Many people thought that my family was crazy for owning chickens, but believe it or not, raising chickens shaped my life in a healthy way. My mom first had the idea to raise chickens about two and a half years ago. She thought it would be a fun learning experience for me and my sisters, but wasn’t sure it was practical. My dad never really loved the idea of farm life, but he loved seeing us happy, so he was willing to put up with it. At that time, my two younger sisters, Brynnley and Ainsley, were sleeping in the same room, and never really cleaned it that often. My mom proposed that if Ainsley could keep her shared room clean at all times, for eight months, we could try owning chickens. Ainsley was determined to have chickens; she was insistent that she would help all three of us get chickens. Every day she went over her room, making sure it was clean and tidy. Eight months went by quickly, and soon we had ordered chicks.
We got three plymouth rock chicks and six silkie chickens through the mail. They took about a week to get to my house, but it seemed like forever, because we were eager to see the babies. It might sound crazy that you could buy chicks through the mail, but it was true. And to make things even better, they were only five dollars, and they were born on Ainsley’s birthday, April 20th!
It was love at first sight. When we came home from school, we were excited to see what the baby chicks looked like. We ran downstairs to the basement and heard small peeps, smelled the faint scent of wood shavings, and saw my mom reaching into a small box with a heating lamp over it.
We peeked over the edge of the box and saw nine tiny miracles, one of which my mom was holding and teaching how to eat. To teach a chicken how to eat, you only need one chicken to eat, and that chicken will teach the rest of the flock how to eat. She led the little head down to the small pebbles of food, and slowly it started to peck. Soon, the whole flock was doing it.
It was the best feeling to hold a baby chick, nice and warm up to your chest so it could hear your heartbeat. When we wanted them to sleep, all we had to do was turn off the basement light, and all the happy chicks’ peeping stopped. When we returned to the chicks in the morning, they would all be on top of each other in a bundle of warmth.
Weeks went by, and the chicks grew faster than the blink of an eye. Before I knew it, they were big enough to be outside in a giant wooden pen. My mom had bought a chunnel, or a chicken tunnel, for the chicks to exercise. She also got a smaller pen for broody chickens. When a chicken is broody, it means that it won’t get up to eat, or drink, or exercise. It will only sit on the other chickens’ eggs.
We raised our chickens free range, and taught them to return to their warm safe pen every night. Soon, we started giving our chickens some names, so we could keep track of them. We knew in an instant that the name of the chicken that had the biggest hair and attitude would be Bruno, after Bruno Mars. The three Plymouth Rock chickens would be named Max, Fama, and Wicked. We named the twin silkies Oodles and Doodles, because they stuck together at all times. Finally, there was Chubbs, the runt of the flock, who could fit a grape in his cheek. We had a few others, but we never truly decided names for them.
Did you know that chickens like to take dirt baths? They will rub themselves in the dirt in the garden as protection from the sun, and when they are done, they will shake all of it out and look as clean as ever. Then, they do it all over again. Did you know that chickens eat very messily? Well it’s true. If you put raspberries in your hand, they will take a piece, shake it, and then gulp it down. It is the silliest thing to watch.
Often, we snuck the chickens in the house without my dad noticing, just to surprise my mom with a chicken snuggle. She held the chickens close to her chest, in pure happiness. Soon the chickens fell asleep in her arms, and she let it rest until it would be time for her to go. We did this frequently with different chickens, but we always knew that Bruno was my mom’s favorite. After all, silkies were called the best lap chickens and were the most kid-friendly.
Everything and everyone seemed happy on the McKee Farm. Nothing could go wrong.
Unfortunately, our first loss came early in the process. One of our chickens never returned to the pen. We went looking for it until late in the night, but we had to give up trying to find it.
A few weeks went by, and we realized that only one chicken was beginning to lay eggs, even though all of them should have been. Another peculiar thing was going on: we had a garden in the backyard, and we could see almost every part of the garden from our kitchen window. We loved that view, but Max seemed to want the window all to herself, and blocked it, looking inside at us!
