I was cavalier before they came. We’ll probably lose a few, I shrugged. We’ll eat them in a few years, once they stop laying eggs.
Then a cardboard box of 26 motherless fluff balls – one for good measure, I guess – arrived at the post office, and I have since come to understand the helicopter parent. That first weekend I had nightmares that had me slipping on flip-flops and a headlamp at 4 a.m. to make sure the heat lamp hadn’t lit the chicks’ bedding on fire. The chicks were fine. Two hours later, husband Joe was up, checking on them. They were still fine. I spent hours watching the chicks, hours that I think I used to spend in the garden, or maybe at the office, putting together the magazine. I can’t remember. Every time I found a tasty looking grub I had to run it down to the coop. Then I had to watch them figure out to do with it. We call it Chicken TV. It’s got evolving characters, surprising plot twists, a theme song (peep, peep) – all the elements of an addicting HBO series. Here’s a synopsis of the episode in which we discover that slugs must be an acquired taste: A few chicks cautiously approach a plump slug, then wimp out and pretend to be picking at something right next to the slug, then forget all about the slug, then notice it again and repeat. Finally, the boldest gives the slug a tentative peck, and reacts like you might if you thought you were licking an ice cream cone and discovered it was actually a slug. She starts thrashing her little head back and forth in a theatrical display of disgust, wiping her beak off on the litter, on other chicks, the waterer, the walls. Slapstick at its purest. Flash forward a few weeks. We’ve recovered from the saddest event on the farm so far, the death of a chick due to overheating. Our 25 girls are chickagers now: not quite full-grown chickens but definitely not chicks. They peck at dirt on our ankles and fly off high perches to land on our heads. Instead of running into the corner when we open the door, they try to escape. We have to fence in an area so we can let them outside, and pronto. But in the meantime, we’ve been leaving a light on during the day in the otherwise dim coop and turning it off in the evening. More light makes chicks grow faster, I’d read, and you don’t want egg layers to develop prematurely because they might start laying eggs too soon, which could hurt them. So it was important to turn it off at night. One night Joe and I both got home late from work. It was pitch dark out, which left us in a bind: leave the light on all night, or thrust the chickagers into sudden darkness? When we unplugged the lamp, the surprised the birds – who hadn’t been ready for bed and now had to blindly get into sleeping positions – made such a racket of distress that I listened outside to make sure the coop hadn’t been infiltrated by a rat or something. The next morning, one of the girls was limping badly. Her left leg was too far forward, which made her tip over even when she was lying down. It looked like it could drive her crazy. She must have broken her hip or dislocated her leg when she jumped down in the dark. Wracked with guilt, I brought her inside and put her in a cardboard box with food and water so she could eat and drink without being jostled. I named her Bouboulina, played her mandolin and took her outside every day for physical therapy. If it didn’t get better – and from what I’d read online, joint injuries are among the worst a chicken can sustain – the only humane thing to do would be to euthanize her. And in that case, out of respect and practicality, we’d have to eat her. The thought of that denouement made me miserable, my food tasteless, my future, cheerless. It’s been a week now since Boubalina got hurt. Fortunately, she has channeled her energy more productively than I, not into crying jags or blame hurling, but into an astonishing recovery. Two days post-injury I put her back with the others. I’d heard that chickens will peck at and even kill an injured chicken, but ours were patient with Bouboulina, simply jumping over her if she was in the way. She did look lonely, though, when the birds all settled down for the night. The other 24 were piled on top of each other in their favorite spot du jour on top of the brooder – how that’s a comfortable way to sleep is beyond me. Bouboulina, who couldn’t get up there, was curled up alone in the corner. I would have curled up right next to her if it weren’t for the fact that despite all our bonding, Bouboulina runs away from me, which I try not to take personally. The next night, I went to shut the coop and found 25 birds sprawled in two groups: half on top of the brooder and half on top of the plastic feed bin, all intertwined. Bouboulina had gotten up there somehow. We wouldn’t have to eat her after all. Not yet, anyway.