There’s a lot to love about living on a farm or homestead raising your own animals and vegetables. From the outside looking in, it’s often very bucolic and easily romanticized. But there are some downsides, and for me the worst is the stark reality that critters don’t live forever.
Whether you are raising animals for companionship, food, service or some combination of all three, sooner or later you have to deal with the death of something you have cared for, perhaps from its birth.
Over the years on Rusty Metal Farm, we have certainly seen our fair share of mortality. I’ve said goodbye to sled dogs, house dogs, cats and chickens. Each brought their own special personalities to the farm, and the death of each brought more than a few tears.
And, because I am only human, I admit I shed more tears over some critters than others. This last weekend was a good reminder of that when one of my oldest chickens passed away.
Her name was Araucana, because that was her breed. She was one of a dozen chicks I got 10 years ago when my breed selections were based not so much on egg production potential, but rather on what they would look like as adults.
The breed is originally from Chile and gained popularity among backyard chicken flocks because they lay eggs with bluish green shells. They are also curious, adventurous, active and — in the case of my Araucana — completely badass.
From her early days as a fuzzy little chick, it was clear Araucana was something special. She displayed a certain protectiveness over her little flock and woe be it to any human or other critter who tried any shenanigans with the other chickens.
She had a stare that matched any bird of prey in terms of straight intimidation. And if that didn’t work, she’d charge what — or whom — ever she perceived as a threat with her wings flapping while she screeched, leaping into the air with her talons aimed at the interloper.
She would do this anytime I tried to capture one of “her” chickens for routine health inspections or simply to pose for a photograph. As far as Araucana was concerned, personal space was sacred.
She was also a bird who knew no fear. Back when I had sled dogs, Araucana routinely marched down to the dog yard to scratch at the grass and gravel just out of the dogs reach. It drove the sled dogs into barking, whirling insanity. Araucana could not have cared less at the chaos she caused. In fact, I think she thrived on it.
Whenever I’d toss treats out to the chickens — which is a daily occurrence — Araucana would be the first to inspect them, but she’d always make room for her aged flockmates so they could get in on the action. At times, she’d even chase off the younger, brasher chickens who attempted to grab some of the goodies for themselves.
As the years went by, Araucana’s flockmates — those original 12 hens I bought based on appearance — began to die off one by one until it was just she and my extra special chicken Shoppie left from that batch. Neither one of them has laid an egg in years.
To watch Araucana and Shoppie together was to observe how lasting friendship knows no bounds or species limitations.
Wherever Shoppie aimlessly wandered around the yard or in the coop, Araucana was never far behind keeping an eye on her. If anyone approached Shoppie, Araucana quickly placed herself in between the person and her feathered friend. Any attempt to outflank her earned a look that clearly said — with apologies to Clint Eastwood — “Are you feeling lucky? Go ahead, make my day.”
And as Shoppie continued to succumb more and more to what I can only describe as chicken dementia, Araucana remained ageless, seemingly immortal. She was never sick, never got injured and was always on guard.
But last weekend, I noticed the telltale signs of a chicken not feeling well — a dimming of her bright, fierce eyes and a certain puffiness to her feathers. But she was still eating enthusiastically and drinking well. And she was staying close to her bff.
Twenty four hours later, she seemed to have rallied and was looking more like her old self. But that was short lived. The next morning, when I went to change water and dispense treats, I opened the coop door to discover even Araucana was not immortal. She had died during the night.
I’m not one bit ashamed to say I cried. Tears were shed not only for the loss of a truly brave and bad ass bird, but for Shoppie who had lost her best friend and protector. And, as I do anytime a Rusty Metal Farm critter dies, I curse the fact that our animals don’t live forever.
But, as I wiped tears and sniffled, I noticed two things that gave me pause for comfort. My two Plymouth Rock chickens — each of whom are 5-years-old — had moved over to be near Shoppie and since then seem to spend most of their time in her company.
Secondly, Araucana died clutching a yogurt container. The night before her passing I’d put some yogurt in the coop for the hens to enjoy and to boost the egg laying of the few who are young enough to still produce eggs.
I really like the notion that Araucana’s last act on this earth was sharing that yogurt with Shoppie and then enjoying her own last meal. A protective badass to the end.