The risk and rewards of giving a flock
If you’ve ever kept chickens, you understand life’s imperfect trade-offs of risk and reward in a more intimate way than most. And if you’ve ever medicated a chicken, you understand the delicate tipping point at which fear-fueled fight-and/or-flight teeters into resignation to fate. There’s something eye-opening about caring for a living creature so different from yourself.
We have five chickens, down from six after losing one of two Black Minorcas. In a gross turn of events, all needed to be dewormed early this summer. Turns out occasional worm infestation is a natural occurrence for many animals and a cost of freedom for chickens. Part of opting for quality over quantity of days and months and hopefully years. Exposure to the glories of sun and soil and air and grass, as well as the threats of bacteria, viruses, and attacks (oh my) from wild birds and animals. That’s the choice we made for them. Really, it was the choice I made because after the first visit from a robustly healthy red fox with loads of casual confidence, who lounged by the coop one morning as if expecting a waiter to appear with a cocktail and hors d’oeuvre, Stella wished to keep them locked up for their safety and her peace of mind. We had many discussions about the pros and cons of captivity for chickens, and never quite saw eye to eye.
As far as I can tell, a good life for a chicken unsurprisingly centers on a form of self-determination. It’s the ability to forage freely as part of an interdependent flock, and little else. It’s certainly not found in days spent standing in shit, whining and pacing. I know a thing or two about the human version of that.
One of our chickens, a Welsummer named Brownie, is so hard to lay hands on that during one pursuit, Stella brilliantly suggested we turn this chore into an actual sport. The thing is, this particular chicken never, ever seems panicked like the others. Just calm, focused, utterly determined, and highly skilled. Truly, Brownie could put the NFL’s most elusive running backs to shame. We’ll have her cornered, only for her to defy gravity by deftly leveraging wall-as-vertical-launchpad. You bend down, thinking you have her, at which point she will go up and over your useless hands with a quick ping-pong maneuver. Or she’ll pull a lightning-fast nutmeg and leave you in her dust, red-faced. Smooth as butter, easy as pie. That’s classic Brownie.
Out of desperation and exhaustion, we use sunflower seeds to entice and distract the birds, effectively luring them into a frenzied heads-down treat fest. It works or at least helps, most of the time, on all but the remaining Black Minorca named Floppy. She is Brownie’s polar opposite, such a flighty, untrusting bird. I struggle to categorize her as a “domesticated” animal, because she appears scared, wild, and wide-eyed at all times. In keeping with her old Spanish breed, she’s lean and aerodynamic, thanks to sleek black plumage and crackling, electric nerves. Floppy was named in a nod to her large, waving red flag of a comb, which flops over to one side, higher in the front and stylishly low in the back, a red beret on a soldier whose default mode is manic, all-out retreat. She is not brave, has zero dignity, but is impossible to capture.
The other Black Minorca, named Biggie and taken too soon by a fast-moving illness of unknown origin, did have courage and perhaps an inkling of a chicken version of dignity. It’s probably what did her in. She once flew up to the edge of the roof of our house. Claws raking and clacking against the metal flashing, she almost landed the ultimate perch up there, in outer space.
Biggie could also be found out on the sill of the window in front of my desk as I worked, side-eyeing me from outdoors like a peeved middle manager. Her fiery comb was huge, bright, and straight, and she was at least 20% larger than her Black Minorca sibling and all the other birds, from chickhood on. When an ailing raccoon languished like a furry drunk in the small creek bed beyond our back fence, Biggie did not leverage her apex status within the pecking order to lead the girls to safety. She stood at the fence and shrieked as if outraged at the raccoon, with the flock of her followers chiming in from behind her. It’s no wonder she was the first to go, but what a legend among hens.
Stella loves these insane chickens fiercely. She counts all five (six before the loss of Biggie) as members of her menagerie, which also includes her rescue dog Kansas, a mix of Border Collie and Corgi, and a Netherland Dwarf rabbit the color of chocolate and peanut butter, whom Stella named Reese. She observes the chickens closely, studying the emotive qualities of their changing noises and quirky behaviors in an attempt to understand. “What do you think she means by that, mom?” Sometimes I detect worry in her questions, sometimes pure amusement.
