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       in the Sonoran
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Master Gardener Journal  


S P E C I A L   F E A T U R E



Confessions of an Egg Head

by Vicki Bundy, Master Gardener

Many Americans view gardening catalogs as the herald of spring and new beginnings. They pour through these glossy publications during the cold winter months, weighing the value of new plant selections and deciding what their garden will require once spring arrives. Will my tomatoes get fusarium crown rot or curly top virus? What do you do about verticillium wilt? What can I grow in Zone 13?

In January when other people are thinking about frost protection and bare-root roses, I'm looking at the Murray McMurray Hatchery Catalog from Webster City, Iowa, the world's Rare Breed Poultry headquarters. Murray McMurray's is to chicken lovers what Burpee's is to garden enthusiasts. And I've got chicken fever.

THE OBSESSION BEGINS
I didn't always like chickens; my interest started a few years ago when we moved to Gilbert. "Let's get chickens," my husband Eric said one day. "They're easy to keep and they eat bugs. And there are the eggs. We'll get eggs."

"Will we get a rooster?" I asked.

"No, just hens," he said. "We only need a rooster for fertilized eggs and therefore chicks. Without a rooster, we'll get a dud egg, a blank. Let's start with hens."

Our neighborhood of 60 homes on irrigated acre lots is heavily populated with chickens, horses, sheep, and cows--and everyone has at least two dogs. Neighbors told us to see Marian, assuring us that she had a few chickens to spare. Her house was set back from the road in a tangle of oleander and pine, but the front porch welcomed visitors with bright red geraniums, tomatoes in blue plastic pots, and trellises filled with climbing vines. A plain, sturdy woman with arthritic hands and muddy shoes answered the door. She wore a red-plaid flannel shirt and eyeglasses from the 70s. Marian, I told myself, this has to be Marian.

After introductions were made, Eric got right down to business and asked if we could buy some chickens.

Marian smiled--maybe even smirked. How many times had she seen city-turned-country folk on her doorstep looking for chickens? "Sure," she said, "I've got some out back that I can part with. Meet me there."

We made our way around to the back and I looked through the chain link gate into Marian's backyard. It was a grassless moonscape of crude structures put together with wire and two-by-fours. Chickens of every size and shape were strolling around and pecking, or chasing one another, or sitting on the ground.

No boring white chickens here. They came in every imaginable shade of yellow, brown, black, white, and gold. There were short, fat chickens; tall, thin chickens; and chickens with feathers perpendicular to their bodies as if they'd been in a wind tunnel. There were even chickens with no neck feathers at all. Some were small enough to hold in my hand if I could have caught them, while others were larger than a watermelon.

After a short but determined chase around the yard with a fishing net, we took three home in a paper feed bag: a black and orange Polish (Gertrude), a Rhode Island Red bantam (Marian), and a Concorde-shaped black Coachin (Zola). Those girls were our first, but definitely not our last. Many others have graced out backyard over the years, before graduating to chicken heaven. We're down to just one now, a sexy Araucana crossbreed named "Bambi."

GREEN EGGS AND (NOT) HAM
Through Murray McMurray's website (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com), I learned that Araucana chickens get their name from an Indian tribe in Chile, and that they're also called the Easter Egg Chicken because of their ability to produce eggs that vary in color from turquoise to olive green. The color permeates right through the shell, unlike brown-shelled eggs where the coloring is just on the surface. Although Araucanas are my favorite, we've never had a purebred because they're expensive and difficult to breed.

Bambi is a crossbreed that exhibits some of the distinct Araucana features: nearly non-existent wattles (those flappy things that hang under their chin) and whiskers or tufts around her ears. Her whiskers make her look like a grinning Jack Nicholson as the Riddler in Batman. Here's a happy chicken, I think. She's got these whiskers and they're always curving up. She's smiling. Bambi isn't large, perhaps 5 pounds, and at first glance appears black, although in the sunlight her feathers are dark emerald green, the color of dark seawater.

Two weeks ago in late January, my husband sent me an email at work. Attached to it was the most wonderful photo in the world, one that made me smile. It showed an egg, a big beautiful sage green egg surrounded by a nest of mulched-up mulberry leaves. This was Bambi's first egg.

Today I decide to watch her lay an egg. I want to see this process. As I watch through the window, she approaches the planter where she usually deposits her eggs. New leaves have fallen into the planter, and she kicks a few away, moving slowly. She doesn't seem to have much patience for this today and she soon strolls away.

After a few minutes, she comes back and resumes the leaf kicking, exposing her nest, which is lined with fluffy feathers. She sits at a 45-degree angle to the wall with her rump facing outward, her tail higher than her head. She gets up again, turns in a clockwise circle, pecks at the leaves, and settles down again. She rearranges the grass, and daintily nibbles at microscopic bugs. I can see her tail moving slowly up and down. She looks around, blinks her eyes, and shifts her head. Her tail rocks gently back and forth, up and down, but it is the only thing that's moving.

This takes a long time.

Suddenly she cranes her neck, her tail begins jerking more quickly, moving lower than before. I am afraid to move, afraid that she'll see me through the window, afraid somehow that I'll disturb her. Her tail dips lower and quivers. She elevates herself to a low crouch. Her tail dips three times and the egg falls. She raises her body and looks around. I can see the egg, even though she is standing over it. She looks dazed. Although it seemed longer, the whole process has taken only twenty-five minutes.

Looking more alert now, Bambi leaves her nest and tiptoes across the patio, stretching her feet. She saunters toward the bird feeder where gray mourning doves are eating cracked corn from the ground. Halfway there she breaks into a run, intent on scaring the other birds away. She streaks over to the spot, her round body rolling from side to side, her head low, a bullet of black feathers. The birds scatter quickly, leaving her to peck at the corn idly for a few minutes. Finally she heads off to the underbrush of blackberries, looking for bugs.

I go outside to her nest and pick up the heavy gray-green perfect egg, still warm from her body. It's not exactly smooth, but has tiny fissures that remind me of the moon seen through a telescope. I cradle the egg gently, carry it into the house, write the date on the narrow end, and gently place it in the refrigerator with the others. Yes indeed, I tell myself, our Bambi is one hot chick.


Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated July 28, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
Comments to Maricopa-hort@ag.arizona.edu 4341 E. Broadway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85040,
Voice: (602) 470-8086 ext. 301, Fax (602) 470-8092