Ah chickens. They have been doing admirably in the bitter cold. I cannot say they are tired of winter as I am, I don’t know how they understand time and whether they think ahead, or if they only live in the now. While they have short attention spans, they have memories, that is certain. But do their memories of warmth and summer make them look forward to when the snow will melt, the ground thaw, and they can scratch in the garden for bugs and seeds again? 

I almost described them as enduring the winter cold, but endure is not right. They seem to just go with it; this is what life is like and they don’t get angry, or tired, or sad. They live within the constraints of the moment.

This is not to say that when sun, warmth, or other opportunity arises they do not take it. If the weather is “warm” on the weekends or on a day James is off during the week, we open the door to the run so they can come out for fresh air and a stretch. And at night when we go out to close them up in the coop, they delay the moment as long as they possibly can—there is still a glimmer of light in the sky, not time for bed yet! Of course James and I both get frustrated, we want them to follow our clock, not theirs.

I think we’d do better for ourselves, us humans, to behave more like chickens. If I took what each day offered and didn’t resent what is or isn’t there but just got on with what I am given, I would not be so tired of winter, or impatient. Time would be something completely different that I can’t quite imagine in the seconds, minutes, and hours of my days. Chickens are such good teachers, and I have so much to learn.

There has been a recent change in the flock power dynamic. Among the Dashwoods, Mrs. D was top chicken. Elinor tried many times to take that spot, and sometimes, briefly, she would. With only Mrs. D and Elinor left of the originals, Elinor finally got top chicken. With the addition of the Nuggets, she appeared to cement her standing. Imperious and proud, Elinor put the Nuggets in their place, and constantly tried to put me and James in the pecking order too. We could not close the coop door at night without getting pecked hard. We could not pass by Elinor when she was in the garden without getting pecked. Weeding, pecked. Hanging laundry, