Bringing Up Lady Bird (2023)

I called a new guy who helped with the lawn. He came over and spent the afternoon at the coop, finding and repairing the hole. I paid him a bunch of money and slept well that night while another massacre occurred.

We assumed the culprit was a fox. This time it got all but two chickens—the chicken with the scissor beak and Petunia. Petunia was hiding in the rafters of the coop. The other chicken was in one of the nesting boxes, sitting there frozen. Cynthia wanted to bring them to the house. I couldn’t imagine what we’d do with them at the house. Instead, I called the man who had electrified the run because he knew about chickens. He scoured the coops, the run. He found holes. He looked at the crime scene. It was gruesome. Bodies strewn about, decapitated, innards unfurled. Feathers everywhere. The rooster had made it from the main coop to the secondary coop. His body was torn to pieces. The man said that the birds had not been killed by a fox. He said that it was likely a weasel. On the exterior walls of the coops, he showed me scratch marks, telltale signs that some clever creature had been hunting for a way in, climbing and crawling all over the place. A weasel can squeeze inside a run with just an inch. The man spent the day repairing the coop.

I went to Schaefer Farms down the road, which was run by a woman named Renee who knows everything there is to know about chickens. She would sell her chickens in pairs only, as chickens are social creatures and require the company. I bought seven and a rooster, a docile Maran that would never get as big as my turken. Cynthia and I picked them out. All of them were dark, shades of gray and black—beautiful birds. They were young—twelve weeks—but not babies. The hens would start laying in a month. I had to sign a form when I paid for them, a form on which I swore that I knew what I was getting into, acknowledged that the chickens were living creatures and that it was my duty and responsibility to make sure that they were safe and well cared for. Maybe it didn’t say all this, but that was the gist. I didn’t bother to read the form. I was just impatient to have my new birds, the coop filled with life again.

I introduced them to their new home. The chicken with the crooked beak wanted nothing to do with them. Petunia sat high in her spot in the rafters, looked down on them with curiosity but also trepidation. All of the new chickens seemed terrified, and none of them wanted to go into the run. Renee had told me to hold them, love them, feed them from my hand, so I did, sitting out there in the doorway to the coop, holding each bird one by one, speaking to them, telling them that I would keep them safe, missing the easy familiarity with this world that my first flock had had, promising these new birds that they’d get there, too. At dusk, I rigged up a door to cover the small exit through which the chickens could get from the coop to the run. It took some doing, but I had vowed to protect them.

For a few days, I continued to sit with the chickens, putting the feed in my hands and feeling their beaks pecking against my skin. They were afraid, and I wanted to make them not afraid, and that desire gave me something, filled up something inside me that I hadn’t quite understood was so empty. My mother was dying a long, slow death, becoming a ghost in front of my eyes, and my children were growing up. My son was now on the threshold of college, my daughter a recent graduate. Their lives were starting, and here I was with the chickens, feeling a bit sorry for myself and mournful. My husband, Mark, encouraged my love of the chickens. At Tractor Supply, he bought an enormous bin of worms to spoil them with. At the golden evening hour, he sat there with me, allowing them to eat from his palm, too.

The next morning, they were dead. Even Petunia, her body on the ground, just below her rafter spot, covered in a heap of her own white feathers. Now I understand what a gut punch is. How much it hurts. The complete theft of air from your body. The only chicken that was not dead was the one with the scissor beak. She was in her nesting box, the one she did not like to leave, staring at us with a haunted look. Cynthia said we had to bring her to the house. I said no. Said, “We’re leaving her here.” I wanted to leave her there. I also wondered if the weasel had left her because she had a crooked beak; she was too ugly to kill. I actually wondered that. But Cynthia insisted. She put the chicken in my arms and made me hold her. She was much bigger than the little birds I’d just bought, who had been so scared and who were now all dead. She was warm and fragile, and she liked to be in my arms, it seemed. She didn’t try to flee, in any case. I stroked her neck and discovered that hidden in her feathers was chicken feed, little pellets. She’d stored it in her hackles so she could feed herself without leaving the nesting box. What was I going to do with this chicken? A chicken couldn’t live in the house. The dogs would eat the chicken.

But the dogs didn’t eat the chicken. They became curious about her, and she about them. Cynthia and I set up a dog crate outside at the edge of the deck, in a little garden where she could scratch the ground from the safety of the crate. We set up a smaller crate in the house, so she could sleep inside at night, out of reach of predators. We put a tray in the bottom to catch her poop. We put a bamboo pole across the middle of the crate so that she could roost as she had when she was just a chick. During the day, we cajoled my mother to sit outside and hold the bird. My mother doesn’t like to sit outside or to sit still anywhere for very long. She has a lot of fear. With the chicken in her arms, petting the chicken, my mother sat still. She was serene. The chicken was serene. I think it was during that time, that first time of my mother holding the chicken, that I fell in love with the bird, that I felt a deep calm spread through me. And then I became curious about her, this bird I’d wanted to leave for the weasel.

