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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When Birds Fall

I’m sitting on the couch in my living room chatting with a friend of mine when a loud thump against the window startles us both. We whip our heads around to see what it could’ve been.

“A bird?” she asks, scanning the front porch.

I, too, dart my eyes around when they land on a small sparrow sitting upright and stunned by the leg of my front porch chair. “Yes!” I say, “There!”

I hop up from the couch, run to the front door, throw it open, and scoop up the small bird in my hands. I instantly recognize this sparrow because it’s been making a home with his or her partner in the birdhouse hanging over head. [that story here, if you missed it.] The tiny creature barely flinches as I hold its delicate, nearly weightless body in my hands. With the tip of my finger and as gently as I can, I stroke his or her back and whisper, “it’s okay, it’s okay” over and over again.

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“Shh, shh, little sparrow.”

From inside, my friend opens the window and asks me if the bird is okay, to which I reply that I think so. It’s breathing and nothing looks broken.

Several minutes pass and I stand to try and transfer the sparrow into its house where I can hear his or her partner chirping and as I lift my hands, the tiny birds hops onto the birdhouse, looks at me, and cocks its tiny head.

As the day goes on, I keep an eye on the front porch to ensure that there’s no injured sparrow and much to my delight, I catch both sparrows returning to their birdhouse later on in the afternoon and disappearing inside of it. I’m pleased to know that I didn’t scare them away: I worried that might’ve happened as soon as I cupped the bird into my hands.

This sparrow situation comes on the tail of two weeks in which Andre, one of my Rhode Island Red Hens, has been missing. You may remember her, she was the broody one who ultimately hatched Bowie, our bright and boisterous rooster [that story here]. She’s also the one who habitually pecks at the back door to get my attention and hopefully, table scraps.

I let my hens free range most days (especially in the humid stillness of summer) and two weeks ago, she didn’t come back to the coop. Had it been any of my other hens, I wouldn’t worry so much, assuming they’d decided to go on a walkabout and perhaps they found love on someone else’s property and decided to stay. Andre though, well she’s a homebody; a mama’s girl. At this point, I’ve assumed the worst and it just breaks my heart. I love that hen. I love her so much so that I had a t-shirt made with her photo on it earlier this year because well…just because.

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In addition to that gut-tugging sense of loss, I’m feeling like a failure that Andre has gone missing, like I should’ve done more. In hindsight, however, her being out of the coop in the first place was me trying to be a good chicken mom. I wanted for her and her sisters to have some breezy, fresh air and those really juicy, flicking bugs that hop around in the summer grass. Sometimes, I suppose, things just happen beyond our best control and despite our best intentions.

I never thought I’d miss a chicken so much but then again, there’s a lot that I didn’t know about myself until I moved here and there’s a heck of a lot I’m still figuring out. I think one of the most important things I’ve learned is just how deeply responsible we are for one another, human and animal alike. It is our responsibility to be kind, to help where we can, and to try and understand one another even when we think we have no obligation to do so. We should lift each other up, hold each other, keep an eye out for one another so that when someone falls, you’re there to lift them up and help them home. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on these days—a lot of hearts sealed shut and it’s destroying us. 

Perhaps Andre is off finding herself. Perhaps she’s doing exactly what I’ve been doing for the past several years—taking a grand adventure to meet new characters and discover her own strength—and one day, I’ll hear a little tap tap tap on the back door and open it to find two little orange eyes looking up at me. I can only hope with all my heart that that’s the case.

Andre
Andre the wonder hen

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Until then, I’m glad to know I’ve not scared the sparrows off yet. I’m tickled to know that the two of them are floofed up together in that gently swaying birdhouse that we built. I fully intend on keeping a close eye out for them, there to catch them if they fall. 

Two Worlds Diverged in a Summer Afternoon

It was high, hot noon as I drove along the gravel road that leads to our house. As I pulled up, I stepped out of the pickup truck to open the rusted gate. The pink crepe myrtles along the front fence were in full, summer bloom—their tiny flowers winking as if to welcome us home. The railings of the gate were hot against my hands as I pulled it open while flicking, grass bugs darted around underneath its squeaky, rolling wheel. I climbed back into the truck and pulled into the driveway—gravel crunching and popping beneath the tires.

Little Foot was asleep in his car seat as I pressed the brake down with my left foot and moved the truck’s stick into neutral. Bunny and Tyrion were grazing slowly in the front paddock but had stopped to watch me pull into the driveway. I leaned back in my seat and turned up the air conditioner.

In the yard, I watched one of our red hens, Andre, scratch underneath one of the magnolia trees with her newly hatched chick, Julep. This hatching came as a surprise to us. Andre had started brooding in our mint plant a few weeks back and honestly, I thought she’d just gone a little batty. It was too hot to be brooding, I thought, and certainly an odd spot. Then, just two days ago, she hatched another chick: right there in the shade of the mint.

Bowie, the chick who Andre hatched a couple months ago [that story here] follows them closely and it’s really something to watch—mom, baby, and new baby. Little siblings. Little family.

Andre and her chicks disappeared beneath the shade of the tree as I laid my head back and closed my eyes—the a/c vent aimed right at my face. When I closed my eyes, I saw a scene in my head that just a couple of hours ago, I wish I hadn’t witnessed. I tried to shake it but I couldn’t, so I opened my eyes—the light painfully bright.

I won’t give you the gritty details because I don’t want you to see it in your mind’s eye either. But for a long story made short, a few hours ago, I saw a man getting jumped by two other men at an intersection in the next town over on my way to teach a yoga class. There were screams and there was blood. And in that moment, I was helpless to assist because number one, I had Little Foot in the car and number two, I was scared of the men who were being violent.

I did pull across the street into a bank parking lot and called the police. I stayed with them on the phone until police showed up, all the while, describing to the phone operator what I was seeing in as much detail as I could.

As I drove away, I cried. I cried a lot. I called King Ranch and my mom and cried to them, unsure of what to say or think.

I’ve never seen anyone get jumped. I’ve never seen it outside of movies or TV shows. With as much violence as there is on TV and in movies, I guess I thought if I ever did see it in real life, I would be desensitized.

But in real life, it is terrifying. It is bone-rattling. And it is shocking.

I noticed then that from inside our house, our dog, Tucker, was watching me curiously from the front window. His tongue hung down low and his ears were perked enthusiastically, so I turned the keys in the ignition and opened the driver’s side door. Little Foot must have felt the silencing of the engine because he fussed until he saw my face; then he grinned widely. I pulled his stretching body from his car seat and from the front paddock, both Bunny and Tee brayed.

With Little Foot propped up on my hip, I closed the front gate and reached over the fence to pat both Bunny and Tee’s noses before walking up the driveway to the front door. As I walked, I kissed Little Foot’s cheek over and over again. Andre and her babies hopped out from beneath the tree chasing a flicking bug and I could hear Tucker barking with excitement.

Inside, the running a/c and Tucker’s wagging tail welcomed us. I set Little Foot on the ground in the entry way and he took off running towards his box of blocks. I sat down at the kitchen table and stared out the window unable to hold my tears once again.

There were no words I could conjure and still, I have nothing profound to say—just that there is a whole, beautiful, vibrant, life-giving world existing alongside a very violent, angry, unfair, and hurtful one. I wish we could all live together in the nice one. I really do. I hope that one day, we all can.

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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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