Eli Dixon holds his 3-year-old chicken Sunshine on Thursday at his home in Craig. Eli has more than 40 chickens of various breeds, many he considers as pets.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Eli Dixon holds his 3-year-old chicken Sunshine on Thursday at his home in Craig. Eli has more than 40 chickens of various breeds, many he considers as pets.

Check out these chicks

Chickens make fond pets for area youths

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Little-known chicken facts

• The chicken is the closest living relative to the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

• The fear of chickens is known as Alektorophobia.

• Chickens outnumber human beings; more than 3 billion chickens live in China alone.

• The Ameraucana and Araucana chickens can lay green or blue eggs.

• Chickens can make more than 200 distinct noises when communicating.

Source: www.associatedcon...

— As morning sunlight lightens the gray horizon, Eli Dixon, 12, walks out to greet his cawing, crowing, many-feathered brood.

More than three dozen chickens and roosters strut and peck around the pen behind Eli's home north of Craig. Some produce eggs for the family and others Eli will show at 4-H events.

The birds serve a purpose, and under no circumstances are they allowed in the house.

The reason?

"You can't potty train them," he said.

Debris inside their roost - a miniature house, complete with siding and shingles -indicates why domesticating these animals for indoor life could be a challenge.

Still, there's something different about these birds, Eli said.

They're more than egg layers, more than 4-H projects.

"I love my chickens," Eli said. "They're my pets."

He's not alone.

Other young chicken owners grow close with their animals, said Kathy Oberwitte, 4-H Feathered Friends Poultry Club leader.

The chickens "have personalities," she said. "It's surprising that there's a connection, but it does exist."

Her son Wyatt owns more than 25 poultry animals, including chickens, turkeys, ducks and chickens.

The birds have several points of appeal, he said.

A main perk: "They don't annoy you with constant barking," Wyatt said.

But, similar to other pets, chickens can develop a bond with their owners.

"They kind of depend on you," he said.

Eli can relate.

He estimates he has 42 chickens, but he can't be sure without trying to count the multicolored birds scurrying through the sagebrush and pecking for scraps in the straw.

He began raising the animals four years ago when he, his parents and three siblings moved to a small farm north of Craig. He started out with a rooster and three hens.

Since then, he's raised about 100 chickens.

Eli still remembers one of the first chickens he owned: a Rhode Island Red hen named - well, Red.

His current favorite is a golden hen named Sunshine. The two have their own way of communicating.

For example: As Eli kneels on the ground, Sunshine approaches slowly and pecks him gently on the wrist. It's a signal that Sunshine wants him to hold her on his lap, Eli said.

He obeys.

"She just truly enjoys this," he says, gently stroking Sunshine's soft feathers.

"There's something about them. They have a strong trust."

He picks up a few chickens at random and gently unfolds their wings with his fingers and splays their scaly toes. On average, Eli spends five hours each week, tending and taming his chickens.

By handling the chickens from their hatchling stage into maturity, Eli prepares them for the 4-H showmanship ring. But taming them often forms a bond of trust between boy and bird.

Eli said he attempts to bond with nearly every chick he has. He buys some chicks locally while some of his chickens hatch their own eggs. Eli purchases the rest of his chicks via the Internet.

He has yet to meet a chicken he doesn't like, he said.

Most of Eli's chickens allow him to pick them up without protest.

And one - a small, gray rooster low on the aggressive pecking order - often seeks refuge on Eli's shoulder when other roosters try to attack.

"When he gets up here," Eli said, tapping his shoulder, "he acts like he's big and tough."

Still, the chickens serve practical purposes.

Some lay eggs - which Eli prefers to those sold at a grocery store.

His chickens roam freely within the large pen, and he believes they lead better lives than their contemporaries hatched and raised on corporate farms.

And Eli's OK with that.

"Knowing you're getting eggs from happy chickens is a good thought to have," he said.

And then, there are the others.

In a separate pen, a few chickens peck around the feet of several pigs.

These chickens are Eli's "broilers" - the ones that will eventually be sold for meat.

Eli tries not to get attached to these birds, he said.

Although he doesn't allow himself to get close to chickens he knows will go to slaughter, it doesn't mean that bonding with the other birds doesn't come with a price.

A chicken's lifespan usually ranges from five to seven years, Wyatt Oberwitte said.

Their lives can be cut short by predators, like foxes and weasels.

And that can hurt.

"Sometimes when you lose them, it's devastating," Kathy Oberwitte said.

Eli said he's experienced that loss first-hand on several occasions.

Yet, each time, he's moved on with a new batch of chicks - handling them, feeding them, gaining their trust.

He carefully carries out a large cardboard box from a nearby shed. As he sets it on the ground, quiet peeping noises blend with cawing and crowing from his full-grown brood.

If you start when the chicks are young, Eli said, the time and work pay off.

Eli picks one chick from the group, which rests quietly in his hand as Eli spreads its wings and splays its feet.

"Once they grow up and get older," he said, "they get really nice."

Comments

patty 6 years, 9 months ago

What a lovely story about Eli and his chicken friends. I did sewing for 4H and only discovered the wonder of chickens when I was an adult. Chickens are individuals who are too beautiful, too intelligent and too special to raise to kill and eat them, especially if a young boy knows them as his friends. I could no more eat a chicken now than I could eat a dog, a cat, a cow or a pig. I hope Eli knows someone who can help him break the mould and honor all his animal friends.

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grannyrett 6 years, 9 months ago

patty-I was in 4-H from the time I was 9 until I finished high school. I was in sewing, cooking, and showed dairy cows. I raised pigs, chickens, geese, cows, and later helped my family with buffalo. I have no problem eating any of the above animals. Sure, we made pets out of many of them. Kids who are raised on a ranch are isolated and often make friends with farm animals. They also understand that when Mom raises 200 chickens, they are going to end up on the supper table. Taste better than any store bought chicken too.

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