When it comes to chickens, I confess to being a bird brain – I don’t know much about the feathered creatures.
So, before I flew the coop on a recent Friday morning from Sal’s Ol’ Timey Feed and Seed store north of Columbia, I asked Sallie Sharpe, who owns the place, and her helper, A.J., to enlighten me so that I would not wind up with egg on my face when I wrote about chickens.
A.J. was like a biddie on a June bug when we talked about a term called “the pecking order.”
“Absolutely,” he said, “there’s a pecking order. There’s always a top chicken. There’s one chicken that will always keep the other chickens in line. Usually it comes with seniority – whoever has been in the coop the longest. If the top chicken doesn’t want someone coming in the coop, that chicken ain’t coming in the coop.”
Here are some other things I learned about chickens.
Rooster or hen? One way to tell – usually when your chicken is about 5 months old – is if your feathered friend crows.
“Hens don’t crow,” Sallie said. “They make noise, but they don’t do the big thing.”
And some chickens actually sound like a cat. “Standard Cochins purr when they get older,” Sallie said.
And by the way, Brown Leghorns lay white eggs and Ameraucana Pullets “lay green, pink, blue and sometimes purple eggs.”
Speaking of eggs, Sallie said, “if you want to have eggs, you don’t need a rooster.”
Now I don’t want to ruffle your feathers with too much intimate information, but think of a hen, Sallie said, as laying eggs like a woman has a monthly menstrual cycle.
If a rooster and a hen mate, the resulting egg may be fertilized and can hatch.
“An unfertilized egg will not hatch,” Sallie said, “but either way, there is no taste difference.”
Whew! So now that we’ve walked over those eggshells, let’s talk about a few favorite chicken expressions.
As for “chickening out,” an etymology website (english.stackexchange.com) said that the phrase may derive from the Civil War, when as part of enlisting in the Union Army, “a chicken was provided to each person who enlisted. He would take the chicken home, clean, dress and cook it for dinner – no refrigeration in those days. The next day he came back to ship off with the Union Army. Should he not come back, his name was printed in the local paper – very shameful to the family name.”
And as for the phrase describing someone as “no spring chicken,” I turned to the website www.quora.com.
“Long ago there were no incubators and few warm hen houses. That meant chickens couldn’t be raised during winter, and instead, were raised during the spring. New England growers found that those (chickens) born in the spring brought premium prices in the summer market. When traders tried to pass off old birds as part of the spring crop, smart buyers would protest as saying the bird was ‘no spring chicken’.”
But there’re plenty of spring chickens at Sal’s Ol’ Timey Feed and Seed and Sallie will take you under her wing if you want to learn to raise chickens.
At the store, she has a simple arrangement for beginning biddie-raisers to keep their chicks warm, fed and protected for their first few weeks of life. The set-up includes a yard stick, a clamp-on heat lamp and a plastic storage container.
“The first week is crucial,” she said, “and after (the chicks’) first six or seven weeks, they can go outside.”