Sunset

Yesterday I held my first live chicken ever. It was a three-week-old Rhode Island Red, its dappled chestnut feathers just emerging from the crown of its little chick head. I cupped my hand to give its feet a secure base, and folded my other hand over its wings to keep it from flying away. I tucked it under my chin to calm its high-pitched chirping.Our team's chicken consultant, Jody Main, invited us for a field trip to her gorgeous organic garden and chicken-education center. And by the chicken-education center, I mean the coop behind her house.

As part of our one-block feast, we've been preparing for the arrival of our feathered friends, and Sunset garden coordinator Ryan has been readying a spot for them in the garden. So it was time that Team Chicken reached out and touched some poultry.

Don't get me wrong — I've held dozens of chickens before. But they were all the kind you eat, without feathers or heads or feet. I've tucked herbs and butter under their skin prior to roasting them with rosemary and garlic, shoved them unceremoniously on a beer can for grilling, and chopped them up for soup. But that will not be these chickens' fate.

Our Sunset chickens will be kept strictly for eggs, like Jody's are. (Team Chicken is all omnivore, but we're too squeamish to consider dispatching the little hennies ourselves.) Still, it's hard not to think about the similarities and differences between the chicken that you eat and the chickens that we're planning to raise as, essentially, pets with benefits. (Mmmm ... omelets.)

We'll get four laying hens and two chicks, probably in the nextcouple of weeks. Deadlines demand that we get some eggs pronto, but wealso want the experience of raising chicks from fuzzball toadult. We practiced chicken-rearing today. We learned thatchickens like to eat weeds (finally, something to do with my bumpercrop of sow thistle!) We learned that they like to peck at oystershells, which give them calcium to make their eggs strong, and that you should never ever feedchickens eggshells. (They'll realize how delicious they are, Jody says,and start pecking at their own eggs.)

But mostly our field trip to Jody's helped us get used to the idea that we're going to be incharge of these animals, strange, clucking beasts who depend on us foreverything. We have to be good chicken stewards, I thought, as I heldthat little chickie. Its down was fuzzy against my chin, and its new feathers tickled the side of my neck. I could feel its trembling, quick heartbeat and itsintense warmth. I watched its lizardy eye blink closed, and felt itsweird reptilian talon scratch against my palm. Not a high-five, butclose enough.

By Elizabeth Jardina, Sunset researcher

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