In February of last year, Richie got me two hens. He’d spent a decent part of the winter building an impenetrable chicken fortress that would keep them safe from our local evil genius pine martens. We called the henhouse Sereggnity–or rather, I did, because I am the lover of terrible puns in this house.
The hens we brought home I named Flora and Elfine. They were both red hybrid chickens from the same flock, but Flora was slightly smaller and darker, Elfine a bit taller and brighter. Flora’s eggs were smaller and darker than Elfine’s, too. Both of them were tremendous layers and, except for a slight tendency to bully the cat, very friendly and docile. Within a few weeks it was hard to imagine life without them. Last week Flora got sick. I found her one afternoon huddled down by the goat shed, feathers puffy, her comb nearly white instead of bright red (the surest sign a chicken isn’t healthy). I brought her inside and put her in a box with some dry hay, food and water, then went online to do some research.
I’ll spare you the chicken health class or the sad details, but it turned out that an egg had broken inside of her. We did what we could (only follow the link if you actually want to learn about emergency chicken care), but she died the next morning. I’ve lived with animals all my life. I’ve had beloved pets die and it’s been utterly heartbreaking. I’ve also lived on a farm before, and I know that death is a normal part of this kind of life. My husband grew up farming, and he knows that even better than I do.
But we were both very saddened by losing Flora. We are omnivores, and we may well keep chickens that are destined for the pot someday. We ate a goat that we raised, and it was even harder for both of us than we’d predicted when the day came for his death. But that absolutely does not mean we don’t love our animals and do everything we can so that they suffer as little as possible. When you are responsible for a stock animal, when it’s part of your working life, you feel a particular duty toward it that is different, but not totally outside the realm of the responsibility you feel toward a pet. Flora had a job–producing eggs–and in exchange, our job was keeping her safe, healthy, and happy. So part of my sadness comes from wondering if there was more I could have done for her, if I could have noticed her sickness sooner, things like that.
I’m still learning to be a good farmer. I love my goats, and I love my hens, too. Their lives may seem small, but they are so important. Lives like theirs keep the rest of ours going.
So this might seem like a lot of thought to put into the death of a hen, especially from someone who eats chicken for dinner at least once a week. But my sadness for and gratitude to Flora is important. I know it is. It has to be.
A hen on her own will get anxious and scared, so we picked up a new black-and-white feathered companion for Elfine this week. Richie named her Lisbeth, which has proved very apt. This new girl is crazy like a fox, with a wild eye and every intention of busting out of the coop at any moment.
In fact, this morning she made a sprint down the road to the next farm, and it is only by the grace of my having a ridiculously fit husband that she wasn’t gone forever. I haven’t laughed as hard in a while as I did watching Richie and Lisbeth sprint down the road at breakneck speed, then face each other down as if they were in a Western shootout. Hens can run damn fast, you know.
She’s no Flora, who sometimes hopped up on the picnic bench for a cuddle, but she shouldn’t be. She’s pretty and funny and she’s already pulled Elfine out of her funk. We’re glad to have her.
Rest in peace, Flora Poste, the first hen I kept. We’ll watch Cold Comfort Farm in your memory this week.
Flora is a fairly cuddly chicken. #chickens #hens #henstagram #farmlife #homesteading A video posted by Betsy Cornwell (@betsycornwell) on