I think no farm animal is written about with such affection as chickens, which is surprising. A brief visit with a chicken and you’ll believe that while they may be nice (maybe), they are devoid of personality. But if you spend more time with chickens, and you’ll realize that a flock of chickens packs as much drama as a college dorm.
I never liked chickens. I actually grew up with a fear of them. They were creepy looking and moved fast. But, I like to face my fears in the eye whenever possible, so one spring day, while doing some serious garage sale-ing back in the city, I saw something that could help me do just this. Weirdly enough, there was a man walking down the block holding a very colorful chicken.
I had never seen this before. A chicken in my pristine suburb. I chased after him, and after chatting a little, he offered to show me the other chickens and coop that he was covertly keeping behind his garage.
In a moment I was standing nervously in a little pen full of chickens. They pecked around, ignoring me, while I asked Jerry about wintering them, the neighbors, and such.
“I bring eggs to the neighbors,” he said, “That keeps them happy. Would you like to hold one?”
No, I didn’t. But, here was a chance to muscle past this aversion I had to these feathery things with scrawny, clawed feet. Jerry showed me how to catch one by the tail feathers, and scoop it up. Soon I was holding a calm Barred-Rock hen.
Talking some more, it turns out that he was raising several more chicks in his garage, in order to replace some older hens that were not as productive as they once were. (Well, the nerve.) His plan was to have a big chicken dinner once the youngsters became productive. I mulled this over on the car ride home.
Now, I didn’t realize it immediately, but this meeting was good timing for me. I had plans to take a few months sabbatical from running the yoga studio, and spend the summer at Soul Farm with my two young daughters. I was busy arranging borrowing some goats from a farm friend with some to spare. We were going to milk goats. After thinking further, I gave Jerry a call.
“Instead of making stew out of those old chickens,” I said, “How’s about selling them to me? Even if they are only laying once every few days, it’d be nice to have some chickens at the farm for the summer.”
Jerry thought this was a fine idea. The girls and I rounded out our flock by heading to a feed store and picking up four more baby chicks. We would not only have mature hens, but raise young chicks. We probably wouldn’t have eggs from them by the end of summer, but it’d be a nice experience.
Soon, school was out, and we were rolling down the highway, loaded up with supplies, two dog crates of chickens, and a 130 pound mastiff eyeing each other suspiciously in the back of the van.
Many things could have gone wrong with our makeshift plan to have chickens (and a mastiff). But they didn’t. Caesar let the chickens be, and the chickens adapted to the hoop house coop we threw together for them. Jerry’s chickens learned to love the wide open yard, full of bugs to peck at, and the itty-bitties gradually were introduced and welcomed into the flock.
We learned that chickens thrive on routine, and were smart enough to develop one. We also learned that each chicken had a personality. Giblet was the friendliest, and would tolerate snuggles. Sunny was our special needs chicken. If there was a bad decision to be made, Sunny would be trying it out. Sitting under the trees, taking a break and watching chickens interact was better than watching TV, even a Netflix Original.
However, as interactive and interesting as they were, it was largely with one another. They really didn’t pay much attention to us humans, except when we had kitchen scraps to share.
So, you can imagine my surprise when one day I drove up in the car after errands, and they all ran to greet me. I stepped out of the car to the flock crowding around me, clucking wildly, waving their wings. Clearly, something huge had happened while I was gone, and they were trying to tell me all about it. I looked around, but the house had not burned down. There were no signs of a tornado. I shrugged, and unpacked the car, while the chickens rolled their eyes at one another at my stupidity.
It took a few hours to realize that Big Red was missing. Sometimes in the summer heat, the chickens liked to cool under the big pine trees in the yard, and that’s where we found her, cold and still. There were no signs of foul play (Caesar) but suddenly the chicken dance I’d been treated to made sense.
“Sometimes they just die of a heart attack,” Jerry said when I called him. I felt bad, like I’d done something wrong by Big Red, but he assured me that at her age, a sudden death was no surprise.
We gave Big Red a little funeral. Her hearse was a wheelbarrow, and she was laid to rest between the pond and the woods, in a very pretty spot.
After this, the chickens went back to being aloof, but in that scary and intense situation, they broke character and had made an effort to connect with a dumb human. I had a new appreciation for the intelligence of the chicken after that. Sometimes, we mistake a lack of communication with another being for a lack of intelligence, and need to be reminded that some of us, feathered or not, simply need to connect in our own time, and on our own terms.