"Don't worry about the chickens, honey. My mom loves chickens. It will be fine."
I nod as my husband talks. He's packing to leave for three weeks on a private trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I have to work and will hike in to meet the trip at Phantom Ranch and will spend 10 days on the river. The Saints, aka Grandma and Grandpa, will drive here from Texas to stay with the kids.
In between cleaning the house, threatening the kids with dire consequences should they misbehave for Grandma and Grandpa and getting everything at work ready for my absence, I am worried about the chickens.
We acquired 15 chicks on Easter weekend. They were living in a box in my son's bedroom. The kids had established a routine of feeding the chicks, watering them and cleaning their bedding. The chickens were an added worry as I prepared to be away from my kids for the longest time since either had been born. Plus, I was a little nervous about the river trip -- the longest I'd ever been on. Three days before Grandma and Grandpa were to arrive, my daughter ran in the kitchen one morning as I was packing lunches and getting ready to take the kids to school.
"Mom, mom!" she yelled.
"You don't need to yell. I'm right here."
"But mom! Joe is injured!"
Now to my eyes, all of the chicks looked exactly alike. They were all fluffy and cute but individually indistinguishable. The kids, however, swore that they could tell the chickens apart. And Joe, one of the smaller balls of fluff, happened to be Sophie's favorite.
I sighed and set down the peanut butter sandwich I was making.
And she did.
Sure enough, two of the chicks looked like they'd been bitten by a dog. Our dog, the Dooley Lama, would never bite a chicken or anything else. The worst he would do would be to roll his eyes in annoyance (which he did often for the duration of the chickens' stay in the house). So why were two chicks bloodied?
The answer was not long in coming. As we watched, the very smallest chick waddled up to Joe and proceeded to peck him over and over on his side. Then she turned to the other injured chick and pecked her. Both victims were bloodied and getting worse. Meanwhile, if we didn't leave soon, the kids would be late for school.
"Go get three boxes from the garage," I yelled to the kids.
The boxes were fetched and the injured chicks were each put in a separate box with bedding, food and water. Into the last box we put the bully chick. Then I hustled the kids into the car and took them to school.
"Mom, is Joe going to die?" wailed the kids.
As we drove, I went through my mental list for the day. OK, today I need to copy all of the insurance cards, write out the names and phone numbers of the pediatrician and rheumatologist, buy a new life vest, buy and pack extra bread, borrow a backpack, write down the number of the satellite phone, finish the laundry, find my wetsuit, put clean sheets on the beds ... oh, and work. Oh, and deal with two bloody chickens.
Back at home, I looked in on the chicks. The injured birds looked to be in bad shape. Napoleon (as I'd christened the bully chick that morning) was angry and aggressive. What am I going to do? I did not have it in me to dispatch Napoleon. And so, in my time of crisis, I turned to Freecycle.
If you don't know about Freecycle, you should. It's a national network of people, linked on the Internet, who give things away and ask for things. The rule is, everything is free. For example, when I got a new printer for Christmas, I posted an offer for my old printer on Freecycle. When someone responded to the posting, we arranged for them to pick up the old printer.
I love Freecycle. I have given away many toys, clothes and other items that otherwise I would have to haul off to charity or to the dump. We got our piano from Freecycle. It's awesome. I've seen people give away cans of food, firewood, clothing, baby goats, pets and computers. And so, when faced with bloodied chicks, my thoughts turned to Freecycle.
I posted the following:
Offer: chick. Need to find a new home for a month-old chick. She is aggressive toward her flock-mates and needs to be an only chick or be with older chicks she can't push around. She's a Rhode Island Red, about a month old. We call her Napoleon.
Within a few hours I had the following response via email:
"I can take the chick if you are sure it is female. We aren't allowed to have roosters in our neighborhood. I already have 4 hens, a coop, etc. One more chicken is no big deal for us."
I'm pretty sure she's a she. After all, all of the chicks we bought were supposed be shes. But it's well known in chicken circles that separating the hens from the roosters is an uncertain science when said chicks are small. But it is now 24 hours before Grandma and Grandpa arrive and I have to buy socks for my hike. Is she a she? Of course!
I take Napoleon in her box to her new home. Her new family welcomes her warmly and I drive away praying that she is a she.
Back at home, I clean up the injured chicks and move them into my daughter's room. She will be in charge of their rehabilitation but they're in bad shape and I don't have much hope for their survival. The remaining 12 chicks are still living in a box in my son's room.
I am packed and ready when Grandma and Grandpa arrive after their long drive from Texas.
We go over the kids' schedules, emergency numbers, etc. Then we show them the chicks.
Grandma's eyes open wide as she looks at me.
"Honey," she says, her voice kind with a tinge of pity. "This was your husband's idea, wasn't it?"
"Um, sort of," I mumble.
"Go on and have a good time," she says. "We'll take care of everything."
She really is a saint.
Ten days later we roll back into town. We are tired, dirty and happy when we get home. But the chicks are no longer in the house. The Saints have completed transforming the shed into a chicken house. The chickens are more than double the size they were when we left. Joe and Injured Chicken No. 2 are healed and back with the flock.
I reflect that I have now learned the true meaning of the phrase "hen pecked." And I wonder about Napoleon. Please, please, I implore the universe, let her be a she.
Abbie Gripman lives outside of Flagstaff with her wonderful husband, two adorable (and gifted) children, an emotionally needy dog and 11 chickens. When she grows up, she wants to be a lounge singer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.