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Cheep thrill

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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The basic principle of mimetic desire is this: You notice your friends and neighbors doing something intriguing, which makes you want to do it, too. In my urban, food-focused little universe, the latest mimetic desire is chickens.

First on the scene was Jes Burns, who bravely raised three chickens in a postage-stamp yard (and wrote about it on Culinate). Then it was our neighbors three blocks away, who also have three large hens. And editorial director Kim Carlson's next-door neighbors, who have chickens. And Health+Food columnist Catherine Bennett-Dunster, who tends fowl. And Culinate blogger Sarah Gilbert, who keeps her own. And — well, you get the idea.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Six chicks on their way home from the store."]

When we told a non-chicken-owning friend that this year was the year, finally, that we were going to raise our own chickens, he snorted. "Chickens are so trendy," he said. "They're like, the new iPod."

Indeed. At our local nursery and chicken-supply store on a wet weekend afternoon, people were lining up to buy books on chicken-keeping and coop-building. But the birds themselves were in short supply. Three weeks ago the store had several breeds, all "sexed" — i.e., the breeders had made their best guess as to which gender the chicks were and separated out the hens from the roosters. On Sunday, however, when my husband and I showed up to buy chicks, the roster was down to two breeds — Araucanas and Black Australorps — and they were "straight run," also known as "take what you get." Each chick, in other words, had a 50/50 chance of being a hen. Or a rooster.

In the city of Portland, you're allowed to have three hens without a permit. (Roosters are banned.) We had planned, therefore, to buy three sexed chicks. "But you'd better buy more than three," said the nursery staffer who was helping us. So we got more — six, in fact.

[%image catchicks float=right width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="A cheep babysitter."]

The staffer crammed the little birds — three Araucanas and three Black Australorps — into a small cardboard box and taped it shut and put it on the counter. While she grabbed a chick feeder and chick waterer and we bagged some chicken feed, the box peeped and shuffled around the counter. We held it carefully all the way home and then unloaded the birds into our homemade chick coop: the sides of a big cardboard box, propped atop lots of shredded paper and covered with a chicken-wire lid. Add food, water, and a heat lamp, and you're done — at least until you have to change the bedding, which, we soon learned, is pretty darn often, or about once every 24 hours.

If you're into mathematical permutations, this is what my husband's best guess was on our odds of getting hens from our six chicks:

all hens: 1 in 64
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5 hens, 1 rooster: 6 in 64
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[%image araucana float=right width=350 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="An Araucana bird in the hand is worth . . ."]

4 hens, 2 roosters: 15 in 64
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h r r h h h 
h r h r h h
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Pretty, no? He also concluded that the chance we'll get at least three hens is 42/64, or almost 66 percent. This conclusion, alas, is also true for getting at least three roosters.

At the nursery, the staffer had named a store that would, supposedly, "give away" any roosters we might turn out to have. Hm. We've only had our chicks for a few days, and can't tell them apart at all (although the Araucanas are bigger and brown, and the Black Australorps are smaller and — duh — black), so we're not exactly emotionally attached. Roosters? Sounds like dinner to us. But maybe in a few months we'll change our minds.


araucana, l


reference-image, l


catchicks, l