This past Saturday, that followed a dark day on Friday: Guests from out of town and the stars and sun were aligned for a walk. Yahoo! But first, we had to explain to three of our chickens, who usually don’t take walk-abouts but do not ask questions. They are chickens—Wilma, Pearl, and one of Pearl’s as yet unnamed brothers—and they had places to go, pecking and poking to do. I held open the fence door that led back into their prison while Carl directed the birds, like a conductor of the best of symphonies, by flailing his arms and legs. We then proceeded on our walk down the drive and along the less traveled road we live off. We tiptoed over patches of ice, noted a tree with (sadly passed) oyster mushrooms, and ooh, what’s this? Some interesting paw prints. Bear? Not big enough. Bobcat? Fisher?
Upon our return up the very steep hill to the house, I switched my hiking boots for my chicken boots and went to greet the girls more fulsomely than just as mere prison guard. I stepped into the bus stop run. The three cockerels and their sister, Pearl, were on their branch, all adolescent attitude. No sign of Schtude. Or Elmer. The girls looked flustered and it was that too familiar too-much-testosterone flying about situation. I stepped out of the run, and sure enough: Schtude was under the nursery, all hunched up. His left claw had blood on it. Feathers. A fight had been had. I stood up and looked about me, contemplating what the heck I was going to do with these three randy cocks. It was past time to rehome them. At which point, I began to walk east because I noticed Aretha, our beautiful, black Giant Jersey down in the eastern part of the enclosed garden area. Was she taking a sun bath, laying on her side that way? No.
Funny how life can turn on a dime.
I picked up her corpse and carried her over to the house and I set her down on the porch step.
Aretha is the one with the crooked neck. Was. We adopted her two summers ago, along with Adele, Wilma, Daisy and Little Red. A weasel or a hawk had taken out five of their siblings and their then caretaker refused to risk more death and loss. So we got them. Aretha had a crooked neck due to that weasel attack. I’d never found a chicken chiropractor nor dared to adjust her neck myself. She was a very sweet girl, if an outcast for the first months we had her. But she had adjusted to her sideways view of life and had become the go-to buddy of whomever happened to be at the bottom of the pecking order.
I called inside the house to Carl.
“Aretha’s dead. Please come out.”
Carl did, followed by John, one of our friends from Maine who hunts and so began the sleuthing of what had happened when in the fenced in area that for four years has served as chicken land and vegetable gardens; a 1/4 acre.
Carl and John went north to behind the coop and garden shed. Paw prints on a dirty bank of snow. And a lot of feathers—chunks of them. Black (for Aretha, mostly soft and downy) and white with gold and orange tinges (Schtude’s). I looked under the coop, reached to pick up the traumatized Schtude. I placed him in the quonset hut. His bouffant of feathers hung low as his head rested on the ground. He swayed, gamely trying to keep his balance. I noted puncture wounds on his neck. Initially, I left the door to the Quonset hut open so that the hens could keep him company but Little Red and Toey were a bit too curious about his bloodied neck. And he hadn’t the energy to lift his head. I decided he needed space and time alone to recover. I shut the door and went to count the chickens. Seventeen . . . but what happened when is all blurry in memory, and I didn’t name and account for each, but did note the missing Elmer. I went to join Carl and John in their puzzling, keeping an eye out for our white rooster.
Yes, there were a lot of feathers to the north. And that paw print resembled a bobcat’s. Part of the fence looked bent in, as if a large creature had jumped over it. Yellow feathers everywhere. Schtude and the bobcat must have had quite a kerfuffle and then, to the south east of the garden area, oh, white like a small mound of fresh fallen snow, and I had had such hopes.
Elmer and Schtude had developed a nice relationship. Schtude tolerated Elmer, because Elmer was appropriately obsequious. Kind of sweet and shy. An awkward crow. A beautiful, white bird with a headdress that mimicked Schtude’s. I had imagined that, once we rehomed the three boys, we would have a happy flock with two happy cocks ruling the roost. The ratio would be about right: 2 cocks to 15 hens.
Instead, I carried Elmer’s corpse to lay him next to Aretha and went to recount the hens. I’d miscounted the first time. We were missing one. Splotches. Our Speckled-Sussex broody hen who had raised the mutt chicks so industriously. She who, on a daily basis, would end up on the wrong side of the fence. This time, too. We found her feathers, anyway, outside of the garden area to the southeast, near where Elmer had died.
I asked John if he thought we—I—should put Schtude down. Schtude was not a happy chicken. “I’ve seen birds in worse shape survive. Give him 24 hours.”
The day. The night. He was still alive and it was a Sunday and no veterinary clinics open. I looked up how to humanely kill a chicken but none of them were an option: hatchet. Holding the neck at a certain angle; it only takes 40 seconds. I am afraid I am not so brave. Besides, the hope was that he would heal. The puncture wounds were a temporary hurt.
Our friends left. I asked Carl to help me bring Schtude in because it is cold out and he was alone in the Quonset hut and no hens to keep him warm. We set up the dog cage in the house and set Schtude on the pile of hay to heal in the warmth. Food. Water.
On the edges of my mind, I replay what might have happened. I imagine Schtude and Elmer flying out to attack that bobcat, scare him away from the hens. Did the cat kill Aretha first and then the roosters attacked? Is that how it happened? Or had the humans, returning from our walk, scared away the predator? Or had it happened earlier in the day and that’s why Wilma, Pearl and her brother were out and about in so unusual a manner?
And so. On Friday, the American experiment in democracy went into a coma. On Saturday, Aretha, Elmer and Splotches died. Sunday night, or Monday morning, Schtude followed them. We now have three frozen chickens in our freezer, waiting for the spring thaw to be buried. And sixteen living ones, three of them roosters. Who grow more and more aggressive every day. I need to rehome at least two of them because the fact remains, even with two roosters gone–Elmer and Schtude–three is too many for the hens that are left. And so I separate them. We are letting the roosters and their sister run about free while keeping the hens in the coop and run. This is not a calculated way of getting rid of cockerels. They have the Quonset hut and the nursery to hide in and under, and the trailer, too, if, by ill luck, the bobcat returns. Fortunately, our newly mounted game cam has shown no lurking beasts.
I hope it was a bobcat and not a fisher.
. . . I have begun to study them, looking for their unique traits, though Carl warns me, again and again, do not name them.
You know who I mean. The cockerel with the longer tail who crows so lustily. And the two shorter-tailed ones, one of whom is smaller than the other. And so life follows death and I rebel against learning these lessons, again and again. Do not name them. Do not let a broody hen defeat you. Mother Nature wins every time.