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COLUMNISTS

Chicken flock imparts life lessons to young son

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
A small flock of chickens taught my son Jake many valuable life lessons about joy and sorrow.

Had I known bringing home a small flock of chickens would someday bring my son to tears, I may have ignored the ad in our local shopper. With dreams of fresh eggs just a stone's throw away from the kitchen, I piled the kids into the old Suburban and off we went.

As soon as we released the small flock into the run just outside the granary, Jake promptly named them Mellie and Kellie (two sprightly light brahmas), Huey, Duey and Louie (three Rhode Island Reds), Lacey (a quiet Wyandotte) and Bucca Bucca, (a stately and intimidating Barred Plymouth Rock rooster). My quiet son was enchanted with his new throng of feathered friends, feeding and watering them faithfully, and fetching surplus produce from the garden. Cherry tomatoes often set off an animated tug of war match between the hens.

A trip out to the enclosed coop inside the granary to bring in eggs each morning was akin to a treasure hunt for my 5 year old.

Soon we added more birds: leghorns, Ameraucanas, Australorps, Buff Orpingtons and Polish breeds - Jake named them all using the names of cartoon and movie characters. He was especially enamored with the bantam cochins and silkies, which he would lift up into the nesting boxes each night before turning off the lights.

His favorite hen was Kellie. This congenial little hen would run up to meet him at the fence each morning looking for a treat, cocking her head at his voice and conversing back to him with soft clucking sounds. One day I looked out the window to see her perched on his shoulder as he walked up to the house.

Kellie delights in perching on the trapeze on the kids' swing set.

"I'm taking her for a bike ride," he said. And sure enough, perched on his handle bars, the brave little bird hung on tightly as he circled the driveway, her feathers ruffling in the breeze. It wasn't uncommon to see her balancing on the trapeze of our swing set, gently swaying back and forth between Jake and his older brother Ben.

While he was too young to exhibit chickens at the Fond du Lac County Fair, he had his sights set on some of his young birds one day winning a championship. Pouring over catalogs from the hatchery with as much concentration as his brothers studied the annual Fleet Farm Christmas toy flyer, Jake circled new breeds of birds that he would someday raise.

Pointing to two snowy white large cochins, he declared that he would buy some chicks next spring and name them Mr. and Mrs. Salt. Despite my protests that white birds would be hard to keep clean, he assured me he would personally give them baths.

Because Jake attended kindergarten in the afternoon, we ate lunch at 11 am, giving him plenty of time to get ready to catch the school bus. On a cool November morning, Jake and a classmate headed to the granary to collect eggs. Five minutes later Jake's friend burst through the door, "Mrs. Kottke! Jake's chickens are dead!"

I ran out the door to see my son holding a dying hen in his arms. With tears streaming down his face, he asked in an agonized voice, "Mom, what happened? What killed my chickens?"

I stepped inside the coop where Jake had lovingly tended his birds to witness what looked like a massacre. Dead birds everywhere, including our fierce rooster. From the blood spattered walls near where he lay, Bucca Bucca must have put up a hell of a fight trying to defend his harem. What a horrific image to be imprinted on my young son's mind.

Unlike the smaller cochins and silkies that couldn't fly to safety, Mellie and Kellie had been spared a brutal death simply because they found refuge on the perch above. While Jake and his friend rounded up the surviving birds and took them up to the house, I collected the bodies of his beloved birds and put them into a large garbage can. What a terrible waste and now heartbreak for this trusting child.

That night as I sat on the edge of his bed, Jake asked why bad things happen.

"When you care for animals, you sometimes get attached to them because you want what's best for them. And unfortunately, sometimes they die," I said, knowing my words would take a long time for him to understand.

He looked at me with his solemn brown eyes and said, "I'll never give up! I won't let anything get at my chickens again!"

Jake hands his cochin hen Mrs. Salt to the judge at the Fond du Lac County fair. His docile bird would go on to win Champion Hen.

In the coming days we converted our water house into a fortified chicken coop and set a trap for the marauder that decimated Jake's little flock. We soon had our answer when we caught a female mink. Til this day Jake has an aversion to the creatures.

Jake kept his word. He continued to raise chickens and eventually took Mr. and Mrs. Salt to the fair where the pristine, white bird was named Champion Hen. Even though Jake has grown and moved away from home, I still have his tattered, and well-loved chicken quilt made for him by his great grandma. The threadbare quilt is covered with appliques of chickens bearing the names of his original (long gone) flock.  And there tucked on a shelf in the back of his old closet sits that trophy, a tangible sign of a little boy who refused to be beaten by a bloodthirsty mink.