Earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan. Floods in Australia. Battles in Libya. Rising food and fuel prices. The sobering news never ends. Our brief human history is rife with human and natural disasters.
So how best to live? One of my role models was a small, fierce chicken.
The chicken had nothing more to recommend her than beautiful feathers, but that was enough. She was an auction chicken, a bantam with bands of orange, white, and black. The little hen belonged to the popular Mille Fleur variety of the Belgian d’Uccle breed. Cheap and colourful, she would add a spice note to our mixed flock.
We named her Millie, a name more handy than creative. Her mothering instinct was so strong we made her foster mother for any orphaned or injured chick. She was looking after three Sussex-cross chicks when we introduced Turkey Baby to her sheltering wings.
Turkey Baby was the runt of a batch of turkey chicks. She arrived with an injured wing. As even newly hatched turkeys do when they see red, her mates kept pecking at the blood.
We rescued the little one, washed off the blood, and put her down in front of Millie. She eyed the intruder suspiciously and gathered her chicks.
The poor little turkey was shivering from her bath and weary from her injury and the pecking. She walked the few steps to Millie, lowered her head, and pushed it against Millie’s breast.
We held our breaths, watching to see if she would accept the new chick or banish her as an intruder. Then Millie inched forward, puffed her breast, widened her wings, and drew the little turkey into her family.
We had planned to return the turkey chick to her flock once she grew strong enough to fend for herself. Millie would have none of it. Turkey Baby was hers. No matter how large Turkey Baby grew, she was always her momma.
Early one morning I heard Millie screeching and rushed outside to find her facing down a hawk. Though tinier than her fosterlings, she had sent them into hiding and stayed out in the open to fight off the predator.
Another day I looked out from my office to see one of our young roosters trying to jump one of her chicks. The young hen was three times Millie’s size, but she raced toward her mother. Millie placed herself between her chick and the rooster, puffed up her chest, and stared at the rogue. The rooster turned tail and ran.
Then one evening I was raking rye seed into the bare earth of what would eventually become an herb garden. Millie’s little flock accompanied me, pecking at the seed. Dusk was approaching. They were working their way toward home.
I looked around for Millie. When I didn’t see her, I walked to the pen to see if she had retired early. No sign of her there either.
I walked the route the family always took—through the herb garden, along the fence by the ram pasture, under the apple tree, across the front yard, along the road, back to the maple tree in the ram pasture.
And there, in the gathering dark, I found all that was left of Millie. Tufts of feathers, scattered in two places. Not a claw, beak or bone remained. Just feathers.
Her family was grown. They took her loss in stride. But I missed her clucking as she shepherded her brood around the farm, missed her fierceness as she fended off threats, missed her gentleness as she accepted another orphan chick.
It’s been almost twenty years since Millie died, but the fierce little hen lives on in my memory. Our world is full of hawks and roosters. They can make us feel small and helpless. But the Millies stand up to them. And if enough of us decide to be Millies and band together, we can make them back down.
Biodiversity is nature’s way, but industrial agriculture is more attuned to profit and convenience. So companies like My Pet Chicken are increasingly important guardians of genetic material. If I weren’t in a high rise, I’d be tempted to raise a few chickens in my back yard. They are sociable, funny and generous. If you’re a city dweller lucky enough to live in a community with progressive bylaws, check out My Pet Chicken for great advice on choosing and caring for your flock.