several nights, until the mounting odor forced the audience to sit elsewhere. When they were ready to be released, the proud bantam hens began returning from the woods, each with 6 to 10 chicks in tow.
Like a couple learning they are to be parents to quintuplets, Allan and Alison were first giddy about their achievement, and then solemn in the face of their forthcoming responsibilities. The farm had no fences, except for a bit of barbed wire around the garden plot. The house contained neither window screens nor porch doors. Chickens immediately ruled every roost.
At least 200 free-ranging chickens quickly ate everything edible within sight. They took dog and cat food while the poor pets were trying to eat. Any human venturing outside was immediately surrounded by chickens.
One afternoon while reading in my tent, I looked up to see our neighbor's golden retriever running in slow motion in the middle of chickens in the lower pasture. As he passed an exceptionally plump hen, he glanced, caught her in his mouth and flipped her high in the air in a cloud of speckled feathers. She was dead almost immediately, and he circled back to gather her body without even breaking stride.
The other catalog chickens never seemed worried. The canny bantams flew down from the trees where they had escaped the dog's presence. The Golden Polish, with their impaired vision, had evidently been the first to get snatched by the dog.
Eight or 10 of the fancy chickens made it into the freezer by summer's end. Allan built a pen around the chicken house to confine enough layers to provide extra eggs to sell. Egg profits almost covered feed costs.
When I got my own farm, I benefited greatly from my friends' experience. I love to receive my copy of the beautiful poultry catalog, and occasionally I make selections in the spring when sitting on the porch at night.
But never, ever do I drink margaritas while I'm placing orders for chickens.
To read more about Joshua's adventures, read "Adventures with Mail-Order Chickens" at Grit.