A Pile of Feathers

I stopped at the pile of feathers in the middle of the path. Reddish-brown, edged in dark green. Shiniqua, definitely Shiniqua. Nothing more than feathers so far, Thank God, but a lot of them. Perhaps just as ominous was the silence I noticed as I approached the coop, which is usually alive with squawks and clucks on a warm, sunny day such as this.

When I left them this morning the girls were busily clucking and scratching at the grass (we haven't seen grass around here since November). The girls and I have been on the same wavelength these past two weeks, probably every creature in the Northeast has: Winter's gone and it ain't coming back! After months of being stuck inside our various abodes (where do you think the term "cooped up"? comes from?), you could forgive us for a little reckless abandon in the sunshine.

But this pile of feathers put some of the chill back in the air.

Predators. One of the starker realities of raising chickens. And this wasn't the first time the issue had come up. Less than two months ago I had to dispatch two possums - one with a shovel, the other with a gun - who'd taken an unhealthy interest in my girls. Not a job I enjoyed. I like possums. I like their primitive stick-to-itiveness (they've been skulking about for something like 70 million years and have not evolved one iota in that time). I like their toothy bravado which I suspect is more bark than bite seeing as these are the guys whose claim to fame is their ability to play dead. A few years back, when a family of them moved under our shed for the winter, my wife and I went so far as to name them: The McGillicuttys.

But having children - even if they're chickens - changes everything. I'd named them too that day I brought them home from the poultry swap. Margaret, Paige, Pam, Patty, Tammy, and Shiniqua. Only a Wannabe Farmer names his animals, proof that his flock is pathetically small and that he has no intention of eating any one of them.

Shiniqua emerged as my favorite over the winter. Not sure what she did to so endear herself to me. She'd never shown the independent spirit of, say, Margaret. Or the productivity of some of the other girls (yes, I've had some personality issues with Pam and Patty, but never with the quantity or the quality of their eggs). If anything, Shiniqua has probably been the least productive of the layers. Maybe it's because she and Tammy were the mutts in this group of purebreds. She, probably a mix of Rhode Island Red and something else; the clumsy, lumbering Tammy probably a cross between a Brahma and that same something else. There was something winning about these refugees from a mixed up coop, even if the other four hens didn't see it (from what I can tell it's fair to say that Tammy and Shiniqua are at the bottom of the pecking order). Shiniqua has always been Number One when it comes to cuteness. She reminds me of a little Catholic school girl in a plain brown frock, waiting with her book bag for the bus to arrive. But it's less the way she looks than the way she looks at you. She has a definite way of holding you with that little brown eye of hers (chickens, having eyes on opposite sides of their heads, can only focus one of them at a time). Many's the time I've been chattering away to the girls - thanking them for their eggs, lambasting them for the placement of one of their other by-products - when I've looked down and caught that oh-so-intent gaze seeming to say, "Go ahead, Paul, I'm listening."? Like any true Wannabe Farmer, I'm constantly anthropomorphizing this way, projecting deep psychological meanings onto behavior that probably means little more than, "Got food?"? But there's something about that clear, steady eye that makes you wonder, Does she know? Does she get it?

Just two weeks ago I was in Rome visiting the Sistine Chapel (only Wannabe Farmers visit the Sistine Chapel, real farmers don't have the time). And there I was craning my head back, turning my ear to hear what the tour guide was whispering, when I suddenly thought of Shiniqua and how, if I looked down and saw her there at that moment, surely she would give me a look that said, "This really is something, isn't it, Paul?"? Followed no doubt by, "Got food?"? Which is just to say how deeply this little hen has worked her way into my Wannabe Farmer's heart.

So my sense of dread was high when I opened the door to the coop, as was my sense of relief when I found all six hens accounted for, including Shiniqua, minus a clump of feathers on her butt but otherwise intact. That reckless abandon that came with the sun was now gone, replaced with nervous looks and a few low, anxious clucks. I don't know what attacked Shiniqua. I didn't see any dog or raccoon tracks (not that I'm the Indian tracker type) so I suspect it was a hawk. Of course, no one capable of human speech can tell me exactly what happened but I imagine it involved some desperate moments and a lot of squawking and scrambling before my terrified little girl managed to break free and make it back to the safety of the coop. I guess that's why chickens have all those feathers on their asses (kind of like those breakaway jerseys, now illegal, that for a time were so popular in the NFL).

I'm happy she made it, the coop wouldn't be the same without Shiniqua. But there's not much more I can do for her or any of the girls other than give them a good home and hope the hawks decide they're not worth the bother. (Probably wishful thinking. In an old photo of our farm, taken in the 1920's, I noticed a kind of hawk trap in the barnyard, so clearly this isn't a new problem in these parts.) I guess there's not much else any of us can do for our children, chicken or otherwise.

Paul Spencer
The Wannabe Farmer

You can contact Paul at spencer212@gmail.com

A Chicken Murder Mystery
Bye Bye Birdie
Too Much of a Good Thing
Mr. Fraidy
My Three-Leaved Nemisis
Psycho Rooster
A Pile of Feathers
Plan Bee
Agway Chic
Purple Prose
My Atkins Advisors
This Old Barn
My Old Truck

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