When I came home at the end of the day, there was a chicken waiting outside my front door, standing there in the patient way our old dog used to when he wanted to come in. She was the Rhode Island Red, survivor of a raccoon attack the night before. The day after the attack, she’d refused to go anywhere near her coop — scene of the crime — despite my attempts to lure her there with her favorite sunflower seeds. That evening, with body language as clear as a dog scratching at the door, she told me she wanted to come inside. So I opened the door, without considering the ramifications, and she strode right into the mudroom.
I’d had chickens in our Chappaquiddick house before, which seems odd to some people — I know. But the chickens are my pets. I’d taught one to jump up and catch a piece of tofu in midair in my kitchen. Usually I name my chickens, but the present flock of three (before the raccoon) had been particularly standoffish. I’d had them for nearly a year, but had never gotten around to giving them names that stuck. They were simply the Ameraucana, the Australorp, and the Rhode Island Red.
Neither the Red at the door, nor her sisters, had ever wanted to come farther inside than the doorway to the mudroom, despite looking in the window many times. The night of the raccoon attack, my husband had found the Red lying stunned, and brought her inside, where he held her on his lap for a while. Evidently she had decided our house was the safest and best option for the night.
Inside the mudroom, the Red’s head swiveled from side to side, looking up high, peering everywhere. She looked like she was searching for a perch to spend the night; it was certainly the time of day chickens usually go to their nighttime spots. I figured the Ameraucana, who had also survived the attack, must have gone off into the woods to spend the night, because she was nowhere in sight. All that was left of the Australorp was a few feathers blowing around the yard.
The Red followed me into the kitchen, and continued peering everywhere in a purposeful way. At the telephone table next to the fridge, she tried to squeeze in behind a bunch of catalogs piled on the bottom shelf. When she couldn’t fit, she went back to the mudroom and rustled around on top of a pile of shoes. Meanwhile, I’d moved some catalogs to make a space at the back of the shelf, so when the shoes didn’t work, she came back to the kitchen. With much scratching and maneuvering, she settled herself on the bottom shelf behind the catalogs, with the wall on one side and the fridge at the back.
In the morning, the chicken was in no rush to get up. When the Ameraucana appeared at the front door, I let her in, and she made her way to where I’d left some sunflower seeds for the Red, to entice her off her shelf. The Ameraucana started pecking away at the seeds, until suddenly, she spotted her sister looking at her from the shelf. She stood stock-still for a full couple of minutes, staring at the Red and then looking around at the surroundings, trying to make sense of what she was seeing (my interpretation). Finally, the Red climbed off her shelf, and I lured them both back outside.
Neither of the other humans I live with — my husband and son — was as enthralled about a chicken seeking refuge in the house as I was. My son said I shouldn’t let her get used to living inside, and worried about her lack of housetraining. When my husband made some mild objection, I protested, “It’s just one chicken. It’s not like it’s a whole flock!”
One indoor chicken felt like the limit, so the next night when both chickens were waiting at the door to come inside, I didn’t let them in, figuring that the Ameraucana would soon go off to sleep in the woods like she had the night before. She was always the first to roost for the night. I kept telling myself that she was fine, since she’d made it safely through the night before. But really, it felt more like Sophie’s Choice. The next morning her feathers had joined the Australorp’s floating around the yard.
With my guilt at choosing to save just the one chicken, I became even more determined to keep that last one safe. But what is a chicken without a flock? The Red didn’t know what to do with herself. She spent the next couple of days outside looking in the window at the front of the house, or perched on a high back porch railing that put her face inches from a window into the kitchen. She even laid an egg up there, which fell with a splat onto the deck below. Whenever I was outside, she’d come over and scratch a bit in the patch of dead lawn where the chickens had been working for a week or so, unearthing grubs. Nights, she spent on the back of the shelf behind the catalogs.
My husband and son urged me to make a long-term plan, so I checked in with a couple of other chicken owners on Chappy to see about a possible new home, or more chicken-mates for the Red. Other Chappy coops were having similar raccoon problems, though. My brother, who keeps chickens off-Island, said he had a couple he could give me when he came in two weeks. That would give me time to try to raccoon-proof my coop. I knew a chicken owner who was building a Chappy coop with wire that went six inches down into the ground and then angled out another six inches sideways to keep the raccoons from digging their way in. It reminded me of the electrified Aquinnah “henitentiary” I’d heard about, built by chicken owners harassed by raccoons.
Each chicken has an individual personality, but it’s somewhat muted by flock behavior. The fewer chickens in a flock, the more each one’s individuality comes out. The Red had been the top chicken in her little flock. She was the boldest, and the one who liked to stand inches from my hands while I gardened, in case I dug up a bug. She had taken on the role of rooster in her flock, and when she had a special treat to share, she’d invite the other two over with a call used by roosters — a happy, gurgling sound made at the back of the throat. But as the only chicken, she was acting more like a faithful dog, sticking close to us and to the house.
In the week after the raccoon attack, the Red was slowly recovering from the trauma. She wasn’t right outside the door every time I went outside, and she was spending more time scratching around the yard, resting in the shade at the edge of the lawn. She seemed to want to keep track of where we were, though, and came back inside to lay an egg in her safe spot on the shelf during the day. One afternoon, she was scratching for bugs in the lawn while I sat on the stoop watching her. All of a sudden, she made that special gurgling sound. She had a grub and kept tossing it up in the air to show me. I came right over, like an obedient hen. It was then I knew we humans had become her flock.