For my rescued hens, every day was the best day they’d ever had.
Thelma and Louise were so worn they almost looked threadbare. They slept in their cage the whole two-hour ride to our home just outside of Portland, Oregon, where we’d been on lockdown since March. Upon arrival, they walked gamely into their own quarantine accommodations—the small grow-out coop used for chicks. It was partially shaded by an old hazelnut tree constantly shaking with squirrels. Thelma and Louise hardly seemed to notice and put themselves to bed hours before sunset. But, I suppose for them, any place that wasn’t the egg farm was just as good as another.
Thelma and Louise are my two rescued red hens. And, at first, they were sad, bedraggled things. Louise had lost all the feathers on her neck from stress and feather picking by the other hens she’d lived with, during her first two years of life. Their combs were pale and floppy—often a sign of poor health. Both had been debeaked to keep them from causing damage when they inevitably pecked their neighbors. Thelma’s top beak had been cut so far back it almost went to her nostrils. When I looked at her straight on, her face reminded me of someone who’d forgotten to put in their dentures.
When a group of rescues first arrived at Heartwood Haven sanctuary in Gig Harbor, Washington, its director told me, none of the hens would leave the safety of the shed to walk into the chicken yard. They’d never been outside before.
The world was too big for them at a time when my world had never felt smaller.
For the last year, I’d been emailing farm sanctuaries asking if they had ex-battery hens, rescues named after the long rows of cramped wire cages in which they’d spent the first two years of their lives. These hens never saw the sun.
The egg industry is hard on the hens who live through it. (Roosters are killed soon after sexing.) Without space to even stretch their wings, all hens can do is eat and lay eggs. At about two years old, so-called “spent hens” start slowing their laying and are either slaughtered and used as cheap meat for stews, or simply thrown out because their market value is so low. But sometimes, the rare farmer will agree to let some hens be re-homed anonymously. (The sanctuary couldn’t tell me where Thelma and Louise had come from, not even the state).
Without people to rescue and adopt them, ex-batts would never know life as a real chicken—scratching in the dirt, eating bugs and dandelion greens, dust bathing, and lying in the sun. What I wanted, more than anything, was to watch these hens blossom from egg-laying machines into birds.
In 2018, I started with three chicks. By the end of June 2020, I had a flock of eight chickens—nine, until one was re-homed because he was a rooster, chicksona non grata in my suburb, thanks to noise ordinances. I’d just finished raising day-old chicks that arrived in April, who’d finally grown up enough to move into the main coop. My chicken chores had suddenly gotten much lighter. No more supervision (when adding new chickens to a flock, fighting is normal), feeding and watering two coops, or extra cleaning. I had room to breathe for the first time in months.
When the call came from Heartwood Haven, I was torn. They had rescued two hundred hens just a few weeks before and had only thirty left. Did I want to adopt some chickens?
The option doesn’t arise often. While the UK has the British Hen Welfare Trust to facilitate the rescue and re-homing of roughly 50,000 battery hens every year, trying to adopt an “ex-batt” in the United States is a patchwork affair. It involves a lot of phone calls and waiting. Every time I found the name of a farm animal sanctuary on the West Coast, I emailed to ask them if they had rescue hens to adopt in Oregon. Sometimes I didn’t get a response for months. Sometimes I’d get a response forwarding me elsewhere.
It had taken so long to find anyone with ex-batts, I’d come to think of it as something perpetually in the future.
So it was either adopt now, or wait a year or more to find some ex-batts to join the flock. It wasn’t in the plans. I wasn’t supposed to get this call now. Then again, I hadn’t planned on most of the things that had happened since Covid-19 began. Why would chickens be any different? I hemmed and hawed. I talked to my husband, who was skeptical, but supportive.
I picked the hens up four days later.
When Thelma and Louise arrived, I had been in some form of lockdown for nearly four months. Every corner of my large, wild garden—my refuge from the house—was now all too familiar. I’d even been battling the same patch of weeds for months.
Weekdays and weekends had long ago ceased to have any distinction. I didn’t notice the dread of monotony creeping up on me until I started having headaches from constantly clenching my muscles, and woke up with an aching jaw from grinding my teeth in the night—an old habit I’d stopped soon after I moved out of New York City four years ago. There were many days when I thought longingly of the protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s book My Year of Rest and Relaxation who sleeps her life away, but caring for my chickens kept me on schedule.
It wasn’t in the plans. I wasn’t supposed to get this call now. Then again, I hadn’t planned on most of the things that had happened since Covid-19 began.
Though I didn’t have a rooster greeting the sunrise, the chickens marked the beginning and end of every day. At night, I made sure all the chickens were perched on their roosts for bedtime and took out their container of feed so enterprising mice couldn’t eat it all. In the morning, I walked down to the coop to put their “breakfast” back inside. If I fed them at 8:30 instead of 7:30—occasionally I could sleep in until 8:00 a.m. as a treat—their soft chiding growls (“I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”) became loud enough that I could hear them from the house. A flock of hangry chickens is a better motivator than any alarm.
They also provided novelty to the long days spent at home. I could predict most things that would happen in my day—working, chores, playing with the dogs, reading, watching a movie when I ran out of everything else to do around seven o’clock—but I never knew what the chickens would come up with.
