Humor – Cooped in With the Chickens

By Mordechai Schmutter

When people ask me, “Mordechai, is there a good pet I can get that will actually give me something in return, but not nearly as much as I put into it?” I recommend chickens. Or cows, but I live in a smallish house. So chickens. Though I did finally move them outside.

Because apparently, I’m a chicken farmer. Is it called being a farmer when you have two chickens? My wife has what she calls a garden and she grows like two vegetables, so…

But it’s definitely not called a chicken farm unless the chickens are living outside.

To refresh your memory, several months ago our daughter brought home a chick from kindergarten, which is the kind of thing we would normally contact the principal about except that our daughter actually teaches kindergarten. And then our son brought home a second chick from his friend’s farm, because the way parenting works is that when one kid has something, the next kid wants it too, and apparently this doesn’t end when they start calling themselves adults.

And we’re keeping them, for now. (The chickens.) The school doesn’t want theirs back. In fact, my daughter brought the chickens back to school before Yom Kippur, to teach the kids about chickens, and almost none of the other moros wanted to touch them (the chickens). These same chickens that just months earlier everyone wanted to hold, but they’re bigger now so no one wanted to touch them. I guess that makes sense, because everyone wants to hold baby humans, and no one wants to hold adults.

But see, the fun of having indoor chickens is that they always give you something to do, which sounds great unless you also work indoors. Because they don’t stay in their bin. The very first week we got them, the bigger chicken jumped out and wandered into the dining room during our Shabbos seudah and said, “So… what’s everybody eating?”

That was awkward. Not that these chickens were in any danger of being eaten. They lived in a nice safe spot in our living room. In our fireplace.

Okay, but hear me out: We don’t actually use our fireplace. We could never figure out what to do with this fireplace, because it has an outlet in it. Other than plug in a fan and sometimes a vacuum cleaner. So now we plug in a reading lamp for the chickens (in case they want to read) and sometimes a vacuum cleaner, which they’re scared of.

When you have chickens in your living area, you always have to watch where you step. Always, always. And not because you might step on them. They will not let that happen. There are other things that they leave around that you might step on. We try to be ever vigilant of where we step and are wiping the floor constantly, but, for example, my wife for the past few months has been in middle of a contact lens trial regimen, in which she, in conjunction with her eye doctor, is trying to see which lenses work for her and which ones do not allow her to see the presents the chickens leave on the floor that are often the same color as the hardwood.

Whichever contacts she settles on are going to be amazing.

We’re also constantly sweeping. The chickens are continually losing feathers and — I want to say dandruff? — all of which are lighter than air, and I’m always sweeping surrounded by a swirl of feathers, and then as soon as I’m done, everything settles, and I sweep again.

I also don’t know when they actually sleep. Every time I think they’re sleeping, I squint a bit to investigate, and they immediately open their eyes.

For the first few weeks, I had to have a heat lamp on them constantly until their feathers grew in. And the thing about heat lamps — at least the one belonging to my daughter’s school — is that they give off light too, so the chickens always think it’s day. They never sleep. It’s just short naps. And some nights, well after midnight, they would still be hopping out of the bin and jumping onto the back of my chair not knowing what to do with themselves.

After midnight is when I work! That’s when the kids go to bed!

So at some point, I started covering the bin with towels and turning off the lamp so they think it’s night. I mean it is night, but now they think so, too. And they assume it’s night until I uncover them in the morning. I can uncover them at 10:30 in the morning, and they’re like, “Okay, I guess it’s morning now!” They’re very gullible.

“Night was three hours longer than yesterday? Okay.”

But even then, I don’t think they sleep. One time I turned off all the lights in the room and waited a few minutes, and when I turned on the flashlight, they were still standing exactly as they were, eyes wide open, perfectly still. Like you know how when there’s a blackout, for a second you’re like, “Was it something I did?” And then you realize it’s the whole neighborhood, and you say, “Well, I definitely didn’t do that!”? The chickens do the same thing: “Was it something I did?” They’re trying to think of what they might have plugged in.

But the thing is that as long as chickens think it’s night, they don’t eat. It helps that chickens have zero night vision. It’s only when a rooster yells, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” that chickens know they can start eating. That’s what that’s for.

We sing, “We open one eye, we open two.”

So we figure that maybe they’ll actually sleep if they’re outside, where there’s a gradual sundown — usually about the same time as the day before — and the chickens will know it’s probably not something they did.

Though it has to be noisier to sleep outside. I know this because of Sukkos. And July 4.

Step one was to build a coop. Baruch Hashem, we have a son who’s a budding contractor. Yes, the one who has a friend who’s a farmer. It’s a very blue-collar class of kids who want to see how far they can get in life with a minimum of reading.

(How it’s going: He has more disposable income than I do. Despite his being in yeshivah.)

He’s still developing his skills. But you know the project that some schools give wherein the students have to design a contraption so that they can drop an egg without cracking it? We gave my son a similar challenge: design a coop that will protect an egg — and also chickens — from any of the wildlife that lives in Passaic, New Jersey.

Mostly, I’m worried about the raccoons. They come out at night, they have thumbs, and they can actually figure out door latches. To keep them out, my son put chicken wire on the underside of the enclosure, and also we’re reinforcing the doors by locking them with carabiners, which I’ve read is the one thing that racoons can’t figure out. They can remove the doors with a screwdriver, but carabiners are where they get stuck.

