When summer starts
Editor’s note: John Piotti’s daughter, Anna, is home from college for the summer. She writes about the arrival of summer in this guest column.
When does summer officially start? Is it the first black fly swat or the first Little League game where you are forced to wear sunglasses? Is it the first day of vacation or the last day of work? For me, summer’s start is signaled by quiet cooing that alerts you to look where you are placing your feet when you step out the back door. It’s summer when you have startled a hen on the back porch. With a rustle of feathers and a clatter of claws, she scampers off the porch onto the lawn.
In winter our feathered pets are confined by snow and ice. (I’d stay in the warm horse barn, too.) As late as May, there is still no garden to peck at and no grasshoppers to snatch off blades of grass. Spring often just means mud and, to be frank, still a lot of cold weather. By fall, the birds have become lazy; the frost that covers the lawn in the morning is sinister and there’s nothing appetizing outside to peck at anymore. By then, the cracked corn, chicken feed, and occasional leftover pasta noodles or stale crackers seem sufficient — and our chickens seldom explore beyond the barnyard for the next nine months. Yes, the seasons are distinctly marked by chicken activity. It’s summer when our chickens start to wander and I find them on the porch.
Leaving droppings at the back door is only a small part of our chickens’ summer plans. Their daily hobbies also include taking dust baths in holes they have dug in the lawn. As Wanda wiggles into the dry, sun-kissed dirt, Betty scratches even deeper into the crevice she has made. Even if some grass did sprout in these holes again, I doubt the lawn mower could even trim it.
Our chickens have a close relationship with the lawn mower. The mower is like a McDonalds, serving up tepid, machine-prepared meals. The sound of the mower’s engine means that someone (usually me) is chopping up lots of tasty tidbits into peck-sized pieces. And then they flock. Betty the Brave stays within a 15 foot radius of the rotating blade to secure the best remains, while the others stalk the freshly mowed lawn not far behind.
When the lawn in not being mowed, our girls find other ways to stay busy. For example, Peggy yearns for any opening door — it doesn’t matter what kind of door (house, car, barn), because opening doors mean people, and people mean food, and food means everything when your brain is the size of the thumb nail of the person feeding her. It doesn’t matter what the food is. Our chickens are quite positive that whatever it is it will be delicious. So they cock their heads so that their beady eyes can peer up at you, and you shrug your shoulders and toss them the end of the granola bar you had been eating.
The dash for the morsel is fast, and the winner — usually Peggy — runs away to enjoy her prize. Half of the flock follow her, desperate for some sisterly sharing. The other half look up at you as if to ask: “Got any more?” You reply, “No girls,” half expecting that they understand, and that they are simply not listening when they follow you for more. Their struts become less and less fervent as they finally realize that you might not have more — right now. So they return to the back porch to accost the next person who opens the door.
We just can’t get enough of their behaviors, their personalities, and their prehistoric predatory skills that reflect that of the T-Rex. For Mama’s birthday I found a girl in Albion who would sell me week-old chicks. I enlisted my younger brother Johnny to drive me there, so that I could hold the chicks — Marilyn, Dorothy, and Cindy — in a cardboard box in my lap. Although my mother’s birthday was still two weeks away, I had Johnny drive me directly to the medical clinic where she works. It was after-hours when I hefted the cardboard container through the clinic. The chicks’ quiet peeping brought my mom from her office. She delicately reached towards the peeping balls of fluff, cupping one of the clementine-sized bodies in her hands. She smiled.
Chickens bring smiles. I am a big believer in chickens. I am an avid advocate for the chicken population. I have requested — and received — chickens as birthday presents. I have completed a middle school science fair project on the weight of chickens. Chickens even played a prominent role in my high school graduation speech.
When raised with love and care, chickens become great pets that also provide valuable services: eggs, insect population control, and pure entertainment. My dad often grumbles that our other pets are more trouble than they are worth. Although he would never say so, I think he truly loves all our animals and just complains for the fun of it. But he never tosses out a negative comment about the fowl in the front yard. And why would he? They are both fun and useful. They even announce summer.