We thought it was adorable that Max wanted to see us, and we didn’t mind her blocking the view, but we didn’t really know why Max was doing it until later that summer month. One hot summer day, my sisters and I were working in the garden and we found a huge bunch of eggs right under the window! We quickly rushed over and counted the eggs. There were 15 of them. We gathered all of them and told my mom what we found. That had to be the reason that Max had been blocking the window, to guard the eggs and keep close watch over them, careful that we didn’t take them.
Every morning we looked for changes in the attitude and look of the chickens. Once, I noticed there were a fair amount of feathers in the coop, and a small amount of blood.
I was frightened that something might have hurt our chickens, and asked my mom what was happening to them. My mom immediately realized what was going on, and told me that they were figuring out the “pecking order,” to see who was in charge so that they could assign different jobs, like which chicken sat on the eggs. The pecking order was determined pretty quickly. Max was the leader but would let Bruno sleep on her. Wicked and Fama were Max’s sidekicks, and the rest of the flock were her royal subjects. Although Max was not supposed to favor any one member of the flock, she loved Bruno the most; they would even sleep together.
Though Max was at the top, she didn’t have an easy life. Fama and Wicked sometimes gave another shot at becoming the top chicken, but they never won. Max also had to protect the flock if they were in trouble, because the silkies could not fight very well — since they had so much hair on their heads, they couldn’t see predators very well.
About three months after getting the chicks, our new babysitter brought her puppy to the house and let him play outside. He started chasing one of our silkies, one of the ones we hadn’t named yet.
I was so scared. I ran inside told my mom what was happening and she ran outside.
Ainsley was trying to stop the dog but couldn’t. She started crying and went inside, and so did Brynnley and my mom, because the dog had come out with the chicken’s fuzz in its mouth and blood on it. I cried, ran inside, and went to my room. I couldn’t believe what had just happened, and I was scared half to death, replaying and replaying that picture of the dog over and over again inside my head. I had never seen my mom cry before, but that day she did.
We were upset and angry over the loss we had experienced. That loss was the hardest, because it came unexpectedly, and because we had never experienced death before. Though the first death was hard, it did get easier.
After a while of peacefulness, darkness struck again in the henhouse. Another silkie, Oodles, had died because a raccoon got into the coop. It was another hard death, because we didn’t realize that raccoons could unlock and lift things. There was a small latch that we used to close the laying box every night. Somehow, the raccoon had unlatched it, opened the laying box, and killed the chicken right there, while it was sleeping. Luckily, the other chickens were able to get away in time, and none of them were killed that night. If that raccoon had gotten hold of any others, it would have surely killed them too. I would never underestimate the skills of a very hungry raccoon again.
Unfortunately, my mom was the first to see the bloody masterpiece. She was going out to feed and water the chickens, and collect any eggs they might have laid that night. She saw a ripped open, half-eaten silkie with no head. She was heartbroken and again, couldn’t restrain herself from crying. I went out to see it for myself, and I was scarred from that picture in my head, where it will be forever. After that, Doodles didn’t have that bounce in her feathery feet any more.
We didn’t have enough time to recover from that until we were introduced to the HAWK HORROR.
We had seen hawks flying around our house, spying on our chickens, and got protective. But we didn’t realize how bold the hawks were, or how they weren’t that scared of humans. It would take a lot of time to drag a hawk away from a chicken.
Sometimes, my mom thought about having me take out my bow and arrows and shoot him down — that was, until we figured out that it was illegal.
One autumn afternoon, while my sisters and I were at school and my mom was at home, some men came to mow the lawn. We had moved the chickens and the coop into the garage so that they could mow the lawn. The garage door was left ajar, and the chickens were clucking just like before, until…everything went silent. It was like you could hear a pin drop. My mom was used to the peeping of the chickens, and hearing this silence, she knew that something was wrong.
She dashed to the garage, just as a vicious hawk snapped its beak shut on little Chubbs’ body. I don’t know how she reacted because I wasn’t there, but she told me that she cleaned up the bloody and feathery mess alone. She told us what happened when we came home from school, but she didn’t know that Chubbs had been killed.
