World, Meet Banjo!

I have a story to tell about a chicken, and I don’t even know where to begin.
Banjo was one of our fall babies, born late in the year, even though we really didn’t need any more babies this year. But I was sad after losing Poe and just a tough year on the farm all the way around.
We needed some joy, so we let our wonderful hen, Pumpkin, raise some fall babies. She hatched three: Squash, Butternut, and Banjo. My little boy named all of them.
Banjo was a very dark, unusual looking chicken when she was born. She was so dark that she looked exactly like Poe’s last baby who didn’t make it–Andie. I posted a little about my struggle with her.
But Banjo isn’t Poe’s baby. We don’t know who Banjo’s biological mama is. She just looks like a darker version of a Welsummer, like her daddy.
Pumpkin and Her Babies
This is the best picture I could find of Banjo. This is Pumpkin with Squash, Butternut, and Banjo. Banjo is the darker chick in the back.
All of the babies we let mama hens raise are wild. They squawk and holler when I try to hold them, which always makes the mamas “turkey up,” as I call it, so I tend to just let them be. I put out fresh food and water and keep them in safe areas, and the mama hens do all the rest. The mama hens are so good at it that I try not to interfere too much.
But this means the babies are hesitant of me, and it takes me a good six months to a year to get one of our “wild babies,” as I call them, to come eat out of my hand. And no touchy. Just no touchy!
Banjo, as a baby, was extra wild. I couldn’t even get a good picture of her when she was little. But Pumpkin was an extra good mama. She mothered those babies until they were nearly 12 weeks old and almost as big as her. Still, I had very little to do with Banjo for most of her life.
But, in the last month or so, I’ve noticed that Banjo is EXTRA curious about me when I am around. This winter, I’ve been around an extra amount, and every afternoon on the cold days, I take cracked corn to the coop.
Very quickly, Banjo learned that I would feed her directly, so she started eating out of my hands. But there was something else. She would get really close to my face and study it. This is highly unusual. Highly unusual.
However, after Poe, in an effort to protect myself, I have been trying not to get so attached to our chickens. I have been on the verge of leaving farming for some months now because I am not sure if my heart can take the pain of it. So I have been trying to keep a little bit of distance–still love and care for them and treat them well and with full respect–but keep my heart held back some.
But Banjo wasn’t having it.
One day last week, I was standing in the coop feeding an older bird some cracked corn while the older gal was sitting on the top roost, and I feel this tug at my boot. But it was weird because it was this long, steady tug.
I turn around to find Banjo with the top of my boot in her beak, and she was pulling and not letting go, just like a dog pulling on your clothes. Of course, I turned around and gave her corn. In addition to eating the corn, she got right in my face and looked at me closely, like she was trying to figure me out.
I knew I was in big trouble.
But there’s more. The day before yesterday, I had to bring Banjo to the house for a quick treatment. I forgot to mention that Banjo was born with a wicked beak. It was so long, like a hawk’s, too long. Way too long. So we had to do a quick trim.
We had to do this one time before with another chicken and had no trouble. But my husband accidentally cut too close and made poor Banjo bleed.
I was like, “Really?”
She was fine overall, but this meant time in the house to heal.
Well, immediately, we were shocked at the way Banjo just made herself at home in our house. Most of our chickens are not comfortable at all in the house. Poe was pretty good, and there are a few exceptions, but most everyone else doesn’t want any part of the house. We usually keep them confined to our guest bathroom, which is also the chicken/duck hospital ward.
Not Banjo. It was like she had things to do!
She was walking around like she knew the place, checking things out, saying hello to all our humans, asking for treats. It was bizarre to me. Again, I want to emphasize this chicken was raised “wild” and had never been inside our house before.
I was absolutely taken aback at Banjo’s behavior. But she then took it to the next level.
While I was making dinner last night, I put Banjo in my husband’s office with my husband and my son. They could babysit her while I cooked. After I got my dough in the oven to rise, I took my tea and went back to the office with my husband, my son, and Banjo.
I sat on the floor and took a first drink of my tea. Banjo got really close to my face and then stood in front of me and made the drinking motion chickens make when they drink. If you have chickens, you know it well. They lean down to the water, scoop it up, hold their heads back, and make this kind of gurgle motion. It’s the universal drink motion of a chicken. This is the motion Banjo made for me–like we were playing charades!
I said some swear words.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! So I got up to go get her some water, trying to remain skeptical.
“If this chicken is thirsty and drinks a bunch of water, I’m going to lose my mind,” I said out loud.
Guess what?
I took a small bowl of water to Banjo, and she stood there and drank for a good five minutes! That chicken was thirsty and communicated it with me!
I’m freaking out about this.
My husband says, “Well, I guess she was letting you know she wanted a drink.”
“I guess so!” I say.
Later, that night, I found Banjo sitting on the of my chair behind my husband watching what he was watching what he was watching on the computer screen.
All of this is both amazing and terrible to me. We can’t keep a house chicken, though I am tempted. But, this morning, our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, ran a story about the health dangers of keeping a chicken in the house.
THIS MORNING!
So, today, as Banjo was all healed up, I took her back to the coop. She did alright; clearly, she’s smart. Plus, her sister, Butternut, was kind of lost without her, so I was glad for those two to be back together. But I spent a lot of time in the coop today, and Banjo spent a lot of time at my feet.
I don’t know where this story is going to take me. Right now, as I write this, I feel certain it is going to take me straight to some epic heartache.
But I can’t deny Banjo is special. I think she might be a game changer.
Time will tell.
In the meantime, isn’t she beautiful?
Banjo in the House

 

On Grief for My Poe

Today, it has been seven days since I lost my Poe. It’s not been easy, but I cry a little less each day. It’s the little things that get to me, like finding the rest of her grapes (Poe loved grapes) in the back of the refrigerator last night. When I saw the grapes, I closed the refrigerator door, sat down in the kitchen floor, and decided to cry my eyes out all over again.

