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Happy Hens: Farm business turns into field of friends

Editor Note: “Happy Hens” is just one of several stories about local pets in our “Happy Tails” edition this week.

When Tabitha Dotson and her husband, Tom, brought their first 10 chickens to their new home on Taylor Bridge Road in Washington County, they were merely looking at practical ways to turn their 18-acre piece into a profitable farm.
Four years later, those 10 hens have grown to 170 adults and 57 chicks, supplying dozens and dozens of eggs to Jonesborough’s Boone Street Market and summer Farmers Market.
But these chickens are much more than simply livestock.
They’ve become members of the Dotson family.
“They really do have their own personalities,” Tabitha said “They’re like people.”
Many are fun and charming. Others, she added, are a little more irascible.
“There are a few that are jerks,” she admits with a rueful smile.
And there are a few more, she said, that really stand out.
Take Gator, named not for the Florida Gators for whom Dotson admits she is not a fan despite the Dotsons’ longtime home in that southernmost state, but for the John Deere Gator utility vehicle the couple uses on the farm.
“Whenever she sees our Gator, she comes running,” Tabitha said. Gator (the hen) loves to jump into Gator
(the tractor) and search for tasty tidbits. It has become something of a ritual, and one that Tabitha enjoys.
Gator also has a sense of adventure and loves to explore, she said.
Snowball, on the other hand, is a bit timid, though loving. This hen is at the lower end of the pecking order. “Yes, there really is a pecking order,” Tabitha added with a laugh. While she can be a bit skittish when you approach her, once Tabitha has her in her arms, she settles in.
“She does like to be held,” Tabitha said of Snowball.
Maisie is one of the newer members of the Taylor Bridge Road chicken family. One of five babies born in October, Maisie likes to stick close to Tabitha whenever she gets the chance. “She will follow me all around,” Tabitha said.
Then there are the “men” of the coop, like Foghorn, Forrest and more. These roosters keep their hens safe, Tabitha said, sometimes at great peril to themselves.
Just the other day, for example, Tabitha was checking out the various coops and found Forrest with blood on his comb. Obviously he had successfully driven off some prey, most likely a hawk, Tabitha said.
“He let me pick him up,” she said. “He seems to be a sweeter (rooster.) And he let me take care of his comb.”
Tabitha recalls reading about raising chickens – well before they actually brought their feathered friends home – and having one author describing watching the antics of the fowl like “watching Chicken TV.”
“I highly doubted that,” Tabitha said, suspecting the author had much too much time on her hands.
After the chickens, however, Tabitha found “It really is true!”
In the summer she likes to sit down on the grass and let her flock gather around her, watching the Dotson version of “Chicken TV.”
“With all of my animals, I try to get them to like me,” Tabitha said. “I think it helps them feel safer.”
Each day, she makes sure they have food, water and a place to roam. If one doesn’t feel well, she tries to tend it. At night when dangers begin to roam, she makes sure each is tucked safely in the various Dotson Farm coops.
Every once in a while, Tabitha said she thinks back to that moment in Florida when she and her husband realized their children had been raised and they would be looking at a new and diff erent future. And there was some concern about the transition – the dreaded empty nest syndrome.
Tabitha paused to look around her and laugh delightedly at the future that has now become her present.
“We do not have an empty nest,” Tabitha said, shaking her head. “There is no syndrome here.”