*In Honor of the Grieving Chicken (2003)

I am a simple person and I live a simple life.  Many days come and go without any particular event happening that would later make that day stand out more than any other.    Yet every once in awhile something special happens, and when it does I know I will remember it for the rest of my life.

About seven years ago, while my son was still in high school, we lived on a seven and a half acre piece of property in the best house of my life.  I was buying the property, but in the end I could not afford the $1200 a month it cost me in taxes, insurance and house payment and after my son left home I lost it.

But while I was there, I loved it.  I loved walking every inch of that piece of land, watching the plant life come and go with the seasons.  Watching the hammer head clouds build over the mountains as the summer rains came and changed the dry brown dirt to thriving green.  And best of all, I was able to keep chickens.

I had never had a chicken before.  I bought 40 of them online and they were shipped through the postal service the day they were hatched in little boxes with holes in the sides.  It took them three days to get to me, and I doubt they ever stopped cheeping.  Poor little things.  What a way to start off their lives.

I kept them in the spare bathroom away from the cats until they were old enough to live out from under their lights.  Then I moved them out to the chicken vault I had built them.  Lots of time, money and love went into making them a house with a cement floor, and a run made of double chicken wire up the sides with cinder blocks laid at the edges to keep the coyotes, cats and dogs out at night.  It had a chicken wire roof to keep out the hawks and owls.

After some time they were big enough I could let them out of their enclosure during the day.  They returned every night at sunset like clockwork to roost.  I had two dogs at the time that I had rescued from the local pound.  One of them I never caught again once I got her home and let her off her leash.  The first few days I let the chickens out during the day she showed no interest in them whatsoever.  Clever, sly dog.  By the fourth day I heard a clucking fiasco outside and ran out to find that this dog had killed one of the hens and had deeply bitten through the back meat another.

I had quite a time of it as I had to chase the girls back into the coop in the middle of the day.  I could think of nothing to do for the wounded one but smooth her golden feathers over her gaping wound and put her in the coop with the others.

Because I could not catch the dog, I called the pound and asked them to come down, please, and take her back.  They didn’t want to but eventually did come get her.  They had to use a live trap for the job.

I had heard stories about how chickens attack and peck to death a wounded bird, so I expected this to happen.  It didn’t.  Not once did any of the girls show any aggression toward the wounded one.  Her back healed eventually and she lived for another year.  Then came the day that I will never forget.

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Every morning I opened the door to the run and all 39 chickens dashed out excitedly as fast as they could go, squawking and flapping, feet in a blur of motion, terrific noise and commotion — for about 40 feet.  Then they would all suddenly stop and get along with their peaceful day’s activities of wandering, pecking, scratching, eating and talking quietly among themselves.

On this particular day I went through the same routine, as did the girls.  Or so I thought.  I was almost back to the kitchen door when I noticed a peculiar sound, a wooing, a melodic cooing like no sound I’d ever heard before.  I turned to look toward the coop, and there was one gold chicken who had remained inside.  She had not left in the mad fluttering dash out the door.  She was standing there looking down toward the ground, making no other movement than to sing this gentle, low eerie song.

I returned to the coop and was going to enter to check on her and see what she was doing.  But when I got to the doorway I stopped, frozen in awe.  Lying dead on the ground was the bird who had been wounded, and standing close beside her, with her head lowered over her, singing, was her golden sister.

Awe can take our breath, our words and our thoughts away.  I knew instantly that I had stumbled onto what would be one of the most sacred, precious and beautiful moments of my life.  But that state lasted only a moment, and then I was on about my day.  In true ceremonial fashion I went into the coop, picked up the expired chicken by her feet, and marched her over to my south fence line and heaved her over for the coyotes to enjoy.

When I turned back towards the house, however,  I had yet another surprise.  The singing chicken had called all the other birds back into the coop.  I stood and watched them as they marched in and huddled for a few moments at the spot where the dead one had lain.  Then they all simply turned around and marched out again and continued on with their day, doing things we normally expect of chickens.

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I felt so fortunate that day to have been home and able to witness that event.  I could never have imagined that chickens have a capacity to grieve one another’s passing, an ability that must be stored somewhere in their DNA code and in their little tiny brains, to be remembered at times such as this one.

Whatever gap in my thinking I had created between myself as a ‘higher’ being and the lowly chicken species evaporated that day.  I now have a sense of mystery surrounding animals that I never had before.  Who knows what animals do when humans aren’t looking?  Who knows their secrets?  It almost seemed like something that would happen in a child’s story, like the dolls that came alive at night in my mother’s childhood Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy book.

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I later witnessed another amazing chicken behavior, but at least this one seemed logically believable.  I came home one day and did not see the girls anywhere in the yard.  Once I parked the car and got out I began to search for them.  I found them all behind the chicken coop together in a circle facing something in the middle.  When I got closer and peeked over their chicken shoulders, I could see that they had trapped a rattlesnake in the center.

I watched.  After a few moments the girls began to inch closer and closer to the snake, never taking their eyes off of it.  At a certain point the snake lashed out at them and returned to its still position so swiftly I could hardly tell it had moved at all, but I distinctly saw that it made its attack with both its head and its tail.  The startled chickens immediately jumped back and froze.  As I continued watching,  the pattern was repeated several times.  I realized that the snake had been trapped there for quite some time, and had actually moved around in coiled circles so that it had created a hole as it augured itself further and further into the dirt.

I immediately realized another use for chickens, but still felt sorry for the snake.  Not liking the snakes that had shown up in the house, and being afraid of them, did not stop me from rescuing this one.  I went for my shovel, scattered the chickens away, scooped the snake out of the hole and onto the end of the shovel, and walked it, too, to the south fence line and heaved it over.  It never moved all the time I carried it, but it sure took off in a big hurry once it hit the dirt where it landed.

I asked someone about this afterward, and they acknowledged that a rattlesnake is not built with stamina.  It needs to rely on its venomous strike, but when surrounded by 40 attackers there is no way it could win.  Chickens will simply wear a rattlesnake out this way and then devour it like a giant centipede — which I knew was their favorite snack.  Many times I had seen one chicken find a fat centipede, grab it and run away as fast as she possibly could, with the entire flock in pursuit.  It only took seconds before the ugly critter was gone, a piece of it in every chicken’s mouth.

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2 thoughts on “*In Honor of the Grieving Chicken (2003)

    • You are welcome! Some tough circumstances during those years in my life led to my relinquishing my eventual flock of 140 hens. I am now blessed again with being able to keep 5 more. They are intriguing!!

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