It worried me when that hen wouldn't let the little guy in.
The chirping drew me down to the hen house last Monday night. The sound drifted through the hen house walls, up over the lawn, and through my open window. I've heard it plenty over the years--a sound that is part confusion, part fear. Usually it means that a newborn chick has jumped her nest. And normally, by the time I can slip on my shoes and run to the rescue, the mama hen has already gone after her baby. Instinct drives her from her nest, even if it still contains just-hatched chicks. She'll leave the rest to save the one.
And that's what happened this time. The barely-here chicks still in the nest hadn't had time yet to understand they were abandoned. They were still looking at each other and all the sudden extra space in their box when I opened the door and stepped inside. I knew they'd stay like that, alone and shivering, if I didn't orchestrate a reunion.
Being as new-to-life as they were, they didn't yet know to question my featherless hand. Picking up each little cotton ball, I said hello and set them down next to their mother. One by one, the babes burrowed under her feathered side. But then I set the last little guy down. He chirped once and then poked his minute little beak beneath one feather. I assume he found a wall of steel beneath that feather, because he backed up and gave the white wall a quizzical look. He tried again, retreated, tried again, and sat down. I scooped him up and set him a little closer to the back. Apparently, the back side was standing room only, because he couldn't get in there, either. At this, he started chirping insistently. His mother ignored the sound, but it caused me to scoop him up again and set him down closer to the front. He tried to burrow there, found just enough space under her wing that his shivering little back was covered, and stopped trying. I worried at the sight of those two toothpick legs sticking out below, but I trusted that he'd eventually find his way to warmer parts.
Tuesday morning, I thought of that chick when I woke, and told myself that as soon as I got dressed, I'd check on him. But then I forgot. It wasn't until sometime after lunch when I felt a very strong urge to get myself down to the hen house. This time, I heeded the nudge.
As I approached the coop, I could see the mama hen out in the yard with little moving bits of fluff around her. She'd already taken her brood out for a meet-and-greet with the other hens. I watched from over the fence and counted babies. When two tries still yielded only five chicks, I knew my little guy was in trouble.
I went into the hen house and checked where I'd last seen him. He wasn't there. I looked in every corner of the house and behind the feed can, but he wasn't there. And then, bending over and leaning out the half door that leads to the yard, I found him. He was lying prone against the dirt, with his legs splayed out behind him and his head turned to one side. Don't be gone, I thought, my heart pounding. I leaned down a bit further and blew as hard as I could. That little breath against his back caused him to open his beach just the tiniest bit. At that, I hit the ground, reached down, and snatched him up.
He was barely there. I cupped my hands and blew a slow stream of warm air inside. He didn't move. I blew again, and again, until finally I felt him stir. All the way to the house, I kept blowing. Once inside, I sat us both in front of a space heater and let its warmth drive the death chill from his little body.
I held him for two hours. His return to life was a slow process. At first, all he could muster was the slow opening and closing of his little beak. After awhile, he turned his head just slightly. Then, I saw one wing tremble. Awhile later, he opened an eye ... kicked his foot ... rolled over. When he started chirping, I started breathing again. He'd live.
We made him a little nest and set a heat lamp over top. Tera wanted him in her room, so we obliged, but he kept her up most of the night with his chirping. The next day, when I reached in to scoop him up, he hopped into my hand as though he'd missed it. I held him and stared at him and thought about his rescue. I'd had to lower myself and lie in the dirt to snatch him up. And even knowing that he'd spend his little life pooping and pecking the other chickens and probably pecking me occasionally, I wanted him to live. It made me appreciate God all over again. He knew all about lowering Himself to the dirt and scooping up we dying critters, and even though He could look ahead and see that we'd each spend our lives making a lot of messes and hurting each other--and hurting Him, too--He wanted us to live.
For three days, my chick stayed inside. He'd drink water if I offered it to him on a spoon, but we never saw him drink from the container in his nest. If I rubbed a bit of chick starter (tiny crumbles of chicken feed) on his beak, he'd try to shake off the particles. If one or two specks slipped in, he'd swallow them, but we never saw him peck. I'd wait with him for a half hour at a time, trying to get him to eat something, but he simply wouldn't--or couldn't. It crossed my mind that he'd never witnessed pecking before. Maybe some things have to be learned.
It was that concern that finally made me take him back to the chicken coop. I didn't want to, but I knew he'd die if he didn't start eating like a chicken. In my wanderings down to the coop, I could see how much stronger and more mobile his siblings were. They pecked at everything. If he could just get back in the brood, he'd learn. I knew he'd learn.
I think he was scared when I set him down on the ramp and nudged him in the direction of his mother and siblings, who were pecking at the ground below. He didn't move for several minutes, but he did start chirping. His mother looked up at him once. I prayed she'd recognize that sound, but I've found that mother hens can be a bit capricious with their affection.
He took a step and slid a few inches down the ramp; took another step and slipped off the side. It wasn't a far drop. I held my breath again as he took three tottering steps in the right direction. Mama hen watched his approach. If she didn't take kindly to his return, I'd dive through that half door and reclaim my baby.
But she did. It took him about five minutes to cross four feet and find a good burrowing spot, but I took comfort from watching that massive white wing lift slightly and envelope my little guy. And even when the others wandered under her and away from her, over and over, she stayed put and didn't abandon my chick. All he wanted was the warmth of her body, and she didn't let me down.
But he died. I found him the next morning, lying under the hen house. And this time, no amount of blowing or pleading made a difference. He stayed in that spot, unmoving.
I don't know what happened. Maybe all those days of not eating had stolen his strength. Maybe he couldn't keep up with the others. Maybe he didn't have the energy to burrow to safety when night came.
Spring, for me, is a bittersweet time. Spring brings life ... but it also brings death. Lambs die. Ducklings die. Chicks die. And no matter how insignificant those lives may seem to anyone else, they matter to me.
I have no deep insights today. Today, I'm simply sad.
Labels: wild kingdom