Three years ago this week, my sister and I brought home 14 new companions: Day-old chicks from the local feed store. And so I began my life as a chicken keeper.
Before we got our own chickens, I’d never actually been around any. And so I knew nothing of the lovely, comical creatures that they are. In my mind, chickens were farm animals of the worst sort — smelly, noisy, and not at all friendly. Definitely not the type of creatures you’d want as pets. I was so wrong.
Once I got hooked on fresh eggs from my local farmers’ market, I found myself on a slippery slope. When Fall arrived and the farm stand started selling out of eggs within 15 minutes of opening, my sister and I joked about getting a few chickens for our small backyard. The following Spring we moved into the old farmhouse, complete with a large chicken coop, and there was no excuse. We drove home with a box full of fuzzy, furiously chirping chicks just a few weeks later.
Our chicks were all sexed as “pullets,” or female chicks, but we read enough to know that there’s about a 10% error rate. So knowing that we might end up with a rooster and shouldn’t get too attached, we chose to name them all after food — Tikka, Tandoori, Sesame, Kung Pao, etc. It kept things light, but it didn’t keep us from getting attached.
Before I knew it, our tiny chicks turned into a friendly, multi-colored flock of hens that came running whenever they saw us. And one Sunday morning that August, I watched in amazement as Parmesan (a White Plymouth Rock) laid a tiny, perfect brown egg right before my eyes. The first egg from my very own flock, and the best one I’ll ever taste.
A year later, we got our first rooster. He came from our friend Amanda, who adopted seven chicks of her own after her son grew attached to our hens. I helped pick some of them out, including a little yellow Easter Egger chick that they called “Omelet.” And when that same chick started crowing 4 months later, we offered to take him in since we had more hens and plenty of space. Our only condition was a name change.
And that is how Colonel Sanders joined our flock.
We soon came to regret our decision to take him in. The Colonel was a nightmare and a half. As he came into his own, he terrorized the hens and especially the humans. One morning, he flew at my back with so much force and fury that he knocked my glasses off — leaving me kicking at a blurry white ball of feathers, until he finally retreated and I could bend over to retrieve them. After that incident, I started carrying a snow shovel with me when I went out to the coop.
Every pet sitter that we hired quit as soon as they were introduced to the Colonel. He even drew blood on his original owners, who stepped in and cared for the animals while I was away. My sister and I talked about eating him, but we decided to try giving the little guy a chance on Craigslist first.
So one sunny morning last June, I let the chickens out and then drafted an ad over my morning coffee. As I typed, I listened to the faint sound of the Colonel crowing from the chicken run about an acre away. “Easter Egger rooster — free to a good home, or a large stockpot.” Heh heh heh.
Irony can be so cruel.
While I was busy plotting the Colonel’s relocation, a fox jumped over the electric fence and killed 9 of my 12 chickens — Colonel Sanders included. I was getting ready to leave for a meeting later that morning, toothbrush in hand, and looked out my bedroom window just in time to see Mrs. Fox strolling in front of the coop. I sprinted out the door to chase her away, but I was far too late.
It was an awful day. And a Monday morning, at that.
Later on, I forced myself to look through the footage from the predator camera we have on the coop. To my surprise, it wasn’t anything like the mass panic I imagined. The fox just crept through the tall grass and quietly killed each chicken without alerting the others. At one point, the fiercely protective Colonel Sanders could be seen just standing there, watching with great curiosity as his hens were picked off one by one. It was incredibly difficult to watch, but it brought me a measure of comfort to realize that the poor girls didn’t even see it coming, and they weren’t fearful in their last moments. I don’t think I could have given them a more compassionate end myself.
I’ve always loved foxes, and even losing 3/4 of my flock to one didn’t change that. If anything, it deepened my respect for them. I suspect the fox had kits nearby; I’m sure she wasn’t killing just for sport. She saw an opportunity to stock up and took a big risk by hunting so late in the day — and I’m certain that if I hadn’t interrupted her, she’d have only left feathers for me to bury.
On the bright side, the fox solved my aggressive rooster problem, and left me three of my friendliest and most productive hens. It’s hard to out-fence a fox, so we decided to let the surviving chickens free-range. They hang out around the house now, gleefully poking holes in my tomatoes and pooping on the back porch, and I feel they’re safer from predators there than in their fenced run.
But there are no guarantees, and to me that’s been the most useful lesson of chicken keeping. Chickens live only in the moment, and as long as the sun shines on their feathers, they’re full of joy. And so they’ve helped me to stop wasting my time worrying about “what if?” and instead revel in what I’ve got now.
I may not always be able to keep them safe. But I can keep them happy, and that’s enough.