Ainsley ran into the garage immediately after we parked the car, only to melt into tears like a candlestick over her dead chicken.
She counted the chickens. “Oodles… Doodles… Bruno… Fama… Max… Chubbs is dead!” she wailed.
It was something she would never forget. We comforted her, and tried to calm her down. She never did fully recover, and still to this day talks about Chubbs with a tear in her eye.
At that time, on top of everything else, Bruno was broody. Every day, we had to make Bruno get up, eat, drink, and run around. Sometimes we put her in the exercise chunnel. Doodles was still depressed that Oodles was dead, so once in awhile, we took the two hens and gave them a bath, then dried and brushed their long silky feathers.
Soon, it was time for Ainsley’s birthday again, and we would celebrate not only her birthday, but the first birthday of our now well-grown chickens.
The morning of, we had a great time, until I went to feed the chickens. I counted all of the chickens on the bottom half of the pen, and realized that one was gone, when it hit me that Bruno was still broody.
Yet again, another attack — except this time I was the first to see it dead. It was my mom’s favorite chicken, Bruno, and her death was on my sister’s birthday. I became stiff. I was angry, sad, and sorry all at the same time. I went inside, and instantaneously, my mom recognized my pale face and sad eyes. I told her that Bruno was gone, and that was the start of my sister’s birthday. I realized that day, that the deaths were never going to get any easier, but I knew that there was a price to pay for such dear love, and that was it.
As spring went by, and days became longer and hotter, the chickens started to have the same happy bounce that they’d had when we first got them. They were energetic and happy chickens once more.
One day, while I was playing softball, my mom and littlest sister Brynnley went to a chicken fair where people showed off their chickens and won prizes. There were contests for the fattest, biggest, and most beautiful chickens, and there were also chickens available for purchase and rent.
While my mom and Brynnley were there, they spotted two identical, adorable chickens who reminded them of Bruno. They quickly bought them in a small cage, without telling my dad, Ainsley, or myself. My mom had already named the two Olive and Teeny. On their way back home they stopped by my softball game and told me about the chickens. They opened the trunk, and there they were, two beautiful silkies: fat, cute, and very huggable. They were the central attraction of the game.
When I came home, I was especially excited because I wanted to see how my old chickens would react to the new ones. They would probably have to go over the pecking order all over again, and I didn’t want to see that happen. To my surprise, instead of putting Olive and Teeny outside with the rest of the chickens, my mom put them in the chunnel so that Fama, Max, Wicked, and Doodles could get used to having them around. Once in awhile, one of the chickens would visit Olive and Teeny to check them out, but Olive and Teeny would just act like they weren’t there.
It was a while before Olive and Teeny passed, or so it seemed. It was late August, and one day when we came home from the supermarket, we went out to check on the chickens and play with them. When we did, we saw that Olive was in her small cage, not moving. We thought that she might be sitting on an egg, because she looked unharmed; there was no blood, and she looked like she was sleeping. But we got closer and couldn’t hear any peeps from her. When we tapped her, she didn’t move. I called my mom over, and she came to see what was happening. She knelt down, lifted her, and told me that she must have had a heat stroke or a sun stroke, and that there was nothing we could do now.
Later that day, Brynnley decided that we should make a grave for Olive. My mom helped her make one. It still stands there in my old backyard with a large stone over it, and I bet that if you spread the dirt around, you would find the small piece of paper, in bad handwriting, marking Olive’s place in the small grave and stone.
Unfortunately, Teeny went quickly after Olive because of an unknown disease. We guessed that she was exposed to diseases in the chicken show and might have had it for a while, but by the time Olive died, the disease had taken over. We mourned our twins, and considered not owning chickens anymore, because so many were dying in our hands, but we couldn’t give up, and we didn’t.
Soon it was fall, and the chickens had to prepare for the winter ahead of them. We refurbished their henquarters (headquarters) with new wood shavings and moved their pen to a patch of nicely cut grass.
Doodles had become broody, so we moved her into the smaller pen. The first night she stayed in that pen she was fine, but the second night she was in for a fight.
