We don’t get overly sentimental around here. We know that everything here plays at least one role, has at least one purpose. The chickens provide us with eggs, fertilize the land, and help with insect control. The sheep provide us with wool, keep weed pressure down, and fertilize the pasture. The garden provides us with food and medicinal flowers, as well as nutrients for a myriad of insects. The trees provide us with maple syrup and firewood, as well as shade for the animals. Eventually, some animals will provide us with meat. It’s the natural order of life on the farm.
But, then, along came Leggy. She was one of three Cuckoo Marans we raised from day-old chicks, the first batch of chicks we ever had. We had adult hens (and the infamous Roo) that were re-homed here, but we had never raised chicks. Before we received 30 baby chicks in the mail from the hatchery, we thought we could learn with a smaller, more manageable number. As with any baby animal, I doted on them as much as I could. Even still, one chick didn’t survive past two weeks. The three remaining chicks – Circe, Calliope, and Calypso – all seemed happy and healthy, as far as we could tell.
We don’t know what happened to her, but Calypso injured her leg when she was around 6 months old. One day she was fine, and the next, she wasn’t moving much. We examined her, poking and prodding, but we couldn’t find anything obvious. We hoped it was a minor sprain and it would heal on its own in a few days. Unfortunately, it never fully healed. She was given the nickname “Leggy” because she now walked with a limp. She managed, but now there were 28 other hens around her all competing for the same food, roosting spots, and dominance within the hierarchy.
Pecking order is a very real thing. The social structure of a flock of chickens is more dynamic than you would believe. There are “head hens” that, indeed, rule the roost. These hens are not afraid to assert their dominance in order to keep everyone else in line. Brownie, the last surviving hen from the re-homed flock, and Circe, the biggest of the Cuckoo Marans, were clearly running the show. They have been around the longest and are among the biggest hens in the flock, so this makes sense. At 3 or 4 years old, Brownie is just a grumpy, stubborn old lady at this point. And weighing 3 pounds more than everyone else – which is a lot for a chicken – Circe is a formidable presence.
Unfortunately for Leggy, she was the hen at the bottom of the pecking order. The larger the flock, the harder it is to keep everyone in line, so bullies emerge. In the eyes of the other hens, Leggy’s injury was a liability: she was the Achilles’ heel for the entire flock’s safety. Chickens can sense illness or injury in others, so the ladies turned on her pretty quickly. These birds are vicious and relentless little creatures. Most of the other hens would often make a game of chasing her, pecking at her, and just generally tormenting her whenever she was in sight. She spent most of the winter hiding from the rest of the flock. We would always make sure she had access to food and water, and Circe often snuggled up next to her at night on a roost below the other hens. Beyond that, there was nothing more we could do for her. This was, for better or for worse, the fate she had been dealt.
Once spring emerged, the flock moved to their mobile coop to begin their work on the pasture. She had adapted in the barn where they were overwintered, but now she had nowhere to hide. It was clear the flock would continue to torment her, perhaps to the point of killing her. I’ve had to forcefully remove birds surrounding her just to move her to a safer spot.
After intervening one last time and separating her from the flock, we realized that our farm wasn’t the best place for her. Her safety here was in jeopardy due to her injury. We didn’t want to cull her, which would have probably been the outcome for just about any other bird. If it had been just one bully in the flock, this is probably the route we would have taken. Ultimately, we both agreed that she deserved a chance for a better start somewhere else. So, a single Facebook post later, Leggy had found herself a new home.
After one last snuggle with Circe in the barn while the rest of the flock spent their first night in the Shaw, we loaded her into the cat carrier. She rode shotgun with me for the 90 minute journey south. She was calm most of the way, talking away on a few occasions, and only attempted to crawl out of the carrier the moment we arrived and the movement of the car stopped. She was welcomed by her new owner with open arms, despite her minor injury. She’s in a better space with fewer competitive hens who won’t terrorize her for simply existing. The pair of Silkies, a smaller and more mellow breed of chicken, were around her age. There were a few small ducks and only two hens bigger than her. There was plenty of space for everyone and spots for her to hide, if she felt the need. This was going to be the best place for her to start over. In fact, we were told she laid an egg on her first night there!
She was one of the first chicks we raised ourselves but our large flock was not the best fit for her. We’ve never had to re-home an animal before, but she had become more of a pet than any of the other chickens we’ve had. Yes, she may have been “just a chicken,” but I had such a soft spot for her. I’d always go out of my way to pick her up, if I could, and dote on her just like I did when she was a chick. The last time I intervened on her behalf, she came running right over to me – in her very Leggy run – knowing that I would offer her protection. Finding her a better home was, ultimately, the best protection I could have offered to her.
It’s one of the many realities of living on a farm and one of the many lessons I’m sure we’ll have to re-learn over and over again. It’s not picture perfect. It’s tough, it’s relentless, it will test your spirit at times. I care about all of the animals we are raising, but especially those that are a little “special” in their own way. The outcome doesn’t always have to be sad, though. There are other avenues and outlets, and Leggy deserved to live a long peaceful life, even if it wasn’t with us. Which, according to the most recent update, is exactly what she is doing.