Hatching the Great Chicken Rescue
By Casey Merkle
When I was 9 years old, I wanted to save all the chickens. I wanted to rescue all the eggs from going sunny-side up on someone's breakfast plate, running between two pieces of burnt toast. Maybe there were two sausage links slipping around in the yolk. Wishing I could save all the animals from this fate, I knew I couldn’t usher an entire pig through the woods searching for freedom.
On my first attempt to rescue chickens, I had two assistants. They were my tried and true group of neighborhood rascals. We were young girls then, writing our rough and tough guidebook called "How to Survive a Woodsy Suburban Bubble; Navigating a Curated Nature." We looked for our own ways to break the clean, organized aesthetics of a suburban neighborhood surrounded by a shallow pond and packed with oak, maple, elm, and mulberry trees. One of those ways was to pick and eat the mulberries, which would usually end in a dodgy game of whipping the berries at each other's faces. Is it considered a game if there are no rules?
Each summer, I got to join my friend Meg, who visited her family’s cabin on Washington Island, off the peninsula of Door County, Wisconsin. It was my favorite place to go. The island still pulls me back every few years.
I blame Meg for hatching this rescue plan. She always wanted to be a vet and adored all animals, holding a snake like it was a soft puppy. Her plan was to grab as many eggs as we could from the Washington Island Farm Museum, which was a 5-minute skip down the road from her cabin. The question was who would be the one to jump the fence? I hesitantly raised my hand, “I’m willing to try if you two keep a lookout for the farmer.”
We’d been to the farm museum many times before. Our favorite was the rabbits that were kept in a small cage next to the pig pen. We would grab bunches of grass and feed them all day. This time we had a mission. Wearing our bell-bottom jeans and deciding our SOS signal was to tap loudly on the chicken coop walls, we were ready for anything. Meg and Casey (yes, we both were named Casey) were on lookout duty.
The farm came into view and we turned right towards the animal pens. Our stride was confident, and our arms were hooked side by side. Together, we were stronger, we could do this. A short walk past the pig and the goats, and then we were there. The chickens started coming up to the fence where we stood on the other side, frozen. I took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh hay and manure. The bright-colored goldenrod marked where Casey and Meg would hide to keep an eye on the farmer’s long dirt road to their house. I looked back over to the goat’s pen, trying to make eye contact. I paused, and one of them looked back at me. I called her Midnight. She was the goat I had always wanted to adopt and take back to our Chicago suburb.
I have always wanted to have a farm where the animals and I could care for each other. I still love goats, and someday hope to have my own. I was told once that goats are just like a mix between deer and dogs - it’s true! They are incredibly playful, like dogs. And can be annoyingly skittish, like most deer.
It wasn’t until later in my young adult life that my family got chickens. It was winter break of my sophomore year in college. I came home to find my sister, Edy, crouched over a bin that was tucked inside the cupboard under the stairs. Her long blond hair could not hide the glee on her face. That mischievous smile turned to look at me.
“I did it,” she whispered.
“What did you do?” I laughed.
“I ordered chickens on Amazon and we need to make sure each one of them survives. Gee, I’ll hear it from Dad.”
“I did! We need to reduce our carbon footprint, and having chickens helps! I swear!”
I didn’t doubt Edy or argue with that. She is passionate and self-determined in the fight against big agriculture. Staring down at our new feathered friends in disbelief, I became teary-eyed. They were adorable. Anything small and vulnerable has that advantage in my cultural upbringing. Their soft little peeps turned my nurturing dial to full max. My disbelief turned to excitement. We were going to raise chickens! I felt empowered and renewed with a sense of purpose.
The challenge with raising chicks was that my sisters and I faced and accepted the circle of life. Not all chicks will make it to adulthood. Five of our chicks died within two months. The first one was the most difficult. I found Edy curled up on a large chair in the living room with the lights off. It was dark. Her face was red with tears, tilted down over her lap where she cradled a small chick. I had one of those moments that felt surreal. The chick blinked slower and slower until it dozed off into another life. Edy let out a sniffle and cleared her throat, “I didn’t expect this part to be so hard.” I gave her a hug and cusped my hands so she could gently place the chick in my palms. Edy stood up straight and tall, wiping the tears from her face. I made my way outside, carrying the tiny soul to be buried alongside her sisters.
There have been several animal misfortunes within my family. All ending in a lesson in resiliency and nurture. One of the many summers on Washington Island, it was just me, my mom, and my two younger sisters, Edy and Gracie. Our hearts melted looking at one of the tiniest bunnies we had ever seen at the Ostrich Farm. The farmer noticed our interest and mentioned they were up for adoption. Meg and Casey had already adopted one each, and I was hoping to join them. A small persuasive argument from all three girls to my mom and a few days later, we were driving home with a baby bunny named Oreo.
