|The Big Red|
"I don't think I told you the news," she said. "Four of the chickens didn't come back to the coop two nights ago, and one was the big red."
We looked at each other, making the sad face and noises friends do when there's trouble. Dorcie and Todd are two years into keeping hens, and have been wonderful, conscientious guardians of their flock. Todd, a building designer by trade and a skilled carpenter, had built a practical, spacious, lovely hen house that accommodates a hen's every need, and every chicken farmer's need, too. Both Dorcie and Todd studied chicken lore and keeping, and spent time talking to people who had kept chickens . Even before their first chicks came home in spring, 2010, they warned us to "never name a chicken--it gets too hard."
But from the very beginning, there was something about the big red. Dorcie and Todd let all of us hold and cuddle their six fluffy, Easter basket cute chicks, but the big red actually seemed to enjoy not only being held, but having her neck and back scratched. When she was about six months old, just prior to laying, Dorcie called me over to where she stood surrounded by pecking, burbling almost hens.
"Watch this," she said, and bending down, spread her hand over the big red's back. And the chicken actually stopped and squatted down, allowing anyone who knew her to stroke her, and pick her up. Who knew that a chicken would do that, knowing that touch felt good, and her humans would never hurt her? I was hooked.
Over the last two years, I've petted the big red many times, and held her soft, plump warm featheriness. Each time, I would think how special this was, how unique. This bird was choosing to transcend normal chicken behaviors out of kindness, understanding, and mutual delight.
In Dorcie and Todd's flock, she was also the bellwhether: the first to rush up to a visitor, the first to push to the front of the flock for scratch, bread, corncobs, and God help me, worms I dug out from my composter as a special treat for her and the other "girls." She was also the first to peck at my green garden clogs, sure there must be something edible there. She also talked incessantly; if I was on the other side of the fence in my garden, she would be the first to poke her head through the fence slats, looking for a handout of crocosmia leaves, old Swiss chard, or just a little companionship.
Since we live on top of a creek where there are daily sightings of raccoons, and coyote have been known to take down deer near our tiny woods, none of us believe in forever pets and animals--that's just not realistic. And so the news of the big red's disappearance is very sad, because this uber chicken taught us wonder, respect and love.