When someone is silently skulking around after dark on a farm, it usually means they are up to no good. If they are caught, they could very likely be shot by the farmer.
Unless it is the farmer…
It’s a common idea that a farmer rises before the sun, goes to work, then comes in as the sun is setting for an early meal and bedtime. In reality, most farmers I know would love to have those hours. Instead, many times farms are very busy places in the wee hours of the morning. We are on Calf Watch (or Kid Watch, or Piglet Watch); a sick animal needs to be cared for; a pipe has busted and is spewing water; or, too often in our case, the cows are out. The difference is, we aren’t skulking. We are boldly walking around with flashlights and/or lanterns, barn lights blazing, taking care of business.
But then there is a time for skulking…
My neighbor, George, pulled a ‘Snuffy Smith’ the other night. With a dog crate in hand, he headed back to his daughter-in-law’s barn and in the still darkness, began plucking chickens off of their roosts. When finished, he carefully drove his truck over to our place. With the exception of the dogs going crazy at a soft knock on our back door, all remained mostly quiet. A whispered, “Get the flashlight” and “Drive down. I’ll meet you at the coop” was about all that was said.
The Country Boy and I lifted the crate and hauled it to the chicken coop. As gently and quietly as possible, I lifted the first hen out of the crate and made my way into the coop. I set her down, and then turned out all the lights. For the remaining seven trips, I was guided by the Country Boy and his small flashlight. When the job was done, we eased the door closed on the coop, and headed back to the house.
By our behavior, actions and timing, you would think we were world-class chicken thieves, just like that aforementioned cartoon character made famous by Billy DeBeck. No. George didn’t really steal the chickens – they were offered to us, and we accepted the gift. He was just the ‘Transporter’. The dark hours, flashlights and quiet movements were all part of protocol when integrating new birds to an existing flock. Chickens do not like ‘strangers’ in their midst, and will start a ruckus like you wouldn’t believe if one shows up in their coop. In order to add fully grown birds, it is best done after dark, when none of them can really see what’s going on. In the morning, the new birds are already in place, stretching their wings as they wake up from a good night’s rest. There is usually a bit of confusion – “Where did you come from? I don’t remember seeing you yesterday!” – and a bit of re-arranging in the pecking order, but things are usually pretty calm by noon. With my chickens, things calm down a bit more quickly, as they are really more interested in seeing if mealy worms or fresh spinach will be on the menu today, than they are in the new hens. Unless one of them dares to try and eat that mealy worm by the steps…
Next time your mind brings you this wonderful ‘ideal’ of farm-life hours being daylight to dusk, think again. And while you are thinking, offer up a prayer for those farmers that are struggling to stay warm in a cold barn while tending to their animals, or wandering the woods by flashlight searching for a missing baby, or dressed out in waders while doing water repairs. They would probably love nothing more than being able to fulfill your idea of them being in a nice warm bed at midnight – but wouldn’t even consider doing it if they were needed outside.
And while you’re at it. Don’t shoot or call the cops just because you see flashlights suspiciously bobbing around the chicken coop late at night. It’s probably just George, with another delivery!