It was around this time that I named the chicken: Lady Bird. I was thinking, yes, of the movie, and, yes, of Claudia Alta (Lady Bird) Johnson, First Lady of the United States, Lyndon’s wife.

We didn’t actually know if the murderer was a weasel. When I told the man who had electrified the coop that the chickens had been killed, that neither his shoring up nor my jerry-rigged door had prevented the determined predator, he returned with traps. Havahart traps that he baited with raw hamburger and set at the mouths of both coops and left overnight. I left the gate from the field to the run open that night; I don’t know why. The next morning, I went to the traps and saw that one of them had two big black eyes staring out at me. It was a raccoon. The man who had trapped it felt some measure of vindication, wore it on his face as he lugged the Havahart from the coop to the lawn to inspect the animal. He then lugged the trap up past the garden to his car. It was extremely heavy. I knew without asking where that raccoon was headed, but I asked, anyway, what he was going to do with it. “I have a friend with a gun,” he said. I wanted the raccoon dead, too. But what if he wasn’t the murderer? What if he’d come into the run through the open gate, attracted by the smell of the bait? The man hefted the entrapped raccoon into the trunk of his car. That night, as I was driving home from somewhere in the dark, I saw a family of raccoons cross our driveway, their eyes chatoyant in the car beam.

Friends could see me falling in love with Lady Bird from my posts on Instagram, from the stories I’d tell them. When I told my father that I got emotional thinking about Petunia, thinking of her trying to outsmart the raccoon, hiding in the rafters, and then lying in a heap covered in her own feathers, he said, “You are the only person I’ve ever known to mourn chickens.”

“You haven’t known anyone else who’s owned chickens,” I said.

Lady Bird discovered that she preferred roaming to staying in the crate. To every familiar view of the farm, every glance out a window, Lady Bird added the comforting detail of herself, a chicken on a farm, poking around beneath the rhododendrons. And then, one afternoon, Cynthia and I saw, perched like sentinels in the oaks surrounding the house, hawks. Something there is that doesn’t love a chicken: nature, it seemed—tooth, claw, and talon. Poor Lady Bird, snaggle-beaked survivor, just scratching a little ground for grubs, minding her own business, would never see what hit her. But one of our dogs—a sleek, black, short-haired, full-of-beans rescue that can run like the wind, a dog that somebody found in a garbage bag somewhere in Tennessee—well, this dog, whom we named Luna, saw one of these hawks swoop down from the trees and lit off for it. She cut a straight line so fast down the slope of our vast front yard that she seemed, in fact, to take flight, and she chased that hawk away.

A symbiosis has formed. Lady Bird has found a new flock that consists of us: me, my mother, Mark, Cynthia, the dogs. She eats the dogs’ food; they eat her food. In particular, they love her worms. She seems happy to be a solo chicken, wandering around freely. She has a certain confidence and ease, a sense that she is where she is meant to be. She sneaks into the house. We usher her out onto the deck. At sunset, she likes to go to bed: she stands at the door until it is opened for her and then walks directly to her crate to sleep. In the mornings, she clucks, letting us know that she’s awake and it is time for her to go outside again. And something has happened between us: she doesn’t run away when I try to pick her up; she lets me hold her, even surrenders to sleep in my arms. When Mark and I take the dogs on their evening walk, Lady Bird comes with me, nestled against me. On a recent visit to my mother, my sister found Lady Bird perched on the back of a chair in the living room.

I love all this, love the bird. I imagine now that, if we ever have more chickens, their coop would need to be near the house, so that they could be part of the family, so that we could come to know them individually. I am a New Yorker, as I have said. I can’t have a chicken in my apartment (though I have contemplated the notion). We don’t have any idea what will happen when the winter comes. You can’t keep a chicken inside, and Lady Bird would likely be killed if introduced to a new flock. Chickens don’t welcome strays.

“Don’t take on the worry,” Cynthia said to me. “Lady Bird is ours.” The unknown is all right. It is O.K. not to know. Time has dropped me into this moment—this time of my mother’s illness. I am here now with Lady Bird, and that is all that I need to know.

My sister erected a makeshift nesting box by turning a large pot on its side and padding it with wood shavings. She positioned it on the deck, near the door to the dining room where Lady Bird’s night crate is. For weeks, it remained there, seemingly without use or purpose. The other day, Lady Bird laid an egg in it, the first since her trauma. It wasn’t a beautiful egg, in the way that eggs can be beautiful, but it was a perfect egg, white with a tinge of pink and small, the way back-yard-chicken eggs generally are. And it was delicious, with a yolk the color of the sun.♦

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