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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Black Chicken Bloomed

One year ago today, I posted this story on my blog. This was the story of the Unicorn and the first death of a chicken here and how King Ranch refused to let one of his own die in vain. It poured and it broke our hearts.

This morning, I decided to wander over to the spot beneath the rosebushes to pay my respects. I found this:

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Black Chicken is alive. She lives in her blooms.

Across the yard, White Rooster crowed on the fence. I don’t think he’s forgotten. Neither have we.

 

The Last Little Rockstar

The mid-afternoon air hung heavily around us as King Ranch and I stood behind the wooden back house with chipping red paint that sits a ways back on our property

The back house is a dilapidated structure that we were told was the original house on the property. One side of it appears to have been a chicken coop at some point with netted fencing and wooden boxes, although, now it was a tangle of vines, weeds, and spider webs. The main part of the house — one small room with a concrete floor and rotting, wooden walls — had become a storage space for scrap wood, miscellaneous ranch tools, and old Christmas decorations that must have belonged to the little, scratchy woman from whom we purchased the property. On the other side of the house was a garage that was, in comparison to the rest of the house, in pretty good shape. The door had clearly been replaced and within it were extra water troughs and wood pallets. Still a lot of spider webs, though.

We stood behind the house where colorful weeds lined the base of the structure — thick, tangled weeds with flicking bugs and spiked leaves — because our last, little Rockstar rooster had finally been found.

He had been missing for three days. Of all the chickens and roosters at the ranch, the last Rockstar was the most social. He was a bouncy bird with a blueish, green tail that looked like slick oil on concrete. The rest of his body was jet black. He had made our back patio his home — specifically, he would sleep atop the firewood pile all on his own — and every morning between 4 and 5, he’d let us know if was time to wake up.

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King Ranch placed his hand on my lower back and said, “I’m sorry.”

Tears stung the corners of my eyes. In front of us, our once shiny, hip-hoppity Rockstar was now a graying pile of loose, lifeless feathers. His head was buried in a hole near the base of the back house and his body hung limply down into the jagged weeds. He had gotten himself stuck.

I leaned into King Ranch and cried.

I wondered how many birds at this point had died at our ranch and recalled them all:

There was Black chicken who had gotten out of the yard and was hit by a car early last summer when the Unicorn visited. There was another Rockstar rooster who’d been attacked by something while we were out of town whom we found dead in the corner of the coop. There was the Rockstar who was stomped out by the donkeys late last summer when Nikki came to visit. There were the three chicks who tried to hatch who didn’t make it and then the most recent tragic death of Prince, our other chick, who drowned in his water dish after being alive for only one week.

Now, the last of the Rockstars dangled out of the back house after what I knew was a struggle until his end.

I felt awful.

Behind us, Bunny snorted. She nosed her way in between King Ranch and I and King Ranch let out a sound that, I think, was somewhere between a laugh and a frustrated exhale, although I couldn’t tell which.

He said, “Well excuse me,” to Bunny. She raised and lowered her head a few times and pushed against me harder.

I laughed behind my tears and squatted down in front of her.

King Ranch scooped up Little Foot who was nearby flailing a stick and walked back towards our house. As he did this, a low rumble of thunder rolled by in the distance.

I’d have to pull the Rockstar out of there and give him a proper burial. I wasn’t sure how best to go about this because I wanted to preserve his body as best I could and I didn’t know how strongly wedged his body was in there. I imagined, pretty tightly to have been his end.

For now, I cried for him. Bunny stood with me, her head on top of mine, and I cried for him.

I cried because I felt awful that he was gone. I cried because I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. I cried because life is so freaking fragile. I cried because how stupid must this bird have been to get stuck in a hole and how stupid was I to allow myself to get so attached?

But he wasn’t stupid. No. He was probably chasing a delicious bug that outsmarted him by scrambling into a hole in the house just large enough for the Rockstar’s head.

Damn you, bug. Freaking bug. It was that bug’s fault.

I wanted to hunt that bug. It was probably a big, fat cockroach with long, spiked, antennae because roaches never bring anything but terror and trickery. Why is it that when you turn on a light in the garage and spot one, they scramble right towards your feet? Bastards. In Texas, cockroaches even fly. Yes. They FLY. In FLOCKS. You’re a dead man, roach.

Bunny exhaled heavily. So did I as I stood up. She pulled her top lip back and pressed her upper gum into my shoulder. I think it was a donkey kiss.

Warm drops sprinkled down from the sky as another barrel of thunder tumbled by towards the west. The red, chipping paint on the house started turning a deep, brownish tint in the growing wetness.

Rest in peace, sweet Rockstar. I hope you’ve found your friends in the afterlife and that you’re alerting everyone to the sunrises. You really did do a good job with that.

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Life. Death. And Somewhere in the Middle

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.

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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.

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