Archive of Past News of the Farm:
Aunt DropTail November 7, 2011
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November 7, 2011
(Aunt DropTail, with her cataracts.1994-2011 RIP)
Greetings Friends of the Farm,A couple of Fridays ago, just before sunrise, intern Austin appeared at the back door of the farm house, looking unusually solemn. He reported gravely that Aunt DropTail was dead.
As it was his first “chore” of each day, he went inside the Hen House to the nocturnal perches where he would gently retrieve Aunt Droppy from her perch -- to her agreeable murmuring -- and take her to the barn where she would spend the day, eating and drinking in peace, and sun bathing without any other hen stepping on her in the bustle of getting to a feed pan.
But sometime during the night, as the season’s first cold norther blew in, Aunt Droppy’s heart stopped, and with no further responsibility, her gnarly talons loosed their grip on the perch. With that detachment, she fell freely to the ground.
(Her talons with the signature "old lady" spur. Some breeds develop this masculine spur in their older years.)
And there Austin found her, and by habit and respect, he picked her up and carried her to the barn and laid her out on the tarp that covers the big chick cage.
Folks often ask, “How long do chickens live?” Although they can “go” at any age, for now, definitively, my answer is seventeen and one-half years. I don’t know if she was the oldest hen in Austin, but most likely she was. We acquired her along with a batch of twenty or so Americauna chicks back in ’94. We were new farmers then and had just replaced our decrepit coop with a new Hen House. We aimed for 100 laying hens and all the colors of eggs possible. Americaunas’ eggs vary from the palest sky blue, through turquoise, to olive green, so they would contribute to the palette of white and browns.
DropTail was noticeable even as a chick, as her tail, due to some hatch defect, dropped straight to the ground instead of flying high or jutting straight out from her body. I called her DropTail, as here, any hen who is unusual receives her own personal, often descriptive name. (One of our first White Leghorn hens was named “Frontal Lobotomy” after Willie the Rooster tried to take her head off as punishment for some act of insubordination or other. I was able to put a blob of antiseptic ointment on her wound and reset the flap of skin and feathers, and she lived to be more submissive.) The other hens in DropTail’s group of sisters were The Myrtles. Each of them. They went everywhere together and paid us no mind so it was easier to think of them as a group. Even DropTail ignored us. Until her last few years.
By that time, all the Myrtles lay under the soil next to the run, many of them dying in the various massacres that besieged us in our years of chicken keeping.
Aunt DropTail’s decline began last spring when she started bumping into things and other hens. One day she spent 30 minutes addressing Lillian’s big tractor tire. Examining her, I saw that her brown eyes were now silver-blue, likely cataracts. Of course it was impossible to get her lens replaced, so we decided she needed to be taken to adult day care in the barn. In doing that, we became her nursing aides.
When a special hen decides the human is ready for a personal relationship, she will acknowledge the human’s salutation with a swift shake of her head. She knows the sound of her name when spoken to. Droppy took this greeting further. When we’d say “Hi Droppy!” she would give us a full-body shimmer starting at her head and traveling down her body. This amused us greatly.
(Auntie heads for a bit of sunshine.)
(Auntie heads for a bit of sunshine.)
When it was time to go to bed, after all the helpers were gone, I’d give the hens their last feed for the day, collect the rent (eggs), and go to the barn to pick up Droppy. As I called her name, she’d respond with a murmur and walk slowly and deliberately, following my voice. Then I’d place my hands on her body and slide one hand under her confused feet as I picked her up. She was almost blind, so she wanted to have a firm footing. Since you can’t really ever trust a human to not drop you suddenly, at least she’d be able to push away and flap her wings to soften any abrupt landing.
Her toes would wrap around my fingers tightly, the sharp nails digging into my flesh where possible. At the perch, I’d slide a hand to each of her thighs (drumsticks, ahem) and hold them loosely while I guided her claws to the wooden perch. She’d flap her wings wildly, trying to get situated. Finally, once her feet clenched the perch, I’d run both hands over her body to smooth her wings, and tell her good night.
Then she’d elbow any other hen out of her way to feel her way to her preferred sleeping spot, where the perch meets the wall. Even the giant golden Butter Ball moved to another perch out of deference to the blind DropTail.
(Aunt DropTail, on the perch, in her "younger days"....six months ago. Note the respect given her by Rosie.)
But the evening of her death, when I picked her up, she was like a semi-deflated football. Her feet did not seek my finger perches, her murmuring was brief and almost inaudible, she transferred without angst to the perch. I smoothed her feathers, the other hens moved aside, she went to sleep, and that was that.
Austin dug the grave, with Toesy assisting (in another life, surely Toesy was a mortician.) Aunt DropTail rests next to Tootie J. Tootums and Aunt Penny, whom she knew only vaguely, as she was of the Hen House and they were career girls on the Outside.
(Toesy inspects the grave. She certifies it worm-free, much to her disappointment. Yes she was down IN it.)
Aunt Droppy has no marker yet, but she should have had one before the Green Corn festival. A restaurant tent and table were so close to her new grave that a tent pole actually penetrated the soft soil. Oh my, I thought, if the chef stands on her grave she may get pushed to China! But the next morning there was just a slight depression on the soil surface, and really, it made no difference. Hers was a good, long life and she is still a part of the farm.
Carol Ann Back