Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Chicken Diaper

Miss Henny Penny, with all her feathers, in happier days.

We just purchased my chicken a diaper. It is a lovely, handmade thing. Stitched to order, blue, with daisies emblazoned on its expanse; like an oilcloth, really—one we'll be using to catch crap.

—Why are you buying your chicken a diaper?

—Fibromyalgia, obviously.

The chicken does not have fibromyalgia, at least as far as I know. Come to think of it, though, I might need to check. If I apply pressure to her tender points, will she cry out in pain?

—Bokkkkkkkkkk! (Stop that.)

—I'm sorry, Miss Henny Penny, but you're very sick. Here, have some Lyrica and warm towel for your comb.

No, I am the one in question: the fibromyalgia-suffering, diaper-buying person you're looking for. My story goes like this:

In June, I was asked by a lovely friend of mine if I might like a chicken for my yard. Would you like a biscuit? Have you ever tried this meth? I have a chicken I can give you if you want. (This is how they hook you. One chicken for free and you're back for more.)

Oh, well, yes. We've wanted chickens. Who doesn't really? They're so fashionable right now, appearing at the Oscars, like accessories, with stars. Get a chicken, the thinking goes, produce your own eggs, and you have got out from under the thumb of egg companies, that unchecked tyrant in your life. We have ducks, but we're already bored with them. See one duck drill mud in your yard on a Monday morning and you've seen the whole thing. At least until they start up the rape camps during spring.

The proffered chicken, it happened, had been a victim of injustice and abuse. Menaced by her companions, she was deprived of water, starved, de-feathered and bloodied until the very point of death. Nursed back to health in my friend's small backyard, she was finally recovering, but my friend was ready to let her go. Her daughter was becoming attached. My friend had seen her, with the chicken on her lap, both of them coming down the slide. All this suffering increased the chicken's value in my eyes immeasurably. Sure, we decided. We'll take her: a chicken, eggs, and a chance to save the world.

The chicken arrived in a dog crate—a bright-eyed, obviously intelligent creature with pretty feathers like autumn leaves and a bright red comb.

Bokkkkkkk, she said, in a pleasant way.

We put her in a coop and run. She looked around, ate a bit and got bored, so she flew out. No, no, we told her. This is your house. She looked at us, as if to say she'd prefer to be with us. And flew. Hello, she said. We moved the dolly on which she was landing as she flew out of the coop. This threw her for a while. Then, she discovered she'd be fine just setting on the top of the wire of her fence. This went on. It was my my youngest's birthday party day. Mike and I looked at each other.

"I'm going to stay here and fix this," he said. Neither of us relished telling the chicken's former slide partner how she'd ended up in the road. I threw "the luau" by myself.

We built up the run to a height of over nine feet and the chicken finally consented to stay in. Where, though, could we get her some friends? Chickens are social creatures. They pine in isolation. We did not want her to pine. Finally, we purchased three chicks to raise by hand. The sweetest-tempered breeds you have, we told the man. No more would poor Miss Henny Penny be the victim of abuse. We raised the chicks in our living room under a heat lamp. When they got sour crop, I massaged their lumpy little digestive sacks until the food within disappeared. We coddled them. We fed treats of hand-grown sprouts of field peas raised in compost in my yard. When they were old enough, we moved them outside, where Henny Penny could see but couldn't reach. Furious, she lurked over them like an ill-tempered dragon stalking fat little donkeys near her cave. When they weren't close enough to launch at through the interfering fence wire, she stood in the corner and keened. The neighborhood resounded with her misery.

"She'll get used to them," I said with confidence. And this went on.

Finally, months later, it was time to introduce the friends. I'd read copious advice on this introduction, all conflicting, and was haunted by specter of pecked-out brains. The most progressive story I'd heard was of a man who, introducing two grown chickens, spent the day with them in their yard. When one attacked the other, he would pick up the hostile and pet it, assuring it that it was loved. This advice appealed immediately to me, since it allowed me both to act like Marshall Rosenberg and to hold chickens in the sunlight. I imagined myself like St. Francis of Assisi, spreading God's love amongst my fowl. At the end, everyone would be impressed.

—What a miracle it is you've worked here!

—You just have to get to the concerns underlying the behavior, I'd say humbly. Chickens, like us, want to know that they are loved.

—Can I quote you on that? they'd say.

—Why, sure.

Instead of this scenario, though, things went quickly ill. Henny Penny wanted the other chickens dead. They ran in terror, huddling, a bouquet a chickens, quivering under a chair. And after them again she went. I picked her up. No, no, I told her gently. These are your nice friends. Good chickens, nice chickens. She looked at me pensively. I set her down. And after them she went. Hours later, I tried singing children's songs.

These are the chickens in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood, in your neighborhood...

