You might have thought that we’d dropped off the face of the planet, a failed farming experiment composted into the earth, possibly to return only as a few volunteer tomatoes and squash pushing up through a vineyard of Chardonnay grapes.
In fact, we’ve just been hella, hella busy. And I don’t use the word “hella” lightly. (In fact, it makes me cringe.)
Anyway, there will be tons of catch-up blog posts starting now. Expect to hear all kinds of crazy tales involving baby Nigerian Dwarf goats, Babydoll Southdown sheep, guinea keets, my girl Tux, a war on frost, and goat sex (along with goat teenage crushes and lesbianism). Oh, and there’s flora side of the farm, too: this year we grew three types of beets, kale (2), radishes (2), turnips (1), carrots (3, including purple!), lettuces (3), broccoli (3), tomatoes (10), potatoes (5), winter squash (15), summer squash (6), and many different herbs. Mind you, the numbers in parens are the number of varieties we grew – not the number of plants. This year we had over 600 tomato plants in the ground.
But enough of that talk. The catching up part will come later. Right now I’m going to tell a story that left me scratching my head late into the night. I said the following sentence—“I just really don’t get it!”—at least a dozen times before dinner, until Emmett was rather annoyed, and just wanted me to stop sounding like an idiot and shut up.
Yesterday, I was cheerfully going about my evening chores: gathering the sheep into the fenced pasture to protect them from nocturnal predators, feeding the goats their nightly supper of alfalfa hay, collecting the chickens’ eggs, and moving the juvenile chickens from their attempted bedrooms (the nestboxes, which I like to keep free of little poop machines) into their proper bedrooms (the perches near the big scary chickens).
As I was moving the juvenile delinquents up onto the perch by the window, I noticed a very unusual chicken sitting there.
I was quite confident I had never seen this chicken before in my life. She had the blue feet characteristic of an Ameraucana but none of my Ameraucana chickens have that much black on their heads, that much dark mahogany on their back feathers. And yet there she was—in the coop, on the perch by the window that is usually only inhabited by the youngest generation of fowl—the motley assortment of 3 lavender guineas, 3 white leghorns, 4 cuckoo marans, and a host of entirely useless bantams that I purchased because I was devastated over the loss of my favorite chicken in the whole world (again, more on that later).
[By the way, if you’re not familiar with chicken social behavior, my chicken flock has several sub-flocks of chickens: I raise chicks together in the brooder, transfer them to the smaller coop, and then introduce them to the large coop only when they’re big enough to defend themselves against the old broads. These sub-flocks tend to hang out together and sleep together—and the youngest group, as I've mentioned, gets the least desirable perch in the corner by the window.]
But back to bizarre-o-chicken. Not only did this chicken have an unusual coloration for my flock; she also looked like hell. As in, half of her tailfeathers had been broken off, clumps of feathers were missing, and new feathers were poking through her skin. The feathers poking through her skin meant that she was molting, which is something that’s very easy to notice—and I keep track of all my molting chickens so that I can make sure they’re staying healthy and well-fed during this stressful time. Curious, I picked the chicken up. She clucked angrily, and I immediately noticed a gnarly wound on her leg. About an inch long, it was covered with the biggest scab I’d ever seen on a chicken; the scab was partly falling off to reveal a still-unhealed raw opening underneath. Just looking at her leg, she looked more like chicken meat than laying hen. The scab was surrounded by some funky bumps, possibly already-healed smaller wounds, or evidence of an infection.
I collected my nightly eggs, tucked the chicken under my arm, and took her in the house to show Emmett and see what he thought about this stranger.
“Don’t ask me,” Emmett said. “I can’t tell your chickens apart. You know them better than I do.”
“Well, we did have one Ameraucana who was a darker brown, but she didn’t have this much black on her head. And she was the one who always flew over the fence to lay her eggs in the neighbor’s bushes.” Come to think of it, a couple of months ago I noticed I hadn’t seen her lately. But the thought occurred to me during the day, when the chickens are sprawled across the property foraging—by nighttime, when the chickens are clustered together in the coop and easier to count, I’d forgotten to look for her. I did sneak over onto the neighbor’s property to hunt for her nest several times, but was never able to find it.
Who was this mystery chicken? Donning my Sherlock Holmes hat, I came up with two hypotheses.
One: someone, knowing that I kept chickens (who are easily seen from our busy road), dumped her off at my coop hoping I’d take care of her. Two: this was one of my chickens who had somehow gone walkabout — disappeared and then reappeared, damaged and changed.
The more I thought about it, the more the “rescue chicken” theory didn’t seem to hold water. Why would someone abandon a valuable laying hen? And why would she go into the coop so readily? She did seem a bit unnerved by the coop—and certainly aggressive toward any chicken who came near her—but she also looked an awful lot like the chicken who used to fly over the fence. Chickens’ feathers do change color from moult to moult; I’m guessing that her feathers just grew in even darker than they were before.
The chicken’s new name is Wildechicken and/or The Beast. I am now quite confident that she is the same utterly useless chicken who used to eat my hard-earned chicken feed and then fly over the fence to deposit her egg somewhere I’d never find it. (The proof of this will be when she lays me a brown egg — the one time I was able to catch her laying an egg, several months ago, it was brown, which is the wrong color egg for an Ameraucana and proof that hatchery chickens are not in fact quality purebred birds.)
But this doesn’t solve the mystery. Not one little bit. The real question is, how the hell did this chicken survive life in the wild for two months? I know, I know, you don’t believe me. I have eighty chickens; I probably just didn’t notice her.
But I beg to differ. Her behavior alone — sitting on the wrong perch, re-determining her place in the pecking order and acting like she’d never seen the younger generation of chickens in her life — suggests that she hadn’t been hanging out with the flock for quite a while. (Specifically, the younger generation had cohabitated with the old ladies for 7 weeks, and were by this point tolerated by all.) Then, there’s the fact that Wildechicken was molting — and had been for quite some time, long enough to have grown in a new set of feathers. As of yesterday, I only had four molting chickens: Hope, Mo the Rooster, one Rhode Island Red and Mama the White Leghorn. I watch them fly out of the coop every morning, and then I toss them several handfuls of Black Oil Sunflower Seeds and they dart around my feet, nabbing the treats with their beaks; this is when I check to see who’s moulting and make sure everybody looks healthy.
So the mystery of Wildechicken remains. I have absolutely no clue how she managed to survive a couple of months in the wilderness — a wilderness home to foxes, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, hawks, owls, and the neighbor’s dogs. Clearly — judging by the nasty wound on her leg, which I promptly swabbed with equally nasty blue lotion that stained my shirt — she interacted with one of these nasty beasts and survived to not tell the tale.
If only chickens could talk. I assume Wildechicken had “gone broody” and tried to sit on her nest in the wilderness. Did she successfully hatch out chicks, and then lose them? Were her eggs eaten before then? Was she temporarily adopted by the neighbor—or held captive by his golden retriever and beagle, until one day she made a brave escape? How the hell did she not only survive some sort of attack, but also remain plump and well-fed while living on her own and molting? (When molting, a lot of chickens’ energy goes into the production of new feathers—even chickens with access to high-protein chick starter and treats can start to lose weight.) And why on earth did she decide to return?
Last night, as I was sticking water and food in her quarantine cage, she attacked me. All I know is, this is one hell of a chicken—and if I were a raccoon/fox/coyote/owl/beagle, I’d probably think to myself, this feisty dinner is so not worth my effort.