59 Chickens and 1 Fox
by Michael Hemphill
When I was a boy there was a time when I could have the freshest of farm fresh eggs.
Out back, deep in the south-east corner of our property stood an old wooden building. It looked as if it had been there a long, long time. One summer, we opened it up, dusted it off, aired it out and cleaned it up. Inside the building were racks of wooden bins that ran along the length of the inside walls, two rows high. These were designed to hold one chicken each. The building was set inside a large fenced-in area comprised of eight foot high posts and chicken wire fencing material. With plenty of elbow grease and sweat, we turned that old run-down building into the finest chicken henhouse you ever did see. Well, at least I thought so.
My father had purchased some chickens from a man at the steel mill. Or maybe he won them in a card game, I’m not sure, but either way we were going to be in the chicken and egg business. For us, the chickens would come first. The eggs would come later. One early summer afternoon I was making my way home from school with a stick in hand and a picket fence as a musical instrument. As I approached the street where I lived, I turned and began walking down the center of street since there were no sidewalks. When I had reached our house I noticed that my father and mother were in the backyard, so I went there to see what was so interesting. Sometime early that afternoon, the chickens had been delivered, all 59 of them. These chickens had never known a free-range environment. And, they were pretty shabby looking. Oddly, their first reaction to the change in environment was surprising. All 59 white, miserable looking chickens were taking to flight just high enough to clear the eight foot high fence and land in the forest’s edge. Once inside, they began to wander deeper and settle into what looked like nesting formations. My parents were baffled. They instructed us to retrieve the chickens and collect the eggs from the forest floor. I learned pretty quick that day how to handle a chicken. Before long, I was able to carry three and four chickens upside down by their legs. They didn’t seem to mind at all.
With the excitement of DAY ONE behind us, the chickens settled into their new surroundings quite nicely. We never had to worry about them leaving the yard after that because they simply never tried to leave again. So the lazy summer crawled onward with early sunny mornings greeting me and the chickens out back inside the henhouse. My job was to feed them and collect the eggs. Feeding was easy. There was a metal trough in the chicken yard for water and feed. A bucket of each would get the job done right quick. Collecting the eggs was a different matter. The hens spent most of their time in the nests, so if you wanted to get the eggs, you had to move the hen first. Although, they didn’t seem to mind this much either.
One morning while walking out to the coop, I noticed something unusual in the yard out front of the henhouse. As I approached, I realized it was a chicken, a dead chicken. It’s head and neck had been eating clear away. I quickly ran into the chicken coop to find the other 58 chickens clucking away just fine. I told my parents about this incident and they were concerned. I removed the carcass from the chicken yard and put it in the garbage which fortunately was being picked up that day. I assumed that this would be the end of the ordeal but I was a bit premature in my presumptions because the next morning I found two more bloody chickens in the yard that had met with the same fate. 59… 58… 56… 53… 49… 46… 43… 40… 38… 37… 34… 31… 28… 26… 24… 22… 20… 19…
Nineteen frail, very nervous chickens frantically clucked into the early Autumn morning air on the day we caught our fox. I walked out to the coop to find a fox trap with fox trapped by the hind leg. He begged and begged to be set free. It was a sight that pulled at my heart strings. I wanted him caught because of what he had done to our chicken population, but after seeing him, I realized that it was all he could do. It was his lot in life. I wasn’t sure what to do at this point. But it didn’t matter, two men had arrived in a pickup truck. My father was speaking with them. Then they came over to where I was, which was near the trapped fox. My father suggested I might want to leave. Before I could get away, the sound of the fox’s demise was recorded into my memory…
Nineteen frail, very nervous chickens looked like money to my father. So, after having enough of a go at this egg/money scheme, he chucked it all in for a stack of cash. My brothers, sister and I were summoned a few days later. We made our way to the chicken yard with my father, who was carrying a hatchet in hand. He admitted that we did our best to raise chickens, but the time had come to get out of the chicken business. We received a life lesson that day. On an old tree stump lay nineteen chicken heads and some naive ideas of a few young children growing up on a farm.
And yes, they do run with their heads cut off…