Today I was out working in my backyard, cutting down invasive blackberries and pruning trees and roses. My dog Gertrude barked at people hanging out in the cemetery behind my house, as they drank beer and caroused, like they tend to do on sunny days. My newly adopted chicken, Geraldine, watched us from the chicken yard. I had previously contemplated letting her roam the yard freely, while leaving the gate open to her yard, so she could get food and water and have access to her coop. I decided it was the right time to let her out, while I was there, just so I could see how she would handle it.
There are very real fears and dangers attached to owning chickens, as well as the joys. I knew there were no gaps in the fence or gates, but I also knew there were ways that she could hop up onto things in the yard, if she really wanted to get out and escape. The other threat is predators – usually raccoons or large birds, like hawks. During the day, it’s not uncommon to see hawks in my neighborhood. Geraldine is a medium-sized chicken, so she hopefully wouldn’t be as appealing to hawks as smaller prey.Raccoons on the other hand, are bold and unafraid. I once had a nighttime face off with one in my backyard, even after I had closed my chicken coop for the night. It didn’t retreat until I picked up a log and threw it at it. No, I didn’t hit it, I just wanted it to back off and leave my chicken yard alone.
Midday, with me nearby, I knew she would be safe. I opened the gate and watched Geraldine cautiously step outside, while pecking at the grass. She wasn’t sure what to make of the dog, but otherwise, was really happy with her option to wander. As I kept working, I could occasionally hear her scratching for insects and kicking up grass. It was a happy sound and made me look up and smile. As I watched and listened to her, I couldn’t help but think about my other chickens, who had never been allowed to freely wander the yard. Part of the reason was that more than one chicken can destroy vegetable gardens and things pretty quickly. The other is that I had two Old English game hens who were much smaller than the full-sized chickens. One was the size of a pigeon. They would have been easy prey for a hawk.
Geraldine and Gertrude (my dog)
I should explain that Nugget, the one who was the size of a pigeon, was a very special bird. She was found on the streets of Portland and was outgoing, talkative, sweet, and befriended anyone she met. She also ran my chicken yard with her head held high. She could just take a few hops towards anyone who was out of line and they would obey her. Tiny, but mighty. It’s hard to explain to some people, but as much as I love my other pets, she had built a tiny little nest in my heart and will forever live there. Recently, Nugget disappeared. I came home one evening, two weeks ago, and there clearly had been a disruption because none of my three chickens were in their coop. There were no feathers or signs of a predator attack.
Nugget and I – studio portrait
In the past, when a raccoon had come through, Nugget always escaped into the cemetery behind my house and survived. She would hide and then in the morning reappear at the fence, asking to be let back in. This time, she didn’t come back. It’s been hard adjusting to having her gone, especially since there has been no closure. I hate to say it, but it would be easier to know that a predator had gotten her. Instead, there is a very real possibility that someone took her. Friends of mine helped me ask around and put up flyers, but no one knew anything. I was devastated. I’ll admit it, I don’t know when or if I will ever be okay with her disappearing.
I was texting with a friend who was checking in on me a few days after Nugget disappeared. I sat in my car, typing on my phone and openly weeping. I was realizing that day that I would probably have to move my two remaining chickens over to Sam’s house. My other game hen had become despondent without Nugget and it was in their best interest to integrate them with a new flock. We were discussing this when I told her, “She really was one of the loves of my life. At least she had a good life. It was time for her to move on. I think I’m being challenged to let go of her. I just have to redirect that love someplace else.”
My friend replied, “I think so too. Maybe you’ve been neglecting something else? Or yourself?” I thought about it and if there was any truth to that. I had been neglecting other things, mostly myself. We went on to talk about how change can be good. I don’t believe that Nugget was the reason I had been neglecting things in my life. Instead, I believe I was supposed to let her go, to embrace a change. She had come into my life at a time when we both needed each other. She needed a home and I needed to hear her talking in my backyard, to see her joyfully run over to the fence every time I was in the backyard, making my heart happy. Every day when I walk out into my yard, I look for her. I scan the cemetery and listen for her, hoping she will one day reappear. That said, I knew I needed to get out of the depressed state I was in.
Mr. T and Nugget with Sam and I
Mr. T, Nugget, and Marty Jr.
This week, another friend emailed me, telling me about a found chicken, thinking it might be Nugget. When I spoke with the woman who had the chicken, it was obvious it wasn’t her. She asked if I could take her, because she was not set up to keep a chicken. I hesitated for a second, but then said I would come and get her. I took my cat carrier and drove over to get the mystery chicken. As I entered the house, she told me she was a very sweet chicken and would let me pick her up. Sure enough, on her deck was a calm hen who let me pick her up and bring her home.
I put her in my chicken yard, not knowing what I was going to do with her. She was quiet and cooperative – easy and quite happy alone, which is not the norm for chickens. I had watched a documentary about Geraldine Ferraro a month or so earlier and told myself I would one day name a chicken after her. I knew I had found my Geraldine. I decided for now, I would keep her as an only chicken. She lets me pick her up at the end of the day, so I can lock her in the coop to keep her safe. She doesn’t fuss. She is laying eggs and clearly not stressed. And today, she was a perfect angel in my yard, as if she had lived there for years. She is even talking a bit, which is something I was missing.
Geraldine and I
I watched her move around the yard and thought about life lessons. Everywhere around us, every day, are life lessons. What am I to learn from abruptly losing Nugget, only to gain Geraldine a week and a half later? Had Nugget taught me everything I could learn from her and then moved on? Was I supposed to bring this new being into my life, so that I could learn new things? Was it as simple as I rescued Nugget, gave her a good life, and now it was time for me to rescue another? I believe everything happening around us is an opportunity to experience things and learn. It may not be obvious or easy, and may break your heart, but what are you supposed to learn from it? Maybe you will choose to ignore the lesson, so it will keep returning to you in different forms. Maybe you’ll get it right the first time around.
I do think I was supposed to get off of my butt and stop being okay with things in my life that were making me feel down or sent me into bouts of depression. Yes, I am a positive, optimistic person, but I also go down the rabbit hole from time to time. I’m working on those things now. I’m still hopeful one day Nugget will reappear, as if nothing ever happened, but in my heart I know she is most likely gone for good. People will say, “but it’s just a chicken.” I was made to feel a bit extreme about putting out fliers and knocking on doors. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks – a connection to another living being is just that. Moving forward with Geraldine feels right for now. She needed me and I needed her. Every time I walked out to a silent, empty chicken yard, I felt sad. Now, I see her little face looking back at me and it is enough. More than enough. I’m looking forward to whatever she has to teach me and many more sunny days in the yard together.