Friday, March 26, 2004

The Vanishing Chicken

Ever had a pet that was too much trouble?

I mean an animal that at the time seemed like a good match, healthy, happy, no problems...

...and once you get it home you realize what a horrible mistake you've made.

OK, maybe I'm overstating it a bit. But not much, I'll tell ya. Such is the case with Houdini. Houdini is a small Bantam hen of indeterminate heritage.

We first got Houdini at a local feedstore that carried adult chickens as well as baby chicks. This place was Chicken Hell. The conditions were horrible. As a matter of fact we got Houdini and Mrs. Black (mentioned previously) on the same day at this place.

Houdini is one of those pets that unfortunately EARNED her name. When we got her home we trimmed their wings and released both new birds into the flock. Everything went fine and they fit right in. Every so often we'd go out into the yard to check on things. After a few hours we suddenly heard an uproar in the yard, the whole flock was yelling their brains out. Out into the yard I ran, thinking that surely someone was being murdered. I stopped short on the patio, looking around for the trouble. Most of the flock was standing around looking alarmed, cackling loudly and staring goggle-eyed at a point over my head. It was then that I realized that there WAS something over my head an looked up. There, perched on the grape arbor 8 feet in the air, was Houdini.

Now, everyone knows that chickens can't fly. Uh-huh.

Houdini flies.

Houdini flies really, really well. Clipped wings or no.

I learned this when I tried to shoo this silly chicken down off the arbor and back onto the ground where any self-respecting chicken ought to be. Houdini responded by cackling with glee as she FLEW about 30 yards to the back fence. Flying like a real freakin' bird with fancy gliding and everything. Now since Houdini was new to us and didn't know where she lived as yet, I could see disaster looming large on the horizon. I got over to the fence as quick as I could and tried to shoo her back into OUR yard. I SWEAR she laughed as she went over the fence into the neighbor's yard. Now this yard is a regular jungle of overgrown plants, bushes and trees, complete with a shed full of junk that overflows into the yard with more piles of junk just for fun all over the place. The people who live there use the place as a weekend party house and are rarely home.

Needless to say getting Houdini back was going to be a nightmare.

So, J. dutifully climbs the fence and spends the next 30 minutes chasing around a wild chicken who is convinced that he means to eat her. When he finally catches her we are seriously considering it. After another wing clipping, this time so short that she could join the Marines, she is returned to our yard and behaves herself the rest of the day until it's time to go out and feed everyone.

A quick beak count comes up one short...Houdini. With heavy sighs and sinking hearts we begin to search. Right about that time our neighbor to one side of us sticks their head over the fence and asks if we are missing a chicken. Yup, there is Houdini, exploring ANOTHER yard. J. again jumps the fence and gives chase. I stand in our yard listening and ready to receive Houdini when J. hands her back. Instead I hear him yell, "No--no---NO!!" accompianed by a wild cackle. Houdini has jumped the wrong fence and gone into ANOTHER yard.

This one has a Cocker Spaniel in it. A bird dog.

Hilarity ensues as J. leaps the fence like an Olympic hurdler and gives chase to a screaming chicken and a yelping dog. I can only stand helplessly and listen as it sounds like all three are killing each other. Quiet falls. I hear J. coming back over the fence and see that he is carrying Houdini's body. Much to my surprise, she is alive. Not only that, she is unhurt. J. tells me that he caught up with the dog/chicken combo just in time and you never saw a more confused Cocker Spaniel whom I'm sure was terrified by having strange chickens and humans drop screaming from the sky into his little world.

Well, we can't clip Houdini's wings any more but we CAN keep her in the coop for a few days to help her learn that she lives HERE now, so that's what we do. This works for about three days until one morning Houdini slips past J. as he is letting the others out of the coop. This seems OK though since she seems to have learned her lesson and meekly stays in the yard for the next few days.

Until Saturday.

On Saturday we again hear an uproar from the chickens and look out just in time to see Houdini sitting gleefully on the back fence, looking smugly back over her shoulder at us. She sits there just long enough to make sure that we've seen her and then leaps down into the junk jungle.

This time no amount of chasing can catch her and she leaps the fence into another yard and dissapears. While we don't want to lose her and there are certainly more than a few things running around at night that would love a chicken dinner, we have to give up for the time being. Our only hope is that she'll get hungry and come home. The rest of the day we spot her here and there. At one point she spent two hours up on the tallest point of the neighbor's roof, walking around next to their air conditioner. We make a few "lost chicken" signs and post them on the next street hoping that someone will call.

On Sunday we get a call, the neighbors say Houdini is in their yard. J. goes over armed with a blanket and after more blood-curdling screams and more than a little cussing, finally returns home triumphantly carrying Houdini wrapped inside it. I help J. mop up the blood on his arms where he plunged them into the Bouganvilla bush that Houdini was hiding in. She seems quieter and more docile now, apparantly she just wanted to see the world a bit.

Ever since then Houdini has stayed in the yard and been a very nice little hen. She doesn't even jump up on the patio furniture and stays sensibly on the ground like a good little hen.

