I love my state this time of the year! You can tell you are in Tennessee when the days begin to warm and the trees change from dark brown to colorful pastels, as well as by the number of festivals being held across our volunteer state. Spring, along with fall, is a wonderful time to celebrate the changing of the season after “Ole Man Winter” ran us all indoors for the past several months. It also gives us rural types a real good reason to get out and enjoy a whole lot of celebrations that relate to numerous things.
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The last few weeks as I have visited my Coop to pickup things needed for around the homestead, I have heard a distinctive sound that shows up this time of the year and it is not tractors running preparing to plow fields. It is a peeping sound coming from hundreds of chicks and ducklings that have arrived at the stores so farmers and homeowners can restock their flocks for the coming year. Many people think it has something to do with Easter baskets and the celebration of spring, well, I hate to bite the ears off your chocolate rabbits, but that is not the reason they are there.
Growing up on a farm, we always had baby chicks around due to the need for eggs. As a child, I was use to their being a part of the farm surroundings, but can remember when we would go into town on our Saturday visits to the square around Easter time to find brightly colored chicks for sale at the local Woolworths. They caught my attention because we never had any chickens that were pink or green. After my mother explained to me that those Woolworth chicks had been colored with food coloring and were probably not healthy, I soon lost my interest in dyed chickens. I found that the marshmallow Peeps were more to my liking and they stayed put in your Easter basket.
There are those who still think it is cute to give their child a live chick or duckling for Easter, but coming from the farm, let me suggest you keep it to a toy one instead. Small children really don’t understand the care for these small creatures and the fact is that they are babies too, needing proper handling that a child can’t give.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture in a recent press release also mentioned the importance of avoiding baby chicks and ducklings for holiday gifts. They can also carry Salmonella germs causing extreme abdominal problems. “Live poultry may have Salmonella germs in their droppings and on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean,” Tennessee Department of Health Epidemiologist Dr. Tim Jones said in the recent TDA news release. “Those germs can also get on cages, coops, feed and water dishes and other items where the birds live and roam and can be found on the hands, shoes and clothing of people who handle the birds or work or play around them. We recommend families leave handling of live poultry to people trained in their appropriate care.”
The release went on to say that you also do not let children younger than five, elderly persons or people with weak immune systems handle chicks, ducklings or other live poultry. If you do come into contact with a bird, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after.
Being a 4-H member also taught me the importance of cleanliness, and with poultry as a major project of mine for many years, I know the importance of washing your hands around chickens. Each spring I would start out with 100 chicks and after having to feed, clean the chicken house and gather eggs, they weren’t as cute at the end as at the beginning of getting them.
My chicken house was country-fied. The chicken nests were made out of wooden apple boxes nailed to the wall fairly high off the ground for a youngster. It was my job when I got home from school to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. Feeding the chickens was not that big of a deal, but reaching high over my head to get the eggs out of the nests was a different matter altogether. The nests were just high enough for me not to be able to see in them, so I had to reach really high and feel around to locate next morning’s breakfast.
I had heard all of the stories told by local old timers of finding snakes and other varmints in the nests and was always careful to feel my way along slowly as I reached above my head in the darkness. However, one spring day, I guess the call of going hunting in the woods with my favorite dog after gathering the eggs caused me to forget my concern of what just might be lurking high up in the darkness.
I reached high and fast to get the hens’ daily donations. However, what I felt was not the usual oblong shape of a brown egg from a Rhode Island Red hen; instead, it was warm and furry and seemed to cover the entire area inside the nest. I withdrew my hand hoping to have all of my fingers attached where they were supposed to be. Before I knew it, I was in the barn lot making tracks to the house, with brown hen eggs splattering the trail that I was making through the jimson weeds.
Once safely on the back porch, I sounded the alarm that the hen house had been overtaken by wild animals. Mother summoned my father to get the gun to protect the unsuspecting hens.
With the entire family in attendance, we approached the dark structure near the garden with utmost caution. My father slowly strained his eyes to adjust to the light of the darkened house and looked over in the nest. With a laugh that only a father can utter when he has something of embarrassment on his child, he reached in to withdraw six gray kittens that our old cat had deposited in the nest earlier in the day.
Pettus L. Read writes for the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org