Back in the day a mother would discover a disheveled and hungry puppy being hidden in her child’s room and ask “where did this dog come from”? The child would insist “He just followed me home! Can we keep him please?!”
Animal welfare agencies have done a great job in the past decade or two in educating people on the importance of spaying & neutering their pets so just randomly finding a stray animal in suburbia is become less and less common. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a stray cat or dog in my neighborhood.
So it took me off guard when last week I noticed a lone chicken roaming in the street a few houses down from mine. I was a little surprised but not concerned, it wasn’t one of my chickens and one of my chicken keeping neighbors sometimes lets her chickens out to free range and they wander into the street (we live on a very quiet road).
I saw the same chicken on the road the next day. I thought it was pretty strange because she was alone. Usually free ranging chickens at least stick with a buddy or two. I was driving and as I got closer, she took off into the woods. A few days past and no further chicken sightings happened and I figured she found her way home. Then something really strange happened.
My oldest daughter and I were headed out of the house on an errand. We were about to get into the car when we noticed a chicken in our front yard. Our girls were out free ranging in our fenced backyard and at first I thought one escaped.
We got closer, I realized it was not one of ours but it was the same lone chicken I saw earlier in the week. She walked right up to us, quietly baw baw bawing. She was dirty and skinny, I could see she was missing feathers in her tail and near her neck. This poor thing had been alone for awhile.
Feeling bad for her, I went in the backyard and got a handful of feed and brought it out to her. I had an appointment to get to so we drove off, leaving the chicken in the front yard hungrily pecking at the feed. I expected her to be gone when we got back, but when we pulled in the driveway, the chicken came running out from the brush to greet us.
Starved for food & for attention, she was friendly and obviously used to living with, and depending on, humans. I decided she must belong to one of my neighbors and would find her way home. I went inside the house and sat down at my computer. I hear a quiet but insistent baw baw bawk coming from the window calling me outside. I look out to find my new little friend casing out the house, looking in all our windows. I go to the front door and open it to find a very persistent visitor. I opened up the storm door to step outside and she tried to come in!
This little one must be lost. It was the middle of the day and most of my neighbors are at work, so I walk over to my garden gate, hold open the door and say to the chicken “would you like to come in?”. Yes, I am talking to a chicken. Out loud. In public. But she waddles up to the gate and walks right in.
I figure I will keep her in my garden until after dinner then check around to see if anyone is missing a chicken. My garden is gated off from my chickens so I was not worried about the new chicken mixing with my flock. I give her some more feed & clean water and she is quite content. My chickens are craning their necks to see what all the commotion is. I head back in the house to get some work done.
A couple hours later I go out to check on our guest and she is gone! The garden is empty and then I notice the gate leading into the backyard is open. I am 100% sure it was shut. Does this new strange chicken have thumbs??
I look around the yard worried at first that she was injured by my flock defending their yard. Chickens are pretty notorious for not being welcoming to newcomers. It usually takes weeks for a new chicken to be accepted into a new flock.
Secondly, I am worried because I don’t know this chicken. I don’t know her health status, if she has parasites or a disease she could be spreading to my birds. Normally, you would keep a new chicken separated from the main flock before introducing them to make sure she is healthy.
I check around the yard and finally find her settled into a dust bath under the rhododendron bush with several other flock members including our head hen. I stand there for awhile watching them. I can’t believe how little everyone cares that this new chicken is not only in their yard but in their favorite daytime hang out space AND that she is paling around with the head hen.
I decide to just leave her there. No one seems to mind her being there and I figured if she had a disease, the cat is kind of out of the bag now and at this point quarantine has gone out the window. I WOULD NOT SUGGEST DOING THIS. I got lucky this time, but it’s ALWAYS a good idea to practice good bio security and quarantine new chickens before bringing them into your chicken yard.
Now I do not live in a rural area. Stray, roaming chickens are not a normal sight and a chicken coop is not a normal thing to find in people’s yard. I live in a typical suburban neighborhood full of neat 1/2 acre lots, we have an HOA, and most people have fully fenced yards. But with the recent rise in backyard chicken keeping, I know there are at least two other chicken keepers on my street – one right next door to me and another a few houses away. After dinner, my husband and I visited both fellow chicken keepers to see if they knew about this strange, stray chicken. No one was missing a chicken. One said this little white chicken hung out in her yard for a day but then was gone.
We went home and watched her with the flock. We were amazed how easily she was accepted. It was like she had always been there. Like she belonged. When she saw us come into the yard, she came running to greet us with everyone else.
As the girls got ready for bed, we watched how she followed everyone into the coop. She hopped up on the low roost with the girls at the bottom end of the pecking order.
I was definitely still concerned about diseases, but when I thought about all this chicken had been through and how well she was going to sleep this night with a full belly, safe and sound in the coop surrounded by other chickens, I felt at peace with the decision.
Chickens do not like to be alone, it makes them anxious. Their survival depends on having each other’s backs, watching for predators. But more than that, they thrive on the social setting of a flock. Dust bathing, foraging and huddling together at night are all normal, social activities for a flock of hens.
The next day our newest flock member got a dose of wormer and a nice bubble bath. Picking through her feathers, she did not have any visible parasites, but was SO skinny it made me sad. In places, her feathers were plucked thinned either self inflicted from the stress of surviving alone or from narrow escapes from a predator. She spent the whole day free ranging with the rest of the flock. As the days went by, she got more and more comfortable.
After a week, she had put on a noticeable amount of weight and it was like she has always been here. She found her place just about in the middle of the pecking order, but not through any real fighting, just a few quick swipes here and there were exchanged.
Her feathers are still a dirty beige. I have a sneaking suspicion that after she molts, she will have lovely white feathers. I think her breed might be a Delaware and I think she is at least a couple years old. We have named our new wandering, free spirited friend Gypsy. I wish I knew her story and where she came from, but she has found a home here for as long as she would like to stay. Keeping chickens is certainly a daily adventure. I try to live my life open to God’s plan, even when that plan includes strange, homeless chickens knocking on my door looking for a place to belong. A Family 🙂
update: Here is Ms. Gypsy 8 weeks after she came to live with us – fat, happy and with beautiful white feathers 🙂