Greening Up

We’ve had yet another chicken massacre around here. Seth and I like to gently joke that our little farm is where chickens come to die. Seriously, I can’t even count the number of plump hens that have vanished over the years. And, yes, we’ve tried to keep them safe but to no avail.

The other day Lucille and I were hanging out, doing cheers I remembered from junior high when it occurred to me to go check on our eight chicks and one hen. When I opened the gate of the new, high-fenced coop Seth had build a few weeks earlier I found some stressed-out teenage birds and one dead hen. There were only four chicks left, the other four had been disappeared by who knows what. The hen, a black and white speckled beauty, was lying feet up, her head separated from her body. I know, gruesome right? And it is only because we’ve had so many chicken casualties over the years that I can talk so nonchalantly about it.

There was the time just after I’d had Lucille that I watched a beagle carry off bird after bird through the living room window. I had a nursing newborn and an almost two-year-old. By the time I got outside that neighbor dog had carried off at least six chickens. Then there was the time a friend’s dog took one out but really that was minor compared to the armloads of birds we’ve lost over the years to stealthy predators.

Other than the beagle confirmation, we’ve been largely in the dark about what was stealing our chickens in the dead of night. We’ve had our theories, though. A fox, a raccoon, a coyote. But we’ve never been sure. The other night Seth got curious once again and stalked the coop. Just at dusk he saw something hovering just above the chicks. I watched from the window and saw it too. I thought it was a big barn cat that had wandered down from one of our neighbors’ houses. Then I saw it lift its wings. It was huge, balancing on the wooden rail, between fence posts. Then it turned its head in an unmistakable owl gesture. Turns out it’s been all Stellaluna all the time around here and we didn’t even know it.

We have known for years that some really big birds live in the cottonwoods in the pasture. Every year around calving season they sit high in the naked trees and watch the ground below for birthing cows. They descend to eat the rich afterbirth left behind by so many animals laboring over a few short weeks. They are ready, too, for the occasional tender, weak calf.

Seth used to joke that I needed flash cards to identify animals and it’s still true. I grew up in a subdivision far from here and I still refer to the creatures in our pasture as “big ole birds.” Seth tells me they are bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures. He tells our children these things too.

About a month ago we noticed a big brown hump in our neighbor’s field. A cow, probably in labor, had died and her body lay exposed to the elements, those birds. I finally got brave enough to go investigate and confirmed that yes, it was a cow and yes, she was dead. Our neighbor left her there and we’ve watched as her body has slowly disappeared behind tall grass. She’s been a topic of some interest for Eliza and Lucille. They want to know when we’ll see her bones. When we venture out to where she lay we can still see hide clinging to ribs over the fence that separates her from us. Soon, I tell them, we will see those bones bleached in the summer sun.

Lucille waited on the porch for me the day I found the dead hen.

“What happened mama?” she said.

“Oh, some of our chicks are gone baby and the big chicken is dead. I’m so sorry,” I said.

Ready to cradle her and promise more fuzzy animals and tighter security, I picked her up and said I was sorry again.

“Where is the chicken?” she said.

“I took her out to the pasture,” I said.

“Can I see her?” she asked.

“I don’t think so babe, she’s way out there,” I said pointing. I didn’t think a decapitated chicken was necessarily the best thing to show my three-year-old.

“Did you put her out there with the dead cow?” she said.

And it occurred to me in that moment, holding my tiny girl, spiky hair and all, that this child will not need animal flash cards. Neither will her sister. The cycle of life and death, the greening up of the farm in spring, eagles waiting patiently in cottonwoods will be a fundamental part of who they are. They’ll remember the owl sitting above the chicken coop and somehow deep down have an untangled sense of how things work.

As I walked in the pasture that day, Lucille snug on my hip, I thought once again how glad I am we live here.

This story originally appeared on mamalode