I have begun to think our flock was a well-intentioned mistake. Initially I thought it would be so fun and a source of daily interest and helpful work for Stella, perhaps even an added sense of purpose. But she is so attached to them, so worried about their wellbeing, that at times it feels like a trap. Like I’d set her up for a certain heartbreak, six times over. Stella’s depth of connection with animals, I realized, would make the loss of these feathered aliens more painful than I, decidedly not an “animal person,” can understand. She already lost two grandparents over the last couple years, moved across the country, and went through hell at school, barely making it through this last year.
We lost Biggie so suddenly. She became lethargic one morning, her once proud comb wilted, sickly pale, and blotchy–and died the very same day. Yet Stella handled it with more grace than I ever would have expected. She connected the loss to a graphic novel she’d read about a misunderstood witch who buries roadkill to ensure the animals’ peaceful transition to the next life. I would find out later that here were indications, in Stella’s writings at school, that the death weighed heavily on her.
In the aftermath, there lingered the possibility that whatever killed Biggie was highly contagious and the rest of the flock could follow. About a month after Biggie’s passing, all seemed well and I stopped worrying. That’s when our Crevecoeur named Bex, with her ridiculous poof of black plumage as signature look and anti-Darwinian vision impairment on top of her head, started “gaping,” seemingly gasping for air or struggling to swallow. Stella thought it looked like yawning. I knew it wasn’t. Could it be the same mystery ailment that took Biggie? Bex is Stella’s favorite chicken. Of course.
Coming out to open the coop in the morning, I would notice Bex with her back to the rest of the birds, standing like a statue in a world of her own, wind tousling her poof. This forlorn and ponderous chicken of French origin seemed to stare out into the woods mulling the futility of it all. No longer in sync with the shared flock mind, but contemplating the shrinking of one’s world that is prompted by the gaze of the other–what a truly disorienting realization for a chicken. I suspected gapeworm, but hoped for an existential crisis. I placed an online order for Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” and a goat dewormer that could be safely used on chickens with the correct per-pound dosage.
As a general rule, Stella needs to be reminded of certain fundamental daily tasks, many times over, especially in regards to self-care. But I never, ever need to remind her to close the coop at night or help me with the chickens’ medication. She does these things unwaveringly.
While we usually wait until evening to dose the chickens, by midday Stella will inevitably say something managerial like, “Mom, just a reminder to help me with the chickens’ medication today.” Then, in between conversations sparked by Stella’s many daily questions ranging from “Do people keep shrimp as pets?” to “Are we really getting out of Afghanistan?”, she will mention it again and again. I appreciate her persistence, because I admire her empathy for and dedication to the animals and because due to my lack of dedication to the animals I’d likely forget. The reminders keep coming until a specific time is selected or medication is in fact dispensed.
A chase ensues, causing serious questioning of my own dignity, until Stella picks up a defeated chicken, holding her securely under her arm like a football and grasping the feet together to avoid getting scratched by dirty talons. Hand over the chicken’s impossibly tiny head and covering her eyes, I open the beak with my thumb and middle finger, gentle but firm and holding fast until, as if some switch is flipped, the chicken accepts her destiny and relents. Using a dropper, and totally weirded out, I dispense the milky white liquid onto the bird’s pointy little tongue, ensuring the medication is swallowed and not aspirated. I let go, the now calm chicken contentedly swallows the dose, and Stella releases the bird who immediately pecks the ground and returns to chicken business as usual. This is how it goes–for all except the Black Minorca named Floppy. For her, we have to wait until cover of night.
Last summer, we had to break the flock of their sneaky habit of roosting up in a large, dense shrub at the edge of our property. But these days, come sundown, they return like clockwork to their coop. That’s when Stella opens its little back door, crouched down with her eyes at claw level. Stella can then easily grab a sedate Floppy from her roost and only then does a struggle begin, sharp dinosaur claws wildly flailing, beak frantically opening and closing, body and neck contorting every which way–some seemingly impossible. Then the usual process unfolds, with more firmness and determination on our part. We remind Floppy that we’re just trying to help her, goddamnit. That her life is at stake and we don’t like doing this any more than she does! She finally gets the message, relaxes, and our medication duties end for the day. It’s our turn to relax.
Their course of dewormer complete, Bex still gapes occasionally (of course) but she is acting “normal” and no longer lost in thought. She and the other chickens seem fine. The goat medication was likely their savior, not the refresher on existentialism, but we’ll never know for sure.
We both hated medicating the chickens, Stella and I. But when illness strikes, unavoidably, it simply has to be done. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that at the end of a good or tough day, white knuckle moments and all, keeping our flock is not a mistake. Just another sometimes hard thing with lots of upside, if you look for it.