Where do bird spirits go?
Throughout the summer, my hens were my alarm clock—or, since they functioned from their own biological clock, you could say simply they were my noisy neighbors. Sometimes I’d talk to them through my bedroom window and they’d quiet down. Sometimes I just shut the window, dimming their bossy exclamations. Soon each morning, I would release them from their little henhouse, and they would coo and purr as they cruised for bugs.
By mid-October they were sleeping in, being sensible creatures of the sunlight rather than slaves to the human clock. Of course, I get to go to yoga at 7 a.m., in the summer light as well as the dark of winter; the hens always have to stay home.
The grape vine had grown vigorously this summer, and was starting to shade the front of the coop as well as the back. I came into the yard just before 10 a.m. and removed the caribiners from the henhouse door and the nest box (to keep them safe from the clever raccoons). Gracie Perkel and Marcella, the friendly ones, were always interested in what I was up to, and especially what was in my hands—usually kitchen scraps. (Gracie would sit on my lap and help herself to my breakfast if, or when, I let her). On this particular morning I held them each in turn, whispered sweet chicken-nothings in their little feather-covered ears and I gave them a bit of scratch—cracked corn and grains, which is food heaven to them.
Frieda, the third chicken, is bossy, and loud, and less friendly. I think she has a poultry version of attachment disorder, if there is such a thing. No cuddling for her. I left a little pile of scratch as a goodwill offering, anyway.
Noon that day was as dark as dusk. I went to the garden, as I do several times a day, to check in on the hens. It was strangely quiet.
Then I saw the black and white heap—a strange rock, was the first thought to enter my mind, so incomprehensible was the sight. Ironically, it was a Barred Plymouth Rock hen, Gracie Perkel, lying on her side, her guts spilling out, one foot dangling by a thread, mercifully dead. Checking on the safety of the others, I found Marcella [pictured here on my lap] nearby in the same condition. Frieda sat above it all in the nesting box.
It was, as our friend Alice Bain put it, murder most fowl. With so much concern for raccoon protection, I had neglected to guard my girls adequately against dogs. The m.o.—sport killing—was clearly canine. The garden fences were too low.
I cannot begin to express my devastation. I know they were “just” chickens. Everyone I know has lost hens to coons or dogs. But still.
Carol and Janey were here to say goodbye to our feathered friends. I decided to be practical, and present the birds to neighbor Todd Mangum’s raw foodist Aussies. It seemed like a good idea in the moment. Our friend Lori Mertz delivered them in a black plastic bag. Upon seeing the mangled carcasses, however, Todd stuck them in the freezer and went out for dinner.
After, we gathered in his back yard and watched him, by yellow lantern light, dig a hole. The soil was like concrete and a pick-ax would have been preferable to a shovel. We buried the birds in a shallow grave, sprinkled them with compost starter and a gallon of water, and toasted them with sips of the local liqueur Underground. I rode my bike home in the dark, wondering where bird spirits go.
Greta Belanger deJong is the editor and publisher of CATALYST.