“They’re so busy,” I say. It’s Friday night at the end of winter, and the action on Tim’s kitchen floor is better than the movies. We sit on the sofa, chins on knuckles, and we stare at the chicks. They patter around the bare floor, and from time to time they hoist themselves up on a log of firewood to peck for insects.
“Yeah, but it’s the busy of a badly-run restaurant kitchen,” he says. “Lot of activity, lot of bumping into each other, but not much is getting done.” He’s the naturalist, always more precise in his observations. Able to tell a hungry cheep from a happy cheep within a few hours of owning chicks. And they love him for it, in their way. When he teases them by lifting his feet so that he’s no longer in their plane of vision, their peeps get shrill until his boot returns. The Boot of Worms. The Boot of Warmth. The Boot of Life.
“Birds, birds, birds, birds, bi-irds,” he says when he enters the cabin, and from their bathtub home they twitter with excitement. The Boot! The Boot is back! To Tim they are animals first, but to me they are females. I call them “Girls.”
Tim started with three chicks, bought from the Rural Supply Store as concubines for the ranch rooster. They are a self-assured eight days old when I meet them, clattering up and down the cardboard that lines his bathtub, scrabbling at their feed. A wall heater keeps the room at blood heat. A steady drip tops up their water bowl, and an Ikea desk lamp warms the small cardboard hutch at one end of the bathtub, where they cuddle at night. When they hear Tim, they stop pecking and start peeping. He greets them, and they let themselves be picked up–two in one fist, one in another–and carried out to the garden.
This grass place, it’s a wonderland. There is dirt; there are stones; there are things that crawl and things that buzz and things that scurry. Everything has to be investigated immediately. They are immensely busy, heads down, but they come when Tim calls them by tapping a fingernail on the flagstones to draw attention to a slow-witted worm. That’s how their mother would teach them where to peck.
At first they stay close to the cabin, and even when they explore, they stick together, peeping a constant call and response. When one loses sight of the others, her trills get higher in pitch and volume. She doesn’t peck again until her calls have been answered and she is reunited. But when she finds something good–or something that might be good–she tries to get away from the others to investigate in peace. The others give chase, flailing after her, and she as she heads them off the worm, or twig, hangs from her beak. It looks like chick soccer.
It’s when they are sleepy that I love them best. They want, more than anything, to be taken under a wing, but there are no mother wings in their hatchery world. Tim’s shirt pockets are a warm and crowded substitute, and after some formal complaints they enjoy being stuffed in there to doze while he fixes motorcycles or visits Sal. I peer into the pocket and think of being under the duvet with my two small sisters, at an age when they were all bird bones and soft, sweaty hair. How annoying they were, and how comforting, with their doggy toddler smell. The chicks seem to have the same regard for one another.
When it’s too late at night for pockets, he sets them down on the kitchen floor to run around before bedtime. When they get tired they huddle in a fluffy scrum and try desperately to get under another chick. Is that so much to ask? They stagger, slit-eyed, up against another’s belly, and butt until they’re underneath. But the comfort never lasts. Their bodies are too light. The top chick topples off, and the bleary one is exposed again. These negotiations go on and on, a shifting dune of exhausted fluff.
The following day, Tim goes to town to buy three more chicks. He brings them home in a bucket with a window screen for a lid. Next to them, the older babies look like hulks, and I begin to feel sorry for all the toddlers who get stuck with younger siblings.
It takes a few days for the chicks to learn to drink. At dawn, the small ones reach up to pluck at the tips of the blades of grass. I don’t understand why, until Tim points out that they’re sipping dew-drops. Most birds can’t swallow as we do; they don’t have a peristalsis mechanism. They rely on gravity to drink, tipping their heads back and glugging like a Spanish farmer with a wineskin. When they’re just a few days old, a dish of water is beyond them, and so they reach for dewdrops. Later, when they see their older sisters drink from a bowl, they understand, though they can’t yet work out the physics of reaching in. They step into the dish and together they arch their necks to glug, beaks open, like the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
Now that they can drink, their digestive systems kick in. They leave little pesto droppings on the kitchen floor.
I don’t want them to grow another inch.
“Bonsai chicks?” I say to Tim, hopefully.
I have a narcissistic prejudice in favor of one of the small ones, a dappled brown Americauna. Because she has mouse-colored fluff, I believe that she is smarter, more resourceful, and finer of feeling, than, say, the butterball blonde Rhode Island Red who always has dried shit stuck to her behind, no matter how often Tim goes after her with the nail scissors. I name my favorite Helen, after Helen Mirren, another cool and brave brunette. None of the others has a name. Tim says that since he hasn’t felt inclined to name the rooster, he doesn’t see why the birds need names. Then again, he can keep the six different breeds straight, and I can’t.
They practice flying, vaulting over a few feet of grass or up the kitchen steps. When an airplane flies overhead, they freeze and fall silent. A born fear of aerial predators, maybe, but it’s also their response to any loud, new sound. When the rooster crows from his henhouse thirty yards away, they freeze again.
I sit on a tree stump and watch them for hours, chewing my bottom lip to hold in tender sadism. I want them to suffer, in tiny doses, just so that I can rescue them. After an hour or two in the weak March sunshine they start to shiver, and let themselves get caught. Their bodies are warm but their legs are chilled. Even the Leghorn, who wears ridiculous chaps of dirty white fluff, has cold feet. I feel Helen’s heart banging against matchstick ribs, and I want to squeeze her little body like an ortolan.
The rooster, for his part, is perturbed by their arrival. He was barely grown when Tim’s neighbor rescued him from the side of Highway 17, and he’s been alone for more than a year. These strange but familiar creatures have stirred something in his rooster heart. He seems to have a rusty memory that he is a patriarch by rights, born to lead and breed. But he doesn’t yet recognize the chicks for the sexy pullets they could turn into, and they are too small to be left alone with him. Since they were taken away, he has fallen into a rooster funk. He still crows, but then he puts his head down and stalks around his house, clucking in a low voice as if questioning himself.
Tim notes that when the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons first came out, in 1946, most of the audience would have known a rooster personally, and would recognize his pompous, ridiculous magnificence from life. These days, the references go the other way. Most chickens are industrial workers, as are we, and they’re usually in a KFC bucket by the time we meet. As I watch the chicks, I compare them to Furbies, or anime characters, or the clay birds of Chicken Run. All of them are objects designed with the cues that make us love infant creatures–big head, big eyes–but they will never grow. We call them animated, but they have no spark of life.
These chicks are beautiful because they are alive. They have their own drives, their own chicken hopes, and they are fully engaged in every moment. They’re learning, changing, moving, and even as they startle at every rustling leaf, they’re not afraid to depend on one another. I’m glad I met them.