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Hatching the bloom 

A wintry mix was in the forecast, but I could have told you that without a television: As I walked to the chicken coop with a bucket of warm water, the stark Snow Moon was setting in the west.

That's why what happened next might be the young year's biggest surprise yet. Just half awake, I unlatched the door and reached for the light's pull cord, only to reveal—as natural as could be, there in the most comfortable popular nest—the first egg of the season. Hard-shelled and brown, this was the perfect talisman of changing seasons.

I'd thought I was running a chickens' retirement home, as most of my girls are 4 years old now. They're still feisty and fluffy, but they're a few steps slower, too. We hadn't had an egg since November. But here they were, in the face of flurries and frosts, announcing as only chickens can, "Hey, look around, it's spring!"

A chicken coop in winter is not a happy-looking place. It's a veritable House of Undone Chores. Chunks of ice float in the watering cans. Loose wooden boards flap near the pitched roof. I always make sure the coop has enough scratch and water, and I check the roof after storms and walk the perimeter looking for holes each weekend. But it's understood that we are in a dormant, nothing-is-happening-here-boss phase, so I let a few things slide. After all, who looks forward to going in with a pitchfork to shovel manure?

But life and renewal were asserting themselves now, as no one had told my chickens they were retired. They had just been waiting for the right amount of daylight. I checked my calendar, and last year's first egg had come the same week. I removed the egg-rinsing enamel colander (a long-ago gift from my wife) from the top shelf.

My nurturing genes kicked in, too. I filled up all the chickens' feeders, went hunting in the nearby garden for greens, and offered a huge oyster shell dessert. I padded their nests with fresh pine straw and took the year's first bushels of compost from the coop. They're getting better quality veggie fixings, too—carrot tops, broccoli stems, orange rinds, banana peels.

My chickens made it to spring ready with eggs, but not everyone was so lucky this winter. One neighbor's strawberry farm was rained out for the year, as the soil was never dry for planting at the right time. Another lost a 60-year-old apple tree. In the past, fresh strawberries and cascading apple blossoms have also marked the changing seasons.

But dawn's tangy scent of wood smoke tells me friends are burning their mossy logs that stayed on the ground too long. They're saving the rest of the good stuff for next winter. We're all looking forward eagerly. The chicken coop is back on the map again, the first place I visit each morning. That proud, wide-awake cackle chorus draws me back.

John Valentine lives in Hillsborough, where he's written about life on and off the farm for more than two decades.

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