Until she went broody.

One day there was again an alarm call, this time raised by the flock's Head Hen, a wise old Silver Laced Wyandotte. She has one call that she ONLY makes when something is wrong with one of the flock. Today she was making it, loudly, in the middle of the yard. A quick search revealed that Houdini was again missing, and there was nothing to do but wait and see if she would reappear. She did about an hour later, and we figured that she had simply gone exploring. Unfortunately she did it twice more that same week. We realized that what she was doing was going off to lay eggs in one of the neighbor's yards in secret, and when she had a cluth she would vanish for good to go and sit on them. Now even if she did survive nightime predators for the 21 days while sitting on the nest, once the chicks hatched there would be no way for them to follow her back to our yard for food and shelter and they would die.

After a few days Houdini reappeared and this time had surely gone broody. She stomped around all fluffed up and in a bad mood, clucking angrily and pecking any flockmate who got near her. J. lost no time in chasing her down and grabbing her indelicately. Houdini was tossed into the coop, this time to stay until she gave up the idea of nesting away somewhere.

Instead she has finally come to her senses and gone broody in one of the nest boxes in the coop. Hurrah! As a reward for not making us crazy and bound through other people's yards we have given her three eggs to hatch.

Peace once again...for however long it will last this time...

Friday, March 5, 2004

Goodbye, Mrs. Black

Mrs. Black died today.

Peacefully, it seems, and of natural causes. But still a shock for her to turn up missing at nightfall when it was time to close up the coop and say goodnight to our little backyard flock of pet chickens.

A quick search of the garage, where a few months back she had managed to hide and gave us a scare, produced nothing. We found her curled up underneath my daughter's backyard climbing-castle-thing; one of those plastic, brightly colored things that kids love these days. Mrs. Black had no marks on her and seems to have slipped her earthly bounds quickly and quietly with no fuss.

Mrs. Black was a Chicken Hell feed store rescue and had health problems from the start, along with having almost no feathers on her skinny little body. One eye was swollen shut and weeping fluid and she wheezed something awful. Seeing her in that horrible place I hadn't expected her to last long, but couldn't stand to walk away and leave her there. We bought her and brought her home after a trip to the vet for medication. She spent two months inside the house getting well, fattening up and growing feathers. Her eye, which I had doubted was even still there, healed up and turned out fine. She got her name from my then 2 year old daughter, who walked by her one day and said, "Oh...hello Mrs. Black!" Mrs. Black had a quiet dignity and could stand next to you for several minutes before you realized she was there.

We will miss her sweet nature, wall-eyed stare and her raspy-voiced burblings. Just this afternoon she had come running with the rest when I passed out a handful of strawberries and all was right with the world. Just yesterday I stopped on the back porch to give her a quick pet.

I know some people will read this and think, "It was just a chicken!" What most people don't know is how personable, smart and cheerful chickens are and what terrific pets they make.

Tomorrow we will bury her in a bed of cut flowers, under the bay tree by the back fence.

Goodbye Mrs. B.

Monday, March 1, 2004

AAA, Chinese Food & Synchronicity

So today I have to take the kid with me to AAA so I can register my 1969 Plymouth, dragging it out of nonoperational Hell and back on the road again. I plead with my daughter in the parking lot to behave for juuuuust a few minutes in there, at the same time fixing her with a steely, no-nonsense stare. She agrees sweetly.

Fifeteen minutes later we are finally being served at one of the little windows. Little Ankle Biter insists on playing her favorite game, "Run Away From Disabled Mom". I don't have time for this today so I simply follow after her silently, take her hand and march her back to the window to complete the transaction. The AAA girl is trying to explain that since I am re-registering the car a month early, it legally can't be driven until next month unless I want to pay for two years' registration, and if I have it towed anywhere I'll need a permit if any of the tires will touch the street. It sounds a bit like a 9 year old kid has made up the rules to this game of automotive tag, and I'm tempted to ask if I need to shout "Olley olley oxen free!" when the car arrives at it's destination.

Kid meanwhile ups the ante by pulling at my hand to get away while screaming loudly, "I don't WANT to be a good girl!", then kicking the front of AAA's counter. Hard. I finish my business as quickly as possible and drag embarrassing heathen offspring out the door, much to everyone's relief. When exactly did MY sweet child become one of those horrible kids everyone hates to see in public?!

Tonight we decide to go to the local Chinese buffet restaurant for dinner. More lectures to the kid on how to behave like a human being. She again agrees, and actually does better; garnering smiling visits from two of the waitstaff. The only low point was when she threw some cherry Jello at her father and thought it hilarious when it hung on the front of his shirt like a small, red snail. At the end of the meal we each choose and peel our own fortune cookie....and here is the my daughters--no kidding--word for word:

"Try your best to avoid arguing with your elders and superiors."

Pure gold. I swear I'm going to have it blown up to banner size and paper her room with it. Maybe have it tattooed on her forehead. Off to Kinkos! :)