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Flash in the Pan

Why did the chicken cross the road?

When my last two chickens excused themselves from my yard—whose gate was negligently left open—I began a full-scale search of the neighborhood.

Annabelle and Annabelle were the last of what was once a great flock of six Annabelles. Before being killed off by a dog, they were good old friends as well as good old hens.

After the dog attack, the two remaining girls seemed more prone to wandering, as if looking for their friends. Common fixtures in the alleyway, they were also known to frequent the rabbit hutch in the neighbor’s side yard, where stray bunny food could be found. But for all their explorations, the girls never strayed from our block, never crossed roads. After they disappeared, however, I had to wonder.

At wit’s end, I crossed the road myself, and started knocking on doors. I met neighbors who until then I’d only waved at. Then I met a guy who’d seen the girls in his back yard the very afternoon they disappeared. This was confirmation that the chickens had indeed crossed the road. “They went that way,” he pointed.

I searched that way and this, ever farther from home—after all, if they’d crossed one road, who’s to say they wouldn’t cross more? I asked fence painters, skateboarders, stroller pushers, trampoline bouncers, and even a lady outside the spooky house on the corner. But I found no further clues. All I knew was that the girls had “crossed the road,” as it were, placing them in an unresolved superposition of states—both alive and dead until further notice. I could only hope the grass was as green on the other side.

My lost girls aren’t the only local chickens whose fates hang in the balance right now. A Missoula City Council subcommittee is crafting an ordinance to make small, well-behaved and cared-for flocks of chickens legal inside city limits. The draft ordinance allows six hens per household (no roosters), provided they’re enclosed at all times and have a coop with a predator-proof henhouse that’s at least 25 feet from any neighbor’s house. The rambling alleyway free-ranging that my wild girls once enjoyed would not be permitted.

Councilor Stacy Rye (Ward 3) is drafting the ordinance with support from the Missoula Community Food Assessment Coalition. Rye says she’s already received 40 comments on the chicken issue, with 36 in favor. While she feels the concerns raised in the “against” comments are adequately addressed in the draft ordinance, some council members remain unconvinced—to put it delicately—that chickens have a place in Missoula. “More public comments would really help,” Rye says. To comment on the ordinance, which will face a council vote in the coming weeks, Rye recommends the City Council’s collective e-mail address:

But for now, chickens remain illegal, and only outlaws have chickens. For some, this is the only life we’ve ever known. For others, it’s a tough choice that must be made.

After my dear old hens disappeared, I chose to order more chicks. Four of my neighbors wanted to get in on my order, and now our block is chock-a-block with chickens. While the outlaw lifestyle suits me fine, some of these neighbors have young families, and the stress must be crushing. For their sake, I’m asking you all to write City Council in support of urban hens.

Then I got a phone call from a reader who learned of my missing hens in a recent column. The caller said he knew of a boy who’d found some hens near my neighborhood and brought them home. One of the hens was attacked and killed by a skunk, but the other one—the last Annabelle—was alive and lonely.

I brought her home to the “Coop DeVille”—a movable combination hen house and chicken yard. Previously occupied for three years by the six Annabelles and Funkles, and now inhabited by a neighborhood’s worth of 2-week old chicks, we feared mayhem in the cramped coop. Would Annabelle use her leverage atop the pecking order to institute population control, or would the Mama-hen impulse kick in?

For a moment, both hen and chicks seemed wary and miffed at the other’s presence. Annabelle gave a few pecks into the ground—an encouraging display of comfort. When Annabelle found something to eat, one of the two chicks rushed her and ate it out of her mouth. Annabelle was simply outnumbered.

Indeed, after every night with her coopmates, Annabelle jumps up and down as if to say, “Let me outta here!” So I do, into the newly secured back yard, where she has a buddy in the cat, who I should add is painfully selective in her choice of friends.

In time, the chicks will inevitably need mentoring and advice about life’s “hen-ly” matters, like laying eggs and stuff. I’ve no doubt that Annabelle will play the mama hen. She’ll pass the torch of age-old wisdom that she returned from across the road to deliver.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Turning on the worm

Q: Dear Chef Boy Ari,

This year I planted my first crop of cabbage, hoping to harvest heads bigger than my own and give me an excuse to buy a fermentation crock and whip up large batches of sauerkraut to go with my bratwurst (I also want to make the occasional batch of kim chi). Unfortunately, my cabbage plants’ leaves look like Swiss cheese. Inspecting them, I found a little green worm—just one, and he didn’t seem hungry enough to cause that much damage.

Is my cabbage doomed? What can I do to ensure I’ll have fresh kraut in time for tailgating season?

—Holey Cabbage

Dear Holey Cabbage,

That little green “worm” was probably a cabbage looper larva, or caterpillar. If it was alone—which is unlikely—it’s because the others have already metamorphosed into those white butterflies you might see flittering around your garden, scouting for good places to lay the next generation of caterpillar eggs. And if they weren’t eying your cabbage leaves for this purpose, well, then they wouldn’t be called cabbage loopers, would they? (Cabbage loopers will also happily settle for kale, broccoli, and other members of the mustard—aka Brassica—

I recommend that you kill every green worm in your cabbage patch. While hunting those worms, turn over every leaf and inspect its underside for tiny orange eggs. Yank any leaf with eggs, and dispose of them carefully—feed them to the chickens, or bury them in the ground, or put them in your trash. Do not put the leaves in your compost pile, unless you promise to turn it right away—otherwise, the contents of those eggs will have a shot at hatching and finding their way back to your would-be kraut.

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