No dice. She was going to kill them. I imagined their bright eyes ripped out and bleeding, their brains exposed, their precious little feathers torn, which I had practically grown myself. I tried for days. Weeks. Then, finally, I gave up.

"We have to move her to her own coop," I told Mike.

We put Henny Penny in what had formerly been the chick's coop and moved it into our backyard. There, the dog discovered that he could eat both her eggs and her feed. Mike spent a weekend constructing a fence to keep him out. The water froze. Mike made a device with a light bulb and a paint can to keep the water warm. Which brings me to the fibromyalgia.

I have trouble with the cold. In winter, I make every effort to never leave my house. This is mostly because when I do, I start shaking, my holds turn blue and numb, my muscles tense up and then I cannot get warm for hours. During this time, the care of our flock of ducks and chickens falls entirely to my husband and my sons. The other day, though, I went out to visit the chicken—Mike had somewhere he had to be—and found her next to naked. Pin feathers, like porcupine quills punctuated her head and back. No one had thought to mention this development. Is she molting in January???? I began wildly to do research. Six times, I held the chicken up and looked at her for mites.

Bookkkkkkkkkkkkkk!!!!! she exclaimed as I searched carefully around her vent. I didn't know there would be a pelvic exam, she said.

I could find no evidence of mites. Finally, though, a friend put me in touch with another friend, whom she described as "a chicken savant." It was decided that the feather loss was due to stress. She's lonely. Of course. It's too cold. I don't go out there. She has no friends. Could the chicken I had so carefully tended die of broken heart and cold? Hold her every day, she said. Give her cat food for the protein. Her feathers should come back. Then, once they do, stick her in that other coop and let them duke it out. So much for Marshall Rosenberg.

OK, I thought. I can do that. I checked once more for mites. Then I started to worry. What if I don't go out and hold her because it's too damn cold? I can't let her die because of my Raynaud's Phenomenon.

Enter the diaper. If you can't go to the chicken, I thought, bring the chicken in your house.

After further reflection, I bought her a little jacket to go with that—a saddle, they called the thing. It's designed to keep chickens warm if they lose their feathers in the winter months. I chose a nice blue color that will coordinate with her diaper, although I don't suppose she'll be wearing both at the same time.

Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, said famously that keeping backyard chickens is no harder than keeping a parakeet. And perhaps it's not. I imagine wounded parakeets with tiny, handmade crutches, wings in little, knitted slings.

—Honey, did you remember to change the parakeet?

—No, I thought you did. Anyway, just smell him. His diaper's full.


  1. It is confirmed - you are completely insane. Don't ever change! This is one of my favorite stories.

  2. I would have been thinking warm soup at this point.

    They call it a pecking order for a reason.

  3. This story made me smile. I have a blog-friend who raised a chicken from an egg and the chicken lives in a large birdcage in her living room because she, like Henny Penny, cannot abide the other chickens, nor can she abide being out of doors. Not only does Jack Frost (her name) live in this large birdcage like a parrot, she also perches on my friend's shoulder as she blogs and nuzzles her. It's pretty amazing, I think.

  4. This is what would have happened if you had been around during the French Revolution and it was fought with chickens. There would be no more tyranny and bullying, only chicken diapers and saddles (saddles!) and assurances of unconditional love.

  5. So funny! I have no experience with chickens, but I know of someone who diapered her male cat to keep him from spraying the furniture; unfortunately he had asthma or some medical problem that kept him from being neutered.
    And birds in general are a lot smarter than we give them credit for - very canny! Yours knows where her bread is buttered and will probably make a great indoor pet! Or did you actually put Henny Penny back with the others and let them duke it out? Keep us informed!

  6. This reminds me of Rebecca. My chicken. My own lovely wonderful chicken I raised. Oh the hours I would spend cleaning their blasted coop in the hellish Texan summer. Then a pack of desperate coyotes managed to get through all the protection we'd put in the coop and killed her. I hate coyotes.

  7. I'd say Henny Penny is one lucky chick =)

    Thanks for the laugh. Made my day!

  8. "Chickens, like us, want to know that they are loved." truer words have never been spoken!! Great post! :)

  9. Thaks for the reality check. I don't think I am ready for chickens after all.

  10. Oh my. The creatures that you nurture are a quirky clan. I would love to see a photo of Henny Penny in her outfit.

  11. One of my favorite stories. I totally want to come visit and listen to you talk for hours.

  12. lol, funny. Someone just posted this link on my site since I've been writing about diapered chickens; you clearly know more than I do:)

  13. This is utterly spectacular. I have been thinking lately that what's missing in my life is chickens. This post confirms it--however, since acquiring chickens would require either relocation or a zoning variance, I will probably have to settle for the vicarious chicken enjoyment of reading your posts.

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