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Porridge for Chickens

January 10, 2015

We are officially in the deep freeze.  Almost a week and the temperatures keep circling zero, with the wind chill well below that. The wind is no joke here either. There isn’t much in the way of buildings or trees to slow it down, so it picks up speed and doesn’t stop. It scours the snow from the ground leaving sharp edged slopes, and bare dirt.

Ellie, the puppy, is big now, and these snow piles are her favorite obstacle to scramble up, sinking chin deep. Beneath the soft fluff of her winter coat, her mighty leg and back muscles flex as she works to pull herself out. She is still practicing how to use her the majestic machinery of her grownup body, and she ends up with a snout full of snow more often than not.

We got her to help guard the place against coyotes and coons, and she is diligent about making her rounds. She usually jogs five miles or more a day. This dog, unlike the dogs I’ve had before, doesn’t really need walks. But I take her for them anyway, because I need the exercise, even if she doesn’t.

Heading out with Ellie at dusk, the snow blazes red in the last of the light. The stumps of sunflowers in the field across the dirt road poke up through the glowing mounds, eerie and black like charred bones. The flowers the plow missed bow their heads, slumped and weary. Ellie startles the pheasants hiding in tangled tumbleweeds, and the thickets of dead grass at the edge of the field. Their wings beat the air, the beaded, worried sound of their song carries through cold air to where the rest of the flock is hiding. Suddenly they all lift up with a feathered pounding, silhouettes against the sunset. Ellie is proud. She looks back to make sure her work is noticed. Satisfied, she trots on with a noble jaunt, her white coat gleaming. She is a beautiful dog.

Yesterday morning it was ten degrees below zero, and Ellie lounged on her haunches in a bank of snow, mouth open, pink tongue hanging. She had just run back from the dam and she was hot. The horses and cows too seemed unaware of the temperature. They sauntered around the pasture, their hides thick with a dusting of snow that never melts – they are that well insulated. It’s January, so almost everyone is prepared: the outdoor cats are fat as kings, and the sheep thick with curls of cozy wool. Even I arrive at the barn bundled beyond recognition. But I worry about the chickens.

Most of the chickens are sturdy and spry; the majority of my little flock is less than a year old. But they aren’t built like the other animals around here. Several of the chickens suffered frostbite in an early cold snap. One of young hens, a skinny, silly leghorn named Pippa, contracted a particularly bad case, her once floppy, red comb is now bruised black and purple at the tips.

Poor Pippa, the other hens don’t have much use for her. They are all heritage breeds, stocky and solid, heavily plumed in shades of red and gold and onyx. Pippa can’t seem to decide if she is coming or going, and runs in circles while the others scratch for seeds, her ruined comb hanging over her forehead like a misshapen cap.

On the coldest days we shut the flock in their coop to save them from the wind, so they peck and squabble in the semi-darkness, bickering about the poor quality of their situation. If the sun comes out, or the wind dies down, we open the door for a while -- but they often won’t venture much past the doorway, they don’t want to stand in the snow. They’ll crowd around the edge, shoving and squawking at each other, pecking at the snowflakes fluttering and falling.

I don’t know where I go the idea that they might like a hot meal to break up the monotony, but I started making them oatmeal and brown rice in my favorite blue pot a few days a week. Of course, feathered squabbles broke out the second the pot was placed on the ground, so I also started bringing a big spoon to offer steamy bites to the underdogs. Kitty II, uncontested queen of the flock, who regularly routes the rooster though he is twice her size, guards the pot jealously. She lets her favorites pass, but those she doesn’t consider to be part of her inner circle get pecked or plucked – she often comes a way with a beak full of neck feathers. Once she and her cohorts get their fill, the second wave is allowed to partake. This never includes Pippa, so the big spoon is mostly for her, though she is usually so flustered she flings more of the porridge off the spoon than makes it into her mouth.

As it turns out, Ellie likes oatmeal too, and even Kitty II doesn’t try to stop her from sneaking a few mouthfuls if I turn my back. During the summer when I put out bright chunks of melon rind for the flock to finish, Ellie enjoyed gobbling those up too, so she is already quite used to hearing me shout, “Ellie, those are for the chickens!” Which she thinks means, “Eat faster!”

Between dogs and hens, the pot is emptied quickly enough, and the hens fly up to their roosts in the rafters, fluffing their feathers over their toes, snuggling their small skulls into the downy billows of their breasts. I shut the door and head back to the house, Ellie loping ahead, stopping to plunge into the snow banks, every step shouting, “Isn’t winter wonderful!”

My blue pot swinging, I slide inside, to the warmth of the kitchen and the fire, and my two old dogs curled on the couches. Off comes the coveralls, the hood, and knit cap, the woven scarf wrapped around my face, my mittens and heavy socks and second sweater. Ah, yes, winter is wonderful, and it is good to be home

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