Sometimes I like to Pretend I’m a Farmer When Really I’ve Just Collected Too Many Animals
by Anna Venishnick Shomsky for the anthology Chicken Scratchings
We had this chicken who was older than time and pooped everywhere and never laid eggs. I imagined she would outlive the universe, and when all matter was inert and all energy dispelled, she’d finally lay an egg and it would birth a new universe.
She died last night.
Poopsie died because she got too cocky, hanging out on the porch, where the dog could reach her, flaunting her meaty flanks, her weathered white feathers, her gnarled feet that looked more like the curved claws at the bottom of a fancy bathtub than chicken feet.
We’d always wanted chickens since we watched the chicken beauty pageant at the farmer’s market, in which there was a five-way tie. “We don’t like conflict,” the MC had said, which is a sentiment I can identify with. And we wanted a dog who could someday run for Unofficial Mayor, much like Goliath the therapy dog or Noodle the trained sheep. Though I’m starting to suspect that my husky doesn’t have the temperament for leadership.
Most days Woofy just watches the chickens and dreams of being on the Steppes, chasing wild birds. But once in a while he strikes. Usually the chickens flutter away in time to escape, but Poopsie had gotten too big to fit through the bars of the porch railing, and too old to fly over.
So one day, Woofy got Poopsie. He gutted her.
My husband stayed with her while she died, offering her water and seeds mixed with butter.
Poopsie had been the leader of our flock of misfit chickens, and was the most brazen about never laying eggs. The others were coy about it, by becoming broody, or being too young or too old, or flying the coop and laying in some inaccessible hollow under a bush, or surprising us by turning out to be roosters. But Poopsie would go sit in the coop as if she were laying, and walk out an hour later, squawking, having left nothing behind for us.
Poopsie got her name for obvious reasons. All the effort that she didn’t put into laying eggs went into producing poop. Much as we named Poopsie after her one skill, we named all the hens in our first batch after characteristics.
We had two barred rocks called Friendly and Flighty. You could approach Friendly and pick her up. She didn’t seem to like it, but she was too polite to scratch or fuss about it. I found her stiff corpse beside the house one day, and I don’t know if we lost her to old age, the dog, or if she just felt that having a corporeal existence was too much of a burden on the world, and vanished to the chicken hereafter, to eat vegetable starts and stale mac n’ cheese in eternal summer sunshine.
Flighty ran from every noise. Of our original seven chickens, she is the sole survivor. She once disappeared, and I tried to tell my daughters that she’d probably been eaten by a raccoon, which is sad, but that’s just nature. My older daughter insisted she’d gone on a chicken vacation. I imagined finding Flighty’s stiff carcass by the trash bin where the raccoons hold buffets and kicking her feathered bones under the azaleas before the girls could see how gruesome nature could be, and what a dead chicken looks like when it’s not wrapped in cellophane.
Three days later, Flighty came back and squawked to high heaven at three in the morning until my husband went out, opened the coop, and let her in. All the other chickens promptly ran out, and one got herself eaten by a raccoon. But my daughter was right. Sometimes chickens go on vacation.
Flighty’s broody right now, which surprises me, as she’s never struck me as the maternal type. Not like the chicken we had named Broody, who laid her eggs in the recycle bin on our porch. One afternoon, I saw Broody running with the flock. An hour later, I called the chickens to the backyard to eat seeds. Flighty and Poopsie came without her, so I knew she must have gotten eaten. She was the most flock-oriented bird. She’d squawk this high-pitched shrill, full of agony and longing, after she’d laid an egg and left the coop only to find her friends weren’t there. She’d trill and trill until one of the birds came to get her.
One of our chickens is a Silkie, which are presumably bred for no other reason than to be weird-looking. They take eight months to mature enough to lay eggs, and if you throw food in front of them, they kind of look around and peck a foot to the side. Fluff covers their eyes, like giant chicks. I think Silkies may be a case of neoteny — breeding animals to retain juvenile characteristics — in this case, downy fluff and a lack of sense. Our Silkie, Melody Forest, turned out to be a rooster, so my life goal of breeding an exceptionally weird chicken is one step closer to fruition.
This is especially true since Raven, a chick sold to us as a Barred Rock, but who turned out to be a skinny little velociraptor with whiskers, went on vacation, appearing once every few days to peck at grilled cheese and French fries in the compost bin. I tried not to hope too much that she was brooding on a nest of fertile eggs somewhere deep in the hydrangea. I knew it was likely that she defected to a neighbor’s yard, where the compost has sesame seeds and sourdough bread.
