This was simultaneously hilarious and alarming to me when I saw Louise heaving like she’d just choked on the snail I threw into the run the other day. She’s so greedy, I thought she’d eaten the bugger whole.
When neighbors a few doors down moved last year, they offered us their chickens and all their equipment. We were delighted to rehome them. It was my first time with chickens and the past 13 months have been a firehose introduction into keeping poultry. My record isn’t impeccable. After only a month, our buff Columbian Blacktail hen, Mrs. Henny Penny, who laid the most glorious monster eggs, keeled over one morning within an hour of my noticing she was acting strange. A quick internet search brought forth a range of medical ailments, from chicken cancer to chicken colds. I tried to do the right thing and thus called the DEFRA hotline for dead livestock. The lady on the other end was surprisingly candid when she told me the call-out fee was exorbitant – and usually reserved for larger animals like horses and cattle – and to just double-bag her and chuck my chook in the household waste bin outside. I did. A few months later, our White Leghorn, Fluffy, died while our neighbor’s seven-year-old daughter was collecting eggs. I was so concerned that she might be scarred for life, I texted our neighbor. “Oh,” she replied. “Don’t worry about it. When she saw the dead chicken, her first question was, ‘Can we eat it?'”
That’s when Thelma and Louise showed up. Our forest green coop and run are rated for six chickens, so three felt too small. And I had been doing chicken research for years. It first started in Afghanistan, while I was waiting for something kinetic to kick off. Nobody tells you most of combat in a tactical command center is waiting. It’s like holding perfectly still in the starting blocks for a 100-yard dash, muscles taut and quivering, sweat running into your eyes and nose and mouth, while the starter just stands there with a cocked pistol. You are ready for something to go off, but you really don’t want it to because that usually means bad news bears. And so I researched chicken breeds while I waited.
In a perfect world, my husband and I would be living on a smallholding somewhere in the English countryside, but still close to civilization, like Bath or even London. We’d have a cozy farmhouse or cottage, perhaps a thatched roof, but probably blue slate from Wales, and a large kitchen garden. We’d have a few acres to play with, maybe a small apple orchard, and some farm animals. If we really hit it rich, we’d have a few horses. If the fantasy holds true, I’d be the breadwinner, writing best-selling books that go on to become best-selling movies, and my stay-at-home husband would mostly cook, clean, and play golf. And look after the kids. I guess I’d still have to muck out stalls and feed hogs, but that would give me a welcome reprieve from all that writing time. And, of course, we’d have tons of chickens. Research in mind, I’d pick out silver-laced Wyandottes, some of the prettiest birds I’ve never seen, partly for their looks, but mostly because they’re named after the Native American tribe to which I have loose ties. Showy, historical, and practical birds.
But back to reality. We don’t live on a smallholding. We live on an estate where the houses are crammed together in true 1950’s English fashion. Our back yard, or garden (oh, Brits), is larger than most, but pitiful compared to American standards. (I mean, I grew up on a 12-acre farm in Minnesota and considered that small.) Yet, there is enough room for our chickens, a greenhouse that continually tries to throw its polycarbonate panels across four yards when the wind kicks up, two beautiful flower beds, and a good-sized vegetable bed that’s currently home to tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, radishes, shallots, onions, and dwarf beans. We also have plants in pots dotted around the yard, including rosemary, thyme, strawberries, blueberries, pink currants, two apple saplings, and a variety of lilies. I call it my tinyholding.
So, when I went to check on my girls and saw Louise hunched over, wings spread wide like a linebacker, throat gasping for air, I sat down and watched her. Until that point, I didn’t know chickens had tongues. Hers was lolling as far out as a chicken tongue can loll, pulsing with her body’s rhythm. She was panting like a dog. I looked it up.
Since Google has all of life’s answers – no, seriously; I’ve learned so much about gardening and chickens from Google – I trusted the information I found. Because chooks can’t sweat, they pant and hold out their wings to cool down. Makes sense. And Louise was otherwise looking normal and spry. The weather in southern England has hit the mid-30’s (that’s in the 90’s for you Fahrenheit folks), and though I can hear residents of Florida and Texas giggling right now, it’s a different sort of heat. It’s humid and suffocating and intense. I’ve lived in Virginia and Texas and Florida and Arizona and California and North Carolina. I’ve been deployed to Helmand Province twice during the summer. I know about heat. And this is… different. It’s hard to describe. England swings through miserably cold weather and blows right past pleasant into scorching heat. And there are virtually no air conditioned buildings, at least not where we live. It’s hot.
Based on logic and online chicken forums, I did the best I could: I gave my hens more water, tossed in a refrigerated apple, and hosed down the run. All my girls are panting, but alive.