So I Got Chickens, Part 2: Tragedies and Lessons Learned

Read Part 1.

I believe that in life, we meet the people we need to meet. Every person—whether you like them or not, know them intimately or only a little—has something to teach you. Sometimes the lesson is about yourself and sometimes it’s about how the world works. This perspective makes dealing with even difficult, trifling people edifying, productive experiences.

I think that pets—even a chicken—are very much the same. They enter our lives not as idle playthings, but mirrors to show us our true selves. Sometimes those mirrors are harsh—like, dressing-room-at-a-foreclosed-T.J.-Maxx harsh. Every animal has something vital to teach us, should we choose to learn it.

I thought about this as I buried my chicken Edie, one of the six chicks I brought home three months ago.

Something was wrong with Edie from the start. Not knowing a thing about chickens, it took me a few days after bringing her home to notice that she wasn’t quite like the others. But looking back at photos and videos, I see evidence as early as the car ride home.

Edie liked to sit down. We called her “our little swan” because she was always sitting with her wings tucked to her sides, which made her look like a swan floating upon a lake of pine shavings instead of an awkward little chicken. They were only two days old, so weakness wasn’t surprising. But the others grew bigger every day. Edie stayed the same.

We started to give Edie extra attention as soon as we noticed the discrepancy. I did a ton of research on what could be wrong, and decided it could be a Vitamin B issue. We were already giving the chicks electrolyte additives in their water, so we started to add powdered nutritional yeast to their food as well. She did finally start to grow, but her rate of growth was glacial compared to the others.

She started to lie on her side, as though staying upright in her swanlike position was tiring. The others began to gambol, clamoring up the tiny roosting bars I’d built out of scrap cabinet trim, testing their hummingbird-small wings. But Edie wouldn’t get up for anything short of food or water.

We became so worried about her that we would pick her up and carry her to the waterer. We joked about lovingly waterboarding this chicken, as we gently scooped her up and pressed her beak into the water. She drank greedily each time, confirming our suspicions that she wasn’t strong enough to make the trip as frequently as her body needed to.

I read everything I could about chicken nutrition and I trolled forums looking for answers. I kept thinking I could fix whatever the problem was. My research came in handy when one of our other chicks, Tommie, had a toe begin to curl up. We fashioned tiny corrective shoes for her out of bandaids. We came up with little physical therapy exercises to teach her to use both feet again. Tommie got better; we succeeded. Edie stayed the same; we failed.

When the other five chicks doubled in size and started to push out long, glossy feathers, we knew the problem wasn’t the food. There was something wrong with her body from the start.

Despite her troubles, Edie was my husband’s favorite. He suffers from chronic pain no doctor has been able to diagnose. He was handed a Fibromyalgia diagnosis like a Miss Congeniality award. “Sorry we don’t know what’s wrong with you. Here, console yourself with this.” A significant portion of his day is spent managing his pain with medication, massages, exercise, and sleep apparatuses. He felt a kinship with this tiny chicken whose body seemed to be as poorly made as his own.

I kept expecting to come downstairs one morning and find her dead. We stopped bringing her to the waterer, telling ourselves that we couldn’t keep it up indefinitely. The others had grown too large and feathered for the brooder and didn’t need its warm red light anymore. So we moved the girls out to their big-girl coop. We told ourselves it was time for Edie to sink or swim.

She swam.

And then she drowned.

The big coop had a PVC pipe feeder tethered to the wall. It’s an exceedingly popular feeding method, according to the forums, as it keeps food from getting contaminated with feces. Edie managed to climb inside and get stuck. Any other chicken could’ve freed herself with a few kicks, but not Edie. Her legs were too weak and she suffocated with a mouth full of chicken feed.

The day she died, we’d been out in the yard all morning as a family. We were training the dogs to leave the chicks alone while they pecked through the yard, getting their first taste of sunshine and grass. The five bigger girls formed a roaming herd, but Edie was too weak to keep up. When they settled in to nap in a patch of sunlight, we carried her over to join her sisters. We stood back and watched them. All six of them lay on their sides, legs kicked out, sunbathing like tourists on a beach.

“Maybe she’s doing better,” I said. “Maybe she’ll catch up to them one day.”

“Yeah,” my husband said. “Or maybe she won’t! Maybe she’ll always be small and lazy. But she looks happy.”

We shepherded them back to the coop, built so carefully to keep them safe. We think she died only a few minutes after we closed the door. Her body was cold when we found it four hours later.

Our shock and grief made us want to blame ourselves.

“I designed that feeder,” I cried into my husband’s shoulder. “I did this.”

“But I’m the one who built it,” he cried into mine. “I did this.”

The truth was, Edie’s death was completely preventable, yet it was also completely unforeseeable. For all the hours I spent reading forums, poring over books, and trying new things, I’d never read of a single example of a chick getting stuck in a PVC pipe. It was a freak accident. Only a chick as small and weak as she was could’ve managed it.

And as we contemplated her sudden death, we realized how inevitable it was. When she was out in the yard with her sisters and they squawked a warning about a hawk-shaped blot in the sky, Edie was the only one who wouldn’t run for cover. When the dogs came racing past, wrestling with each other and oblivious to the birds, she was the only chicken who failed to scatter. She choked to death on her food, but in many ways, it was a quicker and kinder way to go. If she’d lived, she would’ve eventually found herself in the mouth of a snake, or the talons of a hawk, or trapped inside a rosebush, or unable to recover from a normal bout of passing sickness, or trampled to death by other animals.

What I learned from a dying chicken

Edie taught me many things. She allowed me to practice caring for something weak and sick and vulnerable. Through her, I felt more compassion for my husband’s feelings than ever before. I got to see his great capacity for empathy and personal responsibility, which are among the qualities I love best in him.

