Sunday, February 27, 2011

Chicken Math

Everyone's heard the story of the horse who could do math. What's two plus two? the owner asks the horse. The horse nods its head and stamps its hoof four times. Amazing!

Chicken math is nothing like horse math. First off, the chickens themselves don't do the addition or, in many cases, the multiplication that is involved in chicken math. Chicken math is done by humans. Usually female humans, but males are also susceptible to chicken math.

Here's a sample word problem for elementary chicken math:

Q. A woman goes to her local feed store to pick up some hay for her vegetable patch and perhaps a wind chime for her garden. The feed store just got its baby chicks in. How many chicks does the woman buy?

A. At least three. You can't just buy one chick. Chicks and hens are social animals, and one could possibly pine away from loneliness. Two is okay, but one would be dominant and the other hen pecked. Three is the best number.

Here's one that's a little harder:

Q. A woman goes to her local feed store to pick up a 50-lb bag of Layena feed for her laying hens. The feed store just got its baby chicks in. How many chicks does the woman buy?

A. Usually five to seven. Did you catch the clue? The woman already has hens. She knows what's involved, has the equipment, and those fluffy chicks are just so darned cute.

Once you graduate from elementary chicken math, you can move up to chicken algebra. Try this one on for size:

Q. A couple has a small flock of laying hens and a rooster. Their incubator has nine eggs in it, set to hatch in three days' time. Their brooder is ready for those nine chicks, but it needs a fresh bulb. The woman goes to her local feed store to buy the bulb. The feed store just got its baby chicks in. How many chicks does the woman buy?

A. Three chicks, just in case some of the eggs don't hatch. And this way, the three chicks can keep themselves company waiting for their brooder mates to join them.

Ready for chicken trigonometry? This one's a head scratcher:

Q. A couple decides to raise a flock of laying hens. They decide to start with only 6, until they see the wide variety of breeds in the hatchery catalog. The next thing they know, they've ordered two dozen chicks. While preparing their brooder for the new arrivals, other hatchery catalogs arrive, the couple joins the forums area, and the local feed stores get their chicks in. How many additional chicks do the couple buy, and from where?

A. Oh, wait a minute. That's us.

That's right. J and I are studying for our degrees in chicken trig. What was going to be a half-dozen Buff Orpington and Silver-Laced Wyandotte hens became a melange of Buff Orpingtons, Silver-Laced Wyandottes, Araucanas, White Cochins, Buff Silkies, and a rare mystery chick thrown in by the hatchery. From 6 to 26. But wait, that's not all! In all the research and prep work I did to become more knowledgeable about poultry, I learned more about heritage breeds -- the breeds that are threatened or struggling thanks to factory farming -- and about the different types of eggs hens lay. And suddenly, I wanted more. I wanted Black Cochins, to make a distinctive set with my White Cochins. I wanted more Silkies -- those fluffy, poufy ornamental hens that are the chicken world's best mothers. I wanted grey Silkies and black ones and white ones and blue ones and splash ones. I wanted a Cuckoo Marans, a threatened French breed that lays chocolate-brown eggs. And I wanted a rooster.

That's right. A rooster. Not because of the necessity to hear pre-dawn crowing, although with several heavy sleepers in the household that was an added bonus. No, I wanted a rooster for three reasons. First, the roosters were the true beauties of the poultry world, with fabulously colored plumage that would look fabulous in our backyard. Second, roosters are the flock protectors. They keep the hens in line, find food for them, cry out alerts when there's a nearby predator, and often lose their lives confronting that predator so the hens can get away. With our acreage bordering state lands, we have plenty of hawks around, as well as raccoons, opossum, and coyotes. Our flock was going to need all the protection it could get.

And finally, reason three: without a rooster, you can't get more baby chicks! Of course, we would want to keep our heritage breeds pure, which meant we'd need one Orpington rooster, or "roo," one Wyandotte, one Araucana, and one White Cochin. The Silkies were "straight run" chicks, meaning that their gender would not be identified. Chances were we'd have at least one Silkie roo.

That's a lot of roosters! But I'd settle for just one. For now.

See how chicken math works?

And so I found myself back at the McMurray Hatchery web site, clicking through the pages for the heritage breeds, making mental notes of what chicks I'd like to get next year, either to increase our laying stock or replace the hens that didn't work out (ie, became coyote chow), when I came to the Columbian Wyandotte page. There, in red letters, were the words "Very Limited Availability" for March 14, the day our 26 chicks were being shipped. My mind began to spin. Surely three more chicks could be added to our order in time for the entire miniflock to be shipped together. Columbian Wyandottes are also a threatened heritage breed, truly beautiful birds with ghost-white bodies and striking black markings forming a collar around their necks. The roosters had trailing black tail feathers that made a sharp contrast to the rest of their body.

I picked up the phone. In five minutes' time, I'd not only ordered three Columbian Wyandottes chicks, but one of them would be a rooster. Twenty-nine little chicks, with the possibility of future Silkies and Wyandottes, would be winging their way to our homestead soon!

That night, J had me repeat after him that I would NOT buy any more chicks, any more pullets, any more roosters, any more chickens, period. I would stay away from the feed stores and Tractor Supply, as these were expecting their chicks any day. No more chickens!

I meekly repeated what he said.

Of course, I had my legs crossed.

And Meyer Hatchery has just three of those chocolate egg-laying Cuckoo Marans chicks left available for March 14.

Perhaps I should switch majors to chicken calculus.

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