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Our little flock – originally 8 hens of mixed breeds – turns one and a half next month. We’ve prided ourselves on not losing a one, despite the abundance of local predators. We’ve enjoyed our fresh eggs, which are erratic in size, shape, color and frequency. The last few weeks, the girls have been fenced in the garden, cleaning up bugs and weeds and winding down egg production as they prepare for their first molt. But something was off about One Patch.
One Patch was one of four Barred Rocks in our flock. They’re big, friendly birds, with that distinctive barred black-and-white plumage that seems such a part of New England farm life. They lay generously sized brown eggs and they get along well with other types of birds, even though they can sometimes be a little slow on the uptake.
One Patch got her name in the usual way. The Barred Rocks were hard to tell apart when they were chicks, so we hunted for tiny differences in their coloration and behavior. Jumpy was the brightest and liveliest, with a big white “ J” on her head. Lumpy had an odd-shaped beak. And Two Patch and One Patch had white spots, right next to their eyes.
In the fall of last year, the hens were 6 months and nearly mature. One Patch grew restless. She began pacing the coop, going in and out of the nests I’d prepared with straw and wooden dummy eggs, groaning and whining. She revealed what would be her adult temperament – grumpy, irritable, quick to peck – and harassed her flockmates when they too grew curious about the nests. It was One Patch who was the first to lay, leaving a perfect small egg next to the dummy egg and then heading downstairs for a drink of water.
The other girls followed over the next three weeks. By the time they were laying regularly, I could pretty much tell the eggs apart. One Patch laid the smallest of the Barred Rock eggs, and it was sharply tapered at the top. It became clear to me, as time went on, that One Patch was not a fantastic layer. Whereas Jumpy, Lumpy, and Two Patch grew plump and docile and each laid 4, 5, even 6 eggs a week, One Patch only managed one or two, and she stayed small. Still, she developed a canny habit of “fake-laying” – she’d sit on the nest for exactly half an hour and then come down for a sip of water, like an atheist stopping at the font on the way out from Mass. She acted just as if she had actually done her job, and sometimes she would even sing a victorious, spurious egg song.
As this summer came to a close, One Patch started acting stranger than usual. When the other hens took shelter from the midday heat, One Patch would stand in the broad sunlight, blinking. She was slow to come at feeding time, and took to sitting in a corner of the enclosure, far from the other birds. She even stopped fake-laying.
A week ago, I noticed she could no longer make it up onto the roost at night. She stumbled and limped, and could barely drag herself even a few inches along the ground. The other hens watched her, in a group, silently, unsure, as if illness itself were a stranger and not to be trusted. I brought One Patch inside to decline by the hearth. There, in a Priority Mail box lined with straw, she lingered a few more days. Yesterday, she began to “stargaze” –her neck twisted far back to look at the ceiling, which I took to be an end stage in her progressive paralysis.
It was likely to have been, in the end, a case of nerves – neural damage from disease, or a nutritional deficiency. Whichever it was, the plain fact was that One Patch had become less animal than vegetable, and the kind thing was to dispatch her swiftly. I am sorry to say that my first attempt was not a success. It fell to Husby, with his greater fortitude, to bring One Patch’s suffering to a merciful end.
Often the last few days I’ve said to myself, “It’s just a chicken.” That’s true. But there are also the larger questions of pain and responsibility, of the compassion and anxiety that come with being “just a human”. On my mind for a while will be: what makes a good death? Because entangled in that question, after all, is the other one: what makes a good life?
Today the girls reached a landmark – every one of them laid an egg in the same day! For a few weeks we would once in a while reach 7 out of 8, though 4 or 5 a day is more usual. Either somebody hadn’t started laying yet, or somebody was having a day off, or somebody laid a rogue egg out in the yard and we never found it.
Stormy and Stripèd, the Silver Laced Wyandottes, are probably our most reliable layers – 3 days out of 4. Feather and Spalty, the Easter Eggers, lay the most beautiful ones (greenish for Feather, bluer for Spalty).
Of the 4 Barred Rocks, Two Patch and Lumpy have emerged as champions, hustling up to the nests to lay perfectly formed, large eggs right after their breakfast. One Patch, the earliest layer of the flock, lays a small, tapered egg that’s easy to identify, every other day or so.
The really dirty one is a “floor egg,” laid on the ground in the coop (I had to hunch over and go inside to get it). It’s probably Jumpy’s –she’s a late bloomer and an erratic layer, and she might not have the hang of laying in the nest box yet.