Keep in mind Gracie was only three years old at the time. She was sitting next to the tub where we were keeping an eye on Oreo. I was staring out the window, watching cows pass by. When I looked back toward Gracie, I saw her dancing with the baby bunny! She had her by the front limbs, swinging her in a rapid twirl. I quickly placed my hands on Gracie’s shoulders and said, “Gracie, bunnies do not like that!”
“But, we’re dancing!”
“Put her down!” Edy chimed in from the back, her voice panicking.
Gracie put the bunny back into the tub and immediately, we could sense something was wrong. She was breathing rapidly and collapsed to lay on her side.
“Gracie! You killed it!”
Gracie immediately got quiet and retreated.
Writing this makes me so sad because of how guilty I know she must have felt. But she was only three years old! You can’t blame a young child for wanting to dance with her friend.
Unfortunately for the bunny and Gracie, the bunny ended up dying and staying with us in the car for two more hours until we got home. Gracie was feeling all the guilt in the world – as a three-year-old, this is traumatic! Damn, we were cruel to her. I wish I could change that.
My sisters were not with me the summer. Meg, Casey, and I hatched the plan to break into the chicken coop. It was one of the first times I was away from family for an extended period of time. With no sisters to watch out for, it was my summer to get in good trouble.
Meg and Casey stood guard behind the coop, where they could alert me if the farmer came down the dirt road. I went up to the fence and hooked a foot in the chain links, hoisting one leg over the other, landing in the chicken pen. All the chickens flocked to me, looking for food. “Shoo!” I waved them away, “You’re drawing attention to me! I’m trying to rescue your babies!” Their clucking made me nervous that the farmer would hear, “Shush!”
I pushed through the chickens toward the coop. Finally, I stepped up to the heavy wooden door and leaned in. It scraped open across wood shavings and loose dirt. I stepped into darkness on chicken poop and was surrounded by fifteen calm hens, staring at me with their black, skeptical eyes. No one moved an inch, including me.
I had no plan for once I was inside. What was my next move? Do I touch them? Won’t they peck at me? Slowly moving towards one with orange and white fluffy feathers, a Rhode Island Red, I brought my hand up to her belly. She wasn’t budging. When I realized I would have to pick them up, I noticed there was a net leaning against the wall next to me. I figured this must be how you get the hens off their eggs.
Grabbing the net, I started to poke at the hens. They did not like this. Eventually, I think my annoying persistence made them start to stand up, ready to attack. “Rap, rap, rap!” I whipped my head around. Meg and Casey were too short to reach the window, so I poked my head out. Their heads were reaching around from behind the coop. I looked back at them with wide eyes.
“I’m almost there! Is she coming?”
“No! We just wanted to test you!”
“Okay… next one is for real!”
I marched back inside with determination. I was convinced now that I had the power to do this. I had to prove it to myself and to Meg and Casey that I wasn’t afraid. Grabbing the net with white knuckles, I nudged the chickens gently.
With a little perseverance, and speaking softly to them, the chickens began to stand up. When their breasts were a few inches off the nest, I quickly swiped my hand underneath, feeling for a smooth, warm egg. I grabbed them gently, holding them in my palms for a pause and then sliding them into my sweatshirt pocket. Soon, I had an overflowing pocket of eggs. I held some in my left hand and was interrupted… “SMACK!” Meg and Casey sent a louder reverberating tap on the window this time.
I stepped quickly outside, dropping the net clumsily. My legs began to weaken as I made my way over to hop the fence and get myself out of sight. I missed a step and grabbed the fence with both hands to stabilize myself. “Crack!” A wet, cool sensation began to drip up my arm from my hands.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no! Meg!? Casey!?”
They didn’t answer.
I looked up and could see the blue truck coming down the long dirt road. It was getting closer, billowing dust-up in its path. I would have my chance in a few moments as the road turned toward the woods. I tucked both my hands up into my sleeves. As quickly as I could, I leaned against the fence, flipping my legs over my head and landing in a heap on the other side. “Crack!” Oh, no not again.
The blue truck came out from around the corner of the woods just as I was standing up. My legs were numb at this point and I couldn’t find my voice. I waved my arms awkwardly, trying to keep the broken eggs from spilling out. Egg yolk started to drip further up to my armpit. The truck came to a slow stop.
