About a year ago I wrote a blog piece about “bathroom chickens.” My daughter Kerry decided she wanted to keep chickens for the eggs. She and her husband Mike built a sturdy chicken run and coop, capable of deflecting the local predators, which include foxes, bobcats, coyotes, rats, weasels, raccoons, hawks, and eagles. We are less certain the coop would resist the dedicated efforts of the local mountain lion, but so far, the lion has stayed on the other side of our fence.
Kerry obtained five chicks from our local organic farmer guru. These tiny, shrieking balls of fluff lived in the upstairs bathroom. As they grew larger, they became more difficult to care for. Also more annoying. I got tired of cleaning up chicken-foot-shaped shit prints. But the day dawned when our little flock moved into their new chicken palace in the back yard. In due time, they began laying eggs. We had two Easter Eggers that laid green, speckled eggs. The rest, a Barred Rock, an Australorpe, and a Rhode Island Red, laid brown eggs.
We named the chickens. I have a rule that I never eat anything that I have addressed by name. The Easter Eggers, both brownish-red, were named Henrietta and Ruby. The Australorpe, whose feathers are iridescent black, is Chix. The Rhode Island Red, a cheerful yellow, is Sunny. The Barred Rock, stylish in black and white stripes, was named Zippy.
I thought I would become more emotionally attached to the chickens. I love animals, and have had pets from cats to rats to a horse to seahorses. I wept over the deaths of my pet rats as much as over any dog or cat. But I haven’t gotten very attached to the chickens. They aren’t terribly fond of us, either. You would think that being handled every day as chicks, they would be used to us, but no. Clearly, they view us as annoying and intrusive at best—unless we have food, in which case, they prefer us to throw it in the coop and leave as quickly as possible.
I did develop a grudge against one of them, though. Chix proved to be the smartest and most aggressive of the young hens. The other girls huddled away from us when we entered the coop, but Chix came right up and crowded us. One day as I was putting fresh food down (this was before I learned to fling it and leave), Chix pecked both my wrists with lightening speed, raising two juicy blood blisters. I decided I would probably be okay with eating Chix cacciatore after all.
We originally thought Henrietta would be, as Kerry put it, “The boss bitch.” She was the largest of the baby chicks, and the most forward. Then Chix stepped up and flexed her drumsticks. But the one who ruled the roost in the end was Zippy, our Barred Rock. I think Zippy was, in her own way, an ideal leader. She was modest and unassuming, asserting her authority without pecking anyone’s eyes out or raising any blood blisters. While Chix continued to crowd us in the coop, perching on the watering bottles and knocking them over, dapper Zippy quietly went about her business, keeping her little flock on track. After Zippy assumed supremacy, we noticed that Chix wasn’t as aggressive as she had been. Which was a good thing.
As the hens grew older, the eggs got bigger and more plentiful. Once in a while we find no eggs, but usually there are three, four or five eggs waiting for us. I enjoy getting the eggs, sometimes needing to grope under a warm, sitting hen to find them. I always thought they would lay their eggs in separate nests, but all of the eggs go in one nest, and they take turns sitting on them. Sunny is our most dedicated sitter. She never pecks at my thieving fingers and even lets me pet her. (If she’s not on the nest, however, Sunny won’t let us near her.) If Chix is sitting (a rare occasion because Chix isn’t the motherly type), I shoo her away before gathering the eggs. I’m not giving that bitch another shot at me.
I enjoy their “egg song.” When a hen lays, she crows a bit as though to say, “Look what I just did!” I also quietly savor the idea that the descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex are strutting around in my back yard, providing me with sustenance. Mammals rule, and all that.
Then tragedy struck. Kerry found Zippy’s still-warm corpse in the run without a mark on her. Zippy had laid an egg the day before, and she had also happily gobbled the table scraps I gave them. Although she was only a year old, Zippy’s sands had run out. The Queen was dead. The rest of the flock retreated in horror to the highest perch until the corpse was removed.
I had a rather odd reaction to Zippy’s death. As I said, we weren’t close. But it seemed sad that such a young bird had died. None of the other birds appear ill. Kerry’s research indicated that it wasn’t unusual for a youthful chicken to die unexpectedly, possibly of a heart attack. Just like people, some chickens are born with defective hearts. Still. She had shared my table (figuratively speaking). She was a creature under my care. I wasn’t grief-stricken, but I did feel that Zippy deserved some respect for her wise leadership and lovely brown eggs. So Zippy has been on my mind for a few days.
But not on my plate. As I said, we were on first-name terms.