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A Chicken Funeral

[Note: Last winter at the NOFA NH Winter Conference, I sat in on a writing session with farmer & author Kristin Kimball. Throughout the class she offered prompts and we would write whatever came to mind. Fresh off the sub-zero temps of February '23, this story gurgled right out of me. I parked it in my drafts for the blog, then promptly forgot all about it. Now that it's nice and cold and the mood is set, I've decided to share it. Thanks for reading. -R]


Sometimes, chickens die. It just happens. We’ll find one lying in a corner still, no longer the pecking, scratching feathered little darling she once was. It’s really not a big deal to handle a dead bird. They feel the same, they look the same, still soft and light. Surprisingly delicate. Death is part of the farm. Every time I am confronted by it, I reflect on it – everything that lives, dies; and everything that dies, from forth springs life.


It’s only happened a few times in the last few years for us, fortunately. We’ve never found any underlying themes for birds dying. They just go. Could be stress, could be internal injury, could have been time to go for that individual bird. If we had serious issues in the flock, we wouldn’t be getting eggs – unhappy, sick birds don’t lay eggs. And we’d have more birds showing signs of illness or distress. Our old girl Brownie seems to be unkillable – she’s survived some cold winters, a bear attack, and multiple changes in flock hierarchy. And our poor limper, Leggy, still lays eggs now and then, even though she spends most of her time alone in a corner. Don’t worry though, she has a tiny roost just for her and a friend who spends each night with her. We think Leggy is just a black sheep. Yep, if a bird goes ever so casually, it’s usually between her and her chicken gods.


During the cold snap in early February, I happened upon a dead chicken in the coop. A lonely New Hampshire Red. It’s possible she had some sort of anomaly that caused her early death. She may have fallen off the roost and injured something internally. There was no evidence of choking or eggs getting stuck in her butt or anything common as the internet suggested. Chickens just die. Heirloom breeds such as this Red are historically more hearty, but I’ve heard that the mainstream meat breed, Cornish Cross, has been so developed for being fat and lazy that they can die during a thunderstorm if it spooks ‘em just right. Most heirloom breeds today are being bred for egg production, which may be sacrificing other hearty qualities about them that tradition has favored.


Normally I bury such things in the compost pile (we have a quiet place in the woods far away from the house), turning them into future vegetables, thereby justifying the loss of all those eggs and a hearty dinner. But it was currently zero-degrees outside and I couldn’t even get an electric fence post in the ground; I wasn’t digging any holes. It’s common practice not to eat a bird you didn’t kill so I wasn’t about to chop this thing up for the freezer. And we weren’t enthused about feeding it to the dogs, either, though they were prepared to present a full legal argument in favor thereof. If there was some sort of disease or parasite load, it wouldn’t be worth the risk. When in doubt, throw it out, right?


There were two feet of snow on the ground – and the compost pile was frozen solid. Attracting predators was my major concern. Woodland beasts certainly still wander through the property all winter – we find the prints – and I didn’t need them knowing there is a Michelin-rated restaurant on the property. I would have to hoof it out, up the logging road about a quarter-mile from the house and coop.


I carried the Red by its feet, plodding through the snow, breaking a sweat even in the zero-digit temps. The bird got heavier with each post-hole, as I passed deer and ermine tracks. I felt for the deer, who also must slog for a living all winter, in search of the most basic scraps of food. The ermine, however, traveled with the lightest touch. The ermine doesn’t bother us on the farm; I think it even lives in the hay loft. Its tracks begin at a tree not far from the barn and wander off into the woods and around the barn. The tree is but a staircase to the soft, cozy second story filled with the sheep’s food supply. The little carnivore never approaches the chicken coop, always heads in the opposite direction. Good fences make good neighbors, as they say. In this case, the fence is a locked coop door.


At the end of the logging road, I wandered a dozen feet into the woods, through thigh-deep snow drifts, and found a quiet thicket of hemlock and fir. I dug out a hole with my gloved hands and placed the bird in, as close to the ground as I could get it. I really hate letting things go to waste and so I couldn’t resist removing the chicken’s feet with a pair of shears before burying it. They are a dog’s favorite snack, I think. Crunchy, filled with good things like collagen, as well. And they last more than a few minutes, unlike most over-priced dog treats made from wheat byproducts. I patted the snow down real good over the bird. There were just a few feathers on the top of the snow pile, little green and red flowers upon the grave. I said a few thankful words for this chicken funeral. With that finished, I hiked back to the house, patting the chicken feet in my pocket.


I wondered if I’d find a half-rotted chicken carcass come spring, but I figured there’s enough activity in these woods the thing won’t last a week. I hoped it was far enough away that whomever found it wouldn’t come around for more. Back in the house, we celebrated the life of the chicken by frying up some eggs (one of which could have been hers). Meanwhile, the dogs enjoyed the scrumptious chicken feet. Wilder is known for carrying his around like a prize for an hour before settling down and crunching in.


A few days later during the thaw, I took the dogs for a hike up the logging road. I figured we could check in on the gravesite. It took forever to get up there because the dogs wanted to stop and investigate every deer track and mark it with their unique dog-scent marking equipment. Ah, the joys of being a doggo.


I was not surprised to find the chicken tomb was opened up and the body was gone. Pet Sematary? Or hungry local critter…. With minimal snooping (thanks to the curious sniffings of Wilder, while Pip stood guard at the edge of the logging road), we found some large melted-out prints, leading away from the house and deeper into the woods. A bear, perhaps? It could easily have been a fox or coyote. Something large, anyway. When prints melt, the imagination can get wild. What matters is, someone had their lunch – and life sprang forth from death, as it’s supposed to.


Weeks later, we’ve not had any evidence of unwanted visitors close to the barn. Perhaps the dogs stopping to smell the roses all over the logging road – and leaving, uh, roses of their own – has something to do with it.

3 Comments


Thank you for sharing this well-written piece. When I had a thriving farm, I remember exactly what you mentioned here. The big lesson began for me when we lost a baby goat. I was devastated (more than I anticipated). But I learned this vital lesson. "Where there is livestock, there will be deadstock." I understood how to balance this authentic aspect of farm life. It is so important, I incorporate the quote and experience throughout my book series. To know this is crucial to farming. I also found it an important aspect, filled with lessons, for my homeschool family. Bravo!

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Thanks for sharing this, I'll remember that quote -R

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It is the way of farming, unfortunately. When our family was young and we were new chicken parents, we gave them proper funerals. Not so much now after doing it for over 30 years. But it's still sad. We lost one during our current cold snap. She was one of our older gals. Thanks for sharing this excellent piece.

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