Meet the Henriettas

Reminiscent of Gonzo’s Muppet Show chickens, the Henriettas peer through the dog door.

Rhode Island Reds? Golden Comet hybrids? Who knows! The two hardly distinguishable chickens I call the Henriettas are Amish mutts of the hen world, but they generally lay an egg a day (or at least did before days got short) and are entertaining; so does it really matter what breed they are? They’re the leaders of our flock; the largest; the boldest; the most adventurous. They remind me of Gonzo’s chickens from the Muppet Show as they stare through the dog door, willing it to open so they can be part of whatever excitement might be on the other side. Crack the door even slightly, their bills are already in. They’re relentlessly persistent, a lesson I learned the hard way. 

When we first brought them home we didn’t have a proper coop. We had a fenced in area for them to roam and a rabbit hutch for secure sleep, but we lacked a nest box. They were too young to lay so it wasn’t an issue initially, but protecting our blueberry bushes was. Within just a couple of days they’d exposed the roots with their scratching, putting our precious blueberry crop in jeopardy. We painstakingly covered the ground around the bushes in chicken wire, but next they chewed off the bottom leaves. We constructed a small fence around the bushes and seemed to have reached a compromise… until the Henriettas began laying eggs. Somehow they decided that the best place to lay was in a corner between the blueberries and the house, on the other side of our protective fence. The battle was on. 

One of the Henriettas trapped in the blueberry enclosure.

We made the fence higher. They got in. We added a netting roof. They still got in. We secured the netting to the fence with tie wraps. They still got in, though they could no longer get back out. I’d find one or both Henriettas pacing among the blueberries. I’d pop open a tie-wrap to create a wide enough gap to reach in for a rescue. They’d run into my hands, eager to be free now that their egg was safely deposited in the chosen corner, well beyond my reach. Yet I couldn’t figure out how they were getting in.

After days of spying, I finally watched in amazement as one of the Henriettas flew to the top of our chicken wire fence, bounced across the netting trampoline we’d inadvertently created, flew to the top of the outer permanent fence, tight-rope walked to the back corner where the netting was simply draped against the house and slid right down to her self-proclaimed nesting area. I’d added a nest box to their yard by now and this flagrant disobedience annoyed me. I stormed out, climbed the fence myself and entered in the same place as the Henrietta. I plucked her from the ground, climbed back out and put her in the proper nest box. Surely I could outsmart a chicken. I added a couple more feet of fencing to the spot where she’d flown up and retreated to watch.

Both Henriettas paced the perimeter, then the bolder of the two leaped up toward the top of my addition. It took a few tries, but she finally perched upon my extension. I raced out and grabbed her. I put her back in the nest box, added a line of even taller garden tools and retreated to spy. 

Henrietta once again took a giant leap and landed atop my extension, apparently even more easily now that it was made of solid equipment instead of flimsy plastic fencing. We went back and forth. Her clearing all my extensions and me grabbing her before the next leg of her journey. I’d ordered a proper chicken coop by now, but it would be several days before it arrived and I simply couldn’t spend all day thwarting a chicken. Why didn’t she like the nest box already present? 

Location? I moved it. She still didn’t approve. 

More cushioning? I added straw. She cleared my barricade again. 

Not private enough? In desperation, I found a cardboard box and stuck the nest box inside. BINGO. 

Henrietta squatted by my side for a pet, then went in and laid her egg. I may have won the battle, but I’d say she won the war.

The Henriettas.

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Beginning my Adventures with Chickens

While I’ve always been an animal lover, my preference has been for wild animals. Leave the wild in the wild was always my motto, though perhaps that had something to do with the fact that once upon a time even a potted plant felt like too much of a commitment. But my life is far more settled than it was in my anti-potted plant days and I’ve come to love growing my own fruits and vegetables, and catching my own fish and crabs. So chickens seemed like a logical next step; why not add eggs to my line-up of fresh products? 

The first challenge proved to be buying hens. It seemed chicks would be easy to purchase, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for the responsibilities of rearing babies and there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t grow up to be roosters, which I knew I didn’t want. My husband and I searched and searched and just as we were about to give up, his brother in Pennsylvania called to report an Amish farm advertising pullets for sale. Perfect! We jumped in our car and drove the couple hours from Maryland to this farm in Lancaster County. 

It was a rainy day and I was glad I’d chosen waterproof boots for our outing as we followed our teenage guide through mucky fields of knee-high grass, freshly plowed mud, and finally under a barbed wire fence and through more tall grass to a quonset hut-style trailer. What appeared to me as full-grown hens were everywhere – tall, short, plump, thin, shy and curious, flocks of reddish birds poured out onto the ramp, huddled inside, pecked below the trailer or clustered around its edges like some invisible fence kept them within range of the mothership. The farmer’s son stomped up the ramp, a string of chickens following as his rubber boots, suspenders and straw hat disappeared into the shadows at the back of the trailer. There was some squawking, then the boy re-emerged with a hen under each arm.  

One of the red hens from the Amish farm in Pennsylvania.

My husband, who has owned chickens before, grabbed one. He probed its chest, inspected its beak and examined the bird’s wings before deeming it fit. He thrust the bird into my arms. It was then that I realized I had never held a chicken before. What the heck was I supposed to do with this thing?! The chicken flapped its wings violently as I gently tried to cradle it, shifting my arms this way then that to block imminent departure and more imminent thrashing. “Pin down the wings!” my husband offered, and finally there was calm. A big brown eye watched me suspiciously, red waddles quivering as the hen tilted its head for a better view. Seemingly satisfied, it nestled into the crook of my arm and we both visibly relaxed.

The second bird didn’t pass my husband’s inspection. It was ok, but he preferred the bold one watching us curiously from the top of the ramp. My husband swooped up the desired bird, sending less brave hens scuttling and the farmer boy’s eyebrows up in surprise. Apparently ‘city boys’ weren’t expected to catch their own bird, or maybe it was the scrutiny that was unexpected. Either way, this bird passed the test. We tucked our hens under our arms, both arms in my case, and retraced our steps along the downtrodden grass.   

The farmer lifted the barbed wire for me and as I stooped to lower myself and my new avian friend through the opening, I noticed a couple of hens at my heels. I looked back and noticed a couple more, and more, an entire string of chickens filling the trail of flattened grass from me all the way to the trailer like some red-brick road. They stretched up tall, watching intently, perhaps wondering if they too were going on a field trip, or maybe contemplating a rescue mission. I didn’t wait to find out. 

Hence begins my adventures with chickens…

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An Owl’s Tale

Baby Eastern Screech Owl on the roadside.

I’m not sure what caused me to glance up at that moment, nor how I noticed the writhing gray amidst the foliage but it stopped me in my tracks. I watched as tiny wings coated in fluff beat vigorously, but the bird went nowhere. Talons grasped at twigs, yet the bird teetered upside down. Was it stuck? No sooner had this occurred to me than the fledgling tossed its head back and two wide yellow eyes stared directly at me. A baby screech owl. It turned away and struggled again, seemingly too twisted in the branches to release itself and too high above a busy road for me to assist. I stood helpless. The yellow eyes locked on me again, and then the baby launched itself into the air and glided to land beside me on the sidewalk.

I stared giddily at my new neighbor. Had my presence anchored this fledling? Its gaze that second time had felt so intentional, and now the owlet was by my side. Had it been disoriented? Had seeing me upright on solid ground given it impetus to abandon its tedious position? A jumble of questions with no answers rushed through my head. The only thing I knew for sure was that I felt responsible for this baby. Certainly those eyes locked on mine were a plea for help! I studied the branches and trunks of nearby trees for signs of a cavity, a potential nest where I might return my prodigy to its parents. I saw nothing, but it mattered not. The canopy was too high for me to reach. Yet I knew that the bird’s best chance of survival was if its parents could find it in nearby branches.

We stood on a wide sidewalk sandwiched between a high wall and a busy road, a sidewalk frequented by zooming bikes and sniffing dogs – not a safe place for an off-balance owlet. Slowly, gently, I reached a finger down toward my little friend. It hissed a protest that sent it bobbing, but awkwardly it grasped my finger and hung tight. I spotted a break in the vegetation across the road and when traffic lulled, I rushed into the vegetated cove. As I looked around for a sturdy branch, the owl glided off my finger and landed a few feet away. It was as safe a place as any. I hoped its parents would find it.

Baby screech owl recovering in a box.

I went on my way, but I couldn’t get those yellow eyes out of my head. Had my baby owl been rescued? Had its parents found it? I needed to know. I waited a few hours, long enough for the parents to intervene, then went back to the clearing. If it were gone, I would assume all was well. To my dismay, it wasn’t gone. It was mere inches from where I’d left it, looking pitiful as it leaned against a stone. I knelt beside it and those eyes fluttered open to stare at me. There was no protest this time. There was no clinging this time. The baby slumped into my hand, and I once again felt responsible. I gently wrapped the bird in my sweater and took it home.

I dripped water from an eye dropper onto its beak. It seemed too weak to respond initially, but resistance faded and it eventually lapped up the droplets. I placed a towel in a box and tucked my baby inside with a lightbulb above for heat. An hour or so later I peaked in at my patient. It had climbed up onto a branch I’d rigged across the bottom and was clearly feeling better. Those yellow eyes glared up at me and the owl hissed an adamant protest to my intrusion, so adamant that it toppled to the towel below. Even its attempts at menace were endearing.

My rejected farewell kiss.

Baby screech owl preparing for transfer to the rehabilitation center.

Staff at the rehabilitation center inspecting my baby screech owl.

I wanted to play foster mom. I loved the idea of raising this baby to release as the yard owl at my new home, but I knew I couldn’t train it to fly nor hunt. My owlet needed the company of other owls. So the next day I offered a farewell kiss, that was heartily rejected, and took my baby to the Falcon Batchelor Bird of Prey Center at the Frost Museum of Science. I watched as they measured, scanned and evaluated my owlet. I glowed with pride at the report of good health and a bad ass personality. My baby was going to be just fine. And as a bonus, they even promised to bring it back to the owl box in my yard when it was ready to be released.

Now fully-grown screech owl before release into my owl box.

It took a couple of months, but finally I got the call. I raced to the door when one of the Prey Center staff showed up. I peaked in the cage and my former owlet, now a beautiful, fully grown Eastern Screech Owl, greeted me with the same yellow eyes and adamant hiss.

“This one had attitude!” the staff woman informed me, “It was one of the feistiest babies we had.”

I was pleased. A pat on the head, a couple of photos and my returned owl was gently placed in my waiting owl box. I couldn’t help but visit the box several times. My owl sat at the entrance, gazing out most of the day. I checked again first thing the next morning, but there was nothing to see. By evening it was clear that the box was empty, and I admit to being disappointed. I’d hoped the box would become home, or that the owl would at least stay around my yard, but there were no signs of it…

until two days later. A shadow crossed the dark sky and something settled atop my pool umbrella. I squinted at the owl-sized shadow and imagined the pair of yellow eyes I was certain was gazing back at me.

My baby screech owl, no longer a baby!

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