Creating your own homestead is a great way to free yourself of other people’s rules, but in one of life’s ironies, often you end up establishing your own set. The good news is they are yours. The bad news is you have to enforce them, sooner or later. Here’s my list of non-negotiable rules. You might have similar ones.
Behave or be eaten
My kids are all old enough to know this rule can’t really be applied to them, but understand the sentiment. I doubt they believed it when they were young, either. A seven-year-old girl walking around the chicken coop, pointing out pullets, and saying, “This one’s a jerk. She dies first,” tells me the lesson has been assimilated.
It’s my policy to maintain an understudy rooster in the all too likely event that Number One decides he wants to expand his dominion over more than the other chickens. The current Cock of the Walk at The Five Cent Farm is named “Turkey,” an unfortunate moniker he earned as a gangly cockerel, which was especially confusing once we added actual Meleagris gallopavo to the menagerie.
Turkey earned his promotion when I pulled into the driveway one afternoon to find Mrs. Cunha chasing Billy, the then-top-rooster, around the chicken run with a table leg, shouting, “I’m gonna kill that sonofabitch!” As it turns out, he had attacked both our daughters and Mrs. Cunha, leaving scratches from his spurs down the length of both forearms. That earned him a trip to Freezer Camp and created a job vacancy in the chicken coop.
Go be wildlife somewhere else
If you read my terrorist threat to the fox who ate my ducks, my position on wildlife predators should already be clear; there is no free lunch on the Cunha homestead. That meal will cost you dearly, if I have anything to say about it.
Any venom I harbor for particular sorts of animals stems from experience and proximity. Any wildlife that makes the life-extending decision to not damage my property are regarded with indifference. With the exception of spotting a deer during fall, while having room in the freezer, I take a live-and-live approach.
I don’t have time to go traipsing all over the farm to eradicate every critter that might possibly take what is mine. Maintain a quick trot along the fence line and keep your eyes forward. You’ll be fine. We even overlook the occasional egg lost to Black King Snakes, since they eat rattlesnakes; #BlackSnakesMatter.
If you’re not producing, you’re waiting your turn on the menu
Several of the animals on my farm labor under the delusion they are somehow special; the sheep and pigs, in particular. Neither the sheep nor the pigs have ever looked around and thought, “Hey, what happened to Joe? I haven’t seen him for a few days.”
The dirty secret is they are breeding stock. We will be eating their babies, soon enough. And if my boar Hamilton doesn’t start siring me some piglets in pretty quick order, we’re going to have ourselves a little luau and find the gilts a new boyfriend, who doesn’t have the sex drive of a panda.
I suppose this rule confounds and terrifies the chickens, since we eat what they produce and sometimes eat one of them for dinner. Along with the occasional coup d’état necessitated to enforce Rule #1, it must strike the chickens as tyranny at its most schizophrenic, but such is life when your social structure is that of an all-girls middle school.
This isn’t a safe space (it’s not a safe place, either)
Homesteading isn’t just dangerous in terms of the ultimate fate of most of the animal residents. Safety sleeves on PTO drives and roll-bars make tractors safer, but you can still be hurt with sufficient disregard for common sense. On the plus side, these safety devices will only leave you maimed, so you can live to farm thoughtlessly another day.
Mud and ice leave you on your ass wondering if you shouldn’t find a job in town. Waiting for your wife to hook up the next bale of hay, thoughts of whether it’s preferable to fall out of the barn loft or get a finger caught in the pulley flit through your mind. Animals don’t care about your feelings, your cold, or the weather. I suspect they conspire to launch coordinated attacks of mischief at the absolute worst times in order to make me look as foolish and inept as possible.
Make no mistake. Farms are harsh, unforgiving environments. It hardens a person. I realized “the birds and the bees” talk was unnecessary when my daughters began bringing me daily heat reports from the barn and cheering at successful mountings. They are well versed in anatomy, and I pity the nervous young men who come courting when my girls are older.
Well, not really. I find horrified millennials hilarious.
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My Indian name is “Dances with Chickens.” Not because I’m some Chicken Whisperer or Clucker Clairvoyant. Far from living in hippie harmony with my domestic fowl, our relationship is adversarial. In fact, I suspect my flock actively plots my demise. They wage an asymmetrical insurgency by conducting destabilization operations against me, complete with lone-wolf attacks and well coordinated small unit engagements.
