In the nearly 10 years we've been taking in homeless, abused, abandoned and stray poultry, they've come to us in just about every way imaginable. They've arrived in paper bags, crates, car trunks, temporary cages jerry-rigged from scraps of fencing, and a pillow case. This time, they came in a cardboard box.
The knock at the door was my neighbor, Tom. Behind him was a wheelbarrow with a cardboard box in it. Were we able to take a few chickens?
The eggery a few miles down had closed and the last of the resident battery hens were being moved to another facility. The driver moving them had a full truck and there were still a few hens left, so he had called his friend, Tom. Tom brought them to us. I looked at the box, which was about 2 feet x 15 inches and 15 inches tall and figured it held two, maybe three hens. Sure, we'll take them.
I opened the box slowly, not wanting the hens to jump out and run off, and gasped at what I saw. The hens were packed in so tightly, it was hard to tell how many there were. Eleven, said Tom.
They looked pretty mangy. Patches of their feathers were broken off from rubbing against the sides of cages. They had bald spots with new pin feathers growing in, a sign they had probably gone through a forced molt, a barbaric process in which food is withheld to force them to lose their feathers at a time convenient for egg sales schedules. They had all been debeaked, some of them not very skillfully.
"They're all pretty tame," Tom offered. "You can pick them right up and they don't fuss too much." Tom's good intentions aside, they were all more terrified than tame. They stood very still more from a desperate attempt to be invisible than from contentment.
New chickens have to be separated from the rest of the flock for a few weeks to be watched for signs of disease or parasites. The time in quarantine also lets them settle in and calm down before they are faced with the pecking order of the established flock. Our henhouse has a separate room used for a nursery on the odd occasion when one of our rescued girls decides to hatch some eggs. But flooding last fall has left the floor in bad shape. With two hens trying to hatch eggs in the henhouse, we had planned to put in a new floor next week before moving them in. Now we'll have to do it tomorrow. For tonight, I'll just dump a thick layer of bedding on the floor. One or two at a time, I took them out of the box and placed them in the nursery/quarantine room of the henhouse.
As I lifted chooks number 10 and 11 from the box, I saw a very still, very small hen at the bottom. Hen number twelve had huddled in a corner, completely buried under the others. Certain she'd been suffocated, I was furious at this final bit of cruelty. I wanted to lash out at Tom, asking him if he was completely out of his mind putting 12 animals in box that shouldn't hold more than 2 or 3. What did he expect to happen? But I stopped myself. Tom had been vehemently opposed to our chicken rescue activities and it had been the cause of an ongoing dispute. Clearly, he'd come around on it and I wasn't going to start the feuding again. I bit back the words of reproach and calmly explained that the next time he should call me and I'd bring cages and boxes sufficient to move them safely. A barely perceptible cluck agreed with me. Hen number 12 was alive.
The hens are not ready to trust us. Each time we go into the room to check on them, they all huddle in a corner. We turn on a small light at one end of the room, leaving the other in darkness so they can sleep. It's time to leave them alone and let them rest for the night.
Sandy and Jim Laurie live at Frog Pond Farm in Iroquois County, Illinois, where they grow their own organic produce and tend to a large flock of rescued chickens and guinea fowl.