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As Chickens Gorge, an Owner Stews E-mail
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Tuesday, 16 January 2007

As Chickens Gorge, an Owner Stews



The Dallas Morning News

By Mariana Greene

The chickens are in the doghouse.

Not only are they competing with the squirrels in my flower garden to see who can uproot the most pansies and tulip bulbs in an afternoon, they are devouring the hard-working worms in my compost heap.

It doesn't seem at all fair to the worms, who are minding their own business, breaking up clods of clay and churning out rich castings for my garden.

The hens -- Flora, Fern, Ethel and Mae -- are locked up tight at night in their coop to protect them from the big, bad opossum who's looking for a chicken dinner. Weekdays, they are let loose in a fenced and covered run, which protects them from hawks eyeing a to-go lunch. But I release them evenings and weekends so they can do what chickens do -- scratch in the dirt and eat bugs -- under my watchful eye. (The bug population in the run has long since played out, like a vein of gold in the Sierra foothills.)

The problem is the girls won't eat sowbugs, ants or slugs. They want the good stuff, like the big, fat earthworms that feed at a lavish table: potato peelings, fruit parings, bruised lettuce leaves, scallion tops and leftover slow-cooked oatmeal. I go to great pains to dice cantaloupe rinds and avocado skins into small pieces for the worms' tiny little mouths. I carefully sprinkle organic, free-trade coffee grounds over the top and gently mix them in.

I find it wholly satisfying to watch an unsightly mound of kitchen garbage, brown leaves, dead flower stalks and chicken- coop hay convert itself to fragrant, mink-brown, velvety soil enrichment. The chickens contribute, to be sure, with their litter and crushed eggshells. But it's the worms that do the heavy lifting.

I supplement the insects the hens scratch up with live mealworms from the birdseed store, doling them out in a refrigerated state. The hens recognize the white cardboard tub and come running, cackling excitedly and eyeballing me expectantly. Flora, the bantam, even flaps to my wrist like a trained parakeet in hopes of eating her fill straight from the container.

With the expensive mealworms, safflower seeds, fresh corn and shredded cabbage and lettuce I prepare for them, you'd think they could show a little appreciation and not eat my compost processors.

So instead of getting to bury a few of the thousands of tulip bulbs I seem to have accumulated while the companionable hens keep me company, I am constantly flapping after them, shooing them away from the compost heap and suggesting loudly they are headed for the stewpot if they don't change their ungrateful ways.

All would protect my quickly diminishing population of worms from the hens' sharpshooter vision and tough toenails. But I would not get the satisfaction of combining and stirring and baking ingredients to a perfection that would make Betty Crocker beam.

Then again, if I no longer had to worry about protecting my composting worms, I could turn my full attention to learning how to pry a garter snake out of a chicken's beak before she swallows it.

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