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?