Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


The True Story of the Mama Hen


She came to us because she wanted, desperately, to be a mother. And we welcomed her, not knowing all that this would entail.

She was our neighbor’s chicken, a black Astralorp hen named Shadow. And she was broody. It was her instinct, and her obsession. She gathered a clutch of eggs, and sat on them. She warmed them and turned them. And sat on them. For weeks. She wouldn’t leave her eggs to eat or to drink water. She fought any pesky humans who tried to pull her off.

She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know that her infertile eggs would never hatch. She never looked up from her nesting box and thought, “Hmm, there doesn’t seem to be any rooster.”

And so Shadow sat. And sat. And drove her pesky humans crazy.

The only real way to break a hen of her broodiness is to give her what she wants. Chicks. And if you live in the city and can’t have a rooster, one way to get chicks is to order them through the mail. Her first owners weren’t up for chicks, not this year, and so she came to be with us.

022A few weeks after she moved in to our coop, a grinning postal worker delivered a peeping box. Fifteen fuzzy babies, only a day and a half old. The night, when Shadow was fast asleep, we reached under her warm body and replaced eggs with chicks. In the morning, a new set of instincts kicked in.

She was, as we expected, an excellent mother. She protected her chicks from the other hens, and taught them important chicken life skills like how to take dust baths. During the day they rode around on her back, and at night they disappeared under her wings. She had beautiful instincts.003

But then, one rainy night when the chicks were just two weeks old, everything changed.

It was my job to lock up the coop at night, and one night I forgot. At four a.m. we were awakened by chicken screams. We ran out into the rain and discovered the grisly remains of a raccoon attack. Feathers and blood were everywhere, and the remaining chickens were huddled in the back of the coop. There were peeps coming from under a black chicken, but it was impossible to tell how many were left.

We locked up and gave up until daylight.

When the sun came up, we returned to the coop. As the traumatized chickens staggered down the ramp, I counted and prayed that Shadow was among the survivors.

The chicks were following a black hen, trying to jump up on her back. Was it Shadow? No, she ignored them and shook them off. A red hen pecked at one of the chicks and I waited for Shadow to respond.

There was no response. Five chicks and two hens were missing. And Shadow was one of them.

We locked up the chicks to keep them safe from the other hens, and I went to our bedroom to cry. I kept picturing her with the chicks peeping out of her wings. Why hadn’t I locked up the coop? How could I have forgotten? Everything in me longed to turn back the clock, but I couldn’t. She was gone.

And then.

There was yelling in the yard. Banging on the back door. “Get out here!” our neighbor called, “There’s a beat up chicken heading for the coop!”

And so we ran outside. A wet, bleeding black chicken was staggering across the yard. She could barely walk. Half her feathers were gone. Her back was ripped open, one of her wings was hanging down.

She was heading straight for the coop. The chicks started peeping madly. We looked at her gaping wounds, looked at each other. “Should we let her in there?” “Well, it’s obviously what she wants.”

Gingerly, we set her in the coop. She clucked at her chicks, gathering them under her remaining good wing. We stared, stunned. You could see every remaining muscle fiber in her neck and back. I sat in the dirt and buried my head in my knees. “She’ll never make it. There’s no point.”

073My husband lifted her and pulled her into his body. “We have to try” he said. “We have to.”

And so we brought her into the house and wrapped her in a towel. My husband is not a surgeon, but he is a cook, and let’s just say that he’s worked with chicken before. We found a needle, thread, distilled water, and hydrogen peroxide. We got to work.

She didn’t seem to feel the stitches. She was barely conscious, but every time she passed out, we brought a chick in from the coop. As soon as we held it in front of her, peeping, she would wake up and start clucking at it. We kept going.

Three hours later, we returned her to the coop and the chicks surrounded her. One jumped up on her back, right on her stitches, and I cringed. But we couldn’t separate them. They were the reason she returned. Her instinct drove her back, and-as it turned out-her instinct would keep her alive.

Shadow was, and continues to be, the mother hen.

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This story was written and performed for Listen to Your Mother’s inaugural show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can see a video of me reading it here:

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Chicken Honeymoon

So, I think that we are in the honeymoon stage of urban chicken farming.

On Thursday I was feeling a good bit of chicken-guilt because the poor hens had been shut in their coop for two rainy days (“It’s just so that you can understand how your factory-farmed sisters live” I told them, but they were not comforted by my solidarity pep talk).  The weather was lovely, we were home all afternoon and I decided to give ranging a try.  So I set them down on the grass and held my breath as I waited to see if they would head straight for the road.

Did I mention that chickens are really really really hard to catch?  I could just picture myself jumping fences through my neighbor’s backyards, red-faced and sputtering apologies, as I dove after black feathers.  Great.  As if we aren’t already known as the weird farming white people.

