We keep chickens on our little farm, for fun but (unfortunately) not for profit. Every spring I buy day-old chicks at the feed store, driven by color preferences and uniqueness of breed. A Cucko Moran will always beat a California White, in my book, just because the name is more intriguing. Fry-pan special? Rhode Island Red? Ah, no thank you. Silver Spangled Hamburg, or Speckled Sussex? Yes, please!!
They see me coming to the feed store. I’m sure of it. Feed store clerk: “Can I interest you in some Black Sex-link chicks today, or some of these Leghorns we just got in?”
Me: (shuddering) “Ah, not so much.” (Whispering to accompanying child that I hate the names. Plus, I find no delight in such common breeds.)
Feed store clerk: (turns back on us, quickly switches signs) “Okay, then . . . how about some . . . Salmon Favorelles . . . or these nice Silver Spangled Appenzeller Spitzhauben pullets?”
Me: “Oooh, they sound interesting! I’ll take a dozen . . . of each!”
Of course I’ll bend to the whims of whichever child happens to be with me, as well. The number of chicks we carry home has a direct correlation with the number of children I have with me. That is to say, the more kiddos, the more chicks. Especially bantam chicks. They are so sweet, so tiny, so fluffy, and so impossibly miniature, that we all fall for them. Some of them are so tiny, one could fit into half of a ping-pong ball. Malachi and Amalia always have to pick out at least one apiece, and then they hold them all the way home. By which time they are firmly bonded and convinced that their new chick is superior to all others.
I have misgivings about letting the kids bring more bantams home, because I know that I already have several full-grown bantam roosters at home that are not much good for anything (they can’t read so they’ll never get their feelings hurt that I told you this) (plus, they don’t have a computer) and that a good portion of those little sweet bantam babies will grow up to be arrogant, cheeky, annoying, watch-how-manly-I-am-even-though-I’m-tiny-little roosters.
There are always signs posted at the feed store: “DO NOT HANDLE CHICK’S!! (sic).” We ignore those signs. We’ve held chicks. We know how to do it. Plus, if you don’t reach down and scoop up one of those delectable handfuls of fluff, you can’t put it up by your face and feel how soft that down is. Or smell that unique dusty darling chick smell.
So sweet. (Despite the signs, no clerk has ever scolded us for holding the babies. We are very careful. Plus, I’m pretty sure they can take a look at us and see that we’re Chicken People.)
We keep the fluffy babies in the house in a large cardboard box under a heat lamp until they’re a bit bigger and have grown in stiff feathers to replace their fuzzy down. This is also the point at which they start to kick up that “nasty chicken dust,” as my son Matthew called it. “Nasty chicken dust.” Ha! I don’t know why, but that phrase always makes me laugh.
So I’m a little blue one day and one of the kids comes in and says “nasty chicken dust” and I laugh. It happens.
We move the chicks out to the “nursery” when they’re fully feathered-out. The nursery is a small room on one end of the chicken coop, separated from the main area by a screen door. My layer hens keep us supplied with delicious eggs for a couple of years, and then when they stop laying, they end up in our soup pot or the freezer. It’s the cycle of life out here on our place, for the chickens, anyway.
My children understand the entire process, and because so many of the chickens eventually end up nestled with dumplings or homemade noodles in a large stock pot, the kids carefully avoid getting attached to any one chicken. We don’t give names to many of the chickens. There are always exceptions.
“Babes” is one. She is a tiny blue-gray bantam with feathers on her feet, a friendly and sweet disposition, and big, expressive eyes that could melt your heart. That is, if you are the type of person who takes to chickens. My 6-year-old son Malachi is passionately devoted to Babes. Since she was just a tiny ball of bluish-gray down, he has sought her out from among all the other chickens and has held her nearly every day. When I am out working in my garden, he’ll accompany me, going into the coop to find Babes first. He carries her around the garden, trailing behind me as I work in my garden, where he’ll help her find bugs and little garden treats. When he puts her down, she’ll follow him around, clucking contentedly. She will sit on my shoulder for quite a while when placed there.
She’s just a nice little chicken, full of personality and friendliness and charm. We all love her. But little Mack, most of all.
And that’s why it was such a blow the night that she came up missing.
The facts were these. All the chickens had been let out of their yard for their evening meal of grass ‘n’ grubs before bedtime. Babes and a few of the other younger chickens had strayed into a new area of long grass, evidently upsetting our Australian Shepherd, Bea, who generally cannot rest until everybody, and every thing, is in its proper place, especially at bed-time.
Bea is a working dog, and her (self-appointed, I assure you) job is to keep each of us—six humans, fifty-some chickens, several ducks and geese, one other dog (Ollie, a big black lab with a heart of gold but not much sense, bless him) and five cats—in our proper places, all the tiresome day long. So Babes and a few other ‘tween’ chickens were not where Bea thought they should be. She tried, fervently, to herd them back to the chicken coop. They resisted, fearful, and fled from her. In a heartbeat, they had disappeared into the GMO corn that surrounds our place. I saw it happen, and I ran to the edge of the cornfield, panicked, shrieking for Bea.
If you live in or travel through the Midwest during the summer, you know this amazing crop. It’s densely planted, and is easily ten or twelve feet tall, in a good year. I know that it produces unbelievable yields for the farmers. I’m happy for them. But there are things about that corn that I don’t like. I can’t see the wily fox or skulking coyote that slip in and out of it, stalking my chickens and ducks. And I certainly can’t creep through it myself to find my treasured little chickens that might get lost in it. It is just too dense, too scratchy, too deep, too . . . genetically modified.
