I always count the chickens before I shut the door for bed. Always.
They’re always all there. Always.
I don’t know what happened. Last night I didn’t count the chickens. I glanced into the coop and it looked like they were all there, so I shut the door and locked it.
Perhaps I was feeling lazy, maybe the complete lack of sleep I’d been getting paired with the complete excess of energy my students have had wore me out to the point of utter exhaustion. It could be that I got so conditioned to the fact that the chickens always put themselves to bed and they’re always all there convinced me that everything would be fine whether I counted or not.
Whatever the excuse was, the point is that I learned an important lesson in keeping chickens.
After locking the door to the coop, I went inside, ate some dinner, watched a movie, went to bed, and awoke to another groggy, exhausted day.
It was dawn when I stumbled out the back door to feed the flock. I squinted through the hazy blue-gray light with my tired eyes and slowly poured the grainy chicken feed onto the ground.
I watched them contentedly. It was a warmish day (for December) and I had a moment to kill before heading into work. Sipping my coffee and watching the hens body slam each other to get to the best bits of food was as good a time waster as any.
It took a few minutes for my brain to recognize that something wasn’t right. What wasn’t right? The coffee hadn’t kicked in yet and at first I couldn’t place it.
Staring at the swirling mesh of feathery bodies, some pieces started coming together in my mind. The colors were off. The percentage of brown feathers to blond, gray and black wasn’t right. Someone was missing.
I quickly counted chickens. Thirteen. There were supposed to be Fifteen. How could two hens be missing?!
Flinging open the door to the coop, I breathed a sigh of relief as I found Mokey glaring at me from the nest. Fourteen.
Where was number fifteen? Who was number fifteen?
I turned back to the run and glanced around again. It was clearly one of the newbies that was missing. A brown spangled Ameraucana, of which we have two. The missing hen has a cute little beard, and she’s my husband’s favorite.
The clock was ticking much too fast. A second search of the coop revealed no missing birds, just an angry Mokey yelling at me to get away from her nest.
I scanned the yard, hoping for some sign of her, even if it meant finding feathers or blood, at least it would be a clue as to where she went.
Nothing. Zip. Nada.
This wasn’t the first time a chicken has seemingly disappeared out of thin air, and I knew there was a chance she was still around, but I couldn’t spend another second looking for her without being late to work.
I spent the whole day wracking my brain as to where she’d disappeared to. The minute I got home I rushed out the back door to continue the search.
Nico and I searched the whole yard several times. Well, I searched the whole yard several times, Nico darted from tree to tree barking at squirrels and crows.
The first terrible thought was that predators must have gotten to her. It’s pretty common for chickens to disappear one day, carried off by a hungry, furry thing, never to be seen again.
Then again, here in the city, we don’t have many predator problems. While I know that predators are always lurking in the shadows, on this day there was absolutely no sign of having one on our property. No prints in the snow, no loose fencing, no droplets of blood or stray feathers. It was puzzling.
Thinking back on yesterday, I remembered that I had opened the door to let the chickens out, but they had been skeptical of wandering away from the coop. Chickens are not big fans of getting their dainty feet all cold and wet with snow, which was coating our yard like a giant fluffy blanket.
They had all spent the day huddled together just outside the door to the run. The snow in the yard was not only free of predator prints, it was free of chicken prints as well. If the missing hen had wandered away from home, there would be little tracks somewhere in the snow.
At this point I started to wonder if she was trapped somewhere and couldn’t get free. My heart broke at the thought of it.
Turning over wheelbarrows and peeking behind buckets, hoping to see her bearded face looking back at me, I was disappointed over and over again. The coop was subjected to a third thorough search to no avail.
A small voice in the back of my mind whispered:
check behind the coop.
The bigger voice at the front of my mind said:
Absolutely not. How would she even get back there? It’s blocked off. Don’t be stupid.
Check…check… the voice insisted.
It’s strange how when you’re frantically searching for something, or someone, all logic and level headed thinking disappear.
Your wandering eyes venture back to the same spots over and over again, hoping the lost item will suddenly appear there, and sometimes, magically, it does.
You look in impossible places and ignore obvious ones.
You wrack your brain thinking where could it be? Where could it be?! Then ignore the answers when they come.
All too often, I don’t listen to the little voice, the intelligent voice in the back of my mind that remembers everything and leaves no stone un-turned.
I came too close to ignoring it today. I was about to give up. To put my head in my hands and cry over another unnecessary homestead loss. There have been too many this year.
The persistent voice finally won over my indignant reasoning and I trudged over to the space where the coop meets the house. We’d closed this opening off years ago in an attempt to keep Nico out of the tight, barely twelve inch wide space.
I peered into the darkness over the embankment we’d made and when my eyes adjusted to the change, my heart leapt with joy.
There she was, crouched down on a pile of rubble, with cold water dripping on her back from the leaky gutters above. It looked as though she had jumped over the blockade sometime yesterday and not been able to find her way back. She’d been sitting there all night and all day.
She cooed and quietly stared up at me.
I cried. I felt horrible. If only I’d counted the birds last night like I always do, I could have found her sooner.
She didn’t struggle as I gently lifted her from her prison. She was stunned to be back in the real world. A world she would have never seen again.
Her youngest flock-mates came running from the yard to greet her and she shook the water from her soaked feathers. She was properly spoiled with a big dinner and black oil sunflower seeds for dessert.
When I tucked the birds in to bed tonight, you can bet I counted. And counted again. Little number fifteen was cuddled up with her friends, pleased as punch to be warm, and safe, and home.