Ethel

Most of our chickens have descriptive names, like Featherfoot (our rooster has feathers on his feet), the bareback chicken (a Rhode Island Red hen who lost the feathers on her back), the Ancona (we started with three Anconas, but are now down to one, which makes the identification simple), and the babies (although they are a year old now).

We gave some of our chickens people names. Maria kept laying eggs in rock walls, and would stay out all night. She was named after Julie Andrews’ character in Sound of Music. (Staying out all night proved to be her downfall.) Junior was the mean rooster we dispatched. And then there were Lucy and Ethel—two RI Reds, with the most distinct personalities. Almost always together, they frequently peered in the kitchen door looking for something good to eat. Big on outdoor chores, both would be on hand for gardening or chopping wood, grabbing grubs and bugs, looking up at us expectantly if we were slow.

Ethel was at the top of the pecking order—not a gorgeous feather out of place. On Friday a freak accident befell her. She became entangled in a branch under the viburnum bush in the garden; she either strangled or broke her neck trying to extricate herself. We were home all day—I was working at the computer, close by. We never noticed.

The chickens aren’t pets like Koa, Oliver and Rebecca. They are however in our care, and they have charmed us. So with great sadness and regret we wrapped Ethel in burlap and buried her. Now we have five hens and Featherfoot (all of whom seemed to readjust immediately to their new number). The Ancona has stopped laying (she does this periodically), and the others are sporadic, so our egg supply has dwindled considerably.

When we first got chickens we worried about what to do when they stopped laying—chickens can live well over 10 years and while the coop is large, it can’t accommodate generations of chickens. However, we chose to let them roam and while this gives them a happier life (all you have to do is watch them and you’ll agree), it is also a more dangerous one.

This spring we will order new chicks. I hope there is another Ethel.

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