The mottled orange-and-yellow-feathered chicken sat listless in her nest. Each morning I had to coax her down from her wooden box. She'd make a quick dash to the water and scratch mix, the rest of the flock gathering around her, chattering endlessly. I stuck around long enough to make sure she got something to eat and drink. Her bare red skin showed where broad feathers once flourished.
Having a sick chicken is the flip side of all these feel-good, life-in-the-country stories. Broiler chickens raised for their meat live in factory farms for just two months, but free-range flocks can live to the age of 12. Our chickens live and eat very well, with lots of space, air circulation, fresh veggie leftovers and garden scraps. They drink well water, and they have a skylight. We rinse all the eggs before boxing them up.
Though they were slowing down, the sick chicken and her sisters were still laying several dozen eggs a week when she got sick. I watched each day for signs of disease spreading, the recent salmonella scare pushing my alarm to new heights.
Over the years we have had many, many pets—cats and dogs, hamsters and gerbils, goldfish, even a few birds. We've had many tearful burials. Some are elaborate, others quick and efficient. But not for the chickens. We loved them and enjoyed their company for 35 years, making sure they lived long lives even after their laying days were long past. The chicken coop borders an old pine forest. When the 60-foot-tall trees succumb to hurricanes or get topped off by microbursts, they leave giant stumps. Those stumps rot out over time, leaving three-foot holes. That's where I bury the dead chickens. I'll rake the rest of the hole full of dirt and leaves, and pile some rocks on it and usually close with a few words.
One frozen winter morning long ago, I discovered a dead chicken in the coop. The ground was rock solid—no way to dig or find a hole. My daughter had been asking daily about that sick chicken, and I didn't tell her when it died. "Show me the grave, Dad," she said in a serious, world-weary voice that weekend. There was no grave.
She had ridden with me to Creedmoor to pick up our current flock several summers ago. I didn't want to tell her that one of our favorite Rhode Island Reds was sick now, especially with the recent news reports of all the other sick chickens, sick people and the slaughter of flocks across the country. So each day, morning and evening, I visited the sick chicken, knowing her days were numbered. I knew I would have to make a tough decision about the rest of the flock when she died. Did they have salmonella in their ovaries, one of the oft-quoted fears of the latest national alarm?
But she didn't die. She rallied, growing back her feathers and gobbling down rotting tomatoes and overgrown zucchinis. She shared her nest again, laying giant eggs. And I just had to share the good news.