Charmed in the beginning by pleasures of egg and feather, I soon learned that to love and attempt to care for chickens is a spiritual endeavor, a powerful daily devotional that has brought me to my knees over life’s fragility and nature’s wonder, and in the best moments, its fleeting, feathery brushes with grace. The chickens have given me much more than eggs, they have bestowed an awareness I might never have otherwise found.
Most religions ask us to care for “the least of these,” and among the animal world, it is harder to get more least than poultry. Turkeys earn pardons. Chickens suffer the stigmata of stupidity and skittishness. Unable to soar as other birds do, they remain the butt of jokes. This is their cross to bear, and proverbial road to cross. A chicken’s life is arduous, usually short. They must trust in the more powerful to meet nearly every need.
Their vulnerability has not magnified my strengths, but revealed my own weaknesses. Many has been the day I failed my flock, not watching closely enough while hawks circle and snakes spy; forgetting to fill the water can or feeder until nearly noon. Many are the days I’ve been paused, in my selfish, silly busyness, to consider how I treat the people I love and how rarely I extend myself to those I do not know.
The birds bring me face to feather with death, and each loss we suffer together. They are not household pets, exactly, but I did not reckon the pain to be so severe. Our first hen, Bernice, died after only a year of natural causes. A hell of a character, she once allowed me to take her to school in a laundry hamper for Pet Day, behaving as a saint while 27 third-graders poked and prodded. If the kitchen door were left ajar, Bernice would sashay in to roost on the counter. Whenever I weeded the side yard, she worked alongside, clucking contentedly.
Want to experience amazing grace? Still yourself in a garden until a chicken settles itself on your lap, submits to your fingers traveling the length of its silky wing.
Bernice was fine one soft summer evening, perching atop the coop until the others went in for the night. The next morning her beautiful inanimate body lay in a heap with no mark upon it. How precious life can be, how quickly and mysteriously can it end.
Beulah, Madge and Genevra were lost to intermittent raccoon attacks. Pickles, Philomena and Faberge fell to foxes. Berthilde was simply dead in the coop one morning, and Roberta took ill, succumbing, despite antibiotics and vet consultations, overnight in the dog crate.
Each winter, hens go dormant, and for that stretch of months I fret cold dark fears of frost and fox. An unseasonably warm February day I lost not one, but two hens, in broad daylight to a predator unseen. Turning them out into the sunny side yard would be a treat, I thought. Until I found most of the birds huddled silently together under a holly shrub, two paces from a scattered pile of pale gray feathers that, an hour before, was the gorgeous Blue Bantam Polish Lavinia. Across the yard, beneath the rose arbor, lay the remains of Astrid, an Ameraucana, who as a chick looked like an owlet and grew up to lay pale blue green eggs.
A terrible lesson, how my mistakes cost others, too.
Psalm 91:4 reads “He will cover you with His feathers, and under his wing you will find refuge. His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” Perhaps the Lord, here, is meant as another kind of bird, something more worthy and majestic than a chicken, but I don’t think so. Emily Dickinson, as poets do, put it more succinctly: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
We suffer, we fall. We endure. With each day the chickens and I begin anew. They greet me joyfully and without rebuke. Is that not the essence of faith? For surely comes the spring morning when I lift the door to the nesting boxes and, in a pile of creams and browns, are new eggs, the perfect promise of what may come.
Mary E. Miller is a freelance writer who lives in North Raleigh.