In Gainesville Spring is in the air.
Pollen showers down from the oak trees like fine yellow snow. New leaves burst from the branches and push out the old leaves that have clung on all winter. From the leaf and pollen covered earth new grass shoots up like tiny green swords.
The azalea, salvia, and dogwood are bursting with flowers, and the orange tree smells sweet with blooms. Peaches grow slowly fatter and pinker on the branches of the young peach tree every day.
In the midst of all this new life I bring home seven tiny speckled sussex chicks from the feed store.
As I settle the cardboard box into the car seat next to me I feel exhilaration and a lot of anxiety. They chirp loudly, demanding and unafraid.
Every day I settle at a table under the big oak tree with my computer and coffee; the warmer, food and water nearby. I keep a careful eye on them. At this age, predators are everywhere.
The chicks peck around the yard between naps under the heater. They climb mountainous stumps in the wood stack and explore fern jungles. Meanwhile, I type away, my hands and coffee slowly becoming dusted yellow with pollen.
Periodically the chicks panic at some new fright and came flapping and falling back, peeping frantically.
If I go inside for a moment I can see them from the windows peering for me with their strangely long necks.
They sleep perched on my fuzzy boots, which I wear to protect my freckles from their insistent pecks. How could you not fall in love?
They grow so quickly.
On their first day home they fall over trying to stretch their awkward wings, but by day three they cannot only stretch but use their wings to flap over little obstacles. They have first dust baths and first flights.
Within a week the chicks have outgrown their Tupperware and we move them into their coop. For the first few days, I call them up the little ramp and into the roost box.
They come hesitantly at first, worried about entering the dark box.
I open the air vents in the nest box so it won’t be so dark and call them with my head and shoulders plunged ridiculously inside.
By the fourth night in their coop, they go into the roost box by themselves.
After they are big enough to not go through the chain link we let them wander the yard again. They grow bigger every day, pecking away at the bugs in the garden and making us laugh with their attempts to get into the house.
They have new experiences, like meeting the large rat snakes that sometimes wander through the garden. Deciding if something is food or predator is one of the challenges of growing up chicken.
The chickens seem to instinctively know that hawks are dangerous, and a low flying hawk sends them all yelling and running for cover, as the dogs and I come charging out to chase off the hawk.
They lay their first egg.
It’s tiny, but it makes us so proud. In the fun of having them, I had almost forgotten that this is why we have chickens.
As the weeks go on, the eggs increase until we are getting several mismatched eggs a day. Some are large, some small, some round and some oval, some cream and some darker brown, but all are delicious.
As the days go by living with chickens, I learn the rhythms of my backyard in a way I never did before. The squirrels are an alarm system and clean up leftover scraps that the chickens don’t eat. The birds, especially the crows and mockingbirds, alert and chase off the hawks. I see how closely we are connected, how interdependent we are on each other.
I love that kitchen scraps and cheap seeds sprouted become delicious eggs.
The chickens go through feed more slowly as they are growing less quickly and as we supplement their diet with more and more scraps, sprouts, and the ubiquitous invasive brown anole lizards.
The chickens have truly been a joy. They are a lot of work, but they bring so much more into our lives than eggs.