Here in upstate New York where I live there are many wild animals, and tame animals too with varying degrees of greed and chutzpa. It is in the city gardens where they seem to get the most satisfaction. City gardens have a far more attractive menu, and although we battle deer and ground hogs the most fiercely, the bunnies and crows, moles and voles, the cunning little chipmunks and nasty squirrels are all on the gravy train. At this moment our back yard is a labyrinth of chicken wire. The back yard goes up a little slope into the woods belonging to the city. The deer go along the hill at the property line, and it used to be that they looked down at a veritable feast. Each summer season was fraught with disappointment until we learned that tulips and phlox and lilies in particular could not exist in deer country. But there were other things they would sample, and of course the vegetable garden was a favorite spot to linger. Not even the dogs could persuade them to stay away.
We started planting things deer don’t like: aliums, cone flowers, ferns, primroses, tradescantia and orange lilies, nothing that precious,. you understand, and the deer cruised the beds and began turning our garden down. We began to lose interest. If one nibbled a bit we remained calm. Betsy said apropos of nothing one night in winter as we sat with drinks in front of the fire,
Let’s have chickens.
What do we need, Jim said.
I said in really weary tones, Oh please.
I was licked before we began. Neighbors on our block, the best block in Oneonta, N.Y. said Okay, go for it.
The chickens arrived, cute little balls of yellow feathers, six of them. They peeped. Jim made a cage and tenderly strewed wood chips, tenderly heated it with a light bulb and covered it at night against the cold. Fiona tried to name them but they all looked the same, and at last they were moved into their coop in the back yard. I am obsessed with the chickens. For a while I liked them a little. They crooned and chortled and made womanly compassionate sounds. They ate bugs and fertilized the lawn. One of them developed a somewhat aggressive stance croaking in a way somewhat different from the others. It became clear to all of us one day when he crowed, a pathetic, brave, adolescent crow. He was a rooster and needed to be given away. Now we were five.
No eggs as yet. They did the kind of work we expected them to do. They curtailed the Japanese beetle infestation by scratching up the larvae that live under the grass; they cultivated weedy perennials. There was an eerie sentimentality connected with all they did. They called out to one another to make sure everyone was accounted for and they especially liked to band together in a group. Betsy liked to pick them up and cuddle them. Jack liked to chase them and make them flap their wings. They even began to lay one or two eggs every day, more eggs than we could eat. Fiona sold them to the neighbors. We liked to say things like birds of a feather flock together.
And then almost overnight everything changed. We had no idea that our chickens had missed anything in what we saw to be their full lives. Sometimes I wondered if they got sad thinking about the babies that never hatched. I left open the gate to the vegetable garden. It never occurred to me that there might have been anything, perhaps just some trifle, missing from their diet. In the morning I went out to the garden to get some tarragon and parsley to put in another less fortunate chicken to roast for our dinner. It was if a cyclone had struck. Garlic had been scratched out of the ground ( they do not like aliums). Small lettuces lay limp in the dust.
Since that sad day much has happened to change our minds about the chickens. They share with the deer an inordinate yen for new tulips. When the tulip pokes its wrapped leaves out of the ground in April the chickens stick their pesky beaks at them and eat away those leaves, and at last after the bud forms they go after it as if they were cleaning the choke out of the artichoke. There are only two chickens left. Threec hickens have died. Getting them off the patio was not enough. Two glossy black chickens can just eat your heart out.