After the hawk killed Spaz, Starsky was a mess. For two days, I couldn’t even coax him out of the shed. He was clearly traumatized but I had no idea what he was feeling. Did he relive the terror of Spaz’s last moments or the trauma of hiding outside under bushes through the long, dark night? Did he remember the hawk swooping down on him the next morning? I could only wonder.
One morning, I locked the teenagers in their run and began digging weeds and worms with Starsky nearby. Starsky stayed with me at first but the lure of his own kind proved irresistible. He wandered over to the fence to say hello. The hens pecked him. He ran back to me. A few minutes later, he was back at the fence. He got pecked. He came back to me. Back and forth, stuck in an infinite approach-avoidance dilemma which he finally resolved by remaining by the fence, just out of beak range.
Every day, we spent hours in the dirt together and Starsky seemed happy. However, at night he was inconsolable. He and Spaz had always slept all jumbled together, like puppies. Now, as dusk approached, he’d go into the shed and search everywhere for his friend, making soft trilling noises I’d never before heard that sounded sad and sweet and mournful.
I tried to hold him, but he thought I was trying to kill him. I sat very still in the shed hoping that he would snuggle up to me. He didn’t. Finally, I hung a light above the place where he and Spaz had slept and he eventually settled down under the warmth of the bulb. It was the best I could think to do for him.
As the days passed, Starsky remained despondent. I’d put down platefuls of cut-up vegetables, hoping he would engage in ‘tromp-fests’ as he had with Spaz. He’d walk away. When we weren’t pecking and scratching together in the yard, he sat in the shed. Every night he trilled endlessly for Spaz.
It became clear that I couldn’t fill the void in his life. Starsky needed a real chicken. And I must find one for him.
On the third day, I finally realized that Starsky did not understand English and my incessant cooing and cajoling were just noise to him. If I wanted to lure him out of the shed, I must use his language. So I got down and started crawling around the yard, digging in the dirt, acting like a chicken. This he could relate to and suddenly he was right there with me, pecking and scratching.
It would be a challenge. Of course, there were other chickens but all were in established flocks which were likely to injure or kill him. If Spaz had lived, he and Starsky would have been able to protect one another and hold their own when it came time to integrate the flocks. But with Spaz gone, Starsky was not only younger and smaller than the other birds, he was alone. This put him at great risk.
But I had to try.
First, I thought of his next-yard neighbors; four adolescent hens. They were bigger than Starsky but only five weeks older.
I spent as much time as I could in the shed with Starsky but I could not be with him constantly as a good chicken friend would have and each time I left him he became stressed and distressed. Just as he had every time I’d taken Spaz into the house for his ‘bootie’ adjustments. He’d pace back and forth in front of the back door making very distinctive, sharp, staccato chirps. I didn’t need to be fluent in ‘chicken’ to know what he was saying:
“Come back. I miss you. I don’t want to be alone.”
It broke my heart.
So, the next day I built a fence enclosure next to the teenagers’ run and put Starsky in it, thinking he would be safe. However, when I checked an hour later, I was confronted with a nightmare. Starsky had been so desperate to be with other chickens that he’d somehow managed to fly over the four-foot fence and was in their run. He was sitting outside the coop, alone and forlorn, looking for all the world like the poor kid who always gets picked last for the team. He’d been pecked badly -- there was blood on his head and neck – but at least they’d not killed him.
As for the young hens, they were in the coop, basking in the after-glow of their victory against the intruder, preening.
I rescued Starsky and told the hens they were very bad chickens. Then I raised the fence to six feet so Starsky could live safely adjacent to his reprehensible new "friends."
I thought that the Bad Hens would indulge in all of their pecking-order posturing through the fence and gradually accept Starsky. That did not happen. They never stopped trying to attack him.
Thus, the entire project proved a dismal failure. After two weeks, Starsky still had no friends and now he believed that all the chickens in the world wanted to kill him.
Fortunately, after Odessa tried to roost on my head, I had a flash of inspiration. She’s nuts and neurotic – she’s the gal who managed to hang herself in the garage last winter* -- but she is also the lowest-ranking member of her flock; the chicken pecked by all, but allowed to peck no one. It seemed to me that she should be the perfect friend for Starsky. Also, she’s molting and all her tail feathers have fallen out so right now she’s a sorry sight with no back end, just like Spaz. I took that as a good sign.
I hoped that my next idea which involved the three Dark Divas would be more successful. Odessa, Lenore and Carmine are working girls who help put eggs on my table. They hang with the five Golden Girls. The Divas are small hens, not much bigger than Starsky and I’d read that a good way to introduce chickens is to have them sleep together. With this in mind, I constructed a small area made of four-foot tall fencing for Starsky in the garage. I attached netting to the ceiling and draped it down over the fence so he couldn’t fly over it.
Would the two most-pecked chickens form an alliance? Or would Odessa, the oppressed, become the oppressor? Only time would tell.
With trepidation, I put Odessa in Starsky’s yard. She immediately began pacing the fence line trying to get back to her flock. (Her flock seemed unconcerned with her distress). Meanwhile, Starsky hid behind a bush.