But luck favored me. Raven appeared one morning with eleven chicks. They are beautiful, and I’m terribly afraid they might stay that way and not grow awkward and ungainly. Nonetheless I love them and have purchased a second coop. Raven is rearing the chicks in the coop, sitting on them with her feathers all puffed up to keep them warm. She takes them for short excursions to the patch of grass near the coop to teach them to scratch. She’s practically a baby herself. She’s seven months old and had laid all of four eggs before she disappeared to hatch her babies.
Whenever I arrive home, the chickens come running to greet me as I get out of the car. When they’re feeling especially brazen, they’ll hop in the backseat, where the goldfish crackers and granola bar droppings lay thickest. I pull the kids out and throw the birds crumbs from the carseats.
We feed the chickens scraps and leftovers. Sometimes I think it’s time to rethink my diet when I say, “I shouldn’t put this in the compost because the chickens, who eat their own poo, might get sick off it.” They love stale Lucky Charms.
Having chickens in the yard is an incentive to get kids outside. My younger daughter likes to chase them around. My older daughter wants to use string and paper to make prosthetic wings for the chickens so they can fly. Her designs are clever, but she’s never managed to catch a chicken and tie the wings on. On a few occasions I’ve seen the chickens fly as much as ten feet, and the way they squawk when the do it suggests that they’re as surprised as I am.
One of our chickens just appeared in our lawn one day. My neighbors had rehomed her, but their chickens hen-pecked her so much she came to my yard and has refused to leave. She lays the largest eggs of all my chickens, and since I found and emptied her secret stash of eggs in a broken box by the fence, she’s become the chicken who most reliably lays in the coop.
She reminds me a bit of Broody — may she rest in peace — the way she lays quickly and with little ceremony, only she doesn’t lay eggs in the recycle bin. Though this is probably because we moved the bin when we got a husky.
You might be thinking, what kind of idiot would get a husky when she has a yard full of chickens? That idiot is me. I’d heard that huskies are a smart, loyal breed. This is somewhat true, but I’d amend smart to opportunistic. Huskies don’t listen to commands so much as they occasionally deign to take suggestions. I’ve managed to train my dog to sit and shake my hand with his paw, but I haven’t gotten him to learn not to chase chickens or to stay in the yard.
You know those moments in Star Trek when they’re like, “The shield emitter will be inoperative for 0.3 seconds when the Klingons engage their cloaking device. That’s when we strike.” That’s what my dog thinks when I untangle his leg from his leash.
And he gets away fairly often. No fence can contain him, as he can dig under it, bite through it, or possibly, though I’ve never actually witnessed this, fly over it. When he gets away, he usually goes to the neighbor’s house to run laps around the outside of their fence and bark at their dogs at six in the morning, bringing shame unto my family. But if the dogs aren’t home, he wanders into the street and causes a traffic jam. I once chased him barefoot into the road, holding my baby in one arm, waving his leash in the other. He sat on the double yellow line, and as soon as I approached, he’d scoot off just out of reach. After the fifth car stopped, someone got out to help me.
One time my dog got loose when I wasn’t home, and someone picked him up off the street and posted a picture on the town’s Facebook group. I was worried people would log on to tell me what a horrible person I am, that I shouldn’t have a dog, and probably shouldn’t even be trusted to tie my own shoes. Instead everyone tagged up to the post to say what a beautiful dog he was, with blue eyes like half moons rising at night over the snow.
When he’s not escaping, he’s burying frozen burritos in the couch.
Before we had the dog and the chickens, all we had was a little black cat named Neptune. The kids would play with her by trying to hypnotize her with a picture of a cinnamon bun. The cat would mimic the sound of a baby whining to get my attention. Around nine months, my baby started saying ‘hi,’ but she said it exclusively to the cat.
Before we had a dog, Neptune would stare at her food for a full minute before eating, as if praying. Now she has an elaborate game where she runs under the couch, luring the dog to wedge his snout under the low frame. Then she darts to her food and eats a few gulps before he can wiggle his head free and skid along the wood floor to her perch. Just before he gets his mouth around her tail, she hops over to the windowsill to watch the chickens scratch.
When we first got the dog, the cat gave me a look so scornful that she erased my personality. She hid in the basement for six months and only came up at night, when the dog was asleep, to purr loudly in our ears and drool on us when we tried to sleep. She now spends most of her time upstairs, either taunting the dog or lying beside him in a temporary, tired, truce.
More and more, they are getting along, even standing together in front of the window that overlooks the chicken coop, probably hatching elaborate plans for how to break free from the house and assault the chickens, giving them the Poopsie treatment, because they are predators after all — strange wild beasts that have learned to put up with humans in exchange for half-eaten string cheese and a spot on the bed.