[Erik is on his two-week holiday break from Farm School, so in addition to decorating our Christmas tree - and lighting our menorah, grandma dear - we've been involved an urban animal-husbandry dilemma. He returns to school on January 6.]
This all started when we nearly killed the whole flock two weeks ago.
Erik and I were driving home after five days away at the Young Farmers Conference in New York and we had the following conversation about our six backyard hens:
Erik: “You checked their water before you left, right?”
Me: “Um, I thought you did.”
Erik: “Noooo . . . um . . . didn’t . . .”
Long story short: they were out of water for at least a day – probably two. All six were alive, but one – the runt of the flock – was failing. We made a makeshift chicken-ICU on our dining room table and I made her Cream of Wheat, figuring it to be the ultimate comfort food for mammals and birds alike. Runt Chicken survived, and two days later, I placed her back with her sisters. But all was not well for long.
Quick thing: chickens can be assholes. A group of them sometimes pick an outliner of the group and they will literally try to peck her to death. When the runt of our last flock became bald and bloodied, we took the two bullies to the butcher and I made chicken pot pie for the first time (it was spectacular).
With this bunch, we figured we would let chickens be chickens and let things play out. After all, Real Farmers couldn’t police the routine infighting of a few hens. Well, that resolve fell apart and I’m blaming it on my pregnancy.
Reentry for our rehydrated runt wasn’t pleasant. The other girls scratched and clawed and pecked whenever she’d approach, which made it clear that when water was scarce, she probably didn’t get any at all. We started to find her stranded outside in the cold after sundown each night while the rest of the flock roosted comfortably inside the henhouse. With each passing day, she became weaker and began failing again.
In retrospect, I think I know what happened (Erik’s conclusions vary slightly from mine): her system probably got so stressed in those days of deprivation that she got sick. And once she got sick, the other chickens recognized this and sought to keep her away to save their own health. It seemed brutal from the outside, but in species-survival logic, it makes perfect sense.
Erik was pretty clear-eyed about the potential outcome and our options, but as for me, I was a little more . . . well, pregnant about the whole thing.
Humans are empathetic creatures, and pregnant humans, even more so. I think this is adaptive. For nine months, moms-to-are literally being wired to care for a vulnerable creature, and this process, I’m finding, is messy with transference. Yesterday during an assignment, I burst into tears at the sight of a frail old man spoon-feeding his wheelchair-bound wife, her head bent sideways as she drooled onto a pink bib. And the other morning, I was overcome during breakfast at the sight of a political cartoon depicting a starving North Korean child gnawing on a propaganda newsletter.
So when we found Runt Chicken yesterday stranded outside, limping, pathetic, and listless, I implored Erik.
“Please, can we please bring her inside?”
“It won’t do any good.” But then he softened. “Fine.”
Within two minutes, our charity case reclaimed her spot on the dining room table.
“What is this going to accomplish?” asked Erik. “The second we put her back out there, the same thing is going to happen.”
That’s when I started to cry into my coffee.
“Somebody’s pregnant,” he said gruffly and left me to my vigil with a pat on the shoulder.
Sadly, I agreed with Erik – her fight wasn’t ours to referee. And she already had ‘perfumed’ our house with eau d’poop. But logical or no, I couldn’t watch her starve and freeze and die. I just wanted to hold off nature’s tide of cruelty long enough to give a weak little bird some Cream of Wheat.
I never got my chance. She was a cold lump of feathers this morning.
Though we forestalled nothing, I like to think we added something: a tiny island of peace, perhaps – a small counterweight a short lifetime bathed in cruelty.
So this afternoon we buried her at the base of our Norway spruce. It was a surprisingly cheerful chore – sun shining, wind blowing, five very alive chickens crooning in the background. We dug through the not-quite frozen earth, muscling around rocks and roots, which took a while, but eventually, the poor dead bird was buried.
“At least it wasn’t a cow,” Erik offered. We burst out laughing, put our tools away and went inside.