As part of my morning routine, after coffee and a stretch and in addition to feeding the dog and giving the donkeys a pet, I check the chicken coop for any newly laid eggs in which to collect.
For the past month or so, however, I have been unable to collect eggs because one of my Rhode Island Red chickens named Andre has been brooding – sitting atop an ever growing pile of eggs in an attempt to hatch some.
I suppose I should have known that this was a strong possibility – that one of our chickens would go broody. White Rooster has staked our home as his territory (it’s been months now since we’ve seen Rainbow Rooster) and well, it’s that time of year. Birds and the bees, and such.
I’ve tried, on several attempts, to collect at least a few eggs from beneath Andre, but her pecking and snipping at my hand just isn’t worth it, so I decided to just wait and see what happens.
It was a Thursday morning that was expected to be an unseasonably hot one – highs were to reach 80 degrees and it’s only April. Oh Texas weather. There was still morning dew covering every surface outside, however, it quickly disappeared, little by little, as the sun’s rays extended. It almost felt warm and chilly at the same time. With my rubber boots slipped on, I took a peek into the coop to see if indeed, Andre was still brooding and if, by chance, there would be new eggs within reach to collect.
To my surprise, I saw 4 eggs sitting by themselves about 3 feet away from Andre and assumed that meant that one or two of the other chickens had laid them there. Ducking into the coop, I extended my left hand to grab the eggs when my gaze was grabbed by something slightly buried beneath the hay between these random 4 eggs and Andre. I couldn’t tell what it was, so careful to not get pecked, I used my right hand to pull some hay back when I realized what I saw.
I think I shrieked. Or gasped. Or maybe it was just a heavy exhale, but whatever my lungs did caused me to stumble backward. There, in the middle of this box, was a dead chick.
I sat there for a moment on the floor of the coop – the damp mud was cool and soaking into my pants beneath me – and tried to gather some sense. Why? What? How?
After a few breaths, I stood up and peeked into the box once more. The dead chick lay there without any feathers. It’s feet were curled up close to its belly and it’s beak was tucked way down towards its chest. This must be the shape that chicks are in right before they hatch. I briefly recalled that Little Foot was in this same shape in every one of his last few ultrasounds.
I backed out of the coop and called King Ranch who didn’t answer, so I called my mom and told her what I’d found, crying.
After our conversation, I realized that I would need to remove that chick as soon as possible to deter any predators who may have already caught its scent. Foxes, bobcats, and coyotes are not at all foreign to this area.
For a moment, I stepped back inside to make sure that Little Foot was still sleeping in his crib – which he was – stretched out with one arm reaching above his head and the other laid across his upper belly. His mouth was slightly open and his breath rose and fell smoothly. This made me grin.
Back outside, I retrieved the shovel from the well house and dug a hole in the backyard beneath one of the rosebushes that is completely covered in light pink blooms. The bush towers above me and I thought that this would be a good resting space for the chick.
With my gloves slipped on, I scooped the baby chick into my hands. It’s neck flopped, so I tried to ball it up again like it was. It’s weight in my hands was practically nothing – as if I’d been carrying half of a small onion.
What was most odd was that Andre only watched me scoop up this baby. Not once did she squawk, peck, or even fidget. She just watched me, her orange eyes wide and her head cocked to one side. I slid the baby into my left hand and placed my right hand on top of it, moving the chick out of Andre’s sight, as I stared at her for a moment.
“What happened?” I asked her.
She stared back at me.
“I’m sorry for this,” I said.
Andre shifted her weight and ruffled the feathers around the base of her wings before settling back down onto the pile of eggs that must be at least 30 by now.
With the chick covered in my hands, I turned to leave the coop when from behind me, I heard the faintest peep peep peep.
On my heel, I swiveled around and noticed that Andre, within that one second that I had my back turned, had turned around herself in the corner of this box where all I could see was the fluff of her bottom.
Peep. Peep. Peep.
My heart hopped in my chest as I took a step back towards the box. As I did so, Andre let out a trilled scream and all of her bottom feathers spread apart. Again, I stumbled back, noticing that my hands which held the deceased chick, were shaking.
I went out into the yard, laid the chick into the hole and watched it for a moment. “I’m sorry,” I said and covered the tiny body with dirt.
Quietly, I crept back into the coop to try and see, well, whatever it was I might have seen, but Andre spread herself out so wide that I could barely see into the box at all. A low, glottal growl rumbled from her without pause, so I backed out and sat on the bench next to the side door.
I called my mom again, this time, frantic.
“I think there are chicks in there! I can’t see them! But I can hear them! What do I do?” I said.
I always call my mom when I don’t know what to do, assuming she has answers. She mostly laughed in reply to me and said a lot of, “I don’t know,”’s. My hands quivered with excitement, but also, I think, grief for the baby who hadn’t made it.
After spending about an hour researching ‘next steps for newly hatched eggs’ on the internet, and spending time with my own kid who had woken up by now, I packed us up and drove to the nearest feed store in the next town over. There, I picked up some ‘chick starter’ feed, a small feeder and small water dispenser that would fit in the box in which Andre and her newly hatched chick(s) were staying. The maternity ward, if you will.
