Friday, December 21, 2012


     I brought the chickens some wheat sprouts I'd been nursing for a week, rinsing them daily and setting them on the windowsill to soak up chlorophyll.  Chickens love sprouts.
     But not today.  They clamored more than usual to get out when I opened the chain-link gate to their coop, and my efforts to keep them in with a boot-block failed.  They rushed out to the yard to poke holes in the damp earth of my one-acre garden.
     Two days of rain had unroofed lots of insect tunnels and wormholes.  I bent down to watch the chickens at work, the scientist in me counting worms so tiny I could only glimpse them for a millisecond, beak-squirming, before they landed in the chickens' crops.  The chickens averaged fifteen worms every sixty seconds!  But one champ, Mabel, set a record of thirty-six a minute when she excavated a worm hatchery by clawing frantically in a thatch of leaves.
     Mabel and Tagalong are my favorite chickens because they run after me wherever I go, like paparazzi.  I feel famous around the chickens--but it's not me they like, so much as the bugs and beetles I coax out of hiding places with my winnowing footfall, like a movie star stirring up National Enquirer news in ordinary places.
     Free-range chickens are not vegetarians.  When they're allowed to roam around they prefer earthworms and potato-bugs, not seeds and grass.  Sometimes they find special snacks like tree frogs, maggots, moths, and big hopping bugs.
     Today there was a bonanza, gruesome to watch.  One of the Delawares (a seemingly gentle breed) caught a field mouse.  It raced across the yard alerting the rest of the hens, and a competition full of excitement and clucking ensued.
     Chickens can't eat their prey without dropping it, which provides an opportunity for the others to snatch it away.  The poor, writhing rodent went from beak to ground to beak, carried all over the garden.  I watched with morbid fascination--like a Coliseum-goer, or someone at a bullfight or beheading, against my conscious will, not sure how empathy might figure in.  I couldn't save the mouse, at least not without losing a finger.
     I hoped the little creature would go into shock, as happens in times of great stress, sparing it suffering.  At last, one hen prevailed and poked rude holes in the mouse's belly, snagging weird bits of entrails.  I watched the tiny feet of the mouse open and close like blossoms, signifying that it still lived.
     Then I ran to the house and called my brother, who also keeps chickens.
     "I have to tell you what's going on in my chicken yard!"
     I walked down to the pond with the phone.  A duck was wading on the water's smooth surface.
     "What is it?" my brother asked.  I'm sure he suspected the worst.
     Once, a long time ago, a fox found its way into the coop and decimated my entire flock, leaving feathers and bits of bone for me in the morning.  It was like a horrible fairy tale.
     "The chickens are all right.  But one caught a mouse!"
     "It's eating it, alive!"
     "That's nature," my brother said.
     "Aren't you horrified?"
     "I would be, if I had to watch it.  But chickens like meat."
     "How can I possibly eat an egg, tomorrow, that's made from a mouse?" I asked.
     "It'll probably be one of your better eggs," he chuckled.
     That's when I saw the duck racing across the pond.
     Only, it wasn't racing, it was being dragged--swiftly, helplessly, in the craw of an alligator.  Then it disappeared underwater.
     "The alligator just took down a duck," I told my brother.
     "This very minute?"
     "Yes," I said sadly.  "And it isn't resurfacing."
     "Are you sure it didn't just dip down to catch a fish?"
     "No.  It's gone."
     We were silent.  My brother is a pacifist, like me, but he isn't a vegetarian, and he accepts the cycle of life better than I do.
     "That's nature," he repeated.  "We've all got to eat."
     I went back to the coop and saw the guilty chicken's bloated crop, which looked like a warrior's breastplate.  I imagined the mouse wriggling, Jonah-like, inside.
     Overhead the eagles were cawing.
     The Florida Fish and Wildlife website lists thirty-seven eagles' nests within a five-mile radius of my house.  This year I lost three chickens to these raptors, after which I resolved to watch over my brood better.  I won't let them wander out in the open unless I'm with them.
     Wrapped in two sweaters, lying on the grass with a biography of William Golding--author of Lord of the Flies--I guarded the chickens until dusk, when they went inside to roost.
     Tomorrow, I'll probably eat the egg from the chicken who ate the mouse who was eating seeds in the compost heap that belongs to the worms.
     Worms, chickens, mice, eagles, eggs, prosecutors, whistleblowers, special agents, alligators, ducks--  that's nature.  We're all eating one another.


  1. Well hopefully we won't eat our children.

  2. You're on to something there! Reminiscent of "The Lion King"?