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The Big Chicken
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If I were ever a contestant on the reality TV show Fear Factor, knocking me out of the competition would be simple.

No need to go to all the trouble of locking me “into a tunnel filled with thousands of tarantulas.”

With apologies to Emily Dickinson, for me, fear is the thing with feathers. Get me next to a bird and I’m done for.

The flapping wings, the claws, the beady eyes, the sharp beak. Oh, the horror.

In the era of Hannah Banana Books, my long-departed business, a tiny brown-and-white speckled bird flew in the store’s open doors and couldn’t find its way out.

During my bookseller career, I once single-handedly ran off a 200-plus pound man looming threateningly over the sales counter. But removing this golf-ball sized feathery intruder required intervention by two clerks from nearby Oak Bluff Outfitters. They appeared wielding trout fishing nets and humming the theme from Indiana Jones, for a “catch and release” of the terrified bird.

Despite this phobia, I’ve watched with interest as an underground cult of chicken lovers has surfaced in Savannah. At least three friends are the proud owners of chickens that are scratching and laying and living their chickeny lives smack in the middle of town, beneath heirloom camellias in Parkside, or strutting among tasteful lawn statues in Baldwin Park.

Each urban chicken flock boasts five hens, the maximum allowed by city ordinance. Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns are among the favored breeds. I love the idea of having friends who have chickens. It adds variety to my circle yet I can keep a safe distance from my fears.

Then last week came a phone call from Jane, friend and urban chicken owner, with six days remaining on a long trip up north. Her substitute chicken feeder was leaving town—would I consider filling in?

With “noooooooo” silently screaming in my head, I sighed and pulled out a notepad. “I need specific instructions.” This is what friends do, right? And so I became the “chicken tender.”

It turns out that caring for a friend’s flock of chickens is less work, and more interesting, than watering their plants.

Find the chicken feed (a grey mealy substance that looks like unmixed concrete). Give the birds two heaping scoops per day. How big is a scoop? Bigger than a coffee mug, not as big as a shovel full. Change the drinking water. Look in the henhouse for eggs. Look at the chickens. Wonder what they think about. But not too long.

I went into heart-pounding terror on the first day when, twice, a red hen flapped up into my face. With new-found empathy for Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, a quick phone call to Jane revealed that the food gets scattered on the ground, a detail we didn’t cover in chicken feeding school.

By day five I was surprised to find myself looking forward to wading through the overgrown garden to the funky chicken coop. It’s fun watching the hens scritching around on the ground, their jerking head movements, their odd little running spurts, their soft-throated chuckle noises.

When my friend arrived home early I was both disappointed and relieved. To fill the empty days I’m reading a great little book, The Field Guide to Chickens, full of chicken facts, chicken breeds, pictures of chickens, and just maybe, the solution to my chicken-hearted ways.