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Birds of a feather
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And then there were three. Two Rhode Island Reds. One white Leghorn. Down from five. But still no eggs.

Designing, building, then decorating a chicken coop is one thing, raising, protecting and collecting eggs from the little biddies another. Thereís a reason some of us are not mothers.

It's too early for names. Thatís a good thing since no one's established residency yet. But they are cute. And they do have definite personalities. So in a few weeks, when they're bigger and better able to defend themselves - if theyíre still around - they'll get a more personal label. That could be sooner than later. Their growth is exponential.

When they were really, really little I kept them inside a box in my back room with a lamp positioned close for warmth. That worked for awhile, before they got wings, before they flew the coop and left the proverbial nest, before they decided the nearby table and desk were more interesting.

Trust me, with their hygiene habits, cutting the apron strings was easy. So one warm day, some four weeks into their young lives, I introduced them to their designer digs.

All went well until that afternoon when I slipped off to the grocery store. When I returned, I spotted one on its side.Not a good sign. She had been felled by a puncture wound from what looked to be a pointed beak. A hawk, perhaps. Or maybe a crow.

"Why is it on its side?" the young neighbor girl, observant, smart, asked.

"She's sleeping," said her dad.

Good answer, I thought.

When the poor thing finally expired I removed her from the scene. But not before one of us stood guard and the other went out to buy 50 feet of chicken wire that we stretched across the top of the outer fence. Feeling pretty comfortable with our contraption, I put them in their quarters, closed the door and carried on.

The next morning I woke up and hurried outside to open the door for my girls, but the first thing I saw was a cat. Inside the fence. Another bad sign. Back to the drawing board. More wire. More twists. More "sewing." And about five new locks on the gate.

A few hours later the sweet little chicken coop looked like the JDC, the Juvenile Detention Center. Everything but concertina wire. I had a gated community in my own backyard.

But it looked secure. Good-bye predators. Hello eggs. A happy hen, I read somewhere, lays an egg every 26 hours with a yolk as orange as Jean-Claude and Cristoís gates in Central Park, as orange as the setting sun.

I've been reading and collecting stories about chickens for a long time. The best one, written by the marvelous Anne Raver, was about Anna Edey, a brilliant and innovative woman on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Looking for new ways to do old things, Edey devised a solar greenhouse that runs in the winter without oil or gas. All heat and electricity come from the sun, four layers of plastic glazing - and the body heat of 100 chickens.

Each chicken puts out eight BTU's an hour per pound, said Edey. Adding to their worth, it turns out that chicken breath produces CO2, a necessary ingredient for plants. To shift the carbon dioxide to the greenhouse - and the plants - Edey, writes Raver, uses a solar-powered fan to draw the air from the chicken coop into a series of perforated pipes that lie beneath the soil of the growing beds of leaf lettuce, arugula, chicory, beet greens, sorrel, cilantro, dill, parsley and the blossoms from nasturtiums, red salvia and borage.

Each week, including the winter, her 3,000-square-foot greenhouse produces 60 pounds of greens, which nets her something like $100,000. Brilliant!

When she noticed spots on the plants and learned they were from the ammonia, a byproduct of the bird's waste, Edey created a series of still more perforated pipes. They run under the soil and vent the ammonia. More brilliance!

But first I had to deal with city predators.

That afternoon my neighbor spotted one of his cats sitting on top of the makeshift fenced roof, staring down at the girls. But he never got in.

Despite the convention of neighborhood cats and the annoyance of all the wires I have to entangle to enter the coop with feed and water, things have settled down. The girls are scratching the ground, scooting between the spiderwort and salvia, exploring their perimeters, settling in.

And I'm starting to look for eggs. It can only get better, right?

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