But it didn’t happen.  After an initial flutter of wings, they headed straight for a bush two feet from their coop.  Then they walked, in a group, to eat some grass two feet from the bush, and then they returned to their coop-area  to get some water.  Then back to the bush.  No drama, no chasing, no stress… just water, grass and scratching for worms.  I was so relieved that I wanted to hug them, but instead I just sat in the grass.

Things got more exciting when the kids came home.  They were thrilled to discover that the chicken-holding-ban had been lifted and spent hours stalking their new pets.  We had rules of course–no running, don’t chase them away from the center of the yard, try not to scare them, no screaming… hey stop screaming or I’ll have to put them back in the coop… but overall the kids were GREAT.  Really, they deserve the caps there.

In fact, it turns out that my oldest daughter is a chicken whisperer.  She rivals the older neighbor girls as a chicken catcher, but leaves them in the dust in regards to calming and soothing the hens.  At first I was impressed because they would let her hold them.  Then I was in awe because they would stay in her lap when she was not holding them.  But then… but then… she actually got one of them to sleep in the baby swing… sorry, I have to use caps again… to SLEEP in the BABY SWING.  While she pushed it and sang a lullaby.  A CHICKEN.  You just can’t make this stuff up.

And that my friends is why we are having a chicken honeymoon.  Yes, they poop in their waterer.  Yes, I still have to walk though the wet grass at 6:30 a.m. to feed them.  Yes, we still have to figure out how to get the two-ton structure known as their coop into a shadier spot.  Yes, all this and more, but seeing a chicken fall asleep in a baby swing pushed by a four year old grinning with joy… Let’s just say that it makes up for a lot of poop.

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Yonder is the Sea

In my late teens and early twenties I spent four summers working at Lutheran summer camps–as kitchen staff and counselor, in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.  During these formative years, a fixture in my life was a woman named Mir.  Mir was the environmental education director at both of the camps I worked at (I essentially followed Mir and her camp-director-husband to North Carolina).  She was as short as her name, perpetually wearing hiking boots and packed with enthusiasm and energy for the natural world.

During the afternoon “activity time” I would sign my cabin up for one of Mir’s offerings.  She offered a slew of options, but my favorite was “Creek Critters.”  It was a simple concept.  We would gather at the creek and Mir would give us small plastic containers and largish eye-droppers.  Then we were set free to gather water samples and whatever critters we could corral (no water snakes please).  The samples would go under low-power microscopes and campers would watch tiny creek-dwellers dance across the slides.  Mir would congratulate each find as if the camper had discovered a new species.  It was bacteria and little bugs, but it was really really exciting.

The best part was the end.  After we had carefully released our critters,  Mir would stand at the bank of the creek and announce Psalm 104.  “Oh Lord, how manifold are your works!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”  The campers–and I–were transfixed.  “Yonder is the sea, great and wide,” she indicated the creek with a grin and a wide sweep of her arm, “full of creeping things both small and great.”  Her eyes would shine as she exhorted us to take care of all that God had made, and we would return to the cabin with her words ringing in our ears.

It’s been more than a decade since I stood in those woods and heard Mir pronounce God’s manifold wisdom over creatures “great and small”, but I’ve never completely lost the sense of wonder that accompanied her words.  It came back to me this week as I was standing in my backyard, watching a swarm of children play and argue and run and fall, grinning as the goofy chickens shook and pecked and flapped and clucked, and wondering how so much life could be contained in one city backyard.

And yes, I did just compare my children to bacteria.

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Of Hens and Housemates

So, I’m starting to get used to the look on people’s faces–the LOOK–when I tell them our upcoming plans.  The conversation goes something like this:

Friend:  Hi Jen.

Jen:  Hi friend.

Friend: So what’s been going on with you?

Jen:  Well, we’ve got some big changes coming up.  First, we’ll be getting five chickens this weekend.  Then a family with two little boys will be moving in with us the following weekend.  There’s a lot to do to get ready.

Friend:  (giving the LOOK)  Wow… that’s… uh… interesting.

It is interesting, and also terrifying, hopeful, exciting, overwhelming, exhausting, etc.  Yesterday as we were finishing the chicken coop (i.e. as cute husband was out in the HAIL screwing plywood over a door that there was no time to finish) and our soon-to-be housemates were painting their bedroom, I found myself pacing the first floor of the house, wading through the piles of laundry (oh, we can’t leave things like this once we have another family living here), wondering if the chickens would be eaten by racoons (can they scratch through plexiglass in one night?), and half-heartedly refereeing kid arguments  (Girrrrrllllls… if you share you can come with me to get the chickens in a little bit.  How about a lollipop?).

I was processing.  I still am.  And that’s what this blog is about–documenting a journey, a journey that seems so crazy (oh so worthy of the LOOK), but one that will become regular life around here.

Oh, and by the way, the chickens did make it through their first night, leaving an astounding quantity of chicken poop in their wake.  And the housemates finished their room-painting sometime after I was sound asleep (passed out) last night… they have great taste in colors.