I now understand why a raven flying low overhead is a bad omen.
It was nearly dark last night when I fed the animals. I like to feed them late in the day so they will forage for wild food as much as possible.
I was surprised to hear a sound amidst the clucking of the hens: a delicate peeping and chirping. It came from a tiny flash of pale yellow, bouncing around, ducking and evading the big layers who tried to peck at it and shoo it away.
I was very happy to see a new chick; the first one on the homestead. But like usual, I was not ready for it. I didn’t have water set up for the little guy to get a drink because the regular chicken-waterer was too high. And the only chicken feed I had was the pellet-type; too big for a small chick to eat.
Due to all the ruckus caused by the hens scrabbling after their feed, I couldn’t tell who the broody momma was, or if there was even a hen willing to be the momma. The chick was getting harassed by some of the more aggressive hens, so I raced into the mix and snatched up the little yellow fuzzball and brought it into the house.
I was stricken with a dilemma. There was no obvious sign of a momma hen to protect it, keep it warm, and show the little guy how to find food and water.
I decided I would keep it in the house overnight, give it some water and a bit of ground-up chicken feed pellets, and take it out in the morning to figure out who the momma hen was and whether or not she wanted her baby back.
I first tried to get the chick to take a drink of water. My wife is better at this sort of thing but she was out of town, and I bungled it pretty badly, nearly drowning the poor little guy. My daughter and I thought he was dead, but we held him and stroked him back to life. The chick was in bad shape after the near-drowning, so we took turns holding it in the cups of our hands. I let it stay under my shirt for awhile. Eventually I found a wet spot on my shirt, but I took that as a good sign that the little guy at least got a drink of water despite my attempt to drown him.
I started worrying about what to do for the night. New chicks need to be kept warm. But it still gets down to 50 degrees in the cabin at night. I didn’t have a heat lamp bulb, or any sort of incandescent bulb, and even if I did, it would drain the battery quickly because I live off grid and have a small solar power set up.
So I lit a fire in the wood stove and set a small cage net to it with the chick inside. But the cage was either too hot or too cold, depending on where I moved it or how hot the fire was. I couldn’t relax, thinking the poor little guy was either freezing to death or roasting to death.
I’m not overly sentimental about cute little farm animals, but I feel an obligation to take good care of every animal that I have. So as a last resort, I took the chick to bed with me. I wouldn’t normally consider taking a farm animal to bed with me, but I didn’t know what else to do.
The little guy immediately relaxed under the blanket and snuggled into me all night, sleeping against my side. If I got up to go to the bathroom, he wandered around the bed sheets in fear, peeping and chirping until he saw me, at which point he relaxed.
In the morning he was fine, peeping and chirping like a normal chick would do. I was very happy, thinking I had managed to not screw things up too badly.
I took the chick out to the hen house to see if we could find the momma hen. When I presented the peeping and chirping chick to the flock, an Americana hen immediately ran up to investigate, as if to find out what the heck I was doing with her baby. I’d seen this behavior before and I recognized the actions of a defensive momma hen, so I knew she was the one who had hatched the chick.
I set the chick down on the ground and he ran over to momma. I watched as she walked off with the chick and scratched the ground, looking for bugs, showing the newborn how it’s done. When other hens got too close; momma reared up and ruffled out her feathers to scare them away.
Watching them, I thought, momma hen had finally arrived to the place where she was meant to be: protecting and teaching her babies.
Happy and confident, I set about filling up a waterer that was more suited to a small chick. Then I scooped up a bit of feed pellets to take into the house for grinding into small bits, thinking I would get some chick starter feed the next time I went to town.
As I left to take the feed into the house for grinding, I looked back one last time and watched the momma hen lay on the ground, the chick running to her to climb underneath her warm belly. Momma hen looked content.
I went to the house and ground up the feed in the coffee grinder, then headed to the chicken yard with a mason jar of finely ground feed that I was sure the new chick would love.
With the jar of food in hand, I approached the chicken yard. Nearly there, I saw an old raven fly low over the grounds as if searching for something, and the hens scurried about in fear. I suddenly had a bad feeling in my gut.
I looked around for the little bouncing flash of yellow, wondering why I didn’t hear the peeping and chirping sounds. I searched everywhere, growing more frantic by the minute. But my little friend, who had been through so much, was gone.
I had left for only ten minutes. In that time my little friend who had looked to me for protection and warmth through the night had been violently snatched away by a wild creature. I had been given this lovely gift, and just as quickly, it had been taken away because I didn’t do my job to protect it.
I found momma hen in the goat house, laying on a clutch of eggs. She hardly stirred as I climbed in, looking for her baby in one last desperate place. She half-heartedly pecked at my hand as I moved it beneath her, looking for what wasn’t there.
She was stoic in her resignation. The fruit of many hours of work had been stolen from her but she was determined to try again to produce babies to teach and protect. To her, this was simply her lot in life, and she accepted it.
Next time I will do better.