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Cluckers On the Prowl: Chickens yearn back to their dinosaur roots 

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Those of you who keep chickens and other livestock know what joy there is in talking to them. (Yes, chickens are "livestock," even though the sheriff doesn't think so when a stray dog kills one of mine.)

"Good morning, chickies," is my usual greeting. Then I ask them, "How many eggs are you going to lay for me today?" slyly pointing to the pile of empty egg cartons I keep close by to remind them to keep their minds on their business.

I have a few beautiful Buff Orpingtons, a couple of Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and handsome Aracanas, the last of which lays lovely green-shelled eggs. When I greet them in the morning, they all respond with the usual clucking and chicken grunts that means "all's well" and "What goodies do you have for us this morning, James?"


One morning, as I approached the hen house there wasn't a peep. Silence in a chicken house is not a good sign; you know something is definitely wrong when hens are not talking. I looked into the hen house and everyone was backed against the wall, far from the opening to the hen yard.

"Oh, no!" I moaned, "not another stray dog!" I ran around and looked into the yard and found an adult male Great Horned Owl calmly eating the head off of one of my prize Aracanas.

"Owl!" I shouted, "What do you think you're doing! You're supposed to eat rodents and cats, not chickens!" The owl gave me a dirty look, as though I had no right to interrupt what he thought was his God-given "right" to eat my chicken. Then he hooted at me and flew off to perch on the top of my camper and complain some more.

I picked up my headless hen, carried it out to the camper, laid it on the roof, and told him he could keep it, but not to come back again. He has been back several times to hoot at me since then, but each time I leap out of bed, run outside and shout at him, "Get out of here and eat gophers and feral cats, you old rascal! Leave my hens alone!" So far, so good, I notice the feral cats population is going down and haven't lost another chicken to the owl, but stray dogs are another matter...

In answer to the question my hens ask about food, I usually have a bucket of kitchen scraps and some delicious greens and old bread from the Sisters Harvest Basket for them. While chickens love kitchen scraps and gleanings from the Harvest Basket, what they really go for is hen scratch.

Scratch is made up of corn, wheat and other grains that chickens absolutely love to scratch out of the soil. "Scratch-step-back-peck, scratch-step-back-peck..." Chickens will gleefully do that by the hour. When I throw a can-full of scratch into the hen yard you can almost hear them shout for joy as they pounce on the grain rolling across the ground.

Along with the grain, chickens gobble up small stones and sand. They need it to help their gizzard grind up the grain and other stuff they eat, like grasshoppers and grass seeds. Chickens are the ancestors of dinosaurs, which also possessed gizzards. I know that to be a fact as I can see the likeness in their skeletons, and had the pleasure of handling a cigar box-full of "dinosaur gizzard stones," that belonged to my old dear friend and mentor, Phil Brogan.

One morning I scooped the grain out of the storage bin and tossed the scratch out into the yard. As the contents flew out of the can, I spotted something else flying through the air - a mouse.

That's when all hell broke loose! When that mouse hit the chicken yard my lovely, sedate, egg-laying peaceful old hens suddenly turned into killers! As they went after that poor unfortunate mouse, all I could think of were those velociraptors in the film "Jurassic Park" as they chased the children around the stainless-steel kitchen. Chickens really are modern-day dinosaurs!

Those hens took after that mouse the same way, leaping over each other and quickly surrounding it. That poor mouse was dead, but just didn't know it. One of the hens rushed at the mouse, which leaped into the air, just managing to escape the sharp beak. However, when it came down it was right in front of my Rhode Island Red who snatched it by the head and started slamming it on the ground.

In moments the mouse really was dead, and then with a frenzy worthy of their ancient dinosaur ancestors, the hens tore the mouse to shreds, and in a matter of minutes nothing was left except a tiny bit of fur to mark where the mouse had landed. Since then I've been really good to my hens, and, boy, were the eggs good for the next few days..

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