Party of Five

It’s a bright, brisk Sunday morning where the grass and leaves twinkle with a million drops of dew. I’m reclined on my couch with a cup of cool coffee grateful for the weather being such that I can open the windows and let the fresh country air move through my house. The donkeys are enjoying their breakfast and the birds peck and flutter around their feeder. I take the last sip of my coffee when from outside, I hear a crow. Of course, Ron Swanson the rooster crows all day every day, but this is a different crow. A raspier one. A softer one, like an old car’s coughing engine. It’s struggling. 

I dart over to the window and see Ron Swanson, ParmParm, and Gene along with the ducks, Pat and Dorothy, standing in their normal party of five stance. Ron crows, but it sounds like his usual crow. What did I hear a moment ago?

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I watch for a second longer and then shrug it off—maybe Ron had a bug stuck in his throat. As I turn to drop my mug into the kitchen sink, I hear that raspy crow again. I whip my head around and…huh? I take a few, slow steps towards the window and once more, the raspy crow. And it’s coming from ParmParm. ParmParm, the hen that when we got her, was sexed and confirmed female. 

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As I stand at the window dumbfounded, I begin to recall some odd behaviors from ParmParm within the last month or so. Besides the fact she’s grown substantially, she’s also become a little aggressive, especially towards Ron Swanson and Pat. And oddly enough, about a month ago, she molted (which as I understand it, hens are not supposed to molt until they’re over a year old) and her feathers have since been coming in ridgy and sharp—like rooster feathers. I should note that before this molting, she had typical soft, bland, rounded feathers and was the same size as Gene. Her comb and her waddle have transformed quite suddenly and I have found it all a bit interesting.

Plus, so far as I know, ParmParm has not laid any eggs. I have seen her fluff out and settle into a typical hen position in the nesting box within the coop many times—fluffing her feathers out like she’s laying—but I’ve never found any of her eggs. Gene, however, lays in the box right next to ParmParm’s go-to box and leaves an egg every day. It’s all quite peculiar.

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ParmParm crows again and appears to try and do a mating dance in front of Gene. But as quickly as she starts, she stops and chases a nearby fluttering bug. Ron Swanson crows loudly.

So of course, I quickly drop my mug in the sink and grab my laptop to do some research. I google, “can chickens become roosters?” and other similar questions and by golly, there’s quite a host of articles documenting this very phenomenon whereby hens can be genotypically female but become phenotypically male. Here are some references I found:

https://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/what-cluck-case-gender-changing-hen.htm

http://www.scoopfromthecoop.com/tag/can-my-hen-become-a-rooster/

https://backyardpoultry.iamcountryside.com/feed-health/spontaneous-sex-reversal-is-that-my-hen-crowing/

It’s been a while now since I’ve heard ParmParm’s crow, so I look outside to see the party of five doing what they always do—migrating around the yard in a group, gobbling up and bickering over bugs. 

I decided to write about this for two reasons: 1) it’s incredibly interesting, something I’ve never heard of and wow, nature is amazing and 2) because I’d love some input from some chicken experts or avian vets out there. I’m considering taking ParmParm to the vet just to see if this is the case, but then I wonder, does it matter? She’s healthy and happy as it is. I guess I just worry that her and Ron Swanson might begin to butt heads and I don’t want injury if I can avoid it. I also don’t know for sure if this is what’s happening, but every behavior and physical change seems to check all the boxes. 

At the end of it all, whether this is what ParmParm is experiencing or not, there are surprises every single day. There’s so much that we don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t recognize and it’s a testament to how vast the world is around us. Something rare could be happening right in our own backyards and as Ferris Bueller once famously and accurately said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

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An End

The sun’s retreated beyond the piney treetops as I’m driving in my rickety-red truck due south. The heavy, low-hanging clouds are reflecting the sunset so brightly that the neon pinks and oranges seem unreal—a dramatic sky spray-painting. I’ve been on the road for over four hours hauling a trailer behind me which is carrying a riding mower and I have to say I’m proud of my old truck for making it this far with a heavy load in-tow. I never thought I’d be someone who was proud of a vehicle yet, here I am.

On the passenger seat next to me in a dog crate is my hen, Wednesday Addams, and her three, newly hatched chicks. Without a working sound system in my truck, I’ve spent the last several hours listening to the peeping and chattering of Wednesday’s new, little family. They’re not sure what to make of this trip and I suppose, neither am I. It’s all just happened so quickly.

