Mood: accident prone
Feather's story starts about 5 weeks ago. One of the RI red crosses was sitting on 10 eggs. If you know about chickens, you know that the eggs under a hen are rarely all hers. The other hens will add to her collection of eggs as long as she will let them. At some point, the hen will have had enough and will not let them add any more. Then, the long wait begins. For 3 weeks the hen will sit in a meditative state leaving the nest only once a day for 20-30 minutes to grab a quick bite and take care of "business." Then, she is back on the nest. Anyone who has endured 3 weeks of "bedrest" can surely identify with the patience required.
As this particular hen's eggs began to hatch, tragedy struck. The fire ants found her. Usually we are good about moving the hen's cage daily so that the ants aren't a problem but we got busy, or lazy, or forgot. When we checked on her, two chicks had been killed and one hatching egg was already invaded. We moved her and hoped for the best. She hatched all but 2 of the remaining eggs.
At this point, the first chicks hatched were beginning to get hungry so she needed to tend to them. In addition, she didn't really trust that the ants were gone. So, she took her hatched chicks and left the nest--leaving behind the two unhatched eggs.
Meanwhile, in the back of an old pickup not so far away, a lonely black hen was hoping to hatch an egg of her own. She wanted badly to be a mama but it was getting late in the season--cold would be coming soon and it would be hard to keep chicks warm. In addition, we already had too many chickens. So, we took the eggs from under her each day. We didn't feed her. We didn't give her water. We did what we could do to convince her that now was not the time. Regardless, she sat patiently on her remaining ceramic egg and waited.
Back to the two eggs in the now empty nest. The day was reasonably warm--but not warm enough for two ready-to-hatch eggs. As the day went on, we knew the chicks inside were dying. Suddenly, near the end of the day (we are slow!), it hit us. We knew of a hen who would welcome these eggs!!
We moved the eggs immediately. The next morning we checked the back of the pickup and found that one of the eggs had hatched. Feather was born.
That little black hen loved Feather. She called him and taught him to scratch. She showed him how to flap and jump up as high as he could to escape predators. She taught him to eat bugs and pick the best stuff out of the feed. But, heaven knows, we really didn't need another family to take care of. Each hen and chicks requires daily care. They require moving to fresh grass (and away from ants.) They require daily watering and feeding. The require their own space. We had been doing this with numerous families all summer and we were ready to be done.
Along came Feather's savior--Boots. Boots offered to pay the $45 it takes to feed a hen and a chick for one year. She made it so much easier for us to justify the daily work of keeping Feather. And, she gave Feather his name.
That was Feather's story until this morning.
Early this morning. as I was thinking about summoning the energy to make coffee, I heard that squawking that any farmer (or caretaker of the young and vulnerable) always has one ear tuned to hear. Something clearly had one of the hens--she was screaming as only a chicken can scream. I dashed out the door--white robe flapping in the 45 degree breeze and bare feet already turning pink from the cold--to realize it was the RI red mama. She was on top of the nest box screaming at the top of her lungs. I quickly looked around for the predator--nothing. Of course, it didn't help that I hadn't yet put on my glasses. Next, I looked for her babies. Last year we had lost an entire clutch of chicks to a predator that was never identified so I expected the worst.
This particular RI red was raised by me so despite the fact that she is a mean little mama to anything that comes near her babies, she trusts me. As she slowly calmed down, first two and then all of her babies came out of their hiding places--under the nesting box, squashed down low and small in the corner, behind the water.
Suddenly, the little black hen started screaming. By then John had joined me. We looked in her cage and realized Feather was gone. Agitated, the little black hen ran back and forth across her cage, screaming for Feather. We let her out and she headed first for the woods. When the fence blocked her, she veered out across the garden still screaming for Feather.
We searched for evidence of Feather. Unfortunately, with so many chickens ranging the property, there were plenty of feathers--but no Feather.
We next searched the cage for evidence of the predator. Nothing. We went back inside so I could better dress for a full-on investigation. Meanwhile, the little black hen sat huddled under a tree crooning quietly to herself. Some people do not believe animals mourn. I am sure they do--but they are pragmatic. They know there is a limit to how long they can safely live outside of the moment.
We searched every bit of that cage. We thought perhaps a snake had wiggled in, crushed poor little Feather, and then squeezed back out. But even that should have left some evidence in the chicken wire. I began to think about how I was going to tell Boots. Then, as we turned away to begin the morning chores, I saw a small yellow blur in the cage, It was Feather.
The reunion between mama and baby was a joy to see. I am still smiling.
So, where was Feather? What happened? What we believe happened was something, perhaps a squirrel--perhaps something worse--threatened the family of the RI red. She was a bit close to the woods. She set off the alarm. The babies did what wild babies are supposed to do--they hid. Since Feather and his mom are near the RI red family, Feather also hid. There was a wadded single sheet of newspaper in the corner of the pen that had been in the nest to help keep it warm. Perhaps he hid under it. When his mama checked for him, she didn't find him. That's when she set off the alarm.
And, THAT is the saga of Feather.