Our three baby chicks were a ‘welcome to summer’ gift for my boys on the last day of school. We needed something worthwhile to keep us occupied over the summer. We couldn’t afford expensive theme park passes or summer camps. Instead, we invested in heat lamps and brooders and found books on chicken-raising at the library. We scoured through the recycling for newspaper to line the brooder floor. We spent hours crouched on the garage floor in rapt attention as we watched the chicks change almost daily. Their puffball heads became tousled with pinfeathers. Their backs and wings unfurled red and gray and brown plumes. They became less clumsy and seemed aware of our presence. Their beaks grew into sharp daggers that would eventually spear beetles and caterpillars, seeds and leaves—well, two of our three grew sharp, the other grew a curved and crossed beak, like scissors. I researched my books, the Internet, and even spoke to the owners of the feed store where we purchased the chicks. They nodded knowingly. “Yes,” they said. “It’s a common problem with chickens.”
The cross beak is a genetic disorder. Commercial chicken farmers usually cull their flock. (Culling is the process of removing inferior, sick, or injured chickens from the flock whenever you spot them). My chicken books also state that if they are not culled, then they must be taken out of the breeding pool so as not to pass on the trait. I was encouraged to kill the chick, get another, cut my losses and move on.
I may have grown up in North Dakota and Montana among ranchers and hunters with pragmatic German heritage, but the idea of killing my chicken horrified me. I shook hands with the owner, thanked her for her advice, and drove home through the windy back roads of Vista, California. I thought about the idea of farmers having to cull a flock and count pennies on feed and compare it to productivity. I understand the practicality of not wanting to waste feed on a chicken that wasn’t going to produce eggs or meat—but I am not raising chickens to make a living. I have the luxury of being a “Suburban Farmer” and dabbling in the fine art of animal husbandry. I thought about how the life and death of animals are so intrinsically linked to the life and needs of humans.
I also thought about my pregnancy with my eldest son. I, too, was encouraged to ‘cull my flock’ when my husband and I were told our son might be born with Down’s syndrome, a genetic disorder of the human kind. I was 23 weeks pregnant with Dante when we were told after an ultrasound that he might not be ‘perfect.’ After two more agonizing weeks of testing and re-testing, the evidence was inconclusive. We were told we could have another test, which would probe around in the warm amniotic sac that held my boy safe and sound, draw up some fluid and find out once and for all if there was anything wrong with him. If there was, we could ‘opt out’ of the pregnancy.
We opted out of the test. We steeled ourselves for the worst and tried not to live under the shadows of uncertainty that now plagued the rest of my pregnancy. Fifteen weeks later I gave birth to a large, healthy, baby boy.
I thought of his potential diagnosis and of the perception of ‘perfect.’ I thought of the chick in the brooder in the garage who too had the potential to be less than perfect. I knew that no matter the outcome, we would not cull.
I told the boys what I had found out. They were appalled. “WHAT? They said to KILL her? Because she isn’t perfect? Geez! That’s just stupid. “
They proceeded to think of ways that we could nourish and support our special needs chicken.
We rummaged through the cupboards for a feed dish that would be deep enough for her to scoop up her food with her deformity. We also found her a water dish that was deep enough to drink from with her splayed beak, but not so deep as to fall into or turn over. We added vitamins to her water and even began to hand feed her. She was extremely friendly and began to follow us in the yard and sit by the sliding glass door, hoping to be let in. She fell asleep in our laps and enjoyed a good scratch under the wing. She matured as the others girls did and eventually all her down disappeared and she was a fully feathered bird like her sisters. She was smaller and lighter, but she had the same amount of energy as the others. She was in actuality, our favorite.
Her name was Rainbow. She belonged to my youngest son, Jonah. By August, all three girls had moved from the brooder to their coop. They roosted and clucked and free ranged the yard. Rainbow, although small, was scrappy. She did her best to keep up with her sister’s ability to pulverize my tomato plants. She attempted to eat bugs in my garden. Her beak was a twisted mess. Her sisters learned to not only groom her, but also pecked the left over mash out of her lower beak that was now completely exposed. We cleaned it daily by gently scraping it with the flat side of a screwdriver. She sat patiently as we cleaned her beak and inspected her oral opening. She continued to grow albeit at a slower rate than her sisters. She appeared happy and healthy.
Dante, my eldest, was instantly enthralled with his new charge. He became the ‘Chicken Whisperer’ overnight. In fact, he’s become down right bossy in his maternal instinct. He inspected every scoop of feed I gave them. He cleans their water bucket and made sure Rainbow was hand fed daily.
Every morning I am awakened not by the incessant beeping of my alarm clock, but rather the rrrrippp of the blinds being opened and the slide and slam of the patio door at 6 a.m. Dante’s ritual is to jump out of bed and check on the chickens. He feeds them and talks to them as they huddle around his feet. This early fall morning, he was gone longer than usual. Being a rather thoughtful and dreamy kind of 9- year-old, I figured he had gotten lost on his way to the coop. He easily becomes distracted by clouds, or bugs, or the pattern that Autumn drizzle can make on the pavement of our patio. As I was getting ready to get up and go check on him, I heard him slam the door closed.
“Mommy?” He asked. He sounded worried.
I met him on the landing of the stairs. “What’s up, Dadoo? “I asked, using his baby nickname to comfort him.
“Well, I went to let the chickens out, and Rosemary and Fluffy came running, but Rainbow is on the ground still asleep.”
My heart sank. This was a conversation I was dreading. I didn’t want to mess it up by being too morbid (I have this tendency, being a nurse) or too trivial.
“Can you check on her, please?” He asked, his voice faltering.
I went outside. I heard loud cackling coming from the coop. Rosemary and Fluffy were making a ruckus and circling the body of Rainbow. I picked her up and nodded at Dante. “Yes, son, she’s dead.” His eyes glistened with tears.
“Jonah’s going to cry like a baby,” he said.
And it was true. Jonah did cry, but not for long. His curiosity got the better of him. After he cried for a few minutes, he wanted to see her. I had arranged her nicely in a shoebox, anticipating another flowerbed funeral next to our ever-growing plot of lizards and mice, a pet rat, and a dead canary.
I opened the lid and he peered over the side. He looked for a long time. He slowly raised his arm with an out stretched index finger and gingerly poked her. She didn’t move. He poked her again. Still, nothing. He sniffled. “So. She’s really dead, huh?”
“I am afraid so.” I was aching to say something comforting and profound, but the lump in my throat wouldn’t let me say anything.
“Does God like chickens?”
“He must, He made them.” I answered. I thought of how I was going to explain death and spirituality, of less than perfect outcomes.
“Yeah, I thought so. He must really like Rainbow because now she’s an Angel. Are you going to make breakfast? I’m starving.”
And that was that. We walked back to the house, hand in hand, his wisdom making me smile. As we crossed the threshold from the lawn to the patio, we noticed our first feather on the grass. I picked it up and we looked at each other. Angel Chicken. Indeed.