They call it an atmospheric river – all the rain that has been falling and falling and falling and falling on us these recent days. The temperatures have been warm. Old records are breaking, new records are setting. It’s a gloomy contrast to a week ago when we were on the tail end of a gorgeous, cold stretch of days.
Realizing that this rain was in the forecast, last Tuesday afternoon I went outside and raced against the late November light, raking leaves and hauling them out to the garden and then mulching the rest with the mower. I like this work, this caring for the land. And of course the chickens scattered around the barnyard busy scratching and pecking alongside me while I worked….I like them too. So much more than I ever meant to.
We were living in Alaska in 2019, when Ryan started checking Backyard Chicken books out of the library. At first I logically assumed it was a project completely unrelated to me. He was studying for information, like the dinosaurs of his childhood, or facts on Ancient Rome — things simply to know. And for sure, I wasn’t interested in having backyard chickens!! besides, we lived at the edge of downtown Anchorage –we had snow in our backyard for 6 months of year. There was no way that this interest was anything more than passing!! I (wrongly) assumed.
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember any ah-ha! moment when I realized getting chickens was actually going to happen and that I was okay with it. I remember talking to a neighbor one fall afternoon, following her to her backyard to see her garden and then discovering she also had chickens back there! I remember having periodic dinner time conversations about the merits of backyard chickens – led by Ryan and heartily supported by Ethan, of course. I also remember a conversation with David when he said to me, you know, if Ryan is going to have the experience of raising chickens, now is probably the time. Pretty soon he’ll head to college, and then who knows how long it will be before he gets that chance again.
By November, these miscellaneous conversations somehow turned into actual plans. For Ryan’s November birthday, Ethan designed and 3d-printed a chicken, painted it like a Speckled Sussex, and stuffed cash into a hole on the top, enough to pay for one baby chick. Ryan came up with the rest of the money and placed the order for 8 babies: 6 Speckled Sussex, 1 Golden Campine, and 1 Silver Grey Dorking. They would deliver from the hatchery in the spring, when the temperatures were appropriate for shipping to Alaska through the U.S. Postal Service. We were committed.
Right on schedule, at the end of April 2020, Ryan received a fun phone call from the Post Office by the airport: “Hi, Ryan, your birds are here.” We heard little voices cheeping in the background and we grabbed our covid masks and headed out into the melty snowscape to collect them.
Of course our dog was very interested in the package we returned with. We put her on a leash and made introductions as we set the little fluff balls into the brooder box that Ryan had built for them downstairs in our boiler room. The Dorking was clearly not well upon arrival and sadly did not survive the first night. But the rest of the girls carried on without her and we quickly learned what it is to raise chicks. There were some surprising and stressful moments, for sure! Pasty Butt!?!?! who knew we’d be running warm water on the bum of a tiny fur ball and dabbing at the stuck on poop with q-tips while the little creature complained about her miserable humans?!? Thankfully, my niece’s husband raises and shows chickens and he served as a fantastic long distance resource for us, especially during those early days. We were grateful for Logan’s quick, helpful answers via text as we stumbled our way forward with 7 fluff-ball babies.
It didn’t take me very long to discover that I really liked to go down to the basement and hang out with the girls during those early covid days. While the broken world outside seemed to be spinning wildly out of control, I went down into the cozy warmth of the boiler room and sat watching the tiny girls become themselves. It fascinated me that nobody showed these creatures how to be chickens. They didn’t have a mother to model how to scratch and peck and perch. They just magically knew how to do these things that were the very essence of being a chicken.
Since they’d soon be sharing backyard space with our yellow dog, I added a bit of educational art to the brooder box and suggested it was in their best interest to study it.
A couple weeks passed, the birds grew, and one “warmish” afternoon in May we took Golden Campine on a field trip to the backyard. This was exactly where a chicken belonged and she went straight to work being a chicken: scratch and peck, scratch and peck. It was simply beautiful.
I won’t draw out a play-by-play from here, but of course I couldandwould love to tell stories and show pictures of our chickens…. I have more than a few! For instance — when the girls got old enough to go outside for recess, we used to put them in a box (we called it the “chicken bus”) and carry them from the boiler room to a pen in the backyard. One day as my boys were getting the chickens loaded on the bus, I heard our dog bolt toward the back fence barking furiously and I looked up to see what looked like a big black dog loping through the neighbor’s yard. I was disoriented at first, those neighbors don’t have a dog. oh! wait!!! that’s a black bear cub!! The Chicken Bus did a quick turn around and returned the occupants to the boiler room that afternoon. (That was the only time I ever saw a bear so close to our yard, it was not normal. Moose, on the other hand…..)
