At eight o’clock in the morning on August 3rd a hole appeared in one of the fourteen eggs in the incubator. Someone was hatching! Over the next half hour, Starsky’s tiny little beak worked its way around the shell, like opening a can. When he’d gotten three-quarters of the way, he gave a mighty push, popped the top and flailed around until he’d kicked himself free.
He wasn’t pretty. He was wet and slimy and couldn’t figure out how to make his feet work. However, within a few hours he’d mastered the art of walking and had turned into a cute, fuzzy chick, cheeping up a storm and looking for food.
This is the way chicks are supposed to hatch out.
It is not the way Spaz did it.
Starsky & Spaz
Starsky stood completely still for a long while, staring at his new roommate. Then he walked right over to Spaz and touched him with his beak a few times. From that moment on they were inseparable.
I left him in the incubator and went to check on Starsky who was in a big plastic tub in the family room. He was eating and drinking but didn’t look happy. Chickens need other chickens and he was lonely. I sent up a silent prayer for poor little Spaz.
I hoped at some point Spaz would take over but even when I’d gone all the way around the shell, he didn’t have the strength to push himself out and I had to take the shell off of him. He was such a sad, sorry sight. Not only slimy and wet, but he had a chunk of shell stuck firmly to his back and tufts of chick-fuzz glued together in clumps all over his body like some nightmare punk-do. He just lay there. I didn’t hold out much hope for him.
By evening Spaz hadn’t improved much though he had started to flop around a little. I went to bed thinking he wouldn’t make it through the night. But the next morning, the spunky little guy was still fighting and by that evening his flipping and flopping had become so vigorous I had to take him out of the incubator for fear he’d break all the eggs. I gently put him into Starsky’s tub where he collapsed into a heap with wings all akimbo. I wondered what Starsky would think of this strange-looking creature. Would he even know it was a chicken?
Later that morning, as I was despairing that none of the other eggs would hatch, I noticed another small hole. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong end of the egg which meant that the chick was upside down, like a breach baby, and unlikely to make it out of the shell. Sure enough, the little hole seemed all he could manage.
Now, the chicken experts say you should never intervene -- “If a chick isn’t strong enough to get himself out of the egg, he won’t be a viable bird” is the rule – but I could not just stand by and let little Spaz die. I figured if he beat the odds and made a hole, the least I could do was to make it bigger. So I carefully chipped away at the shell, working my way around it like Starsky had taught me to do.
A few hours later, Spaz started moving around. He couldn’t walk but he flipped and flopped his way around his new home. He seemed determined to succeed and on the third day he was finally able to stand. But every time he’d lift a foot to take a step it would fly up into the air before coming back to the ground. It worked – he could get from point A to point B – but he looked like those goose-stepping German soldiers from World War II. That’s when I named him Spaz. (Up until then I’d been calling him “Hutch” as in “Starsky and Hutch” because they were partners, always together)
So every few days for the next five weeks I’d put Spaz on the kitchen counter and fit him with new booties. He took it in stride. He’d peck at his new feet a few times, pick up each foot and look at it like he couldn’t believe what I’d done to him and then off he’d go, flapping around on his duck feet. They never slowed him down.
Unfortunately, goose-stepping was not Spaz’s only challenge. Two toes on each foot began to bend sideways, a serious condition which leads to crippling arthritis if not treated. The cure, according to my Chicken Book, was to fashion a pair of chicken booties made out of masking tape to hold the toes in the proper position. Usually after a few days in ‘the boot,’ the toes get strong and straight and no more need be done.
Spaz did not read the book. Every time the boots came off, the toes would be straight for a few hours and then start to bend again.
Every afternoon, I’d cut fresh zucchini, carrots, cucumbers, corn and tomatoes from the farm into tiny pieces and sit with Starsky and Spaz while they ate it. It bothered me that tromping all over my artistically-arranged food seemed to be part of their meal-time ritual but then again, they are chickens and their table manners are different from ours.
Tromp-fest with Starsky and Spaz became my favorite part of the day.
Chicks are supposed to start growing feathers as soon as they’re hatched. Starsky popped them out right on schedule but for a long time Spaz just had the odd feather sticking up here and there -- like the worst bad hair day ever -- and I began to worry that he’d be wearing his chick-fuzz forever.
However, little by little he finally got the job done, except for one thing: he never grew a tail so he just stops after the wings.
