I thought I'd never have another pet. Since our family's miniature
schnauzer died from diabetic fainting into a pool when I was nine, for
which I blamed myself, I'd come to find pet owners pitiable, searching for something missing in a living body at last they could control. It's probably mirrored in my desire to never be close to anyone or anything again while watching my dad lose his mind to Alzheimer's.
It's not a coincidence that the house I first moved into with my
future wife came with a coop in the backyard. A ramshackle structure, covered in shit, with little hearts cut in either side to allow air
in. The previous owners had tried to change their mind last minute
about leaving it behind. I'd found myself putting my foot down,
illogically: If you try to take the coop, we no longer want to buy the house. I'm not sure what made me say it that way, or how they knew
to acquiesce, though regarding my demand that the chickens remain part of the deal—something also promised, then retracted—
the seller's agent reminded ours: "These are their pets."
Without the direct personal context regarding live fowl, I'd defaulted to the predominant belief that chickens aren't animals one
keeps as friends. Somewhere within me, Werner Herzog's voice
described their "bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity"—a
viewpoint that, coming out of a culture dependent on poultry as
a staple, now seems to me to be willfully ignorant, unexamined.
It mistakes the glare of even the most handsomely tufted fowl as
incapable, rather than essentially unpandering, especially in comparison against the generously imagined depth of feeling of a dog,
who eats its own waste.
But about home: Without the birds in our backyard, would the place
from which we would begin to build the foundation of our marriage have had the same sense of somewhere ours? We already knew
we weren't going to want children, and allergies and childhood fears
held us back from the more usual forms of a mutual overseeing of
other life. There wouldn't be a need to give a name to anything else
living. I imagine we both thought we would be satisfied by making
art, though if there's anything that doesn't need you, it's a sentence.
Our chickens didn't need us either. But we gave them names,
and in return they made our household span beyond its walls, provided purpose not circumscribed to our imaginations. Here
we were in the midst of possibility neither of us had realized we
Our starter birds, agreeably left behind from the flock of the
homesellers as a gift, were a Polish hen named Watermane, with a
head of tufted feathers like an explosion, and a Welsummer named
Sheed (after Rasheed Wallace, my wife's hometown NBA hero). In
the early days, we left them in the coop with the doors left wide open
through the night. Obvious as it might seem now, no one warned us
about what all might come in search of prey during sleep. One day
not long after bedtime we heard the yard lurch full of what I can
remember only now as screaming. By the time we made it through
the yard, the whatever-it-was had slunk away into dark. There were
blood and feathers all over everything, a kind of horror scene that
might appear cartoonish until associated with real pain. Sheed's
cold, blank stare seemed even more impenetrable then, unable to say
what had happened, how it hurt, to ask us why we'd let it happen.
It seemed as if she might even survive, well as she hid her wounds
for days thereafter, until her body began rotting under her feathers.
Most chickens can't be expected to expire from old age, for obvious
reasons. Yet there are the apparent differences that emerge in maturation when allowed—the slowed-down, motherly perspective
older hens assume, watching the young ones wander around them
as if waiting for their chance to let them know their place in the
We wrapped the injured bird in a towel and lay her head down
on a log to be lopped off. Sheed seemed to freeze and lie in wait
as I held her still. My wife raised the hatchet and brought it down
again through our pet's neck. The chicken's rigid body shook and
spasmed for several moments in my hands, as go the rumors, before eventually she again went full limp. We buried her not far
from where she'd slept, not knowing then that she'd be only one
of several we would lose, each a lesson in caretaking for which the
chickens paid with their lives.
From that point forward, Watermane, the Polish, started sleeping
on the roof of the coop alone, perched as high and as far as she could
get, or so I saw it, from the memory of her friend's demise. Maybe
she just wanted to see the moon, to feel the breeze blow; more likely
she wished that she could fly away. But to me she seemed so much
sadder left alone, if still committed to her daily routines of consuming, laying, and sleeping.
Either way, that same sole-surviving bird would come to watch us
in the kitchen through the window as we cooked. She would cock
her head and study how I scrubbed the dishes, prepared coffee. For
a couple years we still ate chicken meat bought from the store, its
presence somehow disconnected in our minds from the animals we
cared for, until one day it seemed too strange. Wasn't there something in the endless blank about their eyes—or was it a reflection
of my own desires?
Dementia eroded my father's memory from the inside. He no longer remembered how to care for himself, much less another; he no
longer could understand what was wrong or why or how to ask; he
would fear things that didn't seem to others to be real. Though I
try not to spend time thinking about it, I can feel that dark kernel
passed along into my person, waiting to overtake me one day too. I
will be relinquished in the same way, to the same unknowing; I will
become meat again—mush.
In some ways, then, the greatest blessing you might ask for is to
have your head cut off in one clean blow, by someone who will
mourn you, even briefly; just like that.
After Sheed died, we bought a pair of black Orpingtons, Lindsey
and Pyramid, from a farm guy off of Craigslist. We met him in a
massive parking lot to fork over thirty bucks for two birds in a box.
I can still remember how scared they seemed at first as we let them
out, standing on the porch uncertain what might become of them.
Though Pyramid would be snatched up by a hawk a few months
later, Lindsey lived the longest of all the chickens we've yet had; a
kind, reserved bird who often looked after the others like a mother,
nervous but sweet.
