Our youngest chickens are getting on in years. They'll be 4 years old next month. So laying an egg each day isn't the first thing they think about in the morning. Rather, I imagine, they're thinking, "Move over Missy, give me some room on this roost!" or "Where's the guy with the greens?"
But as dawn breaks ever-earlier this year, the air warms up and the spring peepers announce the reprise of their Occupy the Creek movement. The chickens are back at it, hopping up the wooden ladders that lead to the laying nests, freshly padded with cushions of pine straw. We earned our first egg of this season Feb. 9.
By the second week of February, we're getting more than 10 and a half hours of daylight, the magic number in Orange County for that little miracle. Our chickens have pretty much been on break since just before Thanksgiving. And that's fine: They work hard scratching for bugs all day, churning up the leafy compost. They still receive room and board, daily water changes—not to mention the pristine sunset view.
Each day, I show up at the door, arms full of water jugs and red clover, guessing the number of eggs I'll find and where they'll be. The chickens have to rediscover their favorite nesting spots each season—cozy corners or dusty alcoves. They don't always head straight for the convenient boxes built for them by The Man.
While the chicken coop is roomy, the chickens are always expecting me. They see me coming and expect goodies. Sometimes the coop-door scene is a bit chaotic. Not as dramatic as an Alfred Hitchcock horror, sure, but at the end of the day, chickens are sick of practicing mindful pecking order routines. What's more, chickens seem to believe that the grass is always greener or that the feed is always finer on the other side. Or, rather, the greens outside the coop are always greener. That's where the trouble starts.
Last night, the bravest chicken made a run for it. She faked left and took a flying leap for daylight, landing six inches beyond the doorway in a pile of weeds. Her legs and feet got right to work.
The first thing to do when a happy, renegade chicken gets outside the coop is to check for the dogs. They love the chicken game way, way too much. The second thing to do is to remain calm. After all, it's just you and a chicken.
Herding chickens is a learned skill. They have an arsenal of moves—opposing head fakes and crossover dance steps perfected with friends. I also don't think they actually know where they're going, so be cool: Pretend to walk away, do a buttonhook, wave your hands low and simply reach down and grab.
I was a bit rusty for the new season, and she was an eager contestant. I was gentle but firm, loving but limit-setting. Not a feather was lost, and it'll never show up on YouTube.