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The people who live across the street from me keep chickens. There are six of them; lovely, red, egg-laying chickens who live in a small chicken condo back from the road. I haven't spent much quality time with chickens. I grew up in a town in California where people owned horses and a few exotic animals like an ocelot. No one owned chickens, that would have been soooo not the thing. Consequently, what chickens and I know about each other is pretty much limited to recognizing that we are not members of the same species.
When I first moved to my present home I wondered about the chickens. Were they noisy? Did they smell bad? When I walked down the street would they run out and peck me with their little chicken beaks? As far as I could tell there was no rooster lurking about so I felt relieved that I would not be awakened at the crack of dawn by something out of a Warner Brothers cartoon. As it turned out the chickens are quiet as mice, and far less destructive. In the winter and on bad days they keep to their chicken house and on good days and in fine weather they like to wander about, although never too far from home. They are better behaved than the average family dog and a good deal smarter about cars. As far as I know, their owner has never lost a single one of them to an automobile mishap. Score one for the chickens.
At first, the chickens kept their distance. I was new in town, after all, and I could have been a rabid chicken hater for all they knew. Then one day I walked out my door to find a chicken standing in the middle of my walkway, staring at me. This was new. I didn't move. The chicken didn't move. It started making soft little clucky chicken sounds and looking at me expectantly. In actuality, I have to admit that chickens don't really look you in the eye. They tend to look slightly past you diagonally, mostly because their eyes are on the side of their heads, like most prey animals. It gives them a wider field of vision in case something is sneaking up on them from the side. Nevertheless, it was pretty clear that this chicken wanted something from me.
“What's the matter, chicken?” I asked. “Did Timmy fall down the well again?”
The chicken clucked a few times and made a few of those jerky chicken movements with it's head that people imitate when they are pretending to be chickens, which thankfully, they only do when they are either drunk or hypnotized. Chickens doing it look far better than people doing it. Clearly, the chicken was not trying to tell me that some foolish child was in imminent danger or that Rome was about to be attacked by barbarians. (That was geese, but a fowl's a fowl). Having eliminated those possibilities, I went with my second choice, and the one most frequently communicated by animals – the chicken wanted food.
I knew that chickens eat chicken feed, some dry, grainy substance that farm women in the movies are forever throwing about the yard. I didn't have any feed, but I had the next best thing, something that every animal with whom I had ever come into contact has seemed to like – Cheerios. I told the chicken to stay where she was and went in the house to get some. When I got back, Cheerios in hand, the chicken was nowhere in sight. I concluded that the chicken wasn't very bright and we obviously had a failure to communicate. Suddenly, I looked up the street and saw six chickens crossing the road. They were running in that peculiar manner that reminds you that they were once dinosaurs and they were headed straight for me. I silently chastised myself for assuming that the chicken was stupid. It wasn't stupid; it had gone to tell it's friends that I had Cheerios and dinner was served. My bad.
I sat down on the lawn and pulled out a handful of Cheerios. The chickens were very polite and kept a respectful distance of about a foot or so. I tossed down the Cheerios with a flick of the wrist I had seen the farm wives use in the movies. The chickens pecked up those Cheerios with amazing speed, clucking and high-footing about like Austrian show horses. It turns out, in case you didn't know, that chickens are rather insatiable; they would have eaten the entire box if I had let them.
From that day on, whenever the chickens came to visit I was ready with a box of Cheerios. I found out that they like Rice Krispies as well, although Cheerios seem to be their favorite. One day, much to my shock and surprise, the biggest and fattest of the chickens, who was obviously the alpha female of the group, decided that she would sit in my lap. She even let me stroke her lovely red feathers. I was amazed. I had never heard of a lap chicken. I named her Rosie.
The chickens visit regularly and I have observed them and the differences between them and given them all names. I call them the Sisterhood of the Traveling Feathers. My relationship with the ladies club has had one unexpected result; I find that I can no longer eat any of their relatives. I just can't. What would I tell Rosie?
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