Bringing Up Lady Bird

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I have fallen in love with a chicken. She is a Columbian Wyandotte, with that breed’s distinctive hackles of white feathers streaked with black, draping her bodice like a jagged jet necklace. She has a scissor beak—a crossed beak—and has had it from birth. I remember noticing the beak when she was a baby, hoping that she’d outgrow it, thinking she was such a beautiful bird except for that unfortunate beak. I never bothered to look up the condition.

Like so many other people around the country, my family and I bought chicks at the start of the pandemic. It was one of the first things we did as the world shut down and we moved from New York City to my mother’s farm in rural New Jersey. We bought fifteen chicks to start, a variety of breeds chosen for the colorful eggs they would lay. We raised them in the kitchen, first in big plastic tubs with heating lamps, then in a large dog crate that we padded with straw. Across the crate, we rested a bamboo pole so they could roost.

When they were babies in the kitchen, we adored them—my daughter most of all. She was twenty at the time, had had to return home from her sophomore year of college to shelter in place with her family. She distracted herself from her disappointment by caring for the chicks. (My son, sixteen at the time, had no interest in the chicks; he sat in the basement playing on his Xbox, wondering what had happened to his life and the world.) My mother, who has advanced dementia, loved to sit and watch the chicks beneath the heat lamp. She’d pick them up from time to time and stroke their little heads.

When they grew too big for the crate, about three months after we bought them, we moved them to the coop, which had been in use off and on for forty years. I hired a guy to shore it up, make sure that predators couldn’t enter. There were actually two coops and one very long run, which was overgrown with weeds. The chickens loved their new world, scratching their holes, finding worms, devouring the weeds on sunny, warm days. It was astonishing how fast the weeds disappeared. A lovely Rhode Island White scratched a hole a little too close to the fence protecting the run from predators. A fox discovered her spot, dug a little trench himself, and pulled her through. The only trace of her were her white feathers. I hired a new guy who knew all about chickens because he worked on a chicken farm. He added more chicken wire, which he then bound with two single, thicker wires that he electrified. That took care of the situation for a long while.

In the mornings, we’d take the chickens water and kitchen scraps. The whole lot of them would run to greet us, eager for the scraps and then for the feed. They moved in unison, like a well-organized team. I understood that there was a pecking order, that our rooster, an enormous, mean turken, who’d attack me when I entered the coop, preferred one chicken over the others. She was treated like a queen, was a mean girl to the other hens.

When July rolled around and the hens were reaching laying age, we checked the nesting boxes every morning. Then one day, like magic, we found an egg. It felt like winning the lottery, and what a beautiful egg it was, small, a pullet egg—that’s what these first eggs are called. It was brown and speckled, laid by our Welsummer. Before long, all the hens were laying, and we’d return from the coops loaded with eggs—gorgeous pastels of blue, pink, green, chocolate brown, pearl white.

We named only one of the chickens, a white Ameraucana who lay stunning blue eggs. We called her Petunia. I’m not sure why she was named. Perhaps it was because of her fluffy, puffy cheeks and beard. But my husband, my daughter, and I all knew which one she was and would discuss her from time to time.

Early on, a few of the birds got an intestinal disease, coccidiosis, released bloody stools, and died. I put gloves on, picked up their stiff bodies, and dumped them in the garbage at the foot of my mother’s long driveway. On other occasions, I noted that a chicken was losing feathers on her back, a stunning black-with-green-sheen Australorp who laid ordinary light-brown eggs. An acquaintance who knew about chickens told me that that was from the rooster perching himself on her back to have sex—he was doing it so much that she was losing her feathers. The other chickens, jealous, made matters worse and pecked away at the bald spot of that chicken until eventually she, too, died. Around this time, a lot of the eggs we collected were fertilized. Some had actual embryos, which was horrifying to discover in a hard-boiled egg or when cracking an egg onto a hot skillet.

