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Hattie is no chicken little

May 28, 2012

Hattie turns 3 years old this spring. Or maybe it’s 4. These days, I lose track.

In chicken years, I suppose she’s nearing retirement age, and she kind of shows it — a little broad in the beam, sharply critical of the younger generation and more opinionated than she probably has cause to be, considering that she has never been off the farm. She’s barred rock, meaning her color is salt and pepper, crested with a blood-red comb and an eye as accusingly sharp as one trying to pick the purse snatcher out of a police lineup.

I understand that it’s a bit ridiculous to use the word “remarkable” and “chicken” in the same sentence, but literally from the day she was hatched, Hattie has been different.

If you’re raising chicks at home, it’s common to get 25 in a batch, shipped by U.S. mail. They are called “peeps,” and if you need an explanation, ask any bug-eyed postal employee who has been subjected to a 90-minute serenade of high-pitched chirping first thing in the morning.

Peeps arrive this time of year, and they need warmth — a gooseneck lamp bent over a cardboard box will do, although some people get a lot more elaborate. We used a heat lamp hanging over a low wooden box, big enough to house them until they graduate to somewhat larger confines.

When we — and by “we” I mean “Beth” — showed up to feed that first batch we got some years ago, all the peeps scurried into one corner of the box, as far as they could get from any possible human contact.

Except for Hattie.

As the other chicks cowered in the corner, Hattie, all by herself, would march right up to the approaching human and stand her ground. She cocked her little head and stretched her neck as far as she could, showing no sign of fear or intimidation. Just one chick, standing all by herself in the face of a monstrous alien presence.

This was sort of cute then, as I recall. Something in that slight little bird’s brain was wired differently from others we have interacted with before or since. Unfortunately, she has become no more shy or respectful of authority as the years have passed. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I will be sitting in the backyard, feet up, reading a newspaper when, with no warning at all, I suddenly have a chicken in my lap. This sounds more precious than it is, especially when you have no idea what part of your face the bird might deem worthy of a good, solid peck.

It is also quite embarrassing when we have company. We have had critters at our place that weighed better than half a ton, but the one we have to warn people about is Hattie. Heaven help the person who fails to pay Hattie the proper attention, especially if that person is wearing short pants.

Of course people look at us oddly when we give fair warning over a bird. It’s very much like the rabbit scene in Monty Python’s “Search for the Holy Grail.”

In her defense, Hattie will squawk a few times, and then if her presence still isn’t acknowledged, thwak. No lie, she has been known to draw blood.

Actual conversations with, say, the UPS man, have gone like this: “Watch out!” “Oh it’s OK, I like dogs.” “No, I’m talking about the hen.”

The self-help chicken books are full of advice and cures concerning physical ailments, but they are silent on the matter of moral imperfections. So I am left with little recourse, other than to erect a rather embarrassing sign at the end of the drive: Beware of the Chicken.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via email at timr@herald-mail.com.

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