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A little over two and a half years ago, my new, little family moved to a small town in north Texas where we met a donkey named Bunny. She was included in the purchase of our home and really, I think she’s why we ultimately decided to purchase that home. Within that little more than two and a half years, we’ve adopted two more donkeys, Tink and Tee, and fostered twenty three other donkeys until we placed them in forever, loving homes.

It’s been a little over two and a half years since we found that home and several hours ago, I left it for the last time.

In front of me, King Ranch is driving a large moving van and behind me, my dad is in his own pickup truck and together, we three drivers have caravanned across a chunk of Texas in an effort to start anew. King Ranch started a new job several hours away and so the rest of us—Little Foot, Tucker, Bunny, Tee, Tink, Wednesday, her three new chicks and myself—have all followed along.

The clouds have faded into purple and gray as evening swallows the sunset and I’m hoping my three donkeys are doing okay. I delivered them a few days ago to our new house where they have a cozy barn and just as much land as they need. It’s traumatizing for them, I imagine, being loaded into a noisy box, driven at 65 to 75MPH between other whooshing vehicles and strange smells, only to jump out of the box with shaky legs and probably sore hooves in a place they’ve never seen. But if there’s one thing I know about donkeys it’s that they’re resilient—and luckily, they’ve got each other. I can hardly wait to get to our new home to see them again.

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Wednesday Addams’s three babies have burrowed beneath her feathery belly in the now-darkness of our drive and the peeping has drifted into sleep. Her marble, black eyes are mostly shut and I realize that I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a hen fall asleep. I wonder if they dream? It feels so silent now in the cab of this truck, the only noises left being the Rickety-red’s squeaky engine and passing cars.

I start to wonder if I’ll find a new place to teach yoga once we’ve settled in our new home. I haven’t led a yoga class in over a month being tied up in this move. I feel the tension climbing down my neck and behind my shoulder blades. Stress likes to sit back there, curled into a tight ball and it becomes more and more gravitational the longer I go without slowing down and stretching out properly. It begins to pull at the muscles along my spine and even down into my ham strings.

I think about the yoga class I led at my ranch several months ago—Yoga with the Donkeys is what I called it. I had so many friends attend that night and we raised several hundred dollars that went directly to saving donkeys. I wonder when I’ll see those friends again…north Texas will be a long way away. 

The moving van’s blinker begins to flash and as a caravan, we all change lanes in the blackness of this new night. We still have a ways to go.

An image of Little Foot’s bedroom (which I guess is now his old bedroom) appears in my mind. Hours ago, I stood in that doorway, nothing but indents in the carpet from the moved furniture and the dream-like memories left inside the room. I remember the first time I walked in there and saw him standing upright in his crib—he looked so big. He grinned with only a couple teeth, proud of his accomplishment. I don’t remember what I said to him, but he bounced up and down, giggling wildly. I remember once, when I’d come down the hallway, I heard him chattering in there and when I peeked in, I discovered that he was flipping through “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” and reciting every line as if he knew how to read it all by himself. I thought my heart might stop when I saw that. He emphasized the words just as I had when I’d read it to him. He loves his books. 

I blink my eyes a few times, the taillights of the moving van blurring through my tears and I glance at Wednesday whose eyes are still not fully shut. She must be exhausted. I am.

I wonder if the people who move into our old home will like the painting I’d left on the fence in the garden or if they’ll get rid of it. I always thought of my garden as my own, secret garden only instead of a robin, there were two cardinals.

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It’s all happened so fast—two and a half years have opened and shut so quickly and now, I’m driving away from what seems like a single, snapped Polaroid photo—the memories of it all stuck in that blurry, creaminess that appears before the picture fully develops. It’s done. Our time at the ranch where this whole Donkumentary began has come to an end, the shadow of the back cover of this large book closing all around me as I zoom down this dark, wooded highway.

I don’t yet know if there will be a sequel or a continuation of this here bloggery. This feels like a clean end and an opportunity to begin building new things upon a more solid foundation than when I began before. I also just don’t know what the days, weeks, or months ahead look like. I have no clue.

It will be some time before I’ll have internet up and running at my new place, so I suppose I have some time to think on it. I’ll unpack. I’ll love on my family, two legged and four. I’ll secure fences and hang paintings and learn which light switches belong to which lights. I’ll discover the nearest pizza place and find out if we can keep rescuing donkeys. I’ll take a break from the news and from the interwebs and begin to build again.

Until then, thank you. Thank you for following my story. I’ve loved having you along the way. 

Much love and namasBRAY,
Jess

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