Chicken Love

“Those are some plump-looking hens you have out here for this country,” commented a new visitor to our home. “Lots of table scraps from the kids,” my husband responded, opening the screen door. “We’ve already lost some,” my voice trailed from the kitchen.

Growing up in New York City I never imagined that chickens were in my future. Now I’m on my third cohort.

Shortly after we moved to our new home, one mile down a gravel road in Central Texas, my husband decided to pursue a childhood pleasure—raising chickens. One day he came home with five Ameraucana chicks. We put the chicks in our cracked bathtub, and my husband went to work on a deluxe coop with four arched doorways, a nice roost pole, and a shingled roof.

Soon the chicks were hens and were laying exquisite copper-flecked green eggs. Now I was a chicken enthusiast. I had never known the difference between the richness of a fresh egg and a puny store-bought one. Along with the appeal of self-sufficiency, I liked turning table scraps into new food. However, the wildlife that we enjoy around our home has proven to be less than advantageous to chickens. The first two cohorts weren’t with us very long. We decided to take a hiatus from raising chickens.

Then one day my two sons and I stopped at the feed store, and lo and behold there was a cattle tank full of chicks. The boys picked up almost every one, and when it was time to leave I was pulling both boys, crying, from the store. I headed straight for my husband’s office, the instigator of this chicken affair, and soon we were all back at the feed store. I picked a tiny red chick and promptly named her “The Little Red Hen,” after the fictional character with whom I often identify. The guys picked three Ameraucanas, and then my younger son, Leland, insisted on one more—a black chick, which he named “Booboo.”

We constructed a fenced yard around the chicken coop to give the chickens more space on days that our otherwise free-ranging chickens should be kept locked up—for instance, if an unleashed dog had been sighted. Little Red, and she was diminutive, was the first to lay an egg—a petite brown one. She and Booboo, who grew to be enormous and lays large brown eggs, became our most prolific layers. The three Ameraucanas, whom the boys aptly named Fluffy, Wildy, and Fasty, have consistently been naughty girls who build clandestine nests in the woods.

For a while we had three roosters, rescued by my husband from a coworker. We quickly learned that three roosters were far too many for five hens. They hounded the hens relentlessly. Leland reported that the roosters kept “picking the fleas off Fluffy.” Little Red was losing feathers! We gave away two of the roosters, and before long the lone rooster wandered off and was gone.

Then came a very sad day—the day Leland discovered a pile of Little Red’s feathers. We collected them in a shoe box and buried them alongside our other dear, departed pets for whom my sons had grieved.

More than anything, loose dogs remain the greatest threat to our chickens. We have saved them repeatedly from the jaws of neighbors’ dogs. One day, home alone, I answered the chickens’ alarm call to find a beagle mix snapping after them. I lost my head and screamed, “Get out of here! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you if you come back!” I wonder what my neighbors thought. I wonder what my New York City mother would say.

Booboo now has gray in her tail feathers and doesn’t lay many eggs. The Ameraucanas have built a nest at the base of a cedar tree next to the house. The pecking order, which my older son monitors, changes over time.

One day long after Little Red had died, I picked up Leland from preschool. His teacher told me he had been sobbing. “He was on his mat looking up at his poster….” The poster, “My Family,” included a picture of my three guys holding Little Red and her first egg. “He broke out in tears, and when I asked him what was wrong, he said ‘I miss Little Red.’ He cried for a long time.”

From deep love flows deep grief.

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