Friday, November 19, 2010

Demise of the brood… Or, alone again, naturally…

"We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?" --Mrs. Maple to Benjamin in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I love this quote from the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s held a special poignancy for me lately, and I find myself mulling it over in my mind, shining it up like some precious stone. We lose people we love in many ways, and the Peace Corps service has taught me that in being so far away from home, loved ones are somewhat “lost” to me in a way, and in this “loss,” in the space of this physical distance, I realize how important the people I love in my life are.

Many of you reading have been following my attachment from a new brood of chicks that a resident hen has hatched. She started out with 18 chicks and impressed all in the neighborhood with the simple volume of her nestlings and how in the world she would manage such a large brood. My neighbors and I would come out each morning as she paraded by, and one of my neighbors was bursting with joy: “She has made a home!” She had made a home, indeed.

The spectacle of mama hen and her brood has been difficult to watch. By the sheer volume in number, you could simply look at her chicks and see the ones that were weaker, the ones surely to be doomed. Many of you sympathized with me when I attempted to rescue and nurture one of her runts. (I wasn’t successful.)

She didn’t hatch her chicks under my house (trailer), but hatched them and had her original nest under a trailer three doors down. Her nesting spot was well-chosen: my neighbor has a water leak and a nice puddle of fresh water has developed and supplies our resident wild and domestic animals with a nice drink.

She did, however, make a point to visit me every morning, because she was aware that I provided a bit of a breakfast in the mornings: free peanut crumbs and bits of apple to anyone willing to come by and go to the trouble. She would approach each morning, brood in tow, hop up on my bird-feeding table, and eat. She was careful too, to knock some of the peanut crumbs down to her peeping brood waiting below.

Her brood, being the size it was, was difficult for her to manage, and my neighbors warned me that the resident mongooses would help themselves to the vulnerable little morsels. And true enough, I would hear a squawk in the middle of the night and then rush to count the chicks in the next morning: 18, down to 12, down to 10… Her final count seemed to be with six remaining chicks and they seemed robust indeed and she seemed to manage these quite well. I wondered to myself, “Six must be the magic number.” I would hear her sometimes in the afternoon, rousing an alarm cry, and sure enough, I would watch her impressively put up quite a fuss until she drove a snooping, hungry mongoose away. I rest assured and was impressed with her maternal abilities: she was a good mom.

After most of her brood was culled and she seemed to be managing the remaining six, she decided to relocate her nightly nesting site to a small depression she had made in my gardening mulch underneath my bedroom window. I wasn’t particularly pleased with her new nesting site, after all, it was IN MY GARDEN and everyone knows that chickens can make a significant mess in a garden, but I tolerated her and fussed at her sternly if I noticed her scratching furiously too near my fragile seedlings. She tolerated the scolding well enough and curiously, seemed to leave my vegetable seedlings alone. She, in turn, tolerated my evening walkabouts and watering of the garden and have me her own brand of scolding: “Don’t come too near my chicks.”

I felt a strange comfort in her choosing to rest so near me at night and found myself appreciating some companionship.

She may have liked my home, too, because I provide another snack to the resident animals of my college campus: my “compost pile” lies below my kitchen window. It’s not technically a compost pile, because goats and chickens and wild birds come by to feed before anything is remotely ready to rot. After having tried to have a compost pile and failed, I take comfort in the fact that animal manure is a highly valuable soil amendment as well, and well, is still “composted” in this way. I would hear a flurry of peeping and sure enough, mom and chicks would be below my kitchen window feasting among the scraps. I accidently doused one young chick one evening as I dumped a bowl of dishwater. Mama cackled furiously and baby shook off as well as he could, then ran under his mama’s belly to be soothed and dried. I received yet another of her scoldings.

Night before last, I heard yet another alarmed squawk in the middle of the night, but assured myself that all was well: mom had demonstrated that she could manage her six chicks and I felt sure she had deterred any danger in the night. The next morning, I woke, and looked out my window. I wondered who this new chicken was waiting to be fed, because she looked like mama hen, but it couldn’t be mama hen, because where were her chicks? A sense of doom and dread rose up out of my belly, but I squashed it back down and walked from window to window searching for mama and her chicks. I put my coffee on, crunched up some peanuts and chopped some apple, and carried it outside to the tray. I glanced over to the nesting site in my garden mulch and was stunned at what I saw: on the aluminum siding near where mama hen had nested in the night was a bright, blood-red smear and a small piece of innards of what was remaining of mama’s brood.

I was stunned. This WAS mama hen and her brood was slaughtered in the middle of the night and slaughtered underneath my bedroom window! How could I have slept through such a violent carnage?

I think mama hen was stunned too and seemed highly agitated: “WHERE are my chicks??” she seemed to be pleading. I fed her the crumb and let her eat all of it. I usually try to shoo her away and let some of the smaller song birds feed, but I let her have all the breakfast that morning. I felt sad and guilty: How could this have happened? She hung around my kitchen window, furiously scratching as she had, trying to wrestle up grub for her brood, clucking insistently, and seemingly looking to me for help: Where are my chicks?

Last night, as I watered my garden, she was nowhere to be found. I glanced at the blood stain and felt depressed and despondent. I need to clean it away but just can’t bring myself to do it. Mama hen had not returned to the bloodied nesting site to retire for the evening, and I felt a dull ache at realizing I was alone again.

She was up at dawn this morning, clucking away at the small, fresh-water puddle down by my neighbor’s, clucking and calling for her brood that will not come.

In only a matter of weeks I had become attached to and developed a fondness for this little family. And in my loss of them, am realizing how important they were to me. And in my sadness, I’m finding myself, alone again… Naturally…



  1. So beautiful. Your writing is just wonderful.

  2. Ah, but think of the happy and filling meals she and her family received from you. They had a small time of respite before "survival of the fittest" barged in and challenged you both to keep trying. Perhaps that is the longest she's ever had her chicks stay alive? And you both got some benefit from the time "together"! Who (or what) will befriend you next?

  3. I admit it, I anthromorphosize (is that even right? "view animals as if they are people") many of my encounters with non-human creatures.