The acquaintance who knew about chickens—who had fifty of her own—said that she would never, not ever, have another cock. She hated them. I was pretty irritated with my turken. I suggested that I would set him free. She told me that that was too cruel. He would suffer first from not being able to get back into the coop, seeing his flock and not being able to reach them. Then he would suffer at the claws of a predator. She said that the most humane thing to do would be to chop off his head.

By August of that first year, the hens were laying so many pullet eggs that we couldn’t eat them all, so I gave them away. I took them to my father and my stepmother, who live down the road from my mother. My father said that he wouldn’t mind if I also brought him one of the chickens to roast. This is Dad’s kind of humor. “Stay away from my chickens,” I said to him, “or I’ll bring you the rooster.” This is my kind of humor. I liked the idea of my dad trying to handle the mean bird.

I learned the benefits of feeding the chickens oyster shells and corn crackle, which made their yolks yellower. When another sickness came around, I figured out how to take care of them, separating the ill birds, feeding them medicine and yogurt. They recovered. I learned to take care of the coop, clean it, put down new bedding. I spent money and then more money and then even more on all their food and oyster shells, their water-heating systems in the winter. I did all of this and more, but I never knew my chickens. Sure, I knew their eggs, knew the personality of the rooster. (I’d use the metal feed-bin lid as a shield to protect myself from his attacks.) I knew Petunia by sight, her sweet cheeks. But I did not know them really, as the beings that they were, each one with her own personality.

Time passed, as it likes to do. The pandemic receded. We returned to our lives, coming out on the weekends to see my mother and the birds, make sure that they were well. My mother’s caregiver, Cynthia, fed them for me during the week, collected the eggs. She said they made her feel like she was at home, in Trinidad, where chickens lived in the yard, slept in the trees.

It was summer again. We had had the birds now for two years and three months. My family and I went on vacation for the first time since the start of the pandemic, three glorious weeks far away. We returned to New York City late on a Monday. First thing Tuesday I raced down to my mother’s house—an hour and twenty minutes from the city. I could see right away that something was wrong. I saw it on Cynthia’s face. Cynthia is a tall woman with short, braided hair, easygoing, wise, and strong. When she takes on a job, she wants to do it well. She loved the chickens, was proud of their productivity. She also loved to give their eggs to friends and neighbors. On her face, I could see the salty stains that tears make. She told me that five of the chickens had been killed the night before.

I called a new guy who helped with the lawn. He came over and spent the afternoon at the coop, finding and repairing the hole. I paid him a bunch of money and slept well that night while another massacre occurred.

We assumed the culprit was a fox. This time it got all but two chickens—the chicken with the scissor beak and Petunia. Petunia was hiding in the rafters of the coop. The other chicken was in one of the nesting boxes, sitting there frozen. Cynthia wanted to bring them to the house. I couldn’t imagine what we’d do with them at the house. Instead, I called the man who had electrified the run because he knew about chickens. He scoured the coops, the run. He found holes. He looked at the crime scene. It was gruesome. Bodies strewn about, decapitated, innards unfurled. Feathers everywhere. The rooster had made it from the main coop to the secondary coop. His body was torn to pieces. The man said that the birds had not been killed by a fox. He said that it was likely a weasel. On the exterior walls of the coops, he showed me scratch marks, telltale signs that some clever creature had been hunting for a way in, climbing and crawling all over the place. A weasel can squeeze inside a run with just an inch. The man spent the day repairing the coop.

I went to Schaefer Farms down the road, which was run by a woman named Renee who knows everything there is to know about chickens. She would sell her chickens in pairs only, as chickens are social creatures and require the company. I bought seven and a rooster, a docile Maran that would never get as big as my turken. Cynthia and I picked them out. All of them were dark, shades of gray and black—beautiful birds. They were young—twelve weeks—but not babies. The hens would start laying in a month. I had to sign a form when I paid for them, a form on which I swore that I knew what I was getting into, acknowledged that the chickens were living creatures and that it was my duty and responsibility to make sure that they were safe and well cared for. Maybe it didn’t say all this, but that was the gist. I didn’t bother to read the form. I was just impatient to have my new birds, the coop filled with life again.