And she taught me that I can’t save everyone.

I like saving living things. Come on, it’s why Piggy and I write this blog! Control over one’s personal finances can make the difference between happiness and anxiety, security and uncertainty, health and illness. We write articles like life preservers, throwing them toward as many people as we can. Because bitches are drowning out there.

But even with all the knowledge in the world, there are things I’ll miss. There are choices I’ll regret. I can’t ever insulate myself, my family, or my readers from life’s hard and unexpected knocks.

As I lowered this poor little chicken into the ground, I said: “Thank you. I wish you didn’t have to die to teach me everything you needed to. But I’m grateful. And I won’t forget.”

We have no regrets. And we don’t blame ourselves anymore. We are confident in the fact that we did the very best we could. Had Edie been born into a commercial poultry farm, she would’ve likely been trampled or pecked to death within her first few hours. In our home, she had human sherpas who lovingly ferried her from sunbeam to sunbeam. That seems like a good life, even if it only lasted a few short weeks.

The strange aftermath

Chickens are very hierarchical animals, and the smallest amount of stress makes them peck each other even to the point of injury or death. But our girls were never unkind to Edie. To the contrary, as they grew twice and three times again her size, it seemed to inspire a mothering instinct in all of them. Edie often slept with her neck craned over one of them, sucking up the warmth of her sisters’ bodies. We knew we’d cared for them well, because we saw it reflected in how well they cared for each other.

A strange thing happened the night of Edie’s death.

It was late, past midnight, but after our shock I couldn’t go to sleep without checking on them. I walked into the coop and my heart froze—the five remaining chickens were nowhere to be seen.

I stepped inside the dark coop, expecting the worst. But then I spotted them, unexpectedly, at eye level. They’d flown five feet up—twice as high as I’d ever seen them go—to roost side-by-side on an exposed beam.

Sleeping up high is a natural chicken behavior. It helps keep them safe from predators on the ground. It’s an instinctual behavior, but mine had never slept that way before. They’d always heaped together on the floor around Edie.

They wanted to stay together, even if it made them less safe.

Each chicken was old enough and strong enough to move on, but they didn’t. They hung back for her. And now that she was gone, they could move forward again.

Fascinating,” my director said, when I told him this story over beers. “You know what that is, right? It’s empathy.”

And I think it was.

Piggy and I have so many things to be grateful for: so many “adult” things, things that announce “we’ve made it, we’ve arrived.” We’ve both paid off our student loans. We both own houses. We both have supportive spouses. Through trial and error, we’ve figured out a lot of our own shit. And if we wanted to, we could fly away and leave the headaches of young adulthood behind.

But we’re still here on the floor. We’d rather be together, even if it makes us less safe. Coming as this is on the heels of a promotion for me, I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “lift as you climb.” I have a young mentee, a recent college grad working in our call center trying to break out into her chosen career. I’m advocating for her to get my old job. I’ll offer to make time to train her and set her up for success. It’s going to suck up a ton of my time, and I’ll expend a lot of political capital doing so. But it’s the right thing to do.

Edie taught me that, too. She taught it to me, and who knows—maybe she taught it to you as well.

So thanks, little Edie. This post is for you.


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5 thoughts to “So I Got Chickens, Part 2: Tragedies and Lessons Learned”

  1. Incredibly touching piece, I now have to go ugly cry in private…….

    Also fair fucks to you reaching out to help your mentee.

  2. Ohhhhh Edie <3

    Beautiful writing and what a hell of a story.

    Of our two Helen was always the bolder ones while Betty hung back. We never really worried about Leila, our dog, around them and a few times actually let them all roam freely during the workday (once they got bigger, and the sneaky neighbours cat stopped hanging about eyeing them up) No issues.

    Then we got Max our second dog, a big clumsy boy not used to chooks. No more free range animal farm unless we were supervising. But one day we came home: only Betty was in the coop/run and there were feathers all over the yard. We could only guess: did Helen get out and did the dogs get her? Did they trample her while running and playing, or actually attack her? Did the cat somehow get in and extract her?

    The next day I came home and Helen was trying to get back in the run, a lot less fluffy and missing a horrific piece if skin at the back of her neck. I could see her insides. I picked her up, put her back in safely and then it was off to the vet. For the next week we kept her in the spare closet, all set up with all she needed, keeping her warm, fed and drugged up. We couldn't let her die without trying even if it cost us hundreds…

    Anyway she recovered and is back to normal though Betty now seems to be the dominant one. Her neck has regrown now though not quite as full as it used to be. She must have taken refuge deep under the house – where the chickens like to venture and scratch up the dirt, and away from the dogs. The vet was concerned that if they got a taste for chicken they could never be trusted around them again but that wasn't the case – we think Leila would have pinned Helen trying to stop her knowing she wasn't supposed to be out in the yard like that, and taken off that bit of skin in the process. Max tends to want to chase/play with them and she would have been terrified by his size and tried to get away, hence all the feathers (as I rescued her off the ground he came running up still trying to play). We still let them all free range sometimes on the weekends and Max is much better now about leaving them alone although I don't think we'd ever leave them all unsupervisedz

    Chooks these days don't seem so inclined to try escape and their wings don't seem to grow nearly as fast. They're a little over a year now and I know they won't keep laying forever but they'll live with us until the end 🙂

  3. Like everyone else, I’m crying!!! I’m so sorry about Edie. We lost a kitten last year and I went through a lot of the same emotions. Did everything we could to save her and then some. But we just couldn’t.

    These are some crazy deep lessons, and really important ones. Ones that I’ve felt but haven’t always been able to articulate. “Lift as you climb.” I love it.

  4. This is such a lovely post. Thank you for sharing; animals are so integral to our experience of being human.

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