Their antics were like episodes of a sitcom: Our tiny speckled chicken Emmylou attempted to hide her eggs under a bush in the yard; Peggy refused to leave the nest in hopes of hatching out some chicks (despite us not having a rooster); Dolly, the lowest hen in the pecking order, tried to move up the hierarchy by instigating a fight before running away, with an ungainly squawk, when the other chickens pecked her back; one of the smaller chickens flew onto the roof and I didn’t know if she’d come down on her own or if I’d have to get the ladder.
But after four months, even the chicken show had started feeling like a rerun.
Enter Thelma and Louise.
Where my spoiled flock of pet hens always had a glint of mischief in their eyes, it felt like these rescue hens were sleepwalking through the actions of being a chicken. They didn’t even mind spending a month in their small quarantine coop before joining the rest of the flock, both to make sure they weren’t carrying any diseases and to give the chickens a chance to get used to each other from a safe distance. The small coop was probably bigger than the cages at the farm they’d come from, and had access to grass and dust baths.
I added a new activity to my quarantine schedule: spending half an hour or more next to their coop every day getting them used to me. It only took a week for them to take dried mealworm treats from my hand. They looked at me with considerably more interest afterward, though they still ran from my touch.
Despite being deemed too old by the egg industry to be worth much anymore, the little red hens both laid an egg every day. But the eggshells were thin compared to my home-raised flock. For the first years of their lives, Thelma and Louise had been given the cheapest nutrition possible to keep them laying. They were calcium deficient and quickly consumed the oyster shells we gave them for a supplement.
The first few times my husband and I cracked one of Thelma and Louise’s light brown eggs, they shattered all over the countertop. The yolks were pale and also broke easily. My husband wondered if we should eat these eggs at all. “Aren’t they, you know, not as good as the ones from our chickens?” he said, referring to the flock we’d raised.
“They’re literally the same eggs as from the grocery store,” I said.
“Still . . . ”
He must have come around because he started using Thelma and Louise’s eggs to make breakfast. But he never really sounded convinced.
After two weeks, when I was sure I could coax them back into the coop with mealworms, I started letting Thelma and Louise out to roam in the yard. That’s when something changed between us. I found myself caught up in Thelma and Louise’s celebrations.
That first day out, they immediately beelined to a spot in the middle of the flower bed, nestled a hole in the dirt, and began to take a dust bath. Their first dust bath in my yard! As the weather got hotter, I’d watch them find the perfect place on the brick patio to melt onto. They lay on one side, holding an outstretched wing over their bodies like an elegant fan.
Like most chickens, food was their love language. They ran to eat overripe or bug-eaten strawberries from the garden that I tossed in front of them. Because of Thelma’s beak, she had to half-skewer them on her lower beak and use her tongue to get the juice into her mouth. Her face was sticky in no time. I noticed that while the flock I raised from chicks only made a purring noise when they were at their absolute peak happiness—a dust bath in the sun when the weather wasn’t too hot or too cold—Thelma and Louise did it constantly. For them, every day was the best day they’d ever had.
After a month, Thelma and Louise moved from their quarantine coop to the main flock. They began to let me pet them—just once or twice—before running away. Their backs still felt thin without a full coat of feathers and their skin was prickly where new pin feathers were trying to poke through. Because they only slept on flat surfaces, they didn’t understand the point of roosting at night. Every night, I coaxed them out of the nest box they’d prefer to sleep in and placed them on the roost. Every night, they’d jump down within a minute.
For them, every day was the best day they’d ever had.
It’s still a work in progress. But they’ve discovered some of the chickenness they’d been missing when they arrived. Instead of following me into the coop for treats, on balmy nights Thelma and Louise now walk in the opposite direction when I come to them, mealworms in hand. Louise, in particular, never wants to be contained. Most evenings, I have to chase after her in circles around the coop before I can catch her and plop her inside with the rest of the flock. They are now spoiled enough to discriminate, to cause mischief, to be like all the other chickens.
Thelma, appropriate to her name, is the instigator of the two and impossibly curious. When I watered a wilting hydrangea one afternoon, Thelma rushed over to watch with her head cocked to one side. She rustled her feathers against the spray beginning to bead on top of them. I thought, for the first time, about how strange it must look for water to come out of nowhere and turn the ground into a damp, earthy puddle.
Between the West Coast being blanketed in smoke in early September, the election, and Covid-19, most days have been a push-pull between happiness and despair. In the worst moments, I feel like I don’t have a right to joy at all; so many people are doing so badly. But it’s impossible not to laugh when I pull out my camera and Thelma comes running to pose in front of it, or when I have to wrangle Louise toward bedtime yet again. No longer silent and sleepwalking, they complain because they believe they now have a right to more—to everything. When I’m with them in the yard, the day doesn’t feel like an empty stretch I have to fill with the same few activities once again. The world is better and more interesting—even the piece of it we share in the backyard—when I look at it from a chicken’s eye view.
Thelma and Louise have healed a little more each week since we brought them home. Their combs are becoming rosy and their eyes have a spark that wasn’t there before. Some feathers have grown back in already. Sometimes they wander up to the door and give it a few pecks when they see me on the other side of the glass. I can’t help but think that, having expanded their domain to include the backyard, Thelma and Louise feel that the house is an obvious next step.
Their world is so big. My world, with them in it, feels bigger too.
Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, OR. She is currently writing Under the Henfluence, a book about chickens.