They even employ suicide attacks in their efforts to destabilize the government.
Early June (Depending of what calendar you adhere too) saw the Great Chicken Massacre of 2015. If the chickens bothered to read my blog, they would have had some advanced warning. I’m pretty sure they have internet access because they have managed to self-radicalize. Maybe the chickens do not speak English because they do not seem to understand when it is spoken to them. For weeks beforehand, my wife and I discussed our cull plans in their presence. My youngest daughter would wander about the chicken run pointing at the intended victims and say things like, “You’re mean. Daddy’s going to kill you first.” Now that I think about it, they probably pulled the old foreigner trick of pretending not to understand. These chickens are more devious than I thought. I’m also fairly certain they were treating the coop as a mosque. Whenever I entered the chicken run (which by the way, literally has more square footage than my first apartment), they would run up to meet me, and on realizing I did not bear food, hightail it back to the coop like insurgents in an airstrike.
I’m convinced I’m dealing with ISIS chickens.
When I looked into the coop, I saw the chickens roosting in suspiciously straight rows, softly mumbling something unintelligible as they rocked their heads to an fro. I know which direction Mecca is, and I know heathen worship when I see it. The only thing I was unsure about was which of them was the Imam responsible for turning my good chickens into holy warriors for Allah.
More specific to my belief that I inadvertently harbored radicalized Islamic chickens were the vocalizations during sporadic attacks that increased in frequency as the planned de-radicalization operation approached. Every few nights in the weeks leading up to D-Day, one of them would initiate an attack from my blind side. To the untrained ear, the rapid fire cluck-cluck-cluck might be just the noises that chickens make, but I know better. Surprisingly, a chicken insurgency isn’t terribly different from the Islamic variety. From the accounts I’ve read in the history books, neither are terribly different from the American Colonial, post-World War Two German, or the Irish variety, either. Whether hollering out Sinn Fein, bawk-bawk-bawk, or durka durka, it is all Allah Akbar. Any combat operation carries the risk of collateral damage; a euphemism for accidentally killing someone you did not intent. My part of the Great Chicken Massacre was surgical in its precision. Rather than descend like an axe-wielding Berserker on an unsuspecting monastery, ringleaders were identified, scooped up, and dispatched without undue effect on the innocent populace.
Good intelligence in the form of a confidential informant (my nine-year-old) was a massive help. However, she blew her own cover by prancing around the chicken run pointing out the next target to get a one-way trip to the Gitmo chopping block, and even participating in operations, which I’m sure violates several rules in the Handling Informants for Dummies book. I never claimed to be any good at controlling my informants.
We’ll just have to chalk that up to the whole Fog of War thing; which is another euphemism for “shit happens.”
We culled the four meanest, most bullying birds we had, and for about twenty-four hours, the sense of peace was palatable. There was no more jostling of the youngest pullets by Fatty Boombaladdy, no more random run-by peckings from Pecker, and no more close air support from Percher. We had taken the fight to the enemy and neutralized the most prolific troublemakers. But these Chicken Jihadis must have had tremendous personal magnetism because what we perceived as an opportunity for nation building and a return to normalcy, the remaining eight took as an opportunity to plot.
Chickens are assholes. Give them a shot a freedom and they repay you with hatred.
My Mujaheddin Chickens picked the place and method for their ambush. Now, all they needed was for an unwary infidel occupier to walk into the trap. The first mistake I made was walking into the chicken run wearing flip-flops. I know I should have worn setting more substantial, but like the guy who takes the ceramic plates out of his battle rattle, I had gotten complacent and a little lazy. “It’s just a routine patrol. Nothing’s going to happen,” are famous last words. One of the unnamed chickens pecked the small toe of my right foot square on the cuticle. That little piggy went wee-wee-wee, along with the rest of my foot, as I pulled it straight up toward me.
As I shifted my weight onto my left foot, Henrietta, a chicken of beautiful form and great egg laying potential to my untrained eye, revealed herself to be an insurgent sympathizer by wedging her toes under my foot. I don’t know for sure as I write this whether Henrietta carried the suicide vest or she was the diversion for another who did. Either way, she must have been planning on seventy-two virgins and not nearly 300 pounds of Portagee pressing down on her toes. The squawk Henrietta let out in the fading twilight caused me to nearly wet myself. Like any good suicide bomber, she realized she was still in the fight and pecked me right on the ankle bone as I jumped onto my other foot in an attempt to clear the kill zone.