Part of me feels strange and kind of guilty for indulging in my grief over Poe. Many people would say, “It’s just a chicken,” but, of course, I’m not “many people.” I’ve always been a highly empathetic person (which is no fun I am telling you), and I’ve always been able to connect to animals.

Somehow, however, I had one of the deepest connections I have ever felt with an animal to Poe. Losing her feels very much like when I lost my best dog and best friend of 13 years in 2009. I was inconsolable. I feel similarly now.

I thought the mornings would be the hardest part, but they are not. I was in the habit during the last two weeks of Poe’s care of waking up each morning to see if she was still alive. It was stressful. I would always find her alive, sometimes surprised about that fact, but it was stressful and took a toll on me over the two weeks she was in the house with us. I do not miss that, that fear.

It’s the evenings that are the hardest for me. Each night, after I finished my work, I would scoop Poe up from her little basket and snuggle her until her bed time. I just tried to bond with her as much as I could with the time I had. In the first nights, I read her poem to her, several times, and each time I would get to the ending about Poe flying with the raven, through my tears, I would tell Poe it was okay to let go.

But a few days before she passed, I thought she might actually be making some progress. My husband mentioned that Poe’s theme poem should be “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight,” so I read that one to her. The night before she died, I had the audacity to ask her not to let go, to try to stay with me. But, as we all know, the universe can be both wonderful and cruel.

Our little family had a small service for Poe the day she passed. My husband dug a grave for her and found a good stone. I painted and lacquered the stone, and my kind neighbor brought a bouquet of flowers for Poe from her garden. My husband read Poe’s poem, and we said goodbye to her amidst the mosquitoes (it’s been a really tough year for mosquitoes here in Maine).

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Part of me had this urge to figure out some way to make the pain of the loss go away. My husband was experiencing it too, so that helped. Yet I still wanted to just feel better. The grief was running deep, more than I have ever felt for any of our chickens. Poe was super special to me. We just connected.

I have been devastated the last three summers because every Poe egg we hatched under a broody hen or in an incubator was a boy, and we don’t have a large enough flock for two roosters. Thankfully, I found all of the boys good homes because Poe’s babies were just so special. Still, I really, really wanted a hen from her, to keep her line going. Each summer, I would be hopeful for the longest time because Easter Eggers as a breed (Poe was an Easter Egger chicken) are difficult to sex. With our other chickens, I can tell at about a week or so if we have hens or roos, but I couldn’t sex Poe’s babies until later. Maybe some of it was denial, now than I think about it.

But I would be so sad every time I would realize we had a little Poe boy, and I would have to find him a home. So I had this urge to contact one of people who took Poe’s boy and ask them for a fertilized egg. I figured it might make me feel less sad if I had one of Poe’s grandbabies.

I realized, however, that I just needed to let myself grieve for Poe. It was painful losing her, and I needed to feel the pain in order to more properly heal. I have dealt with pain in the past by pretending it wasn’t there and doing things to divert my attention from it. It never works out well in the long run.

And then I read this quote by author Martin Precthel, which affirmed my thinking on my grief: “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

In this way, I could see that my grief for Poe was important, necessary, and beautiful.

Additionally, after sharing the obituary I wrote for Poe on my site, I was surprised by the outpouring of support I received. It did my heart so much good to know so many people were reading about Poe. My post went a little viral, and I am more thankful than I can express that thousands of people from all over the world were able to read Poe’s story and know her a little.

I received so many messages and comments that have helped me so much. I had people write to tell me they see chickens differently now. That’s the best I could hope for with my writing, I think.

But my favorite comment came on my blog post. One person wrote that I should look for Poe, that I would see her. I wrote back that I told Poe I would do this. I told Poe to find me, that I would be looking for her.

The day after Poe died, I was taking my son to cellos lessons. As we pulled out of our long, gravel driveway, I looked up at the trees and said to myself, “If Poe is with me, I will see a raven.”

I should explain the raven. In Poe’s poem, at the end, our Poe, the chicken who wants to fly so badly, ends up flying with a raven. I should add that we have only rarely seen a raven in our neighborhood. I think four times in the last three to four years.

As I drove down the road with my son, we made it about a quarter mile when a huge, magnificent raven flew out of the trees, flew above the car, back to one side and then back over the car to the trees on the other side of the road. I was so shocked and moved that I had to pull over.

My son wondered what was going on. “What’s wrong, mama?” he asked while I cried. So I told him what I had just said to myself.

He said, “Mama, either that’s the biggest coincidence in the world, or Poe is with you.”