The farmer swung the door open wide, turning its loud rumbling off. I saw her boots touch the ground first. They were worn, with straws of hay stuck to the heel. Does she know?
“Hi there! Come to check the chickens before me, huh?” she smiled.
The tone of her voice reminded me of my elementary school principal, firm but fair. She had the power to make you feel guilty with a phrase as simple as “I’m disappointed.”
Say something! I was frozen so I just spread my arms out low and shrugged my shoulders. I raised one corner of my mouth into a half smile and kicked at the dirt. I stared intently at a single chicken feather skipping slowly across the ground. Could I act any more guilty?
She walked closer, “Would you mind waiting for a second? I have something for you. Follow me.” With ease, she pushed open the chicken gate. Hadn’t that been locked before? I followed her back in, stepping around the chick poop. We passed the net on the ground.
“Huh… I don’t remember leaving this here.” She grabbed it and tucked it in its rightful place, leaning against the coop.
Looking at me, she began, “So! Every morning, I come to check for eggs. We usually have eggs and toast with strong coffee. Nothing like a fresh sunny-side-up egg to wake you up!”
I nodded and remained silent. Guilty.
“Anyhow… let me check the girls to see if we got any.”
Inside the coop, she fearlessly grabbed each chicken from underneath. Some let out a loud cluck, but otherwise, they seemed unbothered by the disruption.
“Well, that’s interesting. Usually, I can find at least six.” Looking puzzled, she shrugged, “Hmmm… oh well, better luck tomorrow. At least I’ve got one I can send home with you.” My eyes went wide. “No!” I blurted. Realizing my utter outburst, I recoiled, “I mean... No, thank you! I don’t eat baby chicks!”
She laughed, “Oh honey! These aren’t going to hatch. Ever!” She saw the confusion on my face, “These eggs aren’t fertilized because there is no male rooster. I keep my rooster over there, separate from the hens.” She pointed towards the front of the farm at this vibrantly colored bird, standing tall but alone.
“Fertilized?” I was starting to wonder if the eggs in my hand had baby chicks, their broken bodies spilling from the shells. I wanted so badly to come clean so she could quell my worry.
“Okay? So, you want to take this one home and eat it for breakfast?” she stuck out her hand, cradling the egg.
“Sure.” I reached out my hand with it tucked inside my sweatshirt sleeve. She looked puzzled by the gesture but gently laid the egg on top of my hand. I quickly slid the egg into my sweatshirt pocket, where I could feel the yolk before soaking through the fabric just below my belly button. Did she notice the bulge and wetness of my sweatshirt pocket? And where were Casey and Meg?
I hear a twig snap behind me. The farmer looked past my shoulder, “Oh! Yancey’s kid! How’s it going?” She shouted towards the coop.
Meg, already looking for a way out of the farm, replied with a higher-than-usual pitch, “Oh! Good… fine, really! Ya!” Casey grabbed Meg’s hand and pulled her past us, “We have to get home!” I looked desperately after them.
The farmer realized that was my crew. She nodded and waved me off, “Come back tomorrow and we’ll see if we can get more eggs!” I replied, “OK, thanks!” I could hear Casey and Meg whispering ahead as I ran to catch up. They shouted out both in unison, “What happened!?”
When we returned to the house, Meg, the aspiring veterinarian, started toward the backyard, where she had set up a home for the baby chicks. Did I have the sense to tell her these eggs will never hatch? No, I did not. But, later that day the question would come up. And her mom, the “nature lady”, would explain to us why we needed to give up our rescue plan.
By the end of this adventure, I learned two important lessons. One, it is often more effective to show rather than tell. I would bet my favorite pen that the farmer knew what we were up to the entire time. Rather than telling me that I was wrong and that we were never going to hatch the eggs, she showed me. She welcomed me in, showing her connection to everything going on inside that fence. When she said she had sunny-side-up eggs and toast each morning, the guilt crept up from my stomach. When I was stealing the eggs, though I didn’t know this before, I was stealing her food. Two, never go poking around in someone else’s chicken coop Oh, and bonus number three is that Meg’s mother taught us a bit about the birds and the bees.
I am thankful for these lessons. The day marks an important memory because it contributed to my curiosity about the connections between people and nature, specifically about how small farms hold relationships with worlds happening all around them. The world of the chickens that are clucking around day and night, having their own conversations, feelings, and relationships. These are aspects of life that I am only just beginning to understand more as I learn to see closer. I am closing in on my third decade here and am observing the happenings around me with my eyes and heart wide open.
Casey Merkle, she/hers, is a volunteer coordinator at the Barrington Farm School in Barrington, RI.