A month ago, I killed my favorite hen.
Mrs. Cluckity was the calmest, most gentle, and chillaxed chicken I’ve ever come across. She wasn’t the smartest, had poor vision in one eye which made her look up at you in a crazy sort of curiosity, and was the omega of the pack until the day she died, but she was a sweetheart. Maybe I find myself attracted to animals that need a little extra love and attention. Maybe I see the bits of myself that need a little extra oomph in these animals. When we were given Mrs. C. nearly three years ago, she resembled a tiny turkey; her neck had been pecked bald by one of the other chooks in the flock. Despite spraying her with anti-pecking solution, she was never able to grow our her gorgeous silver neck feathers until Fluffy (the Henchchicken) died. It was then that we discovered who the feather-plucker was.
After Fluffy left the scene, Mrs. C. perked right up. She led a seemingly charmed life of a retired egg-layer, freeloading for all she was worth and giving zero hoots about her place in the pecking order. Although she maintained her oddity of never seeming to be able to conquer flying down from her perch on the back of the wooden bench in the run (she would get there, but only after an hour of faffing about, fretting to and fro, and with much flapping of wings), she seemed pretty normal to me. Normal, that is, until she went downhill. I immediately thought it was old age. Chickens live a short life, especially the prolific egg-laying breeds, and Marans (her supposed breed) are double-tapped as egg and meat birds. Mrs. Cluckity was about four.
There’s no need to rehash what I’ve previously said about dispatching chickens. Henny-Penny died a mysterious death, though probably sour crop was to blame, and Fluffy’s demise was handled by my super down-to-earth neighbor, Pip, whose then-seven-year-old asked if they could eat her. Probably not such a good idea. Thelma was a different case as she had a physical ailment but was otherwise edible. Maybe growing up on a farm in Minnesota with twelve acres at my disposal made me more aware of nature. Nature is harsh. Nature is cruel. Nature gives and nature takes. I came across dozens of different kinds of dead animals, from frozen kittens to decapitated leverets to decomposing hawks. Having had a virtual menagerie in our house (to include gerbils, hamsters, fish, birds, cats, dogs, and a horse), I suppose I gained valuable insight into the animal kingdom as a little kid, taking cues from my animal brethren and understanding their world a little bit better by simple observation. So, it doesn’t take me long to realize when an animal is suffering.
Mrs. C. was in a bad state. She smelled horrible and barely ate. She gasped for air sometimes. She made little hiccuping noises. She shuffled around slowly and seemed to bask in the sun a lot. She kept her eyes closed more than usual. I knew she was a goner in my heart two weeks before I finally killed her. I only prolonged the inevitable by watching her and hoping for her health to improve. I told myself – optimistically, erroneously – that she would get better. I thought she was just old and frail. When I finally picked her up to do a physical check, I was horrified to find she was covered in mites. I enlisted the help of my (very patient) husband the next morning to medicate her for her unwanted guests. I told myself that was her main problem; the mites had been sucking her blood and draining her energy. Domestic chickens can live for seven or eight years. She would bounce back. Twenty-four hours later, I found her flopped on the ground, too weak to stand, her legs splayed out like an accident scene. I cracked. This was too much suffering. I had to end it.
I hadn’t planned on getting replacement hens – there’s no true replacing one pet for another – but my husband let slip he’d be okay with another pair. We were down to four and our coop holds six, so… along came two young pullets. They would be the third pair I’d brought up, what with Thelma and Louise and Naomi and Ginger already under my belt. I found the same local farm I’d used before, scouted out a striking Bluebell and a Cuckoo Maran, and popped them in my redneck run for their quarantine period. A few mornings later, I let the dog out and went to collect his bowl. As I turned around, I noticed a movement. Near the pen. On the outside. The Maran was on the wrong side, frantically pacing in front of the gate. I shooed Cadbury back inside before he got excited, opened the gate, and let the pullet back in. How had she escaped? And how long had she been outside the pen? And then I saw the other pullet. Near the pen. On the outside. In my neighbor’s yard. I was too pregnant to hop our fence – a proposition I fiercely debated in my head for a solid minute – so I had to grab the husband, once again, to save the day. Grumbling, he jumped over, wrangled a chicken, and all was well in the world.
Until I checked on them that night. They were merrily sitting on top of our fence, purring the way contented chickens do, completely outside their pen again. Once more, the husband shooed the chickens, in they went, and then the humans got smart and figured out they must be flying up and through the loose netting near the gate. We sewed the netting shut using garden twine and vowed to introduce the little ones into the big run the next day, no matter if they were ready or not. It was then that their names materialized for me: Houdini and Mrs. Tweedy (yes, from Chicken Run). The hubs proposed Hendini (because, chickens) and now I give you Hendini the Bluebell and Mrs. Tweedy the Cuckoo Maran. They’re still not entirely accepted in the pecking order – Louise is a boss-ass chick – but they’re getting bolder. Or hungrier. Regardless, the level of indifference from the other flock members is a good sign. Heck, I haven’t even had to physically put them in the coop each night like I’ve had to in the past. They are well on their way to becoming full-fledged members. And, in a few weeks, they’ll hopefully be laying eggs. The circle of life continues.