I know it has been a long time – too long – but with two little ones under 2, it’s hard to find time to do everything, and unfortunately, blogging doesn’t even rank right now. But when I am heartsick, when I am sore on the inside, writing is the only remedy I know.
Urban chickens – have you heard the term? I guess raising chickens in cities has become quite the trend. For me, though, it wasn’t about being trendy, or even about the eggs – it was about adding two new family members, because I am fond of animals, and I can never have too many pets. Recently someone told me shelters are being flooded with chickens, because people stupidly adopted them not realizing quite how short a time they lay eggs (sometimes only a year or two) versus how long they live (sometimes up to 20 years!). As far as I am concerned, that is far more a blessing that a curse – when I adopt a pet, the longer the lifespan, the better.
Growing up we had everything from guinea pigs to budgies, lizards to ducks, as well as the standard range of dogs, cats, and rodentia. My father, a grumpy hardass in most respects, was tenderhearted to a fault when it came to animals, and I inherited that trait from him in spades, to the point that I’m even vegetarian. Besides pets, we also took in strays and rescues, releasing them back into the wild when they recovered, burying them somberly when they did not. So when, as an adult, I made a friend who had a small flock of chickens, I was delighted by the idea of adding two feathered friends to my own menagerie. She happily obliged me by “surprising” me with two chicks for my birthday, though it was my husband who was more surprised – and maybe not as delighted.
I hand-reared Cocoa, a feisty brown Americauna, and Sugar, a docile while leghorn, from two weeks old. They lived in a Rubbermaid bin in our living room, and sat in my lap as I watched TV. When they were old enough, they were moved outside to a coop, but they never forgot their roots, and any time the back door was open, they would charge inside. Cocoa invariably found me, followed me, and as soon as I’d sit, would hop into my lap, cleaning her feathers as I stroked her.
Over the years, we lost a few hens (did you know “chicken” is actually the term for their meat? While alive, they are chicks, pullets, hens, or roosters). Sugar was taken by a raccoon when we carelessly and naively forgot to lock their coop one night. Her replacement, Betty, was snatched while rooming at a friend’s while we were on vacation. Cocoa’s third and final roommate was Pepper, a Black Rock. Cocoa was initially aggressive with Pep, who was a chick when I adopted her, so I got Pep a friend – Josie – who turned out to be a rooster. “Joe” now lives on the farm where I adopted him, protecting a flock of his own. By the time I realized he was a rooster, both he and Pepper were full grown, and Pepper was able to hold her own against Cocoa. So Joe departed, but Pepper stayed. And for the last couple years, the Cocoa and Pepper have been inseparable.
Gregory, my 22 month old, loves the hens. He knows their names, and they’re not afraid of him – he’s able to walk right up to them, and more often that not he squeals with glee when he sees them. My husband and I have often remarked how fortunate we are to have the hens, and to be able to have our children grow up with such a diverse example of life and companionship.
Last night, my husband went down at 9pm to lock the hens into their coop while I nursed our 4 month old. I knew something was wrong when my cell phone rang and it was him.
“Cocoa’s not in the coop,” he told me.
“I’ll be right there,” I answered, laying Conor down and hurrying outside.
Pepper was in the coop; Cocoa was not. I called, “Cocoa! Cocoa bird!” but there was no answer (she would, at least, reply by softly clucking when I called her – during daylight hours, she would run to me). We prowled the yard with flashlights but could see no sign. Suddenly, we heard a rustling down in the lower yard, in the brush. After some looking, we saw it – a fat raccoon.
I asked my husband, who was by the coop, if he saw feathers – a tell-tale sign if a hen has been snatched. Initially he said no, but after further looking around, he said yes. He locked Pepper in, and we let Georgia, our dog, down to chase the raccoon off.
I began crying in the yard, knowing the worst without having to see it with my own eyes. Although we didn’t see blood, and the amount of feathers we saw was survivable, there were too many factors to indicate Cocoa was gone. When I gathered myself, I sadly returned to the house. As I climbed the stairs to my bedroom, I heard a soft sobbing coming from Gregory’s room. I entered to see if he was okay and discovered he was crying quietly in his sleep.
I messaged my friend who had the small flock and asked if she could take Pepper indefinitely. I knew Pep would be lost without Cocoa, and I don’t have the time or energy to raise another chick right now. She was sympathetic and agreed immediately, letting me know she could pick Pepper up today.
I woke this morning and immediately looked out into the yard. Although I knew we’d lost Cocoa, hope, as they say, springs eternal, and some sliver of my heart prayed that perhaps she’d somehow dodged the reaper yet again. I went down to the yard as my kids had breakfast, but there was no sign of her, and the coop and run were covered in muddy raccoon footprints – they’d come back to try to get Pepper.
Again this afternoon I returned to the yard, this time with Gregory in tow. Pepper was hiding in the coop, which is very unlike her – she’s clearly shaken up and lonely. Gregory asked for Cocoa numerous times, which of course caused me to begin crying again. As we climbed the stairs back up to the house, he said, “Bye bye, Cocoa. Bye bye, Cocoa.” And when we got back inside, with absolutely no coaching or input from me, he said, “Bye bye, Cocoa. All gone.”
I have always known that the more creatures you allow yourself to love, the more likelihood there is of being hurt. Loving a prey animal is especially hard, and loving an animal that others do not see as a pet, but rather as food, is its own unique problem. When I tell people I have hens, they don’t ask their names, or how long I have had them – they ask if they lay eggs, or how long they live. But the fact is that Cocoa was not just an egg layer (in fact, she really only laid for one year), and she certainly wasn’t food. She was a cherished, beloved member of our family, with personality and charm. She was smart, affectionate, feisty, and sweet. She loved snuggling and being petted, and would run to greet me, whether I had seen her the day before or a month before. She was unique and irreplaceable, and besides being heartbroken over losing her, I shoulder guilt for not having locked her safely in at twilight, as I should have, to protect her from predators.
Cocoa, you funny little firebrand, I will miss you so very much. You were my first girl and my number one bird. Thank you for being a part of our lives and a member of our family. I hope you’re chasing Ollie around heaven.