I knew that backyard chickens, by their very nature, would bring me closer to the reality of our existence. A chicken’s life, measured in human terms, is very small. Yet, after only four years with the oldest in our flock, I wasn’t ready to face this reality, or what it would mean when life seeps from a body, and it becomes a feathered shell—the spark, the songs they sing and sounds they made when they see me—that suddenly goes quiet, and it is a strange thing to feel the gentle heat of a live body slowly, by degree, turn cold.
It was a Saturday just like any other. I didn’t ride the bike this morning; I’m sick, but I waited until about noon or so before letting the single ladies out of their covered run to free range in the yard. I usually wait until the sun is high in the sky to let them out to ensure that the nocturnal and dawn/dusk predators aren’t around, and for four years the strategy has worked.
Then, I did my usual list of chores: to the bike shop to give Rich lunch, then around to the various shops for animal food, skin care products and finally the grocery store. It was crowded today, and I got home a little later than expected (2:45 p.m.) The first thing I always do when the ladies are free ranging is to look for them through the kitchen window.
On a typical day, they are spread about the yard in their “mini flocks”—some under the forsythia that lines the back fence, some clucking beneath the cherry tree near the shed. Today, though, I looked and the backyard was barren. I moved to the sliding glass door to widen my line of vision. And that’s when I saw her, the black and white fluffy feathers. Coral, the Cochin Bantum, only she didn’t look like she normally does.
That was when I saw the hawk, standing on top of her.
Coral was the smallest of three mail-order chicks that literally arrived in the mail one fall four years ago after our first flock of three girls had been torn apart—not eaten—by raccoons. For a while, we were afraid that little Coral wouldn’t make it due to her delicate size, but she surprised us by becoming the first one to lay her egg six months later (a brown egg only barely bigger than a quarter).
As a chick, she’d been yellow with black tips on her wings. Her adult coloring turned a brilliant black with white mottling and thick feathered “socks” on her feet that were so thick, it almost looked like she was wearing a skirt. Of the three—and later of the ten—Coral remained the most likely to turn broody, and the most reluctant to accept a new chicken into the flock. (She was so broody once, she rolled apples into the coop and sat on them in lieu of eggs.) Yet, she was also the easiest one to pick up. You could literally just swoop down and pick her up—she never struggled, and never flapped to get away.
Last winter, she went through a molt and her coloring changed; she became whiter and her manner with the other girls mellowed. What didn’t change was her sweetness toward us; you could pick her up, carry her around like a football or a purse.
She had a special call, one that made me think she was more bird-like than the others, a type of caw-caw-caw when she’d see me coming out to refill the feeder or watering cans. A book I read last year about chickens claimed that, although they do not have a language like we do, they nonetheless make certain sounds that alert the flock to the presence of other animals and, if you’re close to your chickens like I am, to you. Lately, I started to believe the caw-caw-caw sound was her way of greeting me, of saying: I know you, the person who feeds, waters and picks me up.
I shouldn’t have stood in line seven for the cashier. I should have come home first and gone to the grocery store later. I could have, I think, saved her life.
I ran out the backdoor to the deathly quiet backyard. Aside from Coral and the hawk, there was nothing else. (This is unusual: our yard is always filled with bird song.) The hawk tried to fly away with Coral, but she was too heavy. The hawk flew into our ancient apple tree and stared down at me, while I stared at little Coral. Her feet were in the air, and her head was at an awkward angle. I reached down to touch her breast, and I was shocked that she was still warm.
There are little black and white feathers spread out across the dead grass, clumped in messy piles. I didn’t know what to do, and I was afraid to leave her there on the lawn. I don’t want the hawk to have her, I thought.
I ran back into the house, searching frantically for something to hold her. A pile of paper grocery bags in the kitchen caught my eye, but I couldn’t even imagine using something so base. I ran to the linen closet and pull out a towel.
When I returned to the yard, the hawk is just where I left her, up in the tree, watching me. I wrapped Coral in the towel and carried her against my chest to the coop and chicken run. I opened the hatch and count the chickens within—all nine, who were spooked, but breathing. Lady’s beak had blood across it, and when she rose to move, blood trickled down her leg. I closed the lid, telling myself I will come back for her in a moment.
Cradling Coral in my arms, I walked into the house, looking for something to keep her in. This is when I notice that she was bleeding vibrant red droplets across the hardwood floor. Eventually, I find a little box just her size, and still wrapped in her towel, I try to make her comfortable, if that is even possible, given what has just happened. I put my hand on her feathers, and I can feel them turning cold. And I wish I knew what to do for this sweet lady who brought so much joy to our household, but it all seems so hollow now.
I don’t want to leave her, but I know I have to see what happened to Lady, and to make sure that the other chickens are all right. I do another perimeter check of the yard. I come across a pile of gore where the kill must have happened; there are deep scratches in the mud, and I wonder if the hawk had gone after Lady first and Coral second.
I secure the door to the run and lift Lady from the coop. Her leg seems to be all right (just a scratch) but I bring her in and set her up in a small box lined with towels in my office to monitor for the night. I keep returning to the box in which I placed Coral to see if there is some movement there, some little spark I might have missed.
Life, though, has passed.
The hawk responsible for the kill is still in the apple tree, watching me. I go outside again, and stand beneath her in the branches not so far above me. She is beautiful, and I’m in awe that she lets me get so close. I realize this is probably because I took her kill away, and she’s thinking of pecking my eyes out. We stare at each other for what seems like a strange amount of time. In the moment, I tell myself that I will never forget what she looks like, but when I try to figure out what she is later, I can’t decide between images of Goshawks or Cooper’s hawks.
Brown and white, with a big white chest and piercing yellow eyes, much larger than I had expected her to be. Rich texts me, and I can tell that he is upset—Coral was his favorite—he tells me to grab the pellet gun and to shoot the hawk. I look up at that majestic bird—whose beauty is disarming—and I can’t say what I feel is necessarily anger. Instead, it’s a permeating sadness that beauty in life is tempered with this violence; that survival is this continual give and take that none of us can escape. (We will all, one day, be eaten by something.)
As an act of loyalty, I grab the pellet gun and adjust the scope while the hawk just looks at me. I can’t get the laser to work, but my heart tells me it’s just as well. I take aim at the sky and branches and hear the deft whoosh of a shot. The hawk watches me as if to say that in this, I am wrong, before she takes flight (and flies away) and I am left with Coral’s feathers fluttering listlessly in the dead grass around my feet.
To my critics who call me crazy, you’re right. But, I’m going to miss that little lady. I raised her from the time she was two days old. I witnessed her first egg. She was the main character in my first children’s story. Like any pet, we share these animal lives so briefly. Coral, the chicken with a bird’s call. I will miss that caw-caw-caw that greeted me every morning.