There she was, pecking with abandon on the glass, sliding door that leads to our backyard. It was our boss chicken Dot, the diminutive but tough leader of our three-bird flock, doing the poultry version of pounding on a door with a clenched fist.
She had no business being there. It was dark. Our backyard chickens put themselves to bed in their coop as dusk comes on and I go out shortly after nightfall and close their run and lock them up for the night. It’s a ritual. They’re never in the yard this late.
Yet here was the plucky bird, doing her best Lassie impression. I’m convinced she would have barked and looked expectantly toward the old well, — if she was a Collie and, well, we had an old well to fall into.
This stuff always happens when I’m at home by myself. My wife and daughter were out volunteering, taking care of cats at PetSmart, as they do one night a week.
My daughter and my wife are hardcore animal lovers. We have a standard poodle, two cats (both black), two tanks full of fish, and the aforementioned chickens in the back yard.
My daughter talked me into the birds. She insisted they’d be fun, and they are, though I’ve found myself dealing with the silly beasts more than I ever expected.
I’ve always encouraged her love of animals. It’s made her an empathetic and responsible young lady. I’ve always stressed that animals are a gift from God. In fact, they are His creatures; we are here to take care them.
It’s something I’ve harped on about most living things she’s come across, from worms to horses to elephants. As a result, she’s learned she can help an animal and not want to own it. I only rarely had to explain to her we couldn’t take a wild thing home and never had to tell her not to be cruel to a creature, not even a bug.
And tonight, it appeared her chickens, three of God’s creatures in our care, might be in a jam.
“What’s wrong, Dot? You should be in bed,” I said more to myself than to the chicken as I pulled on my jacket, stuffed a roll of crackers in my pocket and grabbed a flashlight.
I opened the door, stepped outside and encouraged Dot to follow me. She walked after me slowly, trailing my light as I headed back toward their coop and run.
I continued to question the bird as I rounded the corner of the house.
“Where’s Shawnna and Tessa? What’s the matter?” I asked as if I expected an answer. I sensed she was still following, moving slowly like a sleepwalker.
As the coop came into view I saw the rough outline of a large chicken on the egg box on the exterior of the structure.
The shadowy blob was Tessa, our big red chicken. She was trying her best to get into the coop but from outside the fenced run, through a little screened window that provides ventilation. She was bocking to herself, a kind of muttering, like a person might make as they tried to figure out what lock a fist full of strange keys might fit.
Okay, now it was clear, the door to their run had blown shut and they were effectively locked out. If they can’t get in the run, they can’t access the door to the coop where they sleep.
I shined my light on Tessa and then down on the ground. I fished out a cracker and offered it to her. It took a minute of coaxing, but she finally mustered up the gumption to flap down to the ground. Why it didn’t occur to me to lift her off and just carry her, I’ll never know.
She followed me and the light, staggering along a bit like a drunk. I opened the run and tossed in the cracker but the morsel she’d have fought the other birds for in daylight was too much trouble at night. She staggered up the ramp and into her coop. It was easy to imagine the song “Me and My Shadow” playing in the background.
I ducked inside the run. It’s tall — but you can whack your head on the roof supports if you stand straight up — and stuck my head in the door of the coop. Luckily there was our third chicken Shawnna, her light gray feathers looking silvery in the flashlight beam, already settled in the spot the birds like to sleep. Shawnna and Tessa spoke to each other in subdued chicken voices. Both seemed relieved.
I ducked back out of the run and called for Dot. She was nowhere to be seen.
I shined my light all around the coop and run, circling it in case she had gotten lost in the darkness.
She did not come plodding out of the darkness.
I started to backtrack, walking all the way back to the back door of the house without finding her.
I stopped and took a deep breath. She couldn’t have really gone missing in less than a few minutes. She’s a chicken for goodness sake, not a greyhound.
I swept my light into the bushes that run along the side of our house, looking for her, and found nothing.
I called and chatted, “Where’d you go Dot? We have to get you into bed. It’s getting cold and really dark.”
Ziltch — only shadows and snow and branches.
I went back through the bushes again, but this time I shifted my light just a bit higher. There she was, sitting on the windowsill of our bedroom. Her instinct to get up off the ground as the darkness got deeper had taken over. Bleary-eyed, she was still awake but didn’t even twitch when I walked up to her. I reached over and scooped her up in my arms, dropping my flashlight in the process and carefully carried her toward her coop, unconcerned that I was carrying her, a bit like a feathered, tired toddler.
I got her to the run, opened it with my foot and placed Dot in the coop with her fellows. I heard drowsy chicken greetings.
Watching my head yet again, I walked back and retrieved my light, then came back to the coop once more ducked in the run, and shined my light in.
The three chickens were snuggled together, already asleep.
I counted them, “One, two, three.”
Then I did it again for good measure.
“Goodnight girls,” I said, then locked the run. And feeling like a good steward, I followed my light back to the house.