[In case you're wondering how I know whose is whose? I haven't watched them lay every egg, honest! though I've certainly wasted a lot of time out there. It's mostly a matter of shape, and to a lesser degree a matter of size and color.]
For those of us lucky enough to have a working stove, some chicken broth on hand, and a couple of eggs, these soups may provide a little comfort without much fuss after storm-drenched days of coping.
I didn’t catch them at it, but this morning there were two beautiful palest blue eggs in the coop. They could only have been laid by Feather and Spalty, even though only Feather has shown all the signs of maturity.
One of the girls was apparently taken by surprise and didn’t quite make it to the nest box. Nevertheless, both eggs were delivered safely, and without apparent drama.
One Patch, on the other hand, continues to raise high the roof beam with cries of indignation for an hour every day before she lays.
Incidentally, the eggs are crazy delicious.
*since originally posting this, I’ve made a terminology change. I’d thought my girls were “Araucanas” but they’re almost certainly not. They could be “Ameraucanas”–a white and “blue wheaten” perhaps. Or they could even be “Easter Eggers,” Araucanish mutts. Regardless, the eggs are beautiful, and so are the birds.
I was there when it happened!
I went out the door to check on the girls, and I thought I heard an egg song so I dashed inside for my camera before walking over to the garden. I looked in the nest box. No egg. Big circular hole in the straw, though, with the linoleum showing through. I went and got some straw to add to the nesting box, but when I got back One Patch was already there–fussing and making swirlies in the straw and playing with the wooden dummy egg. No more complaining, just quiet clucking.
Then she settled in and just sat. I took a picture or two. Lumpy and Two Patch came up to visit and watch her. After about 10 minutes of me watching them watching her, I was ready to head inside and leave One Patch alone for a while.
I took a look at the other birds, who were hanging out in the downstairs of the ark. I inspected the 4th Barred Rock for distinguishing marks–they’re quite hard to tell apart. Just as I’d decided it was Jumpy, two more Barred Rocks came down the ramp. And then another. Drat! I thought, now I have to figure out who you-all are too. And then Wait! that’s 4 Barred Rocks! Who’s minding the nest?
I went round to the egg door, opened it, and there it was, a beautiful light brown egg exactly the size of the little wooden dummy egg sitting next to it, but speckly and yes! still warm!
The flock is exactly 21 weeks old today.
Well, the girls are 21 weeks old tomorrow, and we’re all waiting anxiously for the first egg. There’s been pacing, and growling, and constant checking out of the nest box. And that’s just me.
One Patch (Barred Rock) has been ahead of the game all along. Her comb and wattles were the first to redden, and a couple of weeks ago she started to do the “egg squat,” flattening herself to the ground and spreading her wings. Since then, Feather (Ameraucana), Stripèd (Silver Laced Wyandotte), and Jumpy (Barred Rock) have all started doing it too. The others still run off, skittishly, when you try to pet them.
We’ve moved the portable ark to garden bed #2 and fenced it in with bed #4, so the girls have a place to play, forage, hunt for bugs, and generally be chickens while cleaning up the debris from my tomatoes, pole beans,and cucumbers. After they’re done here, we’ll move them down to beds #4 & #6, #6 & #8, and so on till winter, when they move into Chickhenge, the fortress-like permanent winter coop.
Today, One Patch has been more edgy than ever, pacing the edge of the fence and popping into the ark several times an hour to look at the next boxes. She’s being very vocal, too–a sort of raspy, downward, protracted, complainy kind of growl, like a rusty barn door being opened and closed repeatedly by a restless toddler. It’s about equally cute and annoying.
I understand all of this is pretty typical behavior for a pullet about to lay. (Some people call it “chicken PMS”.) And I know that first egg could be today, tomorrow, next week, or November. But it’s sure hard to wait…which is probably why I’m sitting here balanced on the corner of the asparagus bed with my laptop on my knees.
It’s been silent and cool in the household these first few weeks since the kids have returned to school. The only sound has been the subdued but furious clacking of the keyboard as I catch up on stories I scheduled for the fall re-entry, plus maybe the occasional gasp of bemusement when I’m checking in with the ongoing election coverage.