A few hours later, Odessa finally gave up her quest and began to wander around her new digs. It was then that she noticed Starsky. She immediately ran over and pecked him. He squawked and fled.
Odessa seemed shocked and surprised. She just stood there and watched him run away. I could almost see the wheels turning in her head: “I’m in charge, now??? How cool is that?”
From that moment on, she wasted no more time pining for her old flock and got busy being the Queen of her new one. She didn’t let poor Starsky eat until she’d had her fill, chased him around the yard, made him get up if he tried to lie down and move if he got in her way. But she only pecked him occasionally and she did not hurt him.
The next day, I took down the netting and replaced it with floor-to-ceiling fencing. It wasn’t pretty but it appeared functional and safe. After that, every day at four o’clock, well before roosting time, I’d corral the Dark Divas and Starsky and put them all in the garage.
This went on for three days before I admitted defeat. It turned out that the Divas accepted the fact that they lived part-time in a garage but they roosted in the dog kennel and spent the rest of their time foraging in the grass hay and never went near Starsky.
The poor guy just couldn’t catch a break: He still had no chicken friends, his Bad Sisters still wanted to kill him and now he was locked up in a garage every night.
I went in search of a better idea.
First, they began to forage near one another.
Watching poor shell-shocked Starsky run away from yet another bully chicken was difficult for me. I wanted so badly to intervene but held to the Chicken Book Mandate:
“Do not interfere unless there is blood.”
And sure enough, Odessa and Starsky began to work things out.
At dusk, when all the chickens were thinking about roosting, I put Starsky in his new bedroom. Then I rounded up the Dark Divas and turned them loose in the garage near him.
Things did not go well.
The Divas freaked out. (WHERE ARE WE? WHERE’S OUR COOP?? IS THIS A GARAGE???) Carmine and Lenore ran around in a frenzy and finally dived for safety into the dog kennel I’d provided as a nest box. Odessa flew straight up into the air and got herself tangled in the netting where she screeched and flailed until I managed to extract her from it. Starsky cowered in the corner, panicked by the panic around him.
I turned off the light, thinking that the darkness would be reassuring. I held Odessa until she’d calmed down and then gently put her onto the grass hay near Starsky. I stood very still, hoping that she’d settle in for the night.
That did not happen. In the dim light filtering in through the window, Odessa apparently mistook me for a tree. With a great flapping of wings, she flew up and tried to roost on my head. In the process she grabbed clawfuls of my hair, fell off onto my shoulder and thrashed around trying to gain purchase until I was able to get hold of her.
Fearing subsequent nocturnal disasters, I carried Odessa and her sisters back to their own coop. A few moments of chaos ensued -- WHAT WAS THAT? WHERE WERE WE?? ARE WE HOME NOW??? -- but then they settled in next to their Golden Sisters and went to sleep.
A few days later, they ate together.
A week after that, they shared the Dirt Bath Experience.
However, there still remained one rather significant unresolved issue between them: Starsky wanted to sleep with Odessa and she wouldn’t have it.
I cherished each milestone and began to think that, finally, Starsky had a chicken of his own.
"Where'd my back end go?"
Each evening I watched the same heart-breaking show. Odessa had claimed the top of the dog kennel as her sole property and she’d fly up there to roost. Starsky would pace back and forth, cocking his head, stretching his neck, looking up at her, trying to summon his courage and finally, with great apprehension, he’d fly up there. Odessa would immediately push him off and he’d come flapping and flopping back to the ground.
After a while, Starsky would try again. He’d fly up; she’d knock him down. Over and over until he’d finally give up and sleep where he’d slept with Spaz; wedged between the feed dish and the wall, trilling his sad song.
This went on for weeks and every evening I wanted to go out there and strangle Odessa. But I held to The Mandate. And then, one night, after Starsky’s ninth or tenth attempt, Odessa finally granted him several square inches of real estate along the edge of the kennel where he perched precariously through the night. He didn’t look comfortable but he looked content.
Then, he’d wander around, eat some food, drink a little water, sit on the chair. Like nothing unusual had happened. It reminded me of my old cat, Flash who pretended he meant to fall off the bed every time he did. But that’s a whole other story…
Since then, Odessa allows Starsky to roost with her every night but she makes him work for it, pushing him off at least five times before letting him stay. I think he’s okay with the arrangement but I imagine he hopes that someday she’ll let him sleep with her without all the foreplay.
It took nearly six weeks of tension and heartache but Starsky finally has a chicken friend of his own. He's no longer stressed or afraid and each day his confidence grows.
And he no longer sings his mournful, alone song.
As for Odessa, she seems happy, too. She’ll occasionally say hello to her old flock through the fence but always returns to Starsky.
At some point, I’ll have to figure out how to unite Odessa and Starsky with the other chickens but for now I’m content to sit back and enjoy Starsky’s happiness. It warms my heart.
I tried not to take it personally but, clearly, he preferred the company of other chickens -- even those who wanted to kill him – to mine.
* See: Poor Hung Odessa