The Speckled Sussex birds essentially looked alike and we called them by the collective name: Dottie. We often referred to them as The Dotties. And Golden Campine, her name was simply Campine. One of The Dotties was particularly noisy and a little bit dense. She could be a little off beat, not quite on track with the others, and generally very vocal about it. We called her Noisy from beginning to end. Other Dotties earned names as time went by. One we called Speedy for obvious reasons and another got called Naked Neck after she went through molt in the first winter and took a VERY LONG time to grow feathers back in.
It took no time at all, I fell in love with those birds. I didn’t mean to, but I spent so much time with them and found such delight there. They were interesting creatures, full of personality, curiosity, and so very vulnerable. I couldn’t help but care.
As the girls gained ever increasing time outside they were eventually ready to sleep outside at night in the chicken tractor that David and Ryan built. The original idea was that this tractor would be their home and we’d move it around the yard to mix it up a bit for the girls. But, in reality, I couldn’t stand seeing the chickens cooped up when they were so obviously built to roam the yard scratching, pecking, and living their good chicken lives. So, I let them out to range in the yard, a lot. We built a large covered cage to expand the caged space of the tractor by quite a lot, and this helped me feel better about caged birds. But I still let them out. A lot.
Then when the snow began to fall that October, we moved them into the unheated greenhouse that David had built that summer and we spent the winter problem solving the living conditions. We did not realize that chickens would go to the highest spot to roost at night.
So we built a platform for them up there, thinking they could huddle together for more cozy sleeping conditions. Instead they used the platform as a nesting box to lay their eggs, and continued to roost in the rafters. We had to set up a ladder on the outside of the greenhouse in order to collect the eggs through the vent panel.
We lost Campine to the deep cold in January. We were inexperienced and learned the hard way. The loss still strikes deep within me.
I never meant to love chickens, but I did and do.
I wrote about Campine’s death here.
…..We know she was a chicken. But she was joy in our lives. And how we miss her!
Our bright and beautiful Campine…..
After that, David designed a chicken coop and spent the next summer building it. He called it the Arctic Chicken Coop and it was legit!! The following winter the girls were comfortable, safe, and warm.
Backyard chickens in Alaska turned out to be a beautiful adventure for our family. There was magic to be found in the tromping out through snow on short winter days to check on the girls and collect the freshly laid eggs, often still so marvelously warm. Every evening all year round David and I would walk the dog, and then we would stop through our backyard — Goodnight chickens, we said softly as we peeked in on the girls who were settled onto their roosts for the night. Churr, Churr, they sweetly replied.
And then came huge change. In Spring 2022, we began making plans to move back to Oregon. We imagined moving our chickens with us. Not really, but still!!! We had invested so much time and energy (and money!) and care into those girls and had received so much goodness in return. Alas, moving down the continent, across international borders, with six chickens was not a real idea, and so when we met with our realtor, I said one of my main hopes was to find a buyer who would love our chickens. We did (or so I was told. To be honest, I’ve purposely never looked back – after we said goodbye that day in June 2022 and drove away, I like to think of them still happily living their best chicken lives.)
And that could have been the end of it. It will always serve as a collection of stories from that time when our family lived in Alaska and had backyard chickens. In spite of what my friends may think, I’m really okay with chickens being something we did one time, but not something we keep on doing. However, this past winter when my parents and boys started talking about getting chickens, the conversation eventually gave way to plans and by early March, David went to Wilco and called me, how many shall I get?
Eight. The answer was eight.
I have several reasons for bringing this all up now, one is simply to post this Cut and Paste that I put together a couple weeks ago. Recently my 17 Beats have been a lot of angles on sadness. Grief hangs heavy these days. But there is also this…..
Hassle and expense and trouble though it has often been, I am grateful to have had these years with backyard chickens. Quite unexpectedly, I discovered how much I enjoy the essential nature of a chicken. I find marvelous beauty in my time spent with these creatures who are simply being exactly what they were made to be. Hanging out with the chickens I find so much delight. And rest.
Scratch and Peck. Scratch and Peck.
Peck Peck Peck.
And that circles me around to the beginning of this post. I didn’t know exactly where I’d go when I started writing, but I see now where I have ended. And so, I’ll finish with this photo I snapped at the end of the day last Tuesday — my work complete, the chickens safely cooped for the night:
Sweet calm before the storm.