Sunday, August 21, 2011

It was a dark and stormy night...

Hens, in the self-preservation part of their DNA, just know when it's time to head into the coop in the evening. It's usually just a little before it starts to get dark. I'll see them all migrating in that direction, and will watch them hop through the door one by one. When I head over to button things up and check on them before dark, they are up on their roosts, tail feathers pointing down, pressed against each other like sparrows on a telephone wire.

One evening, I had them in a different part of the backyard while I was working in the garden, and they didn't have their usual access to the coop. I hadn't noticed it was getting late, but finally looked up to see seven hens crowded around the gate looking anxiously at my tardy self. I headed over to let them through the gate, and Violet, our Barred Rock, literally jumped into my arms in a panic before I had the gate open. After that, I was pretty careful to be a little more punctual at tucking them in.

But sometimes, something comes up and I'm late. I'd been at a meeting, and we had a torrential downpour, complete with thunder and lightning. It eased up just a bit as I got home, but since my husband and daughters were home, I assumed they'd rounded up the ladies. I got busy, then suddenly looked up to notice it was very dark, and the rain had started up again. "Hey, did you close up the coop?" I asked my husband. When he said he hadn't--that the chickens were still in the garden when he got home--I hurried out to check on them.

I stepped into the coop, which doesn't have an interior light. I could see a row of hens on the high roost, and a few hens on the lower roost (usually where the two bantams hang out). But they were squeezed so tightly together that I wasn't able to count very well. I stepped inside and counted by touch. The hens made soft, indignant sounds as I felt each feathered body. Four on the high roost. Two on the low roost. That meant one was missing. I double checked to make sure I wasn't missing someone. Again I found six. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, thinking of weather and predators and one small hen out in a big storm, and ran back to the house for the flashlight. Back to the coop. Six hens fidgeted in the glare.

Oreo, the little Silver Laced Wyandotte Bantam hen, was missing. The rain was bucketing down, lightning was flashing across the coop windows, and thunder cracked. I headed out into the backyard, not even sure where to look. She could be anywhere. On a whim, I walked along the back of the coop, towards our open compost stacks. And there she was. Flattened out against the warm compost, absolutely sopping wet, a little black and white hen peering up at me miserably. I reached for her, tucked her up under my chin so the rain wouldn't hit her, and ran back to the coop.

I placed her carefully on the low roost next to Clover, the other little Bantam, and Violet, who has started hanging out with Clover lately. She wiggled her way closer to Clover. It was warm and dry in the coop. And now, counting seven sets of tail feathers, I felt relieved. I toweled her off a little bit (or tried to--she didn't seem to appreciate my mother-hen efforts) then left her to roost while the rain beat out on the roof and the lightening flashed. I think that she must have gotten scared and had flown into the bins, but then wasn't sure how to get out, and she was on the side of the coop where there wasn't a door. But now she was safe and warm with her friends, and I headed back in to my house, where the lights glowed brightly, and I whispered a little thank you that my hens were safe.

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