Bing Bong and Crusher—the latter named after the Megadeth song
that came on the radio as we drove back home from the chicken farm where we picked them out of several dozen silkies—remained
inseparable until one got snatched up by the same hawk, who returned because the fence we'd raised around the coop still wasn't
enough, each new death a minor lesson. Bing Bong was never the
same alone—resigned to such timidity that we had to isolate her
from the group so she could maintain access to feed, rarely interested even in eating, until in the end she hardly had the energy to
stand. I used a broom handle to disconnect her head from her body.
Magic Johnson and Olex, bought from a breeder working out of a
gas station in deep North Georgia, were perhaps our strangest pair.
There was something different about Magic; how she walked more
upright than other birds, how her hackle feathers made a mullet.
Olex at once became my favorite bird for no clear reason other than
premonition. She would sit still and sleep on my chest for as long
as I'd allow. Shit luck turned that early favor into a death sentence:
Olex made it hardly two weeks among the flock before I came out
into the yard in time to see her being swooped up by a hawk, carried off to nowhere in a blink. Bye, bird. We decided to enclose the
coop in heavy netting after that, creating a safe but impenetrable
eyesore that would occupy our yard for the next year, with a gate
the birds could come and go from under our supervision only.
We started locking the coop at night with padlocks, putting the birds
away one by one like babies. Magic Johnson grew up enough to reveal that her odd demeanor was because she was actually a he—and
thereafter began terrorizing the flock of ladies, insisting on mounting
them as he patrolled the yard for their protection, even from my wife
and me. That rooster would attack my legs whenever I tried to come near, would fill the hours with his random crowing, even with the
training bowtie around his neck we bought in an attempt to mute
the noise. Local ordinance forbade such behavior in our neighborhood, and no one wanted him. We were forced to play the role of
executioner because the animal refused to play along with human
law. We came for him in the night, when he'd be sleepy, unaware.
Olex 2 and Snacky came from a farm in the midst of breakup.
The woman selling off her flock seemed downtrodden as we stood
amid her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend's land and picked two birds out
of the dozens she'd been assembling for years. Neither of these
birds ever seemed quite to fit in with the rest of ours, though; they
remained estranged, the closest version of the Herzogian animal as
described. The difference, as I saw it, was that these birds had not
been hand-raised. By having only a few around at a time, giving
them individual attention and space to graze, our prior chickens
were distinguished from these raised in relative captivity.
In the end, we learned that silkies were the breed for us. They have
blue ears and black skin, five toes on each foot; their feathers look
like hair; they look like little Muppets come alive, and are known
for friendliness and like to be petted. We ordered three of them,
along with another Polish to replace Watermane when at last she
got too old to see the hawks coming on her own. They arrived
through the mail in a box, each bird the size of a golf ball, not yet
two days old. We tore down our massive netted bird-complex and
replaced it with a much smaller, handmade wooden house, where
Woosh, $5 Bill, Anne Carson, and Hector hang out together, waiting each day for us to come out and stand beside them and let them chase bugs and bathe in dirt. It took a couple years of irregular
heartache, but now we have a little family.
Watch a timid hen with depth perception issues, like our Hector,
try to figure out each morning the least scary way to come down
the walkway into the run. Find the same bird standing at the far
end of the run just before a thunderstorm, staring out across the
yard as if contemplating the passing day. See how Woosh will stand
up for Hector against the other birds picking at her, as their biology
commands; see how the pair sleep snuggled side by side in their box
each night, how they stay near each other even in day; how they
are, most obviously, friends.
Or how about the birds' undeniable excitement at being allowed
out each morning, into the dawn? How most birds don't want to be
picked up because they have work to do, or so they believe, and yet
how obvious their satisfaction is in being bathed under warm water
in the sink, then wrapped in a towel, their eyes rolled back in their
head in pleasure, nearly even purring when petted the right way.
Or, then, the tricky sadness of going broody, wanting to spend all
day in the laying box warming an egg, hoping to birth a child that
never comes; how you can only break them of it with time and cool
air; how it happens over and again. How you can take them out
of their box and they will run right back to where they were and
continue sitting haunched without proper food or water, whether
or not the unfertilized egg is still underneath them.
What I see in a hen's face at moments like these is her modest heart
laid bare. I have felt that hens are as much motivated by a desire to
consume and lay as by their ongoing awareness of becoming prey,
unabashedly alive behind their bulging, darting eyes.
What would a chicken do if it had hands? What language is there
in their chirping, clucking; in how they bunch together, side by
side? What might they know that we will never? It's an animal's
greatest gift, perhaps, that we can't ask. Then what else might we
demand of them?
Still, the meat of bird fills our plates. We've been taught to live with
murder so many other ways, why sacrifice convenience, after all?
Isn't this the way it's meant to be? Without some practice by which
we allow our species to assert dominance over all else, how else
could we survive our own egos?
If there's any justice, when at last the human race finally obliterates
itself by way of the same ambient brutality we've come to accept as
how it is, the birds won't remember us at all.
In the meantime, these birds, these tiny dinosaurs, provide us with
relief: something to get up for, to come home to. I go out in the yard
alone to tell them my problems or talk about the coming rain while
I feed them cheese. I see my wife through the window in the yard
talking to the birds in a voice I can't hear, leading them to half-flap
half-fly across the yard in a small rush, and I go to join them.