I’ve written recently about my free-to-roam raspberry plants, which seem to be conquering the entire east side of the yard. They have essentially taken over every bit of space between the house and the chicken coop and are producing between a half gallon and a gallon of berries every day, depending on weather and my attention to detail as I am picking. It is honestly a bit daunting when I first begin — the number of red berries seems endless.
Although I really love raspberries, I will admit that I’m becoming tired of picking them. It takes me about an hour a day to pick the ripe berries, and on most days, picking is immediately followed by washing and then either making fresh raspberry pies (which I share with friends and use as thank-you gifts for people who help us throughout the year) or freezing the berries for later use. My days are full enough right now, and adding a couple of hours of raspberry activities is getting old. I’ll be happy when the freeze comes and the plants go dormant until next year. Until then, however, I am trying to focus on the fact that we always have a pie in the fridge — and they are truly delicious!
The other thing that makes the whole process a bit more entertaining is the fact that our chickens enjoy my picking. The coop provides the eastern boundary for the raspberry plants, so as I pick, I’m always within an easy toss of the chicken yard. In the first days of picking, I thought the chickens might enjoy a new food, so tossed them any raspberries that were less than ideal — buggy, mushy and overripe, or discolored. The chickens loved them! It’s a win-win, since it gets the nasty raspberries off the canes and the chickens get to enjoy a new seasonal food.
Another aspect of this situation has been interesting to me. Starting with that first berry, I would always call out, “Chicken, chicken, chicken!” whenever I got ready to send one or more berries over the fence and into the chicken yard. In the week or two that I have been doing this, the chickens have come to know that this call signals incoming raspberries, and they look around to see where they will land.
Just the other day, I realized how crazy this has become. I had a handful of berries for the chickens, and I was just on the other side of the cyclone fence from the chicken yard. Instead of throwing the berries over the fence, I thought that I’d feed them right through the wires of the fence, holding out one berry at a time and using my usual chicken call.
What happened, however, was totally unexpected! Instead of running over to the berry in my hand in the same way they usually run towards the berries as they bounce over the fence, the entire flock stood in place, looking up into the sky. Although I held the berries at nearly ground level, the chickens were so used to them coming over the top of the fence that they didn’t even stop to look at me. They all stood stock-still, as well trained as Pavlov’s dogs, heads pointing towards the heavens, waiting for the raspberries to once again fall from the sky!
That’s when I came to realize that the chickens had never associated the raspberries with me or my picking in the bushes near the coop. All they knew was that when they heard the call, raspberries would fall from above and bounce around until one or another chicken grasped it firmly within its beak. No wonder all the chickens were looking up! As far as they were concerned, raspberries didn’t grow on plants, they dropped from the heavens!
Since then, I’ve begun to reprogram my chickens. I still toss the berries over the top of the fence when that is the easiest way to get them into the chicken yard, but I also hold them out in my hands at times, allowing the chickens to come and take them from me. Although it’s true that early in the season I, too, sometimes feel like the berries are heaven-sent, I also want the chickens to realize that good things come from the people who live within sight of the chicken coop. It will likely take a while to convince them that the berries are not heaven-sent; they still look skyward whenever they hear me call. But they are starting to understand that there are good things to eat much closer to earth, too — and that sometimes those treats come from the humans who hold out their hands in friendship… and with berries.