32: The Great Chicken Escape

32: The Great Chicken Escape

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

The Great Chicken Escape

Ever consider what pets must think of us? I mean, here we come back from a grocery store with the most amazing haul — chicken, pork, half a cow. They must think we’re the greatest hunters on earth!

~Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist

“Just pick it up in your hands!”

“Me? Why do I have to do it?”

“You’re good with animals. Besides, chickens aren’t very smart.”

“Yeah, but I’ve never picked up a chicken before.”

Christmas 2002 was the Great Chicken Escape. We spent the holidays on Pender Island house-sitting, cat-sitting and chicken-sitting for our seriously organic friends. Our friends were especially concerned that their four prized Rhode Island Reds got the proper care and attention while they were away.

We read the typed Chicken Care Instruction List, we really did, but something went awry. Those chickens just didn’t like us.

On day one, we let them out into the yard, as instructed. Just as the day was fading we went out to shoo them back into the coop but two were missing. I figured the gals had panicked at the sight of twilight. There they were huddled on the woodpile under the porch, silent as eggs, unwilling to budge.

Great. It was Christmas Eve and the chickens were rebelling. It came down to a twilight relocation operation, and I was elected chicken-picker-upper.

I tried to cultivate an inner calm, though my mind was full of visions of being pecked to death. I reminded myself that none of the crazed attackers in The Birds were chickens. No, these chickens weren’t crazed, they were dazed. Shut down like feathered tea cozies.

I approached slowly. Thanks to my Tao of Fowl approach, I managed to wrap my hands around one bird and carry her back to the coop. She was eerily compliant. Back to get chicken number two. She made one gurgly objection but went as gently into the coop as her sister. All chickens now safely in their straw beds, with visions of chicken feed dancing in their heads, we retired to the house for our Christmas Eve dinner.

That was when it occurred to me. Roast chicken. They must have panicked at the whiff of their distant cousin cooking in the oven. (The house owners, being vegetarians, are not known to roast flesh of any kind.) We had traumatized them.

Christmas morning we awoke to the sounds of a happy chicken choir. “Buck-buck-a-bwuckagghhh!” It was my turn to open up the coop, let the “girls” out, and then pilfer their nests for breakfast eggs. Judging by their contented behaviour, it seemed they had already forgotten their little jail bust of the day before.

I groped around in the straw for a big warm egg. I groped again. But this morning there were none. They had not forgotten. Pure chicken spite. I was half glad anyway because I felt a bit guilty about stealing their unrealized progeny.

Despite the eggless manger, we managed to enjoy a lazy Christmas breakfast and a lazy Christmas lunch, which brought us to the proverbial afternoon stroll to work off just enough calories so we could stuff ourselves yet again on Christmas dinner. We put on our coats and stepped outside into a deep fog bank, so thick that the only sign the Swartz Bay ferry was passing by was a low rumble and fuzzy lights gliding past.

When we returned from our walk, our cheeks cool from the fog, something seemed off. The chickens. They weren’t kibitzing around in the back yard. They had flown the coop! (During our stay I came to understand every chicken idiom ever coined by man.)

In a panic we phoned our friends.

“Uh, Pamela, your chickens seem to have disappeared.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“They’re not in the coop, not in the yard. They’ve escaped.”

“They’ve never done that before! Why would they do that?”

We assured her that we had followed every painstaking detail on the Chicken Care Instruction List (but conveniently omitted mentioning the roast chicken dinner). She gave us a few neighbours’ phone numbers and told us to call back when we found her Rhode Island Reds.

The search was launched. We spent the next two hours of Christmas Day in the dwindling light, already obscured by fog, on a chicken hunt in the forests and fields of North Pender Island. While people sat snugly in their living rooms, glowing in the coloured lights of their Christmas trees, sipping organic wine, basting turkeys and tofurkeys, we traipsed through pastures and meadows and sword fern groves clucking like idiots in search of birds that were supposed to be stupid but had somehow outsmarted us.

The neighbour’s dog, eager for a little adventure, tagged along — behind us. This was no Foxhound. In fact, hailing from Pender it was likely he too was a vegetarian. Over hill and dale and stump and swamp we searched. An hour went by. Two hours. It was getting darker. We were starting to stumble. Just as we were ready to give up in defeat, I heard a crackle in the nearby bushes. Aha! There they were, the first two escapees, hiding in a bramble-covered ditch, muttering.

Soon after, the other two were spotted in separate locations, looking a little weary of the caper. In the end, we gave up trying to capture them in our hands and herded them. They took their sweet time, poking their beaks into this and that along the way just to irk us.

Applying the ideal chicken benevolence behaviour practises outlined in the Chicken Instructions, we prodded them back into their little wooden house with its old shoe for a door hinge and its crooked scrap lumber walls. Tired and broody ourselves, we retired to our little house and its wood stove, the fire now a feeble heap of embers.

Next time we chicken-sit, it’s tofurkey for dinner.

~Barbara Black

Victoria, British Columbia

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