Friday, June 3, 2011

dust bath

I described before the way in which Rosie and Hattie had plopped themselves on the egg plate and launched into a "bizarre spastic ritual" that sent egg flying everywhere. Well, silly me, the very first time we ventured out into the chicken yard it became perfectly clear what that bizarre spastic ritual actually was: a dust bath!

Chickens, like other birds that lack a uropygial gland, keep themselves clean and free of parasites by dust bathing. Right away our girls set up their spa in a corner of the yard. Hattie, once again, was the first to plop herself in a relatively weed-free patch. One of the striking things about a bird about to engage in a dust bath is the air of determination she projects. Most of the time, the girls seem content to blow with the wind, shifting easily and with little apparent reason from roosting to grazing to flapping excitedly about to nodding off. But when a chick gets it in her head that she's due for a bath, there seems to be little that will deter her. And really, why interrupt when a dirty child actually chooses to get in the bath?

Having chosen the most auspicious corner, Hattie got to work. Through a combination of scratching and pecking she loosened the soil at the surface, intermittently pausing to test the depth. Then began the shimmying and shuddering, the flopping and flailing...all undertaken with a kind of eyes-half-closed bliss reminiscent of a cat with catnip or a dog whose belly is being scratched. Or a human having an encounter with The Tingler. Don't let the woman pictured at that link fool you. There was once a Tingler that made the rounds of a certain Opera Orchestra green room (it sounds a little unhygienic, I'll grant you, but desperate times--or a run of Tannhauser--will sometimes lead to desperate measures) and the facial expressions more closely approximated drunken ecstasy than this lady's cheerful grin.

Soon after Hattie began her ablutions, the others joined her. The result was a writhing carpet of mottled feathers and baby fluff, chirping and squealing. And "splashing" dirt all over themselves and each other. But words fail to do it justice. Watch:

This evening is bittersweet. I wrote most of this post from the bench in the chicken yard, having taken the girls out of the house for what I expect will be the last time. My friend Susie, who herself keeps chickens at Thierbach Orchards, told me I would know when it was time to put them out. I think (hope!) she was right. Last night, I arrived home after work to find the chicks had unearthed the layer of paper toweling underneath the wood shavings in the brooder and had made great progress toward completely shredding it. They've become increasingly bold and competent about flapping up to the top of the fount and feeder and even up to the top edge of the brooder. They adore their field trips outside and seem completely at home in their yard (and hate being scooped up and taken back in at the end). The combination of a warm weather forecast and their rapid fledging means they'll likely be warm enough even without a heat lamp.

So after enjoying their frolics and gaining their assistance writing this post...
Millie: giving new meaning to the "hunt and peck" school of typing

yes, Hattie, it's about you!

I rounded them up (easier said than done), put them in the coop and shut the doors. I will be out there as soon as I post this to check on them and again before I go to sleep, I'm sure. But I don't imagine I'll have chickens in my living room again for quite some time. Maybe I should have titled this post "empty nest" instead!

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