In the garden, late blight has romped through Bed Number Two, sparing only a few last Sungold cherry tomatoes. Squash vine borers have claimed the zucchini and pumpkins. The garlic and fingerlings are out of the ground, replaced by a buckwheat cover crop. But the tender, slender Nickel haricots are still bearing pods, and great fans of chard and kale still wave over Bed Five. Along with the inevitable failures, there is always at least one bewildering success, and this year I have oceans of flat-leaf parsley I have no idea what to do with.
The once-miniature chicks are now 19 week old, “point of lay” pullets. I know not to expect eggs until November, but I can’t help checking the nests every day anyway. One Patch has the brilliant red comb and wattles of a fully developed young hen, and is even doing the “egg squat”–squatting submissively when you put out your hand to pet her, an indication of maturity. And I heard someone singing the “egg song” (the distinctive cackling of a hen who’s just laid an egg) the other day, although no egg was to be found. I wonder if the singer imagined she had laid the wooden “teaching” egg I put in the nests to show the girls where to set…!
We almost lost Spalty, our chestnut and russet-colored Ameraucana, a couple of weeks ago, when she swallowed some mystery object she shouldn’t have. She went from hiccuping to choking in the space of a few minutes, and lay down, gasping for air, with what seemed like every intention of expiring. We frantically called our neighbor Macaylla, the chicken guru, who urged us not to lose hope. We isolated Spalty in the movable chicken ark overnight, fearing the worst. But in the morning she was up and about, pecking and fluttering, and her labored breathing was gone by the following evening.
Meanwhile, Husby has taken on the excavation of our decrepit entryway and demolition of our sagging, propped-up porch roof in preparation for a new porch (a 12-year-old dream at last coming true). The 6th grader is entering fencing tournaments. The 1st grader has homework for the first time.
I often feel in the quiet of September, dreaming up a new workload, sipping my coffee, watching the kids walk down the street to school a few inches taller than the previous spring, that I too am being re-invented. In the coming year I don’t know what stories I’ll tell, what thresholds I’ll cross, or how I’ll turn out in the end–but even the freedom not to know seems unaccountably precious and rare.
It’s the first true week of summer, and the garden is brimming with good things. The shell peas are done already, but the sugar snaps have climbed 8 feet to the top of the trellis and the fat pods are in full spate.
The prickly yellow flowers of the cucumbers are budding, and the vines began to run overnight. I can never quite believe those tiny flowers will set actual, life-sized cucumbers. Why is it that a cucumber’s flowers are so minute, while a zucchini’s are as big as a hibiscus–when the fruits turn out roughly the same size?
The complex, beady green clusters that will burst into white blossom are emerging at the junctions on the Nickel filet beans. Carrots are ferning, lettuce is bolting. And after years of wishing, I have eaten my first harvest of fava beans, fat and emerald green and worth all the trouble it takes to shell, skin, and blanch them.
The borage volunteered this year, flecking the beds with stars of brilliant blue.
Meanwhile, I am scratching my head again over a mystery plant. I started my usual two types of tomato seeds in April: Sungold, the popular golden cherry bursting with sugars; and Rose de Berne, a well-formed small pinkish-red tomato with deep, carrying flavor. I planted the Sungolds in one row and the Rose de Bernes with some Purple Cherokees from a friend in the other. But now that they are setting fruit, I see that many of the Sungolds are not Sungolds. Instead of setting small, alternate branches of many tiny fruits, they’re setting lusty, assymetrical branches of large and irregular, faintly striped fruit. I’m sure they’ll be delicious. Still, I’m baffled.
Meanwhile, the chicks are 7 weeks old and pullet-shaped. The Barred Rocks have lost many of the markings I used to tell them apart, and they look like almost-identical quadruplets. But if I look very closely, I can see that Two Patches’ almost-gone pale markings give her eye an almond shape, and she still likes to forage away from the others. One Patch’s patch is gone, but her beak has a dark band. Jumpy’s lost her J, but her beak has a light, spotty, disorganized pattern. Lumpy still has a lumpy pink beak, complains all the time, and is the last to arrive. They’re so busy pecking and scratching in their movable run, though, that I can rarely get a still glimpse of their faces.
The Wyandottes are quick on their feet, fearless (for chickens, anyway), and enterprising. Stormy is the most endearing bird in the flock–she comes running when I start pulling weeds and never leaves my side while I work. Here Stripèd does what chickens do best: hunting for bugs, and incidentally keeping sections of my garden weed-free.
It’s days like these I remember why we moved to this crazy old farmhouse, this scruffy and uncivilized property, this place of frostbound winters. It’s not always an easy row to hoe, but it sure is a rich one.