And there are definitely raccoons around. My wife saw a massive raccoon in our backyard the other night; by massive I mean, in her words, “He dragged the entire garbage can over to the neighbor’s fence.”

At least he wasn’t able to throw it over the fence. We’ve lost enough cans. Maybe our son should build a contraption to protect the cans.

So now I have to set a raccoon trap, which is a smaller cage that goes next to the bigger cage in which I keep the animals I like.

So our son built a whole gesheft, with levels and ramps and wood chips and a loft for sleeping that will also be convenient for us to collect the eggs from, assuming the chickens know we expect them to lay their eggs there… No raccoons are getting into this thing. I am, however, worried about the wind getting in.

I would say that the most common question we get, whenever we tell people that we moved our chickens outside, is, “You have chickens?” But the second most common question we get is, “What do you do about the cold?”

I don’t know if you know this, but chickens are farm animals, and farm animals live outside. In the wild, chickens don’t fly south for the winter. Chickens do not travel. They cross one road and everyone makes a huge deal. And I mean, they are literally made out of winter coats.

What they do need are wind blocks. Whichever direction the wind is blowing, they need some kind of nook they can hide in, because however they have their feathers puffed out to keep them warm, the wind blows their feathers around. I’m doing all this research, which I didn’t have time for before my son built the coop, and I’m reading about how the coop has to have areas that aren’t drafty. I don’t think our house has areas that aren’t drafty. It’s a good thing they moved out.

Mostly, though, they are thrilled to be outside. There’s grass everywhere! They love grass. I read somewhere that they’re just supposed to eat the tops of each blade, but I think my chickens are slurping down the whole thing like spaghetti. The chickens are clearly not doing the same research that I am. So much for that reading light.

Another amazing benefit to being outside is that they can eat bugs! Basically, the presents they leave behind attract flies, which they then eat, which is an amazing system that Hashem created, except that they don’t eat as many flies as they’re attracting, which means that if you’re in the coop taking care of your chickens, the flies are annoying you, and the chickens look at you like, “Why don’t you just eat them?” So you have to set out a flytrap, using chicken shirayim as bait, and then empty it into the chicken coop, and then the chickens will eat the flies. You hope.

Point is that when they lived indoors, we were not providing them with nearly enough flies. If they wanted extra protein, they were eating feathers. Which is an amazing system that Hashem created to get rid of the extra feathers swirling around, except that they don’t eat as many feathers as they’re producing, and also it’s really weird to watch them do it.

I think the main reason I’ve been dragging my feet about bringing them outside is that I’m afraid that once they’re outside, I’m going to forget they’re out there. Most days, I forget we have a fish, until I happen to glance in that direction, and I’m like, “Oh, right.” But at least the fish isn’t going to die of dehydration. Whereas the chickens could. I do make sure they have enough water, but one day I came out and realized that one of the chickens had dropped a paper towel in the water, and all of it was gone. So now we always have two waterers, both of which have feathers floating in them.

The main downside for the chickens is that, for the first couple of weeks at least, every single day, when the sun started going down, they went into this panic, like, “What are we supposed to do, again? Where do we go?” I’ve shown them. And they run back and forth and look for a way out and look for us to take them out before it gets too dark for them to see anything and they call out to us…

Anyway, we’ve finally gotten to a point that they usually remember that they’re supposed to head upstairs, but they’ll go up at the wrong times. Like if I come out to give them supper a little early, or it’s rainy outside, they’ll go up and sit on a perch waiting for night to come, and then after a while, they’ll come back down, feeling all embarrassed, like “Sorry. We jumped the gun.” And the other one will go, “I only went up because she went up.”

So now I’m thinking that we should post a sign in the coop with all the zmanim on it — shkiyah, neitz — that they can check 500 times a day, unless they choose to drop it in the water.

But having chickens outside has changed me in some weird ways. I am now always aware of what the temperature is on any given day, for example. Usually, I come home from shul and my wife asks, “How cold is it outside?” and I honestly do not know. She asks, “Will I need a coat?” and I have to step outside again and check. But now, not only am I aware of the temperature, I’m also cognizant of what time it’s going to rain, what time sunrise and sunset are, and which direction the wind is blowing from. Because like normally for my daily life I don’t really care which way the wind is coming from. My wife says, “It’s windy outside,” and I say, “Really? From which direction?” But just this week, I drew a compass inside the coop for reference, both for me and for the chickens to look at if they’re bored.

I’ve also discovered a side of me wherein I enjoy constantly making smallish home improvements to the coop that my son didn’t think about. I’m constantly adding hooks and walkways and nesting boxes, and you can’t really do that to your house, because every time you make an addition to your house, you also have to finish the walls nicely when you’re done so your wife doesn’t yell at you. And it has to be the exact right color of paint… I don’t know what color my walls are. You’d think I could just check the walls, but no. But I make improvements to the coop, and my wife does not care.

Point is:

1. I’ve moved the chickens outside, and

2. I’m still not getting any work done.

Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer/editor as well as a published author. He can be contacted through Inyan.

Caution: Taking the ideas and halachos expressed in this article literally can be hazardous to your health.

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