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Drama in the hen house

July 12, 2010
  1. We discover that Penguina (our barred rock hen) is actually Penguino (a silver laced polish bantam rooster). For two weeks we trip over our pronouns like parents of a newly-outed transgendered child, while Penguino explores his hormonal destiny as a crack-of-dawn crooner. Our neighbor, who’s tolerated ten years of our shenanigans (late-night backyard parties; replacing the neighborhood-sacred lawn with a tangled garden; nudist toddler colony) mentions that he misses the “cute noises” our chickens used to make. Plus, roosters are illegal within city limits. We find a new home for Penguino.

    Our young chicken-whisperer stuffs Penguino into a travel box

  2. We set Penguino free to eat spent trays of wheat grass with a flock of chickens at The Organic Farm School, run by Katrina Blair, Durango’s raw-food guru-ess. I’m heavy hearted and nervous, like I’m dropping my child off for his first day of school, except I’m never coming back. Penguino sprints around the coop and postures on top of a straw bale like “Yo! how you like me now!” while the other hens ignore him. He’s still dashing around maniacally as we leave, while his new coop-mates tear into a tray of sunflower sprouts.
  3. We return from camping to find that our silver wyandotte, Lily, is sitting on the other hens’ eggs, no longer laying or leaving the coop. This, we learn, is called brooding. We snatch warm eggs from under her docile featheryness, and wonder what to do.
  4. We buy a new, adolescent hen to replace Penguino. Penelope (a golden laced wyandotte) is our smallest hen and immediately gets pecked bloody and hazed like a pledge to a sorority of nasty girls. “Great. We have one broody hen and one bloody hen,” I lament to Dan.
  5. Lily continues to brood, we isolate Penelope from the gang of mean girls and her neck feathers slowly grow back. We hear from Organic Farm School friends that Penguino has been missing for days. “Maybe he wanted to be wild” offers Col. “He probly wanted to make a nest and have babies!” Rose says cheerily. “Won’t be long before a coyote gets him,” my no-nonsense farmer friend Bruce muses while my chest feels like gravel being rubbed together.
  6. I scour for info on breaking a broody chicken. On their advice I pull Lily from the coop and put her in a wire-bottomed cage for the day, letting her out to grub insects and weeds in the evening.

    Sweet Lil being escorted to the cage

    The next morning Col informs me that “Lily is brooding again.” Back in the cage she goes. We return from a hike five hours later, get the kids down for naps and Dan tells me Lily is dead.

  7. Dan, bless his wild carnivorous heart, slices into Lily’s warm abdomen and tugs the feathered coat off her body. Pasted to her flesh are globs of yellow fat, which Dan admires like a hungry fox. The afternoon heat and Lily’s sudden lifelessness wash over me like a rogue wave, taking my breath away. I killed her, leaving her out in the 85F heat for the morning. While I’m suffocating with guilt, Dan sees the end result: meat. But perhaps she was sick, seeking a quiet, cool place to rest, not brooding; if so we shouldn’t eat her. I call Bruce, who’s raised and eaten many-a-chicken. His assessment: “You can get a chicken from the store for $10, but an Emergency Room trip’s a lot more than that; I wouldn’t risk it.”
  8. Col and Rose pick flowers to cheer me up. Handfuls of roses, sage flowers, hollyhocks, mallow and mint leaves. They tell me Lily is now our garden angel. They want to see Lily’s body–in the freezer–slated to bring to the woods. The words of my friend Dean–who helped me get started in backyard chickens–echo in my head: chickens come and chickens go. But two dead chickens in less than a week takes a toll on a motherly heart.

Ah Penguino, we hardly knew ye, and Lily dear, may you make a hungry weasel very happy.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2010 7:06 am

    It sounds all too familiar. Remember we had that broody hen? Well, the only thing that got her to stop was to remove the house that she was broody in. It’s not always so practical but we had planned to retire that house anyway. I read that the heritage breeds are more likely to get broody. The broodiness is bred out of most commercial breeds.

  2. July 12, 2010 8:10 am

    You manage to make a horrible story the most fun to read. That first paragraph is killer.

    Anyway, oh dead chickens. It’s hard. Because they are so effing defenseless so it is like WHOLLY our responsibility to ensure they don’t eat a glass shard or walk into a sleeping dog’s open mouth. I don’t know how to embrace ‘chickens come and chickens go’ without guilt. I don’t want to just assume a raccoon will break in a maniacally kill our flock again. But. Well, you know. It is impossible, with all else in my life, your life, to be WHOLLY responsible for chickens.

    We do the best we can, mama. Your Lily and Penguino were happy and are clucking about in the afterlife with Bossy, Ida, Clementine and Lindsay.

    ps I need a solution for our crowing hen. She is SO loud and crows from 5a to 4p! When I crow back at her she stops but I think that could annoy the neighbors even more…She hasn’t laid an egg since her sisters died.

