Where Are You?

Big Sweetie.

This morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, upon opening the coop door, the flock descended the ladder and settled in pretty much as they usually do, Bitumen and Lightfoot at the feeder, Tiny Honey who is rebounding from her molt heading straightaway to the water, and the others kicking walnut tree detritus and leaning in for the scratch grains mixed with layer pellets, a half cup of which I scatter every morning to ease traffic at the feeder. Keeps peace. Their eyes have been up and searching, noticeably scanning for signs of return since the Wednesday late afternoon incident. This was apparent late yesterday, when I hurried home after teaching to share a few minutes with them before they tucked in, to play the xylophone cover of Shake It Off so as to warm their crossover into the dreamscape. Although I didn’t know it at the time, A., driving separately because it was undecidable for the first half of her day whether she would go to campus at all, happened not to be long behind me. The hens were almost all inside the coop when we arrived at 5:42 p.m. ET (sunset being 5:45 p.m. ET). Only Fluffy-foot, the head hen, was visible there in the coop doorway, posting up as she does for one last look-around before going in for the night, but when I emceed the Taylor Swift tunes, she doubled-back, down the ladder again, and soon after her followed Bitumen, then Lightfoot, then Cinnabon. Everyone can stay up a few extra minutes at times like these, linger for a few plinks, elongate the softly transitioning dusk. Tiny Honey stayed in; her January molt has accompanied a tendency to rest, to hold spacetime with the eggs, and so this was nothing out of the ordinary, her settled reserve. 

Different this morning, the second morning since the Wednesday late afternoon incident, was that after opening the door, setting down food and water, as we walked back toward the house, there came a sharp bird call from the vicinity of the run. Was it from the trees above the run? From one of the hens? Once, twice, again. Three or four seconds between each call. And this was a new sound; a sound I hadn’t heard before: an intense callout expressed so as to travel the holler’s uneven landscape, a sound for finding, for carrying, for bringing back.

Back at the house, I read this, an excerpt of an excerpt from Melissa Caughey’s book:

Still, for days after a hen dies, it is not uncommon for those who were closest to her to mourn the loss of their friend. From the safety of the coop, they call out, using the same sound that means “Where are you?” when they are free-ranging in the yard and can’t find a missing member of the flock. A grieving hen avoids interacting with the flock and sits in a corner with puffed-up feathers like a chicken that feels ill.

And so it happened, on Wednesday afternoon, a Cooper’s Hawk attacked and killed Big Sweetie. The chickens had been out of their run for 90 minutes. Big Sweetie was creekside, curating the muddy banks with Lightfoot and Cinnabon when the raptor made first contact. The offshed feathers tell of an encounter that started on one side of the creek and continued to the other, where A. found Big Sweetie moments later, fatally injured, likely a broken neck or back, as the hawk exited the scene. I wasn’t at home, but A.’s messageless call at 4:50 p.m. ET, near the end of the writing group session I was on (from my campus office), let me know something was not as it should be. There are known risks in free-ranging, especially in mid-late winter, but so too are there deleterious impacts for always and only ever being cooped up. This is not to rationalize away the incident but to take responsibility for caring for vulnerable birds under conditions of a sometimes-predative surrounds. Rather than go long with forensic redescription, though, Big Sweetie deserves a few more eulogistic words.

One of the Wonder Hollow Six, she and her small flock came home from the Radford Rural King in a small cardboard box on April 18, 2023. We’d sought a pair of Cinnamon Queens, a pair of Black Sex-Links, and a pair of Calico Princesses that day. As entropy would have it, with the last pair, we ended up with one Calico Princess, Big Sweetie, and one Buff Brahma, Fluffy-foot: Rural King bin sisters, if sisters from other mothers. Calico Princesses tend to have a shorter lifespan (~3-4 years) than the other breeds, a fact we learned only after bringing them home. Big Sweetie quickly distinguished herself. She was in those especially formative days the biggest and the sweetest, easy to find during that stage when chicks are all down plumage, befuzzed and nonstop peeping. The other chickens grew and eventually caught up with her in size, but never in sweetness. Her sweetness was observable in her seemingly caring deference to the other birds, a conflict-averse friendliness, a palpably joyful regard for human attention, an implicit jolliness. A. identified her quickly as her favorite bird of the six (as Bitumen is special to me, Big Sweetie was and is to A.; what can explain how such a feeling forms?). 

Ten or twelve weeks ago, when Craigs Mountain neighbor H.’s on-the-loose but thankfully slow dog lumbered with a drooling hoggishness through the holler, all of Big Sweetie’s commatriots darted with astonishing speed to the woods, but Big Sweetie, even as she was evidently terrified, rather than running—freeze!—went into statue mode, standing still-still in the tall grass, as if seized by the threat. Nothing happened. And yet, this confirmed an understanding that Big Sweetie was not in the same way as her sisters equipped with a flight response. It was as though because her disposition was deeply defined by friendliness, joy, and curiosity, there was nothing left over for capacitating fear.

Wonder Hollow Six (left to right): Lightfoot, Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Big Sweetie (front center), Fluffy-foot, and Cinnabon.

I have a hundred more anecdotes: about how she was, we think, the first to lay an egg, and how, thereafter, she would linger in the run when each of the other hens laid their first (few) eggs in September and October, companionably close-by but not over-bearing, proximally supportive and being in such a way that hints at the calling of an avian doula, were there such a thing; about how she wanted so badly to be able to perch but didn’t have the flap and spring coordination of Bitumen, Tiny Honey, Lightfoot, or Cinnabon, and still she tried and tried and tried until one day she reached the roost; that night she sat on the roosting bar for 30 minutes after dark, extending her accomplishment, holding onto the moment all for herself (and for A. who photo-documented it from the window) after the others had gone inside the coop for the night; and about what a friend she was, like the day—which just so happened to be the first day of classes last fall—when she went deep up into the pine woods with Lightfoot and Fluffy-foot, the three of them would not—golldammit!—come for calling nor for the irresistible rattle-shake of mealworms in a plastic cup, so I had to climb and navigate bramble and sweat (before leaving for work) only to nudge them from their holdout. The thing was, while the other two birds were entranced in a forest floor dust bath, Big Sweetie was just standing there, along for the joyride. 

Big Sweetie (top) stubbornly remains deep in the pine woods along with Fluffy Foot (bottom) and Lightfoot (right) who are entranced by a forest floor dust bath on Monday, August 21, 2023.


Might not be cut out for chicken-keeping, is one thought, one topic of conversation these past 48 hours. Or maybe, instead, this is exactly the structure of feeling we owe to this ecosphere, a structure of feeling that has gone thin socioculturally such that it is uncommon to interact with chickens in this way, to engage them as friends, good, giving, and profoundly mutualistic in what they provide us and each other. It’s been a heavy couple of days. We miss her; we’re sad. And not just we the hominids. The Wonder Hollow mixed flock is looking and calling so hard for their sixth and biggest-hearted; a song of sorrow, and so too a together and onward song, expanded by a life with Big Sweetie so fully and lovingly in it. 

Wonder Hollow Six head hen, Fluffy Foot, expresses “Where are you?” callout for Big Sweetie, who was killed Wednesday afternoon, 1/31/24, by a Cooper’s Hawk.