DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE
By Jane D. Brown
Honey was our first and most interesting chicken. She was inquisitive, friendly and sure of herself. And she was a great mom. She knew exactly the right time to stop coddling her chicks and boot them out of the proverbial—and literal—nest.
Honey laid an egg every other day for nine months of the year, taking the winter off. She liked to lay in unusual places. She watched for open doors and loved to come in the house. Sometimes I’d find her tucked back in under my desk, entirely focused on laying her egg.
A couple of times, we inadvertently shut Honey in our workshop. When she wasn’t in the coop in the evening, that’s the first place we’d look. She’d chuckle at us when we poked our heads in: “I’m over here. Just fine, thanks.”
One afternoon Honey crawled through our dog door onto the screened porch. My writing group was sitting in chairs around the table. Honey flew up on the arm of Cindy’s chair and stared at her: “This is my chair!”
When Cindy moved to another spot, Honey settled into the vacated seat. We continued to talk about our writing. About 10 minutes later, we noticed Honey all puffed up, every feather distended. Then Honey stood up, hopped down and headed out the way she’d come in. A beautiful blue egg sat in the middle of the red cushion.
Honey’s only bad habit was going broody once a year. She insisted on sitting in the nest box all day long for three weeks even when there were no eggs under her. I could lift her off, put her on the ground and she’d just sit there as if in a trance. After a bit, she’d shake it off, get a drink, take a quick dust bath, and hurry back to the empty nest.
We tried all the remedies we read about on the internet, things like soaking her in warm water, closing the nest box, taking her off every time she went back. Nothing worked. So twice when she wouldn’t quit sitting, we got fertile eggs and Honey hatched them.
Her first hatchling was Lucky Duck. I thought since we lived on a lake it would be fun to have pet ducks. We ordered six fertile Black Muscovy Duck eggs from the internet. Lucky Duck was the only duckling to hatch (hence the name).
Honey worked hard to make him into a good chicken. But after a month, his need for wet rather than dry baths and his inability to scratch and peck in the mulch beds forced her to give up. Plus, he was huge. When Lucky came near Honey, she’d peck him on his head and shoo him off. If he ran after her, she’d run faster.
Lucky didn’t know what to do without his mom. He stood by himself in the middle of the lawn, not paying attention to the shadows overhead as Honey had taught him. A red-shouldered hawk (a.k.a., chicken hawk) saw her chance and swooped in, grabbing Lucky by the head. Lucky flapped his wings and struggled to get free.
Lucky was too big and too squirmy for the hawk, and she dropped him. Right into the creek. Lucky swam for the first time in deep water, as fast as he could go. It was almost as if Honey had planned this impromptu swimming lesson.
A few months later, we found Lucky a new home with another lonely Muscovy named Fred. (You can read more about Lucky here.)
The next time Honey went broody, we put six fertile chicken eggs under her that a friend with a rooster donated. Honey sat on them until three hatched. Again she was a fine mother. She spread her wings and the chicks snuggled into her downy comfort, sometimes poking their heads out to peer at the world from their safe harbor. The other curious chickens got their heads pecked by Honey if they came too close.
As the chicks got bigger, Honey taught them to scratch and peck. She must have been relieved that they learned so quickly. The chicks also loved to scrunch and squiggle in the soft dust at bath time. No more messy water baths!
And then one day, just as with Lucky, Honey was done being “Mom.” Heads were pecked if one of her young came too close. They’d have to fend for themselves and find their place in the flock’s pecking order.
Honey reasserted her place at the top. She could peck every other chicken. No one could peck her. When I brought treats, Honey was first in line. When it was time to roost, Honey was first in the coop in the best spot.
Unfortunately, the three chicks Honey raised weren’t destined to remain members of the flock. One turned out to be an elegant Dominique rooster, but no noisy boys are allowed inside city limits, so we found him another flock in the country. A young hawk grabbed his sister one afternoon.
The remaining young hen, Hilda, a blue-grey mixed breed, was so skittish that I could never touch her. She also lay pretty blue eggs. She and Honey became best friends, sharing hunting and pecking spots, afternoon dust baths and roosting perches.
Then one evening, Hilda didn’t come when I called, “Chickeee, Chickeee, Chick!” I left the coop door open, hoping she’d be there in the morning, but she wasn’t. Hilda just disappeared. No pile of feathers, no sign of ambush. Just gone. Maybe a coyote, a fox? We don’t know.
Honey was five-and-half years old at this point. Looking a bit tired and lonely. She went into her annual late fall molt. Quite a process—every year a completely new wardrobe of about 25,000 feathers. Honey’s white feathers were everywhere—the floor of the coop, the paths, the porch—sturdy wing and tail feathers, smaller side feathers and downy, floaty ones. Honey looked like a plucked chicken.
Most chickens get cranky when they are molting, and maybe that’s why Honey spent more time by herself than usual. Sometimes in the middle of our neighbors’ yards.
The hawk apparently noticed Honey’s vulnerability.
I got an emergency phone message from our neighbors, who loved our chickens, too. Honey often led the rest of the flock over to their back step for treats. But this day Honey was alone and the hawk was waiting. He dropped out of the sky and picked her apart on the spot. It is dangerous being a free-range chicken.
Thus, the end of the Honey dynasty. We miss this good girl. Honey taught us how to be with chickens and why ducks are more difficult. She showed us what compassionate parenthood, a sense of humor, and leadership look like. She provided delicious eggs. And she entertained us as the star of the Chicken TV we watched while hunkered down in our backyard during the pandemic.
Thank you, Honey.
Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.