Dispatch: Meet The Cunningham Girls

At his Boulder home, pro Richie Cunningham has a hen house full of chickens named after his rivals. So who really rules the roost?

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“Dispatch” is a new online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that will feature pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.

Richie Cunningham’s season is off to a powerful start. He has twice claimed podium positions, finishing third at Ironman 70.3 Panama and second at Ironman 70.3 California, hot on the heels of winner Andy Potts. Yet this determined Aussie’s time is not entirely tied to swimming, cycling and running. Additionally, he raises chickens.

Richie grew up with chickens, and for years teased his wife Melissa about getting a few of their own. “I always said there’s no way we’re getting chickens, that’s so stupid!” said Melissa, “But after joking about it for years I guess I finally thought it was a good idea.”

The couple found the full-grown Buff Orpington chickens on Craigslist last December. The breed is known to be relatively quiet and also winter-hardy, due to their large size. “We really only wanted three,” said Melissa, “But the guy we got them from didn’t want them to be separated.” And so the Cunninghams became proud parents to a poultry six-pack. “The girls” are named for Richie’s training partners and the couple’s family and friends.

There’s Josephina, commonly known as “Joe” and named after Joe Gambles. “Joe has the attitude. She struts around, but she’s also really friendly,” said Richie. “And she talks the most,” laughed Melissa.

Pat Evoe’s namesake is Patricia, referred to simply as “Pat”. “She’s very low-key. She lets us do whatever we want,” said Richie. “She’s a real easy-going chicken,” agreed Melissa.

Christina (aka “Chris”), named for laid-back Aussie Chris Legh, is another “chill” chicken. “But she’s got the tightest feathers,” laughed Richie.

Chicken naming can be fickle business, however. “Chris Legh went back to Australia over the winter,” said Richie. “So he sort of lost his chicken naming rights. Now we just call her Vicki after another friend of ours.”

Terra, the most motherly of the hens, was named for pro Terra Castro. “She’s the one that protects the eggs,” said Melissa. “She’ll sit on the eggs all day if no one else is there. She won’t let anyone touch them.”

“Eddie” (full name Edwina) is named after the Cunninghams’ close friend Mary Edwina Miller. She’s the biggest of the brood, an ironic twist in relation to Miller’s lithe runner’s frame.

And finally there’s Alison, who the Cunninghams call “Allen”. “She has a big fat butt so we named her after my brother!” exclaimed Richie.

A renovated storage shed serves as the chickens’ coop in the Cunninghams’ backyard. It’s there that “the girls” produce their household contribution, anywhere from one to six eggs combined per day.

RELATED VIDEO: Richie Cunningham Second In Oceanside

“When we first got them we were getting five or six eggs a day,” said Richie. “Then with the cold of winter they went to only one a day [egg-laying is directly related to sun exposure]. But generally one bird lays six in a week.” Apparently chickens understand the importance of a rest day.

The Cunninghams’ diet has certainly become egg-centric. They also share their loot, most often as a proactive peace offering to neighbors who might be bothered by early morning clucking. In addition to providing perfect protein to fuel Richie’s training, the hens are a friendly, sociable group.

“They’ll let you touch them,” said Richie. “Especially Joe. She squats down when you come up to her. She puts her wings out and doesn’t run away, so you can pat her. They like to hang out with you. But if you try and catch them they’ll run away.”

Fortunately, “the girls” were speedy enough to mostly avert a horrific assault by a pair of renegade raccoons. In the wee hours of the morning on Friday, April 6th, Melissa jumped out of bed, awakened by the chickens’ screeching. She opened the door to see two raccoons on the backyard fence and was all but knocked over by Sam, the couple’s beloved Whippet, bolting to the aid of his adopted harem.

“We did a head count and there were five,” said Melissa. “Three were actually in the coop just minding their own business. They probably had no idea what was happening.

But Joe was outside ready to fight the raccoons. She was clucking and looking totally pissed.” Joe was in fact injured, a strawberry-sized chunk of chicken flesh missing from the back of her neck.

For nearly half an hour, Richie searched high and low for Pat, the single missing hen. Feathers were everywhere, but there was no clear sign of a kill. Finally he found her huddled under a bush, frightened and fragile but alive.

“I picked her up and the whole side of her chest just flopped down,” recalled Richie. “Like at KFC when you peel back the chicken skin. It was disgusting.”

While Joe seems oblivious to her relatively minor wound, Pat is currently quarantined in a makeshift chicken ICU cage within the coop. If she were left to freely roam among her peers, her exposed breast would be the target of their incessant pecking, rendering the healing process impossible. If she were separated from the flock entirely, however, the others would shun her upon her return. Yes, chicken social dynamics are complex.

Richie phoned Pat Evoe immediately following the attack. “I said, ‘Pat, you got the shit kicked out of you last night!’” said Richie, taunting his good friend. “He was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Poor Pat. You always get picked on.’”

Low-key or not, one thing’s for certain – Pat is one tough chick. Four days post-attack, she does seem to be on the mend, despite the severity of her wound. “She even pecked Richie the other day,” said Melissa, obviously encouraged. “She’s got her fight back!”

Follow Pat’s progress and all “the girls’” adventures on Twitter: @SirRichieC
Follow Richie’s race season via his website: Richiecunningham.net

Look for Holly’s monthly column “Confessions of an Age-Grouper” in Triathlete magazine.

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