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Charity’s Column: Cooped up

At 7:45 a.m. on a rainy February morning, I opened the door of the Sylvester Manor Farm chicken coop, releasing more than 80 birds into a quarter-acre fenced-in yard supplied with fresh water, feed and sunflower seeds.

The first wave went right for the water, racing across the yard like a formation of toy-sized T. rex. Another group went straight to the sunflower seeds. As I stepped into the coop to collect the eggs laid overnight, I saw at least 20 hens had decided that staying in the warm, dry coop was more compelling than food and water. Perhaps I shouldn’t ascribe human emotions to barnyard animals, but these are ladies after my own heart.

When Jocelyn Craig, the farm manager at Sylvester Manor, put out the word last fall that she would welcome local volunteers to help care for Sylvester Manor’s flock of laying hens in the off-season when she would be the only farmer on site, there were a number of takers, especially since it turned out that this work was not technically pro bono — we would be paid in eggs.

I signed up for “Chicken Chores” and Jocelyn put me through basic training, which included chicken-wrangling techniques such as how to place an escaped bird back in the yard and how to remove six eggs from underneath a sitting hen.

A fellow volunteer, who always signs up for the early morning chores that require fortitude and gloves, is Virginia Gerardi, who expressed a non-chickencentric reason for volunteering to help out on the farm, “It was time for Jocelyn to take a vacation and I was ready to step up to help make that happen,” she said. “I never knew that chickens were so friendly!”

Neither did I. If you’ve never struggled to latch a large swinging gate while receiving a lavish greeting from a stampede of friendly hens, you should consider adding the experience to your bucket list. (Contact Jocelyn to get on the list.)

Hannah Gray, a teacher at the Shelter Island Preschool, volunteered the students of the Forest School, an outdoor educational program for 4-year-olds, to gather eggs on school days. “We walk over to the chickens every day,” said Hannah. “The children say, ‘Good morning chickens, is it O.K. if we take your eggs?’”

The Forest School children are more polite than I am. Not only did I collect eggs without asking first, I reached past the tailfeathers of a hen, took an egg out from under her seconds after she produced it, and then Instagrammed that egg without her permission.

Chickens are sensible creatures, who know a thing or two about being productive in the dead of winter, another of the lessons I’ve learned from volunteering. One day, while on egg-gathering duty, I noticed there were a lot of them. As I counted into the fourth dozen, I began to cluck, and by the time I reached 56, I was as satisfied as if I’d laid those eggs myself. The next morning, the ladies of the coop had produced another 16 eggs overnight, making me even prouder.

All told, I’d say this experience has been a lot more helpful to me than it has for the chickens.
I learned that the phrase “tastes like chicken” is probably well understood among species other than our own, a lesson brought home when I found the eviscerated remains of a hen, likely taken out by a hawk, near the coop.

I learned that chickens speak a kind of Esperanto, communicating fluently to humans and each other without the need for Google Translate. The cackling, clucking, and crooning expresses everything from impatience: “Let us out of the coop — now!” to joy: “I’ve just laid an egg!”

Virginia said her favorite part of chicken chores is when they are done, after the chickens are all fed and the eggs are collected, “Before closing the gate, I spend a few minutes just standing there watching the chickens peck around. I notice what the crows are doing and what the field and the sky look like. I love that stillness of early morning and I feel blessed to be able to be out in nature.”

Hannah is used to dealing with the challenges of a nature-based curriculum, especially on a farm, where you never know what’s going to happen. The children of the Forest School had already noticed some chickens were missing, so when a dead hen was discovered behind the coop one day, it was an unavoidable, teachable moment.

One child thought maybe the other chickens got mad at him, or maybe a wolf came, and there was a lively discussion about what to do with the carcass.

The children of the Forest School, like me, know a little more now about the joys and the realities of a small farm; that bad things can happen, that taking care of farm animals often results in good things like eggs, and that the creatures we care for can have a good life.