A pair of Ross’s turacos have decided to build a home in the bamboo grove in the corner of my yard, and it is really freaking my chickens out.
It’s okay if you don’t know what a Ross’s turaco is. I didn’t know, either, until a few days ago, when some naughty bird tried to eat one of my chickies and I decided I needed to educate myself on the creatures that infest my house and their likelihood of eating my pets (or myself?).
I am an unapologetic urbanite, most comfortable when ensconced in an apartment tower a few stories above a medium-busy street, ideally in New York but I’ll take anywhere. Since last summer, though, I’ve made a nest for myself in Uganda and slowly–very slowly–am coming to grips with living in a leafy suburb.
I have a giant yard, and I thought it would be fun to put some chickens in it. Free eggs, some minor pest control, and a little entertainment.
Here are my qualifications for keeping chickens: 1. I am human. 2. I want chickens.
Here are the reasons why I shouldn’t have chickens: 1. I am ridiculously bad at keeping pets. 2. I get bored easily, and boredom quickly turns to resentment. 3. I don’t like most things. 4. I don’t want to go outside. There are bugs there.
Two months ago I drove myself to Old Kampala, to a place conveniently labeled “Chicken House” and asked if I could buy some chickens. “How many?” they asked. “I dunno, ten?” The good people at Chicken House are used to people ordering thousands of chickens at once, so my order of ten was amusing, and possibly annoying. The guy reached into a big bin, pulled out a fistful of day-old chicks, and dropped them into a cardboard box that looked disquietingly like the boxes you get at KFC.
In fairness, day-old chicks look like fuzzy chicken nuggets.
The one on the left I call Blondie. She was the first one of them to take a drink. It wasn’t exactly her idea. According to something I read (can you tell I didn’t do much research?) you’re supposed to take the boldest of your new chicks and dip its beak in water until it figures out what to do; the other chicks will copy it. I tried it with the boldest chick, but that chick got scared and ran away peep-peeping. Blondie, distinct because she has always been paler than the others, came up to see what all the fuss was about. I poked her beak into the water, and instead of panicking she took a sip. Suddenly the water cooler was “the” hangout spot.
I kept the chicks inside my house for a few weeks in an empty shipping box, watching them grow and get bolder about exploring their world. I had been warned that I could expect about half of them to die, but only two did, leaving me with eight peeping puffballs. Soon they started demanding more space. I attached another cardboard box, making it a two-room suite they could enjoy. Then they started flying out of the box completely and roaming around my living room, pecking at wires and carpets. One of them was very curious about my ukulele. I set up makeshift barriers to try keep them in the living room, but soon they were free-ranging around the house. Rather than wait for them to poop on something valuable, I decided it was time to move them out into the yard.
Everything went swimmingly. They discovered grass and dust baths. One of them caught an ant, decided she didn’t like it, spit the ant out, and then picked it up again, because you should always taste something twice before deciding you don’t like it. (The ant, released a second time, ran for safety faster than I’ve ever seen anything run.) One of them caught a dragonfly and a hilarious chase ensued, as all the other chicken wanted to get in on that. It was good times. I’d put my lawn chair out there by the coop and do some reading while they chirped all around me and lived out their juvenile poultry dramas.
And then last week (cue dramatic music!) some large mean-spirited bird swooped down and grabbed one of my chickies!
He didn’t get far. Victim-chicken (apart from Blondie I can’t really tell them apart) sounded the Chicken Distress Signal and I came running and scared the big nasty bird. The victim ran away, and the assailant stood on a nearby tree branch, masked in shadow, and watched me as I impotently shook my fist at it. I tried taking a picture of him, but all I got was this useless blur.
I locked the chickens in their coop and then went to find the scared victim. She was hiding the house–my house, the human house–cowering behind the dining room door. I picked her up, checked for damage, and then carried her back to her friends.
For the next two days none of the chickens wanted to come out of the coop.
What’s interesting is that the victim was alone when she was attacked: aside from me, there were no witnesses. She must have told her chicken-friends all the details. I’ve been reading reports (again with the light research!) about animal intelligence: dolphins use drugs, rats are ticklish, and killer whales speak with accents. Clearly, my victim chicken told a very dramatic story that spooked the hell out of all of her friends. It makes me wonder of there is a Chicken Sophocles whose awesome masterworks are lost to us because we don’t speak chicken.
I left the chickies to themselves for a few days, but came to the conclusion that being cooped up probably wasn’t healthy, so I coaxed them out into the open. They all looked up and spotted something dark and menacing in the bamboo above them, and went inside. I got spooked, too, so I went to the bookstore at Garden City Mall and bought a book called “Birds of Uganda” and hurried home.
I plopped down on my lawn chair and began noting all the unsanctioned birds.
It turns out there are a lot of damn birds in my yard. A pair of Hadada ibises live in the big tree in my front yard. They are a bit goofy-looking, and loud as hell. Now I know where that awful sound was coming from.
An eastern grey plantain-eater (well, I’m not sure it’s the same one every day) has his eye on the obscene-looking jackfruits that grow all over my yard. I also assume he is the reason why my plantain trees don’t produce much plantain. (Worth noting, too, that he looks a lot like the attacking bird, though that doesn’t make sense, does it?)
The big airplane-looking things that buzz overhead all day are Marabou storks. These beasts are super-ugly. May they always stay high and far.
My chickens clearly wanted to come out and play, but every time they came out they would look up, see something in the bamboo, and run back inside. I watched and watched, and eventually whatever was up there took off and flew across my yard. It was small and black, with gorgeous red wings and a charming yellow mask. A flip through my new book showed me it was a Ross’s turaco, one of a pair that are building a love nest in the bamboo. They are very pretty, and supposedly only eat berries. I’ve named them Sal and Lorraine. Sal and Lorraine Turaco.
I grabbed Blondie from inside the coop and brought her out into the yard, my way of saying, “You’re safe here, those birds up there aren’t a threat.” And little by little the chickens understood. They stayed under cover, especially in the big bush nearest the coop, but they came out. The next day they were ranging as far as the flower garden. By this morning they had forgotten entirely about last week’s attack and roamed happily all over the yard. Satisfied, not having seen a predator since that one day, I went inside to do some writing.
On my way inside, something really big buzzed right over my head and landed on the window over the garage. I quickly got out my book: black and white casqued hornbill. What does it eat? “Pretty much anything, including other birds,” says the Internet. I turned to look at the chickens, who were all in the flower garden. As I watched, another big bird plopped down on the tree directly over them. I checked my book: yellow-billed kite. Notorious chicken-eater.
I waved at the kite and he flew away. The hornbill has gone, too. I grabbed Blondie, who is fat and friendly and likes to stand on my feet, and brought her to the coop. The other chickens, perhaps having noted my sudden change in demeanor, all ran at full speed in a straight line back to the coop. They peeped in annoyance as I locked them in but didn’t try to escape.
According to friends I have who keep chickens in Kampala, once the chickens are full-grown the predators won’t pay them any attention. There are plenty of easier targets in town. The hornbill and the kite were probably on their way to the airfield the lake and just happened to see a tasty snack and figured it was worth a shot. Full-sized chickens aren’t usually worth the effort. The ibises and turacos, for example, aren’t scared. They are both about the size that my chickens will someday be.
But right now my chickens are still babies. Some of them even still have baby feathers. Which brings me to the main reason why I shouldn’t keep chickens: instead of doing the hundred and one things I’m supposed to do with my day today, I am obsessively worrying about my little pet dinosaurs. Isn’t living in the suburbs supposed to reduce stress?