I introduced them to their new home. The chicken with the crooked beak wanted nothing to do with them. Petunia sat high in her spot in the rafters, looked down on them with curiosity but also trepidation. All of the new chickens seemed terrified, and none of them wanted to go into the run. Renee had told me to hold them, love them, feed them from my hand, so I did, sitting out there in the doorway to the coop, holding each bird one by one, speaking to them, telling them that I would keep them safe, missing the easy familiarity with this world that my first flock had had, promising these new birds that they’d get there, too. At dusk, I rigged up a door to cover the small exit through which the chickens could get from the coop to the run. It took some doing, but I had vowed to protect them.

For a few days, I continued to sit with the chickens, putting the feed in my hands and feeling their beaks pecking against my skin. They were afraid, and I wanted to make them not afraid, and that desire gave me something, filled up something inside me that I hadn’t quite understood was so empty. My mother was dying a long, slow death, becoming a ghost in front of my eyes, and my children were growing up. My son was now on the threshold of college, my daughter a recent graduate. Their lives were starting, and here I was with the chickens, feeling a bit sorry for myself and mournful. My husband, Mark, encouraged my love of the chickens. At Tractor Supply, he bought an enormous bin of worms to spoil them with. At the golden evening hour, he sat there with me, allowing them to eat from his palm, too.

The next morning, they were dead. Even Petunia, her body on the ground, just below her rafter spot, covered in a heap of her own white feathers. Now I understand what a gut punch is. How much it hurts. The complete theft of air from your body. The only chicken that was not dead was the one with the scissor beak. She was in her nesting box, the one she did not like to leave, staring at us with a haunted look. Cynthia said we had to bring her to the house. I said no. Said, “We’re leaving her here.” I wanted to leave her there. I also wondered if the weasel had left her because she had a crooked beak; she was too ugly to kill. I actually wondered that. But Cynthia insisted. She put the chicken in my arms and made me hold her. She was much bigger than the little birds I’d just bought, who had been so scared and who were now all dead. She was warm and fragile, and she liked to be in my arms, it seemed. She didn’t try to flee, in any case. I stroked her neck and discovered that hidden in her feathers was chicken feed, little pellets. She’d stored it in her hackles so she could feed herself without leaving the nesting box. What was I going to do with this chicken? A chicken couldn’t live in the house. The dogs would eat the chicken.

But the dogs didn’t eat the chicken. They became curious about her, and she about them. Cynthia and I set up a dog crate outside at the edge of the deck, in a little garden where she could scratch the ground from the safety of the crate. We set up a smaller crate in the house, so she could sleep inside at night, out of reach of predators. We put a tray in the bottom to catch her poop. We put a bamboo pole across the middle of the crate so that she could roost as she had when she was just a chick. During the day, we cajoled my mother to sit outside and hold the bird. My mother doesn’t like to sit outside or to sit still anywhere for very long. She has a lot of fear. With the chicken in her arms, petting the chicken, my mother sat still. She was serene. The chicken was serene. I think it was during that time, that first time of my mother holding the chicken, that I fell in love with the bird, that I felt a deep calm spread through me. And then I became curious about her, this bird I’d wanted to leave for the weasel.

It was around this time that I named the chicken: Lady Bird. I was thinking, yes, of the movie, and, yes, of Claudia Alta (Lady Bird) Johnson, First Lady of the United States, Lyndon’s wife.

