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Front Porch: Free-range family shows lots of pluck

Thu., Jan. 10, 2013

Winter report from the hen house:

All is quiet among the chickens this winter, although we’ll see how our feathered friends fare during these cold months under the care of … gasp … a man! They are, after all, used to gentle female care and an occasional kiss on the beak from their mama Joan.

Bur Joan underwent shoulder replacement surgery just after Christmas, but not before she trained her husband, Jim, on the hauling, warm water supplying, cleaning, feeding, daily fowl conversation, special dietary preparations for the special needs chicken and everything else that goes into the excellent care that takes place at this particular poultry yard in Spokane Valley.

I am quite familiar with the operation there, as this is the home where our free range chicken of mysterious origin has lived for the past two years. She arrived at our home as a young bird one cold day in December 2009 from we-have-no-idea-where and she lived in and around our yard for a year, allowing us to feed her but not permitting any other contact. In December 2010, fearing she would not escape the coyotes or a second harsh winter, we managed to trap her – that was some enterprise! – and relocate her to the home for wayward and/or unwanted and/or problem chickens run by Joan and Jim Nolan in Spokane Valley.

As it was an open adoption, I have visited and been kept informed of Miss Chicken’s activities ever since, and I have been pleased that so many of you are eager to hear about her – from her near-death experience to her springtime brooding behavior which caused Joan for the past two years to buy one-day old chicks and slip them under Miss Chicken at night so our wild chicken could begin the very domestic mothering process the next day. Each year Joan has vowed not to do that again. Each year she has relented.

Miss Chicken has raised and weaned her most recent brood – Maggie, Mikey and Millard, all of whom are Mille Fleurs, and Mallory, a Silkie. Mallory and Millard have moved on to the home of a woman Joan knows who wanted a Mille Fleur rooster but who agreed to take Mallory as well. As the chicks were growing, Mallory “thumped on Maggie something terrible in one of those pecking order things,” Joan said. “She attacked her comb and head, and it was not a pretty thing, so we relocated the aggressor and she’s doing well in her new home.”

Even so, Maggie’s survival was never a sure thing. When Joan got the chicks at the feed store, Maggie appeared very weak, so Joan only paid $1 for her. “We were unsure she’d make it, but Miss Chicken was such a good mother and made sure her littlest baby ate and was protected.” Maggie remains the smallest of the chickens, but she’s alive and thriving.

But as happens, there have been losses in the barnyard in recent months. Cutie, a Pendescenca and one of Miss Chicken’s best pals, died, as did Betsy, a BB Red. And Sissy, the special needs gal for whom Jim had been preparing a warm scrambled egg diet, succumbed at the holidays. This fall Joan took in a full-size Sexlink chicken who had been ganged up on by the flock she was living with elsewhere. After a dust up or two at Joan’s, Josie has settled in and is getting along just fine with her new flock, now 15 in number.

It’s winter now and free-range outdoor activity is limited. Making sure the chickens get exercise and have something to do, Jim – under Joan’s tutelage – is ensuring the chickens get outside at least for a little while in their small plastic wrap-enclosed outdoor dirt yard and get some third-cut hay to scratch in, salad to pick from the hanging feeder and, late in the day, hen scratch (corn and wheat) before roosting at night.

The task of snugging up the birds at night now also falls to Jim. What Joan has done ever since she’s had chickens is to go into the roost at night and when the birds are in their mostly asleep phase, all scattered about, she moves them around – big breed next to a small breed next to a big breed, etc., and then snugs them all close together for warmth.

Miss Chicken, always a bit wild and stand-offish, will now let Joan pick her up and pet her, briefly, during the day, without pecking her. It’s only taken two years. But when Joan – and now Jim – snugs her up at night, Miss Chicken will rouse from her slumber and deliver a peck. “That’s her survival instinct,” Joan said, “that’s how she survived out on her own, being so aware of her environment, and that’s also what made her a good mother.”

Joan’s pretty sure Miss Chicken will probably go broody again this spring. “It’s been two years straight, after all.” And will Joan relent and bring in a few chicks for her to raise? “Well, I’ve relented two years in a row, so it’s clear Miss Chicken is stronger than I am at this. My money is on yes, I’ll relent again.”

In the meantime, while Joan heals from surgery, Jim is tending the flock. “He’s doing it all, from talking to them to positioning them on the roost,” Joan reports. “However, he draws the line at kissing them on the beak.”

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at

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