But here’s the thing about Spaz: He may be a spastic, duck-footed, goose-stepping chicken with no back end but none of that has ever slowed him down. He’s spunky and special and happy and I love him dearly.
I had a nice dinner and at dusk went out to lock up the shed and the coops for the night. Starsky and Spaz always went in when the sun started to go down and I’d find them piled up, snuggled together between the food dish and the wall. Tonight, they weren’t there. Panic sliced through me. I started searching.
The first thing I saw were his precious little duck feet sticking up in the air. Spaz was lying on his back under the bushes beside the shed. His neck was bloody and ravaged and his head had been torn off. I searched for Starsky everywhere but could not find him.
I tried so hard to make it not be real, to go back in time so I could do something different to stop this from happening. But it was real and it had happened: The hawks had killed my babies.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, I kept reliving the nightmare. The empty shed. Those tiny feet. Starsky carried off in the talons of the hawk. I loved them so much. But more than that, they were Randy Rooster’s kids, the part of him that I’d hoped would live on, down through the years. And now they were gone, taking Randy’s legacy with them.
In September we had quite a heat wave but on the fifteenth the temperature finally dropped below ninety which was cause for celebration. Everyone – human and chicken – was feeling more lively.
Starsky and Spaz spent the day playing in the yard and late in the afternoon I harvested some carrots and filled a bucket with the carrot tops which they love. They spent a good fifteen minutes gorging and making those wonderful happy noises that chickens make when they're eating.
It had been a great day.
At three weeks, Starsky and Spaz graduated to the shed out in the backyard which I'd filled with old grass clippings and, when they got too big to fit through the holes in the chain link fence which separates them from the older chickens in the next yard who would hurt them, I set them free.
Spaz was a riot. He’d start running with his duck feet flapping and then just stop, flap his wings real hard and go straight up into the air about a half-foot and when he came down he’d start running again.
Starsky and Spaz explored their yard together, never more than a few inches apart. They pecked and scratched and ate bugs and grass and dirt. I cringed when they started in on my lovely ice plants but I let them. As it turned out, I loved my ice plants but I loved Starsky and Spaz more.
They were ecstatic and their happiness made me happy.
I was still tossing and turning at six-thirty the next morning when I heard a chirp that brought me right out of bed. I raced to the window just in time to hear a chick scream and see the hawk dive and a flash of yellow disappear into a thick mass of tall ferns.
Starsky was alive!
I raced through the house and out the back door. The hawk was sitting on the telephone wire right above the ferns where Starsky was hiding. I turned on the hose and blasted him with water. He flew but landed a little further away. I hit him again. He flew away.
I gently reached into the ferns but the moment I touched him, Starsky began to scream and struggle. It took a long time to calm him down. He was not injured; the hawk had missed.
I hugged him and cried.
When I’d gotten a hold of myself, I put Starsky in the shed where he’d be safe. Then I went to check on the other chickens. It was then that I became aware of the silence. Normally at this time of the morning there are birds chirping in the trees and chickens squawking at me to let them out. Today, there was complete, eerie silence.
I found the hawk sitting right on top of one of the coops. The chickens inside were like statues, frozen. I growled really loud and the hawk flew into a tree. I growled louder. The hawk flew away.
I went back to the shed and sat with Starsky until he had calmed enough to start eating. It took a long time.
That afternoon I dug a hole in a pretty spot by the fence where Starsky and Spaz liked to look for bugs. I opened the gate on the shed in case Starsky wanted to be with us but he wouldn't come out.
I sat by the hole and held Spaz for a long time. I touched his little duck feet and saw how the toes had finally started to get stronger and straighter. I think if he’d lived his feet would have been fine.
I told Spaz I loved him and that I was sorry the hawks came. Then I put him in the hole and covered his beautiful feathers with dirt. I marked his grave with a rock my mom had found in the mountains decades ago and the words:
SPAZ Aug. 3 – Sept. 15, 2017
I went to the shed and told Starsky I was sorry that his friend was dead and that I’d stay in the yard to protect him if he wanted to come out. I pulled weeds, trimmed some bushes and puttered around for an hour. He never left the shed. Maybe he was still too traumatized or maybe he just misses Spaz.
There is nothing sadder than a chicken without another chicken. I will do my best to become a chicken for Starsky, to be his ‘flock,’ but I know I’ll fall short. Spaz left a hole that can never be filled.
I needed to write this story to honor Spaz and give meaning to his life. He didn’t live long but he made the best of the time he had. He was happy. Starsky and I loved him.
We will miss him.