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Amy Bernays

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Motherhood

Posted: 07/29/10 04:40 PM ET

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She had really long legs, looked a bit like a turkey, with a very small comb and a tentative step in her gait. I had driven out to Riverside County to pick her up.

A nice but strange little man with a deep tan, an old Dodge power wagon in his driveway, and a couple of loose chickens happily clucking around his backyard greeted me. His tan-colored cat, a skinny thing lying in a strip of sun that streamed down on the verdant grass, was unaware of the deep red chicken pecking at bugs near its head. He spoke only to my protruding pregnant belly the way teenage and drunken boys do to a girls' boobs.

I know from experience that there is no graceful way to catch a chicken. And looking as I do, like I swallowed a watermelon whole, I was not about to volunteer. So I watched as the deeply tanned man ran about the yard, mimicking the gawky movements of his prey. He stalked and pounced at the dodgy chicken. Once caught, he held her ever so gently so as to allow her to flap and panic and eventually escape.

Some people just don't have the knack when it comes to chickens.

Chickens are mean; if they could, they would all vote Republican. It is a cutthroat world in the flock, no home-baked cookies when you first move into the neighborhood. We introduced the gawky, funny-looking chicken with long legs and a mixture of feathers. She settled in as best she could. She perched awkwardly on the edge of the coop, flying out with a fluster of feathers each time one of the original chickens came in to use the nest for laying. She was unsettled.

But then she found a job. She began to set.

Perhaps there was not much else for her to do, or perhaps she was making a stand against the others bullying her, but she started to sit upon the eggs. She kept a vigil, night and day, venturing out briefly only for food and water, then back to her little nest at the edge of the coop.

A few weeks later, I waddled up to the coop with a chirping brown paper bag. I may not have looked much like the fabled stork, but I reached in and one by one, deposited baby chicks beneath her. They were the size of two cotton balls stuck together with little tooth pick legs and big black bead eyes. Maybe this was my way of nesting for my own upcoming arrival.

The young chicken looked surprised; she pecked my hand and the chicks as I replaced her eggs with the chirping fluff balls.

I sat nearby that day, working quietly outside and listened from a distance to family that I had created.

She clucked the way a mother chicken does; calling them into the world, to the fallen leaf and the yummy bug beneath it. First one, then another yellow one, and then her sister, bounced up on the lip of the coop. Beeped loudly and hopped over to the hen. It seemed idyllic.

You would never believe such a loud noise can come from such a small and fluffy thing.

Something was going wrong.

The funny-looking chicken was not behaving the way a new mom should. Having instinctively called them into the yard, she now went about her daily chicken business and ignored them.

Each time one of the little fuzz balls would venture too close to her, looking up to her as mom to help them, to show them what to do in this big new world, she would strike out and peck at them meanly, sometimes lifting them into the air by the wing like fat fluffy balloons and tossing them away.

I peered over the fence at each of the little guys, now alone in the big yard, chirping with all their might. They were looking for direction and protection. The daily life of the back yard continued to flutter around them. The mourning doves on the bird feeder, the finches in the plumb tree and the screeching hawk in the bright blue sky.

That night the funny-looking hen came to roost in her favorite nest, the one that she had sat vigil in for so many days. She callously zoned out the now quieter chirps of her adopted fuzzlings. She sat lazily in her high up nest, her eyes getting droopy and slowly closing. Her babies on the floor of the coop chirped quietly to themselves. They gathered together in a downy huddle. There were now only three of them.

I kicked her out, I pushed the funny looking chicken out of her favorite nest. At first she was just annoyed and after a loud squawk and a little ruffling of feathers, she clucked back into the coop. She jumped right over the huddle on the floor and hopped back into her still warm nest.

So I kicked her out again.

I thought that if I restarted the 'going to bed' ritual, her instincts would kick in. That she would feel something for the now almost shivering bundle of chicks and do what a mom should.

There was new fresh hay on the floor of the coop, a filled nest resting in the corner and feed and water just inches away. It was a fine home for a new mom on the bottom of the coop.

Half an hour later in the sinking light of the chicks first day, she was asleep again in her high up nest, the chicks quietly shivering on the floor below.

As it was bed time, hopping that we could start the adoption process again, I quietly slipped the fuzz ball chicks under her while the chicken gently snored. I crept away into the night.

The next morning, blue with some haze in the air, a slight cold on the ground and yawning stretching dogs, I poked my head in to see how the chicks' first night had faired.

Not well.

Some time in the night the funny-looking chicken had pecked at the fluff balls, kicked them out of the nest. She wanted nothing to do with them. The downy huddle was down to just two chicks, cuddling together for warmth.

My heart sank. It was just not going to work.

I set up a heat lamp, knowing that this would draw a line through any chance that the remaining chicks would bond with the momma. Knowing that this might keep them safe and warm but that they would now have to stay inside the coop, feed on artificial food, and not go outside and play in the sun dappled, bird filled yard.

By that night we were down to just one chick. I was heartbroken. Not only was the chicken not doing her job, but now I was also unable to keep these little guys safe. The funny-looking chicken watched lazily from her nest at the top of the coop; up high were the little one could not follow.

Perhaps just because I was cross with her, I kicked her out again. Now she was furious at being repeatedly shooed out, her feathers ruffled and purpose in her step she stalked back into the coop. This time, when she climbed up to her nest, she found a ruddy great big hard cold rock sitting in her place.

A day or two passed. I didn't see any chicks. Perhaps they were all eaten by hawks, or shivered to death in the night, or were pecked by the other chickens who wanted nothing to do with them.

As an aside, it has been a very busy chicken week. One of the other chickens was not well. She had an infection and despite cleaning and tending to her, she was not showing any signs of getting better. I called my friend, a great old cowboy vet who helped me keep the horses healthy back when I ran the Sunset Ranch.

"I just don't know anything about chickens, Amy." I think he may have been a little offended "There are vets that know about this kind of stuff."

"I know but I just really like her." I felt rather silly asking him about a lowly chicken. She must have been nearly four years old with a huge, dangling comb, a wonky broken toe and a clipped beak. I believe she was an escapee from a battery farm.

"What about giving her SMZs?" -- a horse antibiotic that I used a lot in the ranch days.

"That might work." I arrived at his compound the next day to pick up a small handful of the large oval pills, "it sure as hell won't hurt her,

"My god!" he exclaimed as I waddled up to greet him, "You're huge!" At this stage in pregnancy I have to lean forward to kiss people on the cheek so as not to bombard them with my greatly protruding belly.

Later that evening, as the sun was getting golden in the sky, my husband ran through the bulging fruit trees trying to catch the sick chicken. Just as he was about to pounce on her, I squealed with delight.

There, at the back of the yard, among the wild lilies and dappled sunshine, was the funny-looking chicken. Following her like a beeping fuzzy yo-yo was the last of the chicks.

The hen had risen to the challenge. She was doing the job that nature had told her to. She had found her mothering instincts and had graduated from a selfish, gawky young chicken, and become a momma.

I guess I'll be next.

xxx

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Amy Bernays is an artist and writer in Los Angeles, California. She is expecting her first child some time later this week. Find out more.

 

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