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Poultry Mourning

We have two baby chicks on our kitchen counter. Their day-old fluff almost entirely disguises their frail, reptilian bodies. They peep and hop and watch us with dark, inquisitive eyes. Then they collapse, unexpectedly. For a few moments, they fall onto their bellies and into an overwhelming sleep. Their downy paddle-shaped wings slowly release, settling alongside their outstretched bodies. With a start, they are up again, chirping, pecking, hopping.

I didn't know about chicken narcolepsy until we we raised our first flock of four on our kitchen counter. Now this pair follows the same endearing pattern, but every time I glance at them, my impulse to lean over their box and coo is tempered by a great sadness. The reason these two are here, this spring, is to replace the two birds we lost only days before.

Heavy, wet snow had fallen overnight, lots of it. I awoke with our hens on my mind. Perhaps it was simply concern for them out there in their coop, in a sudden winter landscape after the colorful onset of spring. Or maybe I'd heard something in my sleep, something that was now nagging at me. I lingered by our window, gazing across the way at our coop. At first, everything seemed just right. But then I noticed the pale plywood that lines the inside of the coop: the side panel was swung open. Our coop had been breached.

Two of our birds cowered inside. Two were gone. Their feathers lay scattered among footprints left by the bear. The snow had recorded every step, every scratch. There were bear prints, chicken tracks—standing beside the open coop and uncertain clucking, I began to read a bloody sequence of events from the marks left in the snow. There was no doubt that our two were gone, but there was no blood. No bodies. How does a bear eat chicken? Does he swallow it whole?

In my t-shirt, with hair still wet from a morning shower, I followed the bear's tracks to the neighbor's fence. That was how he'd come. This was the tree stump he used to jump the barbed wire. He approached in a straight line. I picked up another track, heading up the hill behind our house. I was still reconstructing, but also harboring an unreasonable hope that I'd find our chickens, alive. I came across more tufts of feathers, where the bear must have adjusted his grip before carrying on; then the body, at the rock outcropping above our bedroom. He does not swallow them whole. He goes right for the breast.

I've always divided animals, by species, into those I eat, and those I keep as pets: pig—eat, dog—pet; cow—eat, horse—pet. But here, under the mangled body parts and clumps of feathers, was chicken—my chicken. It was at once familiar as the thing I cook, the thing I de-bone, handily, or joint and marinate and grill and braise. And it was my pet. The one I talk to, the one that comes running when I call her by name, the one that loves yogurt above all other treats.

It was a very confusing place to stand, above our bedroom where the bear had silently and violently taken this one from us, and right on the line that separates my taste for chicken, and my love for this chicken. We'd kept these birds for a little over a year, and with time came familiarity and habit, care and responsibility. We'd entered into a very different relationship with our four chickens. They became part of our lives. We cared for them. I wish we had taken better care of them. I wish we had chosen a better latch.

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