  3. July 12, 2010 8:45 am

    I’m sorry for your loss, Rachel. If anything were to happen to my pets, I would be inconsolable, so I understand your melancholy.

    On another note, someone in our neighborhood raises chickens in their yard. Whenever we have breakfast on our porch, we hear the chicken chorus, and while I enjoy it, it’s still a rather odd sensation when you live in the city. The sound of sirens and other city traffic noises interspersed with the sound of chickens can be somewhat disorienting, although it provides an interesting texture to the regular hum of city life.

  4. abozza permalink
    July 12, 2010 10:10 am

    Drama indeed! Sorry it’s been such a rough week with the poultry people in your home! :(

  5. Ami permalink
    July 12, 2010 10:33 am

    I’ve never raised chickens – but have contemplated it for a long time, and have great plans for the future. But, the more I learn, the more I think I might be better suited for bees… Also, living IN the woods, there are an abundance of raccoons and such… anyhow, I love the practical information I’ve learned from this post! Thanks!

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      July 13, 2010 10:07 am

      Ami, Unfortunately our honeybees were even more fragile than the chickens. We lost 2 hives last year and didn’t order new ones early enough this year before they all sold out. Consequently the pollination on our squash flowers has been depressing (shriveled up, unfertilized fruit) and I miss the frenzied buzzing around the garden flowers. I bet if you got chickens, news would travel fast amongst the redwood raccoons.

  6. Emily permalink
    July 12, 2010 10:45 am

    Rachel, I’m so sorry, that’s a load to deal with in a very short time period isn’t it. I’m glad you’ve got your family to put thinks in a variety of other perspectives. I agree with Col about Penguino. It sounds like he had some wildness to sow, and with that hair, who could blame him? Lily, dear one, has offered us a glimpse into chicken-ness, bless her heart. And the lesson echoes that I hear every time I drive by the variety of road kill, my favorite line from the movie Avatar: The flesh returns to the earth, The spirit returns to Eiwa

  7. July 12, 2010 12:43 pm

    Oh Rachel, I’m so sorry. (but I loved your description, ‘newly-outed transgendered child’). I just sent this post to my good friend Amy of because I know she has had some similar issues.

    Our next door neighbors just got some chickens and my daughters have a perfect view of them outside their bedroom window – they love to wake up and see the chickens and insist they say goodnight to the chickens before bed… we become attached to all living things from a young age, don’t we?

  8. July 12, 2010 4:15 pm

    ahem. i’ve been saving up my ‘our chick is actually a rooster’ post. i actually always knew he was for some bizarre reason (this is why our chickens have no names). i think we have to find him a better home, er, ‘on a farm’. he’s been waking the neighbors. sorry for all the chicken drama in your coop – i love hearing everyone’s differing reactions to the issues.

  9. July 12, 2010 6:07 pm

    Hi Rachel, not sure if I’ve commented before. I found your blog originally through Dig This Chick and have been enjoying it thoroughly ever since. I check for new posts everyday and am excited to read each one.

    Onto the topic at hand… dead chickens. I know it well myself, and I am so sorry you got dealt a double blow like that in one week. The guilt and sadness can be a little surprising when it hits… I always want to think “they’re just chickens” but then find that I can’t. But, I always try to keep in mind that we will always lose some, and that it is not always within our control, and that we are all learning as we go and are always doing our best. Second-guessing our decisions does nothing but keep us up at night. We lost two of our girls to a heatwave last summer and my husband was home alone with them and believes to this day that he possibly filled their water with the garden hose that was out in the sun and so he gave them scorching hot water and they were so thirsty that they drank it anyway and then died. It’s been nearly a year and he still worries about that hot water. Personally, I think that he went above and beyond to care for them in the heat and did his best and who knows why those two died? Those same two hens had been having some other health issues before the heat and to this day I fret that I didn’t treat them properly, though I tried my darndest, and that’s why they died in the heat. Sigh. Please don’t let it get you too down. You give those chickens such an awesome life. They couldn’t ask for more than that.

    On the topic of broody hens… I have been dealing with two repeat offenders for the past year. Both of my Buff Orpingtons, which are known for broodiness, do it over and over again. At first, I fretted about it and tried to break them… I pulled them out of the nests over and over again, making them stay out in the grass for extended periods, and seriously contemplated the wire cage thing. Then I let one of them hatch an egg, thinking she’d be over it for a while, but no. She was broody again even while she was raising the baby in a separate coop. At some point I got so tired of fighting it, that I just let it be. The next time one went broody, I just ignored her. I took any eggs out from under her (from other chickens) each day and let her sit there, all fluffy and clucking and giving me the evil eye. And you know… she got over it. She eventually just got up out of the nest and went back to life as usual, and it happened as fast as when I made a concerted effort to break them, and with basically no stress to me.

