Where have all the chickens gone, long time pecking?

Free-range chickens are technically illegal in Ipswich but out here on outer Linebrook Road we are already so overrun with ticks, even this early in the season, I believe the law should be changed so that anyone west of Route 1 is actually required to have free-range chickens.

Chickens eat ticks, it’s well known, and chickens roaming free can eat more ticks than cooped-up chickens. Possums also eat ticks, which means setting the chickens free could presumably cut into the possum population’s diet, but I don’t care about starving out the possums because we’re Northerners, not Southerners, so we don’t each much possum. Given the geopolitical divide in our nation these days, I can imagine pushback — claims of malice, “Kill a tick, starve a Republican,” this sort of snark — but I assure you, my goal in releasing the chickens would be nothing more than the freedom to take a simple walk across my backyard without being beset by nasty little parasitic arachnids.

It seems to be the worst tick season in quite a few years. I’ve gone whole summers in Ipswich without finding a single one of the miniature monsters on my pantleg. But with global warming, the tick population is exploding. Ticks can’t mate and reproduce when the temperature drops below 45˚ F, but we have fewer and fewer such chilly periods. Those refreshingly mild days you pray for and luxuriate in? They’re a backdrop for unspeakable tick debauchery on an unthinkable scale.

Of course this is not just about the annoyance of tiresome self-examination — flick icky ticks quick — every time you come in from outdoors. It’s what happens if you fail to pick off one of these mini-devils in time. Ticks give humans Lyme disease. Since 2010, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America, cases of tick-triggered Lyme have tripled. Why? More days and hours of tick-sex-friendly temps. And not enough chickens on the job.

We had free-range chickens in our neighborhood for a time, despite the official Ipswich ban. A neighbor had chickens and let them roam; the rest of us neighbors enjoyed them, and the chickens always went home by day’s end, observing a kind of unspoken chicken-curfew. In the meadow between my house and the chicken coop, the chickens ate well, and whole generations of ticks were annihilated. Even today, tick folk singers sing mournful songs about that tragic era.

For us humans, however, life was grand — that is, until another neighbor loved the chickens so much, or so I heard, that she began feeding them actual food. Big mistake. They began congregating happily at this one house, doing all the chicken things chickens do, like scratching and pecking. Chickens roaming over a whole neighborhood don’t make much of a mess, because they’re spread out and on the move; but so many chickens hanging out in a single yard soon took a toll on the flower garden. The outraged owner — apparently feeling betrayed by the chickens she loved — complained bitterly.

The era of technically illegal but generally accepted free-range outer Linebrook chickens was suddenly over. The chickens are now re-cooped, and the ticks are partying.

A whole new cohort of tick singer-songwriters has emerged. No more rueful refrains. It’s straight rock-and-roll now.

Yesterday I walked to the corner of my backyard and by the time I got there I had a whole tiny rock band attached to the leg of my jeans — guitar, bass, drums, and lead vocals, with three tiny backup singers in matching outfits. I remained calm. I sauntered over to my neighbor’s backyard, my steps keeping time with the music, then flicked each member of the band, one by one, into the chicken coop.

Chickens are no fans of rock-and-roll, I guess. They didn’t even wait for the song to end.


Doug Brendel wages war against the insect world from his home on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Track his exploits via DougBrendel.com.

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