Caring for chickens was my responsibility at age five, and I started by gathering the eggs. The old “settin’ hens” wouldn’t move at my nudge. I’d stare into a black eye that never blinked, and reach underneath that warm, feathered belly.
No matter how slow my hand crept, faster than I could think Jackie Robinson, a hen pecked my hand. I’d yelp and jump back. Some of those old biddies wouldn’t leave the nest no matter how I prodded.
I left the coop without the prized eggs. After all, they had no perception of the difference between eggs for people to eat or sell and eggs to hatch into chicks.
I progressed to scattering cracked corn and crushed oyster shells from a bucket onto the ground inside the fenced enclosure, and I closed the chickens in at night. Sometimes they roosted in a mulberry tree if I waited too long.
I scrubbed “yucky stuff” off eggs with a wire brush in warm water for Mom to sell in town. By age nine, I was big enough to scoop out the coop. The dry dirt, dust, manure, and feathers was suffocating. A bandana over my nose and mouth helped me breathe.
Roosters grew big floppy combs on their heads and ugly spurs on their legs. I’d get a kick from their fighting. I didn’t get a kick out of the few mean ones that charged and pecked my legs.
I went with Mom to buy baby chicks at the Neligh Hatchery, and then cared for them. I thought chicks in our brooder house smelled like warm oats. It’s a bit difficult to describe the smell of dander from chick feathers and their feed, but I accepted it as an earthy smell.
The heat from the lights helped make the air oppressive, but the brooder house was easier to take than the smell of the chicken coop.
In fall, I hooked young roosters with a stout wire around one foot, and helped Mom butcher the fryers, sometimes as many as a hundred. If one dropped from our hands, it flopped and danced around headless—no doubt where the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” originated.
Next we’d scald the feathers by dunking them into buckets of boiling water, and pluck. Wet feathers reek. The smell of certain burning food reminds me of burnt chicken feathers we singed over the flame of the gas kitchen stove.
Washing the skin and cleaning off pin feathers followed. Mom taught me how to cut up the fryers and prepare them for the freezer.
Country kids often carried the smell of the barnyard if they went from chores to school or Sunday school. We needed to care for the animals and oftentimes there was no time to shower before hitting the road.
To this day, I’d rather be outside than inside. I prefer pulling weeds from my flower beds or communing with nature over cooking, and I’d like to think I smell better...