Of the five hens we brought home in March, three remain. Augusta turned out to be a rooster. We loved him, but our neighbors did not. (Or so we were told by the police officer who rang our doorbell one Saturday morning at six o’clock.) We found him a new home and, honestly? It was a relief not to hear him crowing at four o’clock the next morning.

Agatha seemed fine one day and then, suddenly and decidedly, not fine the next. While her sisters scratched and pecked incessantly, Agatha stood motionless. Her comb, normally plump and erect, was thin and limp and lay folded over on her head. A hastily-searched internet diagnosis of an impacted crop had me trying a few home remedies. One called for olive oil and turning Agatha upside down. I was out of my depth.

During my ministrations my youngest daughter looked on and worried. Is she going to be okay? Is she going to die? I was about to remind her that these were farm animals and that I had said from the very beginning that were going to let nature take its course. Instead, I called the vet. They had an opening at ten o’clock. Seventy-five dollars.

I found a box and put some fresh shavings in it. Agatha didn’t run or resist when I collected her from the coop. Once in the box she hunkered down and didn’t move. I brought her up onto the patio and set her on the table there so that I could keep an eye on her. Every now and then she’d peek up over the edge of the box, her glassy eye looking at I don’t know what.

She did have an impacted crop, it turns out, but that’s not what killed her. I was driving home from the feed store when they called to tell me she had died as they were attempting to flush her crop. The doctor, a young woman seemingly fresh from school and certainly half my age, told me as gently as she could. What surprised me was not that Agatha had died, but that I felt a lump rise in my throat upon hearing the news.

Later, the avian specialist on staff offered to perform a necropsy (fifty dollars). He found that Agatha was riddled with coccidiosis and told me that the rest of our flock was likely suffering, too. He sent me home with some medication (twelve dollars and fifty cents), cautioning me that there were no guarantees. Agatha was back in her box, having been cut open and stitched up, her glassy eye now cloudy. “You’ll want to keep her horizontal,” he said to me. “I’ve stuffed her full of paper towels but, still,” he hesitated. “She may leak.”

I thanked him. We buried Agatha in the back yard. I flew to Chicago the next day to attend my sister’s wedding, so it was left to my son to nurse the rest of flock through their infestation. He was valiant. Penny, Betsy, and Dahlia are alive and well.

When I returned from Chicago I found a condolence card from the vet, signed by everyone in the office, offering our family solace on the passing of Agatha.


Before the coop was built but after I decided the chickens were too big to live in a box in the garage all day, I put them in shopping bags and carried them to the back yard every morning. I’d set down the bags by the ailing cherry tree and lift out the birds and off they’d go; flapping and squawking, tiny dinosaur feet trotting across the grass, necks outstretched, beaks divining freedom.

When ranging free in the yard they are nearly impossible to catch. We dutifully handled them as often as we could when they were chicks, having been told this would make them docile and easy to manage as they got older. But it didn’t take. Try to catch them and they run away. Try to corner them and they dodge and weave, fake to the left, dart between your legs. We laugh at how funny they look as they try to evade us, but it is we who, in the end, look foolish.

But then, in the evening as dusk comes, they gather by the back door. They mill about just outside and when I look out at them they freeze in their tracks and look up at me, each one cocking her head at an angle best suited to sizing me. I find them inscrutable.

It’s the one time of day they don’t run away at our approach. Instead, it seems to occur to them that we may be useful after all. When we sit on the patio chairs they fly onto our knees and from there to our shoulders where they take a minute to arrange their primeval feet, and then settle into a squat, content.

They sleep in a coop now where there are two fine roosts. But we have to catch them to put them in there.

A few weeks ago my daughter and I bought some baby chickens at the local feed store. I am hopeful they are the hens I want for the sake of their eggs, and not the roosters for which I will have to develop a contingency plan. Time will tell.

I’ve never craved the affection of a dog or a cat — or a turtle for that matter — not even as a child. When my own children have asked about the possiblitity of getting a pet my answer has been a steadfast refusal. My husband and I have always felt we’ve had enough on our plate, enough strings attached to our hearts.</span></p>
<p><span style=”font-family: arial, helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 11pt;”>Raising chickens, however, is something I’ve been curious about for a long time and have been considering carefully for several years. I like the idea of animal husbandry and see this effort as a nod toward self-sufficiency.

On the way home from the feed store my daughter, delirious with excitement, held the brown carrier box lined with wood shavings on her lap. The carrier was roughly the size and shape of a Happy Meal box and my daughter opened the top and gazed at the chicks as they cheeped madly and pecked at the sides of the box. I reminded her that she should consider them as farm animals, not pets. “Under no circumstances,” I told her, “are we going to heroic efforts for the sake of these animals.”

“Don’t worry, Agatha,” I heard her say, to the black one she’d already named.

“Sweetheart,” I said. “Did you hear me? We’ll take good care of them and do the best we can to treat them if they get sick. But I don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on a dying chicken. Should it come to that, we’re going to let nature takes its course.”

“It’s okay, Dahlia,” she said, to the yellow one.

She named the brown one Betsy.

Once home, we lined the bottom of an old plastic storage container with wood shavings and hung a warming lamp over it. We filled the water and food dispensers. Daughter removed the chicks from the carrying box and released them into their new home. They ran from one end of the container to the other, and back and forth again, chirping excitedly to each other as if they couldn’t believe in their good fortune. All this space, just for us! They pecked at the food. They drank some water. They pooped. They fell asleep.

I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I tossed and turned and checked on the chicks to make sure they were still breathing, still alive. Are they warm enough? (Lower the heat lamp.) Are they too hot? (Raise the heat lamp.) Why are they huddled together? (Lower the heat lamp.) Why are they over in the corner? (Raise the heat lamp.)

A few days later I bought two more chicks: Penny and Augusta. The five of them are quickly outgrowing the storage container, and don’t know any better than to kick wood shavings into their water dish.

I’m tired of sitting on this shore so I’ve left it for a distant one. I guess I’ll have to learn to swim. You’ll throw me an inner tube, or something, if I start to flounder. Right?