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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Sometimes Chickens Die

We lost another chicken this week. That's five in three years (including one that died of natural causes and one that I, yes, brought to the vet to have put down due to a health situation I won't disgust you with), not a bad record, as chickens go. That's seven left. We stopped naming them after the first attack, to which we (thankfully) only lost one. And, to be fair, we didn't really name them per se; we named them by color. The three yellow Buff Orpingtons we got in the first round were "Ruth," "Bader," and "Ginsburg," and the three brown-and-gold Golden-Laced Wyandottes were "Julia," "Louis," and "Dreyfus," though the names were interchangeable. That is, there was no single "Ruth," it's just what we called whichever yellow was being annoying, "Ru-uth" becoming a disdainful word to us. "Dreyfus" was whichever brown was straggling to get back in the coop. The others we used somewhat randomly. But after the first attack under the coop last summer, and then the next in the coop a few days later, we got six new chicks and didn't name them.

"You know, part of having chickens is dealing with dead chickens," my husband, Dylan, warned me when we were discussing the prospect of raising the birds on our new property. It sounded fine in theory, though I didn't really want to deal with dead chickens. As a vegetarian for twenty-two years now, I'm not particularly fond of carcasses. I also have a soft spot when it comes to animals and still shudder at the sight of roadkill. I declared I was a vegetarian at Christmas dinner when I was nine, after receiving Roald Dahl's The BFG, in which Sophie questions giants' ability to take kids from their homes and eat them, and the Big Friendly Giant, who only eats snozzcumbers, says, "Isn't that what you do to little piggies?" Blew my nine-year-old mind.

"Make your peace with the food chain now, before it breaks your heart," Megan Mayhew Bergman writes in her story, "Night Hunter," from Birds of a Lesser Paradise. I thought of this the other day, when I came home to find a very-much-dead chicken, or what was left of her, on the lawn (I'm assuming this actually occurred the night before and I just didn't notice it in the morning when I checked their food and water supply.). Here's the food chain at work, I thought. Something ate well last night. The thought of this unknown predator in my yard, less than a football field from our where we slept, was unsettling. And I felt a certain protectiveness over my animals, the dogs that clearly didn't wake up, the cat who's always trying to get outside and spent the night out there last week, and, of course, the chickens I felt we'd failed for not locking up in the coop. We tend to get a little lax about it in the summer, which has been fine, until it wasn't.

The first chicken we lost, that one who was in pain and whom I feared the other chickens would kill, as they naturally do to weaker or injured chickens, hit me hard. We were minutes away from leaving for the weekend and its pained howls had gotten worse. We couldn't leave her, and neither of us were prepared to do it ourselves. I even called the family friend who is our vet and he agreed, time for euthanasia. As he's forty-five minutes away, I ended up calling a local vet and bringing her in in a plastic box. The ten-minute drive with her clunking around the closed box in the back seat was horrible. I felt so bad, like we'd failed her, and couldn't even give her a quick and painless death ourselves. The vet even asked me if I wanted her body to bury, which I didn't.

This latest time, I was disgusted, a little disappointed, maybe a tad guilty, but not particularly sentimental. I forced myself to pick up the body and take it out to the woods, far from our yard, and leave the rest of it to feed something else. I'm still not planning on eating meat anytime soon, but I feel like I've finally made my peace with the food chain.

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