We didn’t actually know if the murderer was a weasel. When I told the man who had electrified the coop that the chickens had been killed, that neither his shoring up nor my jerry-rigged door had prevented the determined predator, he returned with traps. Havahart traps that he baited with raw hamburger and set at the mouths of both coops and left overnight. I left the gate from the field to the run open that night; I don’t know why. The next morning, I went to the traps and saw that one of them had two big black eyes staring out at me. It was a raccoon. The man who had trapped it felt some measure of vindication, wore it on his face as he lugged the Havahart from the coop to the lawn to inspect the animal. He then lugged the trap up past the garden to his car. It was extremely heavy. I knew without asking where that raccoon was headed, but I asked, anyway, what he was going to do with it. “I have a friend with a gun,” he said. I wanted the raccoon dead, too. But what if he wasn’t the murderer? What if he’d come into the run through the open gate, attracted by the smell of the bait? The man hefted the entrapped raccoon into the trunk of his car. That night, as I was driving home from somewhere in the dark, I saw a family of raccoons cross our driveway, their eyes chatoyant in the car beam.

Friends could see me falling in love with Lady Bird from my posts on Instagram, from the stories I’d tell them. When I told my father that I got emotional thinking about Petunia, thinking of her trying to outsmart the raccoon, hiding in the rafters, and then lying in a heap covered in her own feathers, he said, “You are the only person I’ve ever known to mourn chickens.”

“You haven’t known anyone else who’s owned chickens,” I said.

Lady Bird discovered that she preferred roaming to staying in the crate. To every familiar view of the farm, every glance out a window, Lady Bird added the comforting detail of herself, a chicken on a farm, poking around beneath the rhododendrons. And then, one afternoon, Cynthia and I saw, perched like sentinels in the oaks surrounding the house, hawks. Something there is that doesn’t love a chicken: nature, it seemed—tooth, claw, and talon. Poor Lady Bird, snaggle-beaked survivor, just scratching a little ground for grubs, minding her own business, would never see what hit her. But one of our dogs—a sleek, black, short-haired, full-of-beans rescue that can run like the wind, a dog that somebody found in a garbage bag somewhere in Tennessee—well, this dog, whom we named Luna, saw one of these hawks swoop down from the trees and lit off for it. She cut a straight line so fast down the slope of our vast front yard that she seemed, in fact, to take flight, and she chased that hawk away.

A symbiosis has formed. Lady Bird has found a new flock that consists of us: me, my mother, Mark, Cynthia, the dogs. She eats the dogs’ food; they eat her food. In particular, they love her worms. She seems happy to be a solo chicken, wandering around freely. She has a certain confidence and ease, a sense that she is where she is meant to be. She sneaks into the house. We usher her out onto the deck. At sunset, she likes to go to bed: she stands at the door until it is opened for her and then walks directly to her crate to sleep. In the mornings, she clucks, letting us know that she’s awake and it is time for her to go outside again. And something has happened between us: she doesn’t run away when I try to pick her up; she lets me hold her, even surrenders to sleep in my arms. When Mark and I take the dogs on their evening walk, Lady Bird comes with me, nestled against me. On a recent visit to my mother, my sister found Lady Bird perched on the back of a chair in the living room.

I love all this, love the bird. I imagine now that, if we ever have more chickens, their coop would need to be near the house, so that they could be part of the family, so that we could come to know them individually. I am a New Yorker, as I have said. I can’t have a chicken in my apartment (though I have contemplated the notion). We don’t have any idea what will happen when the winter comes. You can’t keep a chicken inside, and Lady Bird would likely be killed if introduced to a new flock. Chickens don’t welcome strays.

“Don’t take on the worry,” Cynthia said to me. “Lady Bird is ours.” The unknown is all right. It is O.K. not to know. Time has dropped me into this moment—this time of my mother’s illness. I am here now with Lady Bird, and that is all that I need to know.

My sister erected a makeshift nesting box by turning a large pot on its side and padding it with wood shavings. She positioned it on the deck, near the door to the dining room where Lady Bird’s night crate is. For weeks, it remained there, seemingly without use or purpose. The other day, Lady Bird laid an egg in it, the first since her trauma. It wasn’t a beautiful egg, in the way that eggs can be beautiful, but it was a perfect egg, white with a tinge of pink and small, the way back-yard-chicken eggs generally are. And it was delicious, with a yolk the color of the sun. ♦


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