As I write this, Little Red Harvey, my convalescing chicken, is taking an afternoon snooze in a patch of March sunlight, her beak tucked under her sparsely feathered wing. I got very sleepy watching her. A napping chicken, I’ve discovered, is a powerful soporific.
After seventeen days of living in an extra-large dog crate here in the house, she was relocated yesterday afternoon to Little Red’s Chicken Shed, a rehabilitation institute of sorts. For ten days she couldn’t even use her legs; she did a weird sort of scooting crab-walk to get around. Now she can walk, but she tends to step on her own feet. I’m pleased that she hardly ever tips over anymore, but she still hasn’t quite remastered using her wings to fly up to a perch.
The new chicken annex, which is right next door to the regular-size chicken coop, came into being because we are getting ready to go out of town for a few days. For the life of me I could not figure out how to explain to our three-part relay team of house sitters that they’d be caring for two cats, two dogs, eighteen busy chickens and oh, by the way, there’s a wounded chicken in a crate next to the woodstove who needs to be taken outside for physical therapy every afternoon.
I spent two-and-a-half days building this miniature chicken coop out of scrap lumber. Little Red’s Chicken Shed has a small outdoor pen, a chicken-sized door that opens by wire and pulley from outside, a round screen window, a roost/nesting shelf, a hinged panel on the back that allows me to reach inside to do maintenance and Little Red to come out to play in the afternoons, and a little tiny calendar on the wall so she can count the days it takes to heal and grow back her feathers. She has a nice crop of quarter-inch stubble coming in, which is a great relief. I found it tremendously disconcerting to be rendering care to a chicken whose back looked a little too much like the plucked poultry I like to roast with rosemary and garlic.
The most sophisticated computer program in the world, I realized this morning, could not impress me more than the complex DNA instructions according to which Little Red’s cells are crafting these exquisite, intricate feathers to replace what was so swiftly and thoughtlessly purloined by a dog.
I have been trying a few social experiments, but Little Red is just not ready to be reintegrated into the flock yet. This is the first time I have really seen the dark side of chickens. With her puncture wounds, missing feathers and lameness, Little Red is practically wearing a Peck Me sign on her back. The other chickens just will not leave her in peace when she’s this vulnerable; they go into attack mode. Much as I am dismayed by their uncivil behavior, I must accept that it’s simply part of the instinctive pecking order system and the survival of the fittest. Little Red, by the rest of the flock’s standards, is not very fit at present.
Without my intervention, she would almost certainly not be alive, so there’s little doubt I’ve messed with the natural order of things. I still do not know if I have done her any favors by my acts of mercy. Now she’s much more acclimated to humans, dogs and cats, which may not be to her best advantage. The dogs enjoyed sleeping with their noses up by the door of her crate while she sat just inside and pecked at vegetables. The cats crawled all over the crate and tried to stick their paws in the vents. She seemed to enjoy being with us, interjecting little comments from time to time, staying up late and watching us play cards in the evening.
Chances are, now that Little Red has a place of her own, I miss her more than she misses me, which is the same dynamic as when your kid goes off to college. She appeared to be pleased with her Chicken Shed. I designed it to mirror in miniature the features of the big coop in which she grew up, so she’d know where to go and what to do. Sure enough, just after sunset last night, she went inside. This morning, the minute I opened the door, she walked proudly down her little ramp.
As for me, I found myself missing her this afternoon as I was vacuuming up seeds and feathers by the woodstove. Have I ever mentioned that we clean our house with a 12-gallon shop vac? A first I thought this was a little strange, but now it makes a great deal of sense. Life on a ranch tends to be, well, chunky. Feathers, fur, grass, seeds, pebbles, mud, all species of dung (or dung of all species), you name it, it ends up in the house. Anyway, I was cleaning house when I got to thinking about Little Red and missing her. I went out to sit on an old milk crate next to her pen in the warm sunlight. I talked sweetly to her, a mix of Chickenese and English (which I guess would be Chicklish), telling her I’d been thinking of her fondly, which is exactly when she hunkered down in the opposite corner of the pen, tucked her beak under her wing and promptly fell asleep.
Maybe she was bored with me. Maybe the sound of my voice is like a lullaby to her. Maybe she was just plumb tuckered. No matter the reason, Little Red seems pretty darn happy with her Chicken Shed, which pleases me enormously.