    So, I just thought I’d share my experiences with broodiness. If you can afford to wait it out with a hen that is not laying eggs, just take the eggs out of her next each day and she’ll give you dirty looks and keep sitting there and eventually she’ll give up and forget about it. Nice and easy. Even if it doesn’t look like it, she won’t sit there and starve. She’ll get up to eat and drink at least once a day. I don’t have any knowledge of a way that effectively breaks them any soon, or I would offer that up as well.

    Thanks for a great blog! I can’t tell you enough how much I admire the way you are living your lives and raising your children. I think every bit of it is so overwhelmingly awesome.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      July 13, 2010 10:11 am

      Lisa, Thanks for your insight and experience. We have a Buff Orpington and another Wyandotte (poor, pecked Penelope) and I’m sure we’ll be facing down another brooding session again. I would actually love to slip a fertilized egg under our next brooder and see what happens when a hen raises her own chicks instead of us (even if just for the cute factor, and gawd, the biology lesson for children would be awesome)! Rachel

  10. July 12, 2010 6:18 pm

    How sad about the Lily and Penguino….I’m so sorry for your loss. I adore chickens ~ something that started when I was a very little girl on my grandparents farm. I always thought it would be cool to raise them….I’m not so sure I could. It would be tough to go through something like this.

  11. Ruth permalink
    July 12, 2010 6:29 pm


    (This is Ruth by the way, your friend in elementary school who teased you that day in the school yard, lost you as a friend and apologized about 20 some years late. I have been reading you blog and really enjoy it).

    I accidentally killed (I think) a pheasant once. I was a rabbit whisperer at the animal shelter. One day when I arrived at the shelter, I found a pheasant in the cage I wanted to use for the rabbits. So, ha, I decided I could just carry the pheasant the way we carried the chickens and move it to another cage.

    Of course, pheasants fly and chickens rather don’t.

    The instant I opened the cage, the pheasant flew off into the sky. Up, up and away.

    And the shelter manager informed me that the pheasant would probably die out in the city.

    Oh, guilt, guilt, guilt. The next day, driving to work, I was doing the guilt dance in my head, telling myself how I had messed up and how the pheasant would die a painful death out in the city. So what do you know…I was not really paying attention to my driving and sideswiped a parked car. A very expensive and shiny new car.

    So I left a note for the parked car. And decided to stop with the self inflicted guilt trip because clearly it was not working for me and probably was not helping the pheasant either.

  12. July 12, 2010 11:18 pm

    Oh, I talk a good talk every now and again, but I wouldn’t last a day at 6512. This breaks my heart. Poor chickens and poor Rachel!

  13. July 13, 2010 8:36 am

    Oh the heartbreak of the barnyard! Life and death lessons you can’t get at school. Maybe Penguino decided to become a grouse?

  14. July 13, 2010 1:19 pm

    aww mama i know this is hard when everything happens at once. be well xo

  15. July 13, 2010 10:52 pm

    Oh, this motherly heart feels sad, too.

    Take good care —

  16. July 14, 2010 12:56 am

    Wow, what a time you’re going through. We’ve had our chickens a year and a bit, and have had some scares, but no losses accidentally. But there was the trauma of putting down a rooster we couldn’t rehome who had taken to pecking the kids. I’m not sure I’m recovered from that decision to end a life. It was hard and yet my kids showed me the way to being okay with it. They are my guides, I tell you.

    Hugs, and hope it feels different and less sad as time whirls you along.


  17. July 16, 2010 6:10 am

    oh rachel! thank you for this!!!

    we’ve got some serious drama going on in our chicken coop lately too.

    including a rooster who needs to go asap.

    thanks for a good chuckle this morning.



  18. July 19, 2010 5:33 pm

    I can certainly relate :(

  19. kathleen permalink
    July 19, 2010 7:53 pm

    oh rachel–i am sorry for your loss. i know how much you love your feathered dolly babies. there is something important you need to know: if i died i would be honored to come back as one of your chickens. even if i ended up in a simmering pot with vegetables i know i would be delicious. if i got loose i would run wild and enjoy my slice of freedom! love yourself, mama! xxooxxoo ps i cannot seem to wrap my brain around a brooding hen. she wants to make a non-fertilized egg hatch? is that it?

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      July 20, 2010 11:20 am

      Kathleen! Do you think sometimes we eat our reincarnated friends? Wow. Never thought of that. Is that why some people are vegans? A broody hen just gets the motherly urge. Kind of like what happened to me when I turned 27. Not logical (plus let’s remember chicken brain-size: small) but biological.


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