In the spring, the local farm supply store sells recently hatched baby chicks. Gallus gallus domesticus. They keep them in large rubber tubs, right in the middle of the shopping aisle, and you can hear them peeping away as soon as you walk in the door. Normally, the minimum order of chicks is twenty-five. That is a solid, experienced rancher number of chicks. The store does not usually deal with amateurs. I cried and begged, and they eventually agreed to sell me five—all I felt I could handle. The week before, I had found a small, used chicken coop for sale on the Internet. I bought it and planted it in the backyard, just to the side of some cedar trees. Naively, I found a nice, grassy plot for the chicken “run,” the cage attached to the coop that is exposed to the elements. I thought the chicks would enjoy rolling in the tall grass and nibbling on the clover flowers. Turns out chickens don’t nibble, they lay waste to the land.
My five-bird brood contained two barred rock chicks and three Rhode Island reds. Fully grown, the barred rock hens are feathered with black and white speckles; the reds are brownish-orange in color with some white around the tail and neck. Only a few days old, however, the barred rock chicks are just black balls of fluff with feet, and the reds look like classic, light-yellow Easter peepers. We kept them in the garage, in a large box, with a heat lamp and a small bowl of water. After a few weeks, their fuzz fell away, and real feathers started to appear. As chicks, they were impossible to tell apart, but they rapidly distinguished themselves in color and personality. I studied their growth to ensure that none would become roosters. Roosters are bad. They’re mean, don’t lay eggs, eat more food, and they crow. Loudly. Not just in the morning, but all day long. Luckily, none of the chicks exhibited any signs of roosterness.
Before long, they outgrew the box, so we transferred them to the coop. I carried the box out to the run and tipped it on its side. The five birds came bouncing out. By now they were roughly the size of common black birds, still pretty skinny, still lacking the familiar red comb of flesh over their beaks, but they were big enough that I could easily tell them apart. We could not wait to give them names (another neophyte mistake). The biggest hen was named Henrietta, of course, and the two barred rocks were christened Megg and Pegg. We dubbed the two smaller reds Penelopeep and Repecka. Repecka was the smallest, the runt. With room to move, the literal “pecking order” became apparent. Henrietta took charge by pecking the heads of the other birds if they got too close. The rest fell in line behind her, all the way down to Repecka, whom the other birds pecked a lot, but who never did any pecking herself. For the first time, I saw them as wild animals rather than tame baby pets.
The run itself was a wooden frame surrounded by thin, woven metal wire. “Chicken” wire it’s called, specifically used for the purpose of housing chickens. Only, not really. That’s apparently a damn lie (as I’d soon find out). Inside the run there was a small wooden ladder that went up into the coop. Within, there were two “roosts,” wooden bars for the birds to sleep on, and two nest boxes for their eggs. It would still be a couple months before they were old enough to start laying, but I fixed up the nests anyway. I assumed, once they got tired of exploring the run, they would go up and find the roosts. As the sun set, they stayed in the run, hunkered together in a pile, like they used to sleep in the box in the garage. I thought nothing of it. Maybe that’s how they liked to sleep. They were inside the run, completely protected, so I left them there and went inside.
In the morning, I noticed feathers in the grass. Then I noticed a clump near the front corner of the run. Inside, four of the birds were acting normally. I was confused. Then I saw the wire on one side of the run was pulled from the frame and broken in several places with feathers stuck around the hole. Something had reached through and pulled one of the birds out of the run. The hole was only about three inches across, so the poor bird must have been crushed going through. I was horrified. A quick head count confirmed the victim: Pegg, one of the barred rocks. All that was left of her was a pile of black and white feathers.
More to come in issue 44.1