Remember a little bit ago I mentioned collateral damage and the operational efforts we went to so that there wasn’t any? Well, apparently chickens don’t give any more of a shit about innocent life than ISIS, because there were innocents about; namely Jennifer, my daughter’s favorite chicken. That little fact made her my favorite chicken, too. I don’t know what the physics equation would be to calculate how much force my foot hit the ground with, but I know poor Jennifer took it all on her back and shoulders. I got off her as fast and gentle as I could while trying not to hit the ground face first. Looking back, I would have been happy to take a header into a fence post, but I don’t control such things. At first, I though she might be OK based on the way she tore off and dashed under the chicken coop. Can’t say as I blame her for trying to walk it off. That’s a hell of a chicken. After a couple of minutes waiting and hoping I wouldn’t have to explain how I managed to break a chicken, I realized there wouldn’t be any hiding this one.
My wife knew it was a serious situation when there were no jokes from me about having “a slight mishap,” which on the Cunha Homestead means someone needs stitches.
Try as she might, Jennifer couldn’t manage to walk more than a few steps at a time. Her legs appeared uninjured, but something was terribly wrong. My wife picked Jennifer up and cradled the crippled chicken against her chest. We spotted the blood trickling from her mouth at the same time and looked at each other, knowing the situation was dire. The Laws of War (yes, there is such a thing) specifically prohibit mercy killings. Luckily, chickens have consistently failed to send representatives to Geneva, so I dispatched Jennifer with a hatchet stroke. Watching her death throes, it dawned on me that her death was identical to the deaths of the chickens who had earned their place on the cull block. Hearing my daughter cry from inside the house made me realize who the real collateral damage was.
That’s how I wound up digging a chicken size grave in the dark in the middle of a thunderstorm. Despite the rumors, I do have a heart, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat Jennifer. Coincidentally, we were having chicken for dinner that night. My nine-year-old ate only sides. To her credit, she showed herself to be every bit the badass her mother is by refusing an offer for a separate entree. When we went out for dinner the following night, she ordered chicken fingers. I began to suspect she just didn’t like the way we cooked the chickens the previous night. Morning found me digging up Jennifer’s fresh grave while surrounded by hostile chickens. They milled about and murmured under their breath that I was desecrating a holy site. I tensed a little every time one of them flapped, as I was expecting the all too common follow-up attack at the funeral for victims of the previous one. My daughter had pointed out that since we plan to move to a property with more acreage in the future, she didn’t want to leave Jennifer behind. I’ve never disinterred a corpse, much less one from a chicken, but the project seemed better done sooner than later. I’m familiar with the decomposition process.
Jennifer now awaits the resurrection in a plastic whiskey barrel-size planter crowned with rose bushes. I guess you could say she is “pushing up the daises.” I’m just glad I could get away with a simple wooden marker instead of having to pay for a marble headstone.
No sooner than the last notes of the requiem faded, I was on the hunt for a replacement. I had to act fast before the one replacement bird grew to a pair which would grow to a quartet and so on exponentially. These situations get out of hand quickly at my house.
I zipped off social media posts to a few local chicken and homesteading groups of which I’m a member asking if anyone was willing to sell me a comparably aged pullet of similar temperament. The response was overwhelming. Even those too far away to make transport feasible offered encouraging words of support for my screw-up and condolences to my daughter.
In under an hour, I had a replacement lined up, and we made the hour trek north where we not only found my daughter her new shoulder-sitter, but made some friends. That’s one good thing that poor Jennifer’s sacrifice provided from this whole mess. There is an epilogue to this sad tale of childhood loss and terrorist chickens. A couple days after introducing the new chicken to the rest of the flock, I receive a text from my wife telling me that Henrietta was jumping on the new chicken’s back and pecking her head. Henrietta is now in solitary confinement awaiting the decision of the tribunal, and let me tell you, the Nazis at Nuremberg got off easy compared to the judgements handed down by my wife. I half expect to find Henrietta dead in her cage from a self-administered dose of cyanide in an effort to evade the hatchet man (or hatchet woman, as the case may be this time around).
My wife is a firm believer in “Behave or be eaten,” which probably explains why I’ve settled down over the years…I’ve seen her enforce it.
So, when the government warns of home-grown radical Islamist terror cells, take a minute to check your chicken coop. You may be unknowingly harboring fowl terrorists.