We returned Monday afternoon from the obligatory Memorial Day pool party/barbecue tired and sunbaked — a family sluggish in the hangover of four barbecues in four days, beginning with the optimistic pop of a pale ale bottle opening Friday afternoon and ending with the fizzle of a yawn 72 hours later.
It was as I was tending to my afternoon duties around the house that I first noticed an ominous sign out on the property: an explosion of white feathers down by the garden. Assuming one of the chickens had not burst of its own accord, I feared the worst. And then I saw another pile of black feathers. My eyes adjusting to the bright light outside and confusedly scanning the property, they came into focus: the limp, heavy bodies of several dead chickens, fallen where they died, reminding me of photos of dead soldiers dropped randomly on battlefields, their limbs contorted at strange angles.
“You don’t have problems with predators?” would-be chicken keepers have often asked me by way of advice. I would periodically see coyotes gazing longingly from the other side of the fence, bobcats skirting furtively through the wilds at the perimeter of our property, massive sleepy owls eying the fat lazy fowl from the oak branches above and brawny, eagle-eyed hawks circling just beneath the clouds overhead. But no, although we’d lost a chicken here or there over the years, it was always the random bird that had flown over the fence. The yard was secure and our chickens safe… I thought.
I had almost left the dog out that afternoon. But at the last minute called her in as it was hot outside. A fateful decision, as the pig would prove little defensive value. “Which ones?” my wife asked when I told her. Thankfully, we had never named the birds. Three whites ones and one black one. Two, as I said, dead where they had fallen; two missing and only evident by the dusting of their feathers, like snowfall, upon the oak leaves.
As I cleaned up the mess, I stopped and contemplated each of the two dead chickens. They looked something between the pets I’d known, and the plucked hens you’d see in the Asian supermarkets. I had in the past had many conversations with people about what we would do with the chickens when they stopped laying the eggs that we enjoyed eating and which our son sold in the neighborhood. Would we eat them? friends often asked. It was not our intention, they would likely simply live out their lives as pets. Now as I thought if the terror they must’ve experienced running from the jaws of coyotes, I thought perhaps it would’ve been better for them to go in my trusted hands, content until their last moment, to die in the service of feeding those who had fed them for so many years. It’s tricky business, the ethical issues surrounding the gentleman farmer.
The next day, as I was writing this, I heard frantic squaking outside. I looked out, and a coyote was chasing a chicken. Lola, our black lab, took off after the coyote, who beat a thievish retreat back into the shadows and somehow out of the yard. I had my answer, and spent the next several hours tracing the perimeter fence, fortifying what was, upon closer inspection, admittedly a poor job of security.
Looking out the kitchen window — the other side of the house — a little while later, I watched hummingbirds dancing dizzying arcs around the feeder, squirrels scampering about their business, bees buzzing flowers and lizards darting from rock to rock. A flurry of activity that reminded me that life triumphs, the business of the world goes on and each of us, man and bird and coyote alike, take our place in whatever part of the Grand Narrative we are assigned. And that was a comforting thought on a memorial day for chickens we had known and loved.