That night, a raccoon lifted the roof of Doodles’s pen, and we guessed that he was trying to grab her, but she fought back and eventually won the battle. She hadn’t been killed, but had been badly wounded. She had lost many feathers, and it was wintertime then, so she was exposed to the cold weather. Without feathers, she might freeze or get frostbite.
That winter, we nursed her back to health and kept her inside the house for a while. When spring returned, Doodles was much better, and was allowed to free range once again, but only for a matter of time…
Soon after, the raccoon attacked the small pen again, and this time the raccoon succeeded in killing and eating Doodles. That morning, my mom had gone out to check on Doodles and the other chickens. The small door that let the chickens into the small pen was unlatched and open. The raccoon had unlatched the door and eaten Doodles. This loss was especially hard because she was the last silkie, and she had been through so much. I loved Doodles so much, and this story always makes me teary.
After Doodles’ death, it was hard to think about owning chickens… until my school saved the day. They had a school auction, and my mom was assigned to auction off something. She came up with chicken rentals. She loved the idea so much that she decided to try it herself. Before we knew it, we had a small rental pen and three beautiful chickens. They were so sweet, and got along well with Max, Fama, and Wicked. They were soft and looked a lot like our Plymouth rock chickens, except with different patterns. One was white, one was orange, and one was black with white spots. The one with white spots was named Dotty, and she was the friendliest out of the rentals. Even when it came time to let the chickens go, my mom asked if she could keep Dotty and pay for her. The company didn’t agree, and she was taken away from us.
After the rental chickens were taken back, tragedy struck again. One Sunday afternoon, after returning from running errands, we went outside to see if our chickens had laid any eggs while we were gone. My mom went outside to look for Max, Fama, and Wicked. She only found Wicked and Max. She looked in the front and back of the house, and then in the garden.
There she saw what was left of Fama: a carcass and blood everywhere. I went outside to see, and the second I did, I wished I hadn’t. That night, we made a grave for her in honor of her long life.
Right after Fama died, we moved. I am still not completely settled, but when I did move, we moved the chicken coop to the back of the house, and my mom set up a security camera, so that she could tell if anything was trying to get into the chickens’ pen.
Later that week, one night at midnight, my mom woke up and checked her phone for notices of anything breaking into the chicken pen, and she saw nothing. She woke up again early in the morning, and checked her phone for any signs of the chickens being attacked. She found three video clips. One of a raccoonlike badger sneaking through a small crack of the chicken pen. The second video clip was of a fox, who somehow broke into the pen at night. The third just seemed like a blanket of snow, until my mom figured out that it wasn’t snow … it was feathers.
That morning, as I hopped downstairs for breakfast, my mom looked uneasy. She told me what happened, and I was both sad and shocked. My mom told me not to tell my sisters, but eventually they figured it out. The morning dragged on slowly, until my mom realized one of the chickens wasn’t dead. She thought she saw it slightly moving, so she told me to go check and see if it was still alive.
My littlest sister, Brynnley, came with me, and she got closer than I did. She was too scared to speak, but cried and ran off into the house before I could stop her. I inched closer, to take a peek at whether the chicken was alive or dead, and I saw it move its demented head.
I rushed into the house, and told my mom that the chicken was alive, but I couldn’t tell what chicken it was. It had blood all over its head, and had lost many of its feathers.
My mom ran out and took a look at the chicken. Tears ran down her face as she carried it back to the porch. I couldn’t look at the chicken — it was in too much pain. It was painful to watch.
The chicken survived for two more days, until my mom decided it was time for the vet to put her down. I wasn’t there when the vet put her down, but my mom told me all about it. The vet said that it was a miracle that she survived, because she had been impaled in the head by a raccoon tooth, and was very sick. To prove it, as he put the sweet chicken’s body to rest, maggots came crawling out of her body, because they had been eating her alive already.
That day I was sad, astonished, confused, and my life was impacted in a way both good and bad, and everything in between. Although my chicken experience was filled with sadness, if I had to I’d do it all over again.