The purpose of our sanctuary on the Virginia Eastern Shore is to provide a home for chickens who already exist, rather than adding to the population and thus diminishing our capacity to adopt more birds. For this reason we do not allow our hens to hatch their eggs in the spring and early summer as they would otherwise do, given their association with the roosters in our yard. All of our birds have been adopted from situations of abandonment or abuse, or else they were no longer wanted or able to be cared for by their previous owners. Our two-acre sanctuary is a fenced open yard that shades into tangled wooded areas filled with trees, bushes, vines, undergrowth and the soil chickens love to scratch in all year round. It also includes several smaller fenced enclosures with chicken-wire roofs, each with its own predator-proof house, for chickens who are inclined to fly over fences during chick-hatching season, and thus be vulnerable to the raccoons, foxes, owls, possums and other predators inhabiting the woods and fields around us.
I learned the hard way about the vulnerability of chickens to predators. Once, a hen named Eva, who had jumped the fence and been missing for several weeks, reappeared in early June with a brood of eight fluffy chicks. This gave me a chance to observe directly some of the maternal behavior I had read so much about. We had adopted Eva into our sanctuary along with several other hens and a rooster confiscated during a cockfighting raid in Alabama. Watching Eva travel around the yard, outside the sanctuary fence with her tiny brood close behind her, was like watching a family of wild birds whose dark and golden feathers blended perfectly with the woods and foliage they melted in and out of during the day. Periodically, at the edge of the woods, Eva would squat down with her feathers puffed out, and her peeping chicks would all run under her wings for comfort and warmth. A few minutes later, the family was on the move again.
Throughout history, hens have been praised for their ability to defend their young from an attacker. I watched Eva do exactly this one day when a large dog wandered in front of the magnolia tree where she and her chicks were foraging. With her wings outspread and curved menacingly toward the dog, she rushed at him over and over, cackling loudly, all the while continuing to push her chicks behind herself with her wings. The dog stood stock still before the excited mother hen, and soon ambled away, but Eva maintained her aggressive posture of self-defense, her sharp, repetitive cackle and attentive lookout for several minutes after he was gone.
Eva’s behavior toward the dog differed radically from her behavior toward me, demonstrating her ability to distinguish between a likely predator and someone she perceived as presenting no dire threat to her and her chicks. She already knew me from the sanctuary yard, and though I had never handled her apart from lifting her out of the crate she’d arrived in from Alabama several months earlier, when I started discreetly stalking her and her family, to get the closest possible view of them, the most she did when she saw me coming was dissolve with her brood into the woods or disappear under the magnolia tree. While she didn’t see me as particularly dangerous, she nevertheless maintained a wary distance that, over time, diminished to where she increasingly brought her brood right up to the sanctuary fence, approaching the front steps of our house, and ever closer to me – but not too close just yet. When she and her chicks were out and about, and I called to her, “Hey, Eva,” she’d quickly look up at me, poised and alert for several seconds, before resuming her occupation.
One morning, I looked outside expecting to see the little group in the dewy grass, but they were not there. Knowing that mother raccoons prowled nightly looking for food for their own youngsters in the summer, I sadly surmised they were the likely reason that I never saw my dear Eva and her chicks again.
Inside the sanctuary, I broke the no chick-hatching rule just once. Upon returning from a trip of several days, I discovered that Daffodil, a soft white hen with a sweet face and quiet manner, was nestled deep in the corner of her house in a nest she’d pulled together from the straw bedding on the dirt floor. Seeing there were only two eggs under her, and fearing they might contain embryos mature enough to have well-developed nervous systems by then, I left her alone. A few weeks later on a warm day in June, I was scattering fresh straw in the house next to hers, when all of a sudden I heard the tiniest peeps. Thinking a sparrow was caught inside, I ran to guide the bird out. But those peeps were not from a sparrow; they arose from Daffodil’s corner. Adjusting my eyes, I peered down into the dark place where Daffodil was, and there I beheld the source of the tiny voice – a little yellow face with dark bright eyes was peeking out of her feathers.
I kneeled down and stared into the face of the chick who looked intently back at me, before it hid itself, then peeked out again. I looked closely into Daffodil’s face as well, knowing from experience that making direct eye contact with chickens is crucial to forming a trusting, friendly relationship with them. If chickens see people only from the standpoint of boots and shoes, and people don’t look them in the eye and talk to them, no bond of friendship will be formed between human and bird.
I’ve seen this difference expressed between hens we’ve adopted into our sanctuary from an egg production facility, for example, and chickens brought to us as young birds or as someone’s former pet. Former egg-industry hens tend to look back at me, not with that sharp, bright, direct focus of a fully confident chicken, but with a watchful opacity that no doubt in part reflects their having spent their entire previous lives in cages or on crowded floors in dark, polluted buildings that permanently affected their eyes before coming to our sanctuary. Psychologically, it’s as if they’ve pulled down a little curtain between themselves and human beings that does not prevent friendship but infuses their recovery with a settled strain of fear. I’ll say more about these hens presently.
From the very first, a large red rooster named Francis regularly visited Daffodil and her chick in their nesting place, and Daffodil acted happy and content to have him there. Frequently, I found him quietly sitting with her and the little chick, who scrambled around both of them, in and out of their feathers. Though roosters will mate with more than one hen in the flock, a rooster and a hen will also form bonds so strong that they will refuse to mate with anyone else. Could it be that Francis was the father of this chick and that he and Daffodil knew it? He certainly was uniquely and intimately involved with the pair, and it wasn’t as though he was the head of the flock, the one who oversaw all of the hens and the other roosters and was thus fulfilling his duty in that role.
Rather, Francis seemed simply to be a member of this particular family. For the rest of the summer, Daffodil and her chick formed a kind of enchanted circle with an inviolable space all around themselves, as they roamed together in the yard, undisturbed by the other chickens. Not once did I see Francis or any of the other roosters try to mate with Daffodil during the time she was raising her frisky chick – the little one I named Daisy who grew up to be Sir Daisy, a large, handsome rooster with white and golden-brown feathers.