I’m fairly certain that if I immersed myself in that endless field, even if it was physically possible (which it’s not, unless you are less than 6” wide, which I am not), I’d come out with an extra ear, a sore throat that would never go away, or a fatal skin condition. Where does this phobia come from, and does it have anything to do with the fact that I did a short-lived but nightmarish stint detasseling corn as a pre-teen? I don’t know. The last day I detasseled, it rained the entire day, and I came home with painful corn-leaf cuts all over my arms, wrists, and hands. I never went back into those fields. I shudder at the memory. The bottom line is this: I could not dive into that scratchy, scrapey, isolating, cutting corn to find those precious chickens. It was physically (and emotionally) impossible.
So I stood at the edge of that cornfield, my hands hanging helplessly by my sides, frustrated and angry. The sun was going down. I couldn’t help but weep for my little chickens. I knew they were gone forever. I could hear Bea’s occasional yips, and it sounded as though she were now very far away. I knew that she was chasing them farther and farther away from home. I didn’t weep so much for the others, but why Babes? Pictures of Malachi holding her, sweet smile on his little face, flickered through my mind. Of all these silly critters I keep, why her?
Here’s a secret, between you and me: if I were to number all the nearly-hundred critters I keep as to degrees of preciousness, Babes would have been Number One on my list. Certainly Bea would be far, far down on that same list. If she made the list at all, which was doubtful, at this point. I indulged in a good cry before I returned to the house. I didn’t want anybody to see how upset I was. I really didn’t want little Mack to know that Babes was gone. I rebuked myself heartily as I finally returned to the house, my eyes puffy and my heart sick.
I was actually a bit embarrassed that I was so distressed. My troubles are so pitifully few, compared to those of so many others. What’s a missing chicken, after all, in the grand scheme of life? What’s a missing chicken when there are devastating earthquakes in places like New Zealand and Japan, when there are tsunamis and tornadoes that wash away and blow away cities? People get sick and don’t get better. This summer, the Midwest has endured record-breaking heat and drought. The farmers are hard-hit, but nobody is unaffected. Now the people afflicted by natural disasters and other unfortunate events can cry, without shame. They deserve that much, at least.
But a person who loses a little bluish-gray chicken? Hmm. I can go into my warm and cozy home, which, incidentally, is not full of flood waters or threatened by wildfires or cracked up by earthquakes, and I can look in on my beautiful and cheerful family, all blessed with abundant health and humor and more than ordinary intelligence, and rosy-cheeked, to boot. I have everything going for me. I am blessed beyond measure by a merciful God who made the heavens with the jewel-like planets and glittering stars. I have a houseful of beautiful children and a good man who supports us and loves us and puts up with my foolishness. I have a granddaughter whose beauty is so remarkable that she could be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records, under “Most Beautiful Baby Ever.” She may be in there, as a matter of fact. I haven’t checked, lately.
I recently found out that I am to be blessed with a second grandbaby in a few months. My garden is overflowing with watermelons and tomatoes, my favorite foods. My life is richly blessed. So why, oh why did I feel such despair over this one little lost chicken? Why, indeed?
God who set the earth on its foundations, who makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind, who waters the mountains from his upper chambers (Ps 104) cared enough about me to give me that chicken–that’s why. He had opened his hand (vs. 28) and given me a good thing. A delightful, sweet little chicken that filled my little boy’s heart with joy and made everybody else smile, to boot.
Losing any good thing is a grievous event.
After little Mack fell asleep later that night, I told my husband Bryan what had happened and, much to my dismay, I cried over the incident all over again. “Those chickens will be back tomorrow,” he said. “Don’t worry.” I went to bed with those words in my head, but not in my heart. Still—I presented my requests to God (Phil 4) and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guarded my heart, and I fell asleep.
The next day dawned rainy and cool, and no little blue chicken showed up. Another day of drizzle and rain followed. I knew now that she wouldn’t be back. She couldn’t have survived this many days–and nights–out there with all the hungry predators that roam around through those fields. Bea was still in the doghouse. Literally.
On the third day after Babes’ disappearance, I trudged through the mud out to the chicken yard to let my flock out of their little house. But what was this?—there stood next to the chicken coop gate a tiny, wet, muddy chicken with enormous eyes. I couldn’t even tell, through the mud, that she was blue. Finally I realized that it was our precious one.
Babes was back.
I scooped Babes up and praised my God who cares so much about us to bring her home, through the rain, the mud, and the acres and acres of corn. I dried her feathers and gave her something to eat and took her to the house to show the kids (whom I had finally had to tell the tragic story of her disappearance) and they all rejoiced with me. Little Mack was especially happy, and barely put her down for the entire day.
“I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him as I rejoice in the Lord.” (Ps. 104) It was a rejoicing and singing kind of a day, full of gratitude, as it should have been. It won’t be long now before the corn is harvested, and so there shouldn’t be a repeat of that ghastly day when my little chickens got chased too far away to find their way home. At least not this season.
Meanwhile, I think we’ll do some training exercises with our Bea. But how do you train a sheepdog not to herd anything with feet?
- Preview of Ponca