I told the cashier my whole story about the dead chick and the peeping and asked her what I should do next to which she replied, “Ma’am, I don’t know. I only work here.”
In a flash, I was back home with Little Foot and a bag of supplies.
I put Little Foot in his wagon with a few toys to keep him idle and in sight while I tended to the coop. I’m not ready to just let him wander around the yard without being a few steps behind him yet. I don’t know when I will be, either.
Filling the new feeder, I stepped back into the coop and shut the door behind me to ensure that none of the other chickens would come in and interfere – in my research, I’d learned that other hens can get jealous and cause issues for the new hatchlings.
After setting it into the box – still unable to see past Andre’s puffed out feathers – I realized I’d left the water dispenser outside of the coop and as I went to retrieve it, the other Rhode Island Red, Big Mama, came tearing past me and into the coop and up the ramp to the box.
Screaming, I chased after her when I realized what I was seeing. Here is a video I shot that day right after Big Mama’s entrance:
I was dumbfounded. I could not believe the way that Big Mama and Andre tag-teamed in taking care of what appeared to be two new chicks.
Closing the door behind me, I left the coop, and left the mamas to tend to their babies.
For a few days, I checked on them several times and each time, was able to get a better look at the two, newly hatched chicks. Every day, they emerged from beneath Andre (and sometimes Big Mama) a little bit further than the previous. Each day, they got more fluffy and their marks became more defined.
On the 4th day, it became crucial that I retrieve the unhatched eggs from beneath Andre. In my research, I’d learned that unhatched eggs, if left under the mama, could become rancid and actually explode, putting the hatchlings and even mamas at risk. This would be no easy task because Andre and Big Mama were meaner than ever protecting these babies.
I managed to push both chickens off the eggs using a feed scoop and a piece of cardboard long enough to pull all the eggs out of the box. Andre and Big Mama, of course, flailed wildly (you’ve heard the phrase “running around like a chicken with your head cut off” – that’s got nothing on new mama chickens) and the newly hatched chicks peeped frantically beneath them.
I felt awful doing this – taking the eggs. Andre and Big Mama must have been devastated to have someone stealing what they thought were their unborn babies. But at the same time, I couldn’t put them all at risk because these eggs had been here for well over a month now and something in there smelled like rotting death.
Indeed it was rotting death. Two more dead chicks – two that looked as if they’d been trying to hatch but didn’t quite make it.
After removing them all, I left the mamas and the chicks to calm down for a while as I disposed of the eggs and partially hatched embryos. It was gut wrenching. I remembered the baby I’d buried just a few days ago and assumed that it’s little, weightless body had decomposed by now or been eaten by something in the ground. This tugged at my heart.
A few more days went by and both mamas and both chicks emerged from the box to start exploring the rest of the coop.
Andre and/or Big Mama stay a step or two behind the chicks at all times – their orange eyes constantly scanning their surroundings. If any of the other chickens or White Rooster for that matter approach the coop, one of them chases them away, squawking and flapping.
There are few words I have to describe the intensity of these events: the pure life and death of all of it. How, in one day, some died and some lived. Some are now in the ground while the others explore. It’s very difficult to know what to say about that except that it is powerful.
Moreover, to see the way that Big Mama and Andre cooperate in protecting the chicks is astonishing. They’re incredible mothers. I should know, I got pecked more times than I could count. I’ve also never run out of the coop so many times while being chased by a puffed up chicken.
I get it though – protecting your child. I still follow Little Foot around the yard, positioning myself between him and what I perceive as danger. I would certainly attack anyone who I thought might be there to hurt him. I’d give it everything I got without hesitation.
There’s a sadness in feeling the fragility of life. The weightlessness of the first dead chick in my closed hands on that first day is a feeling that I don’t think I can, or want to, forget. I’ve wondered since then if perhaps Andre knew it had died, and she pushed it out there for me to see. She didn’t want to expose her other hatching chickens to that. I wonder if that chicken hatched first and then died, or died in the process like the other two that I found a few days later. Of course, I also wonder what I could have done differently to save the chicks.
Then again, I think that all of this is beyond my control. This is the vastness of life. This is the beginning and the end and everything in between.
We have all been born. We will all die. If you’re reading this right now, then you’re somewhere in the middle with the rest of us. And that’s life.
I am honored to have had at least a small part in the first few days of life for these new chicks. I remember how much I needed help in the first several weeks – even months – that Little Foot was alive.
This is a whole new journey for the mother hens, as it is for us here at the ranch. How grateful I am to be in the middle of life and death right now – to be living and participating in the world around me. To be able to extend a hand. To be able to feel the grief of a creature who has died. To have the opportunity to connect, on an emotional level, with an orange-eyed chicken.
The in between is an opportunity to be someone. Indeed, we’re all in this together. Humans and chickens and donkeys alike.
Life – the vastness of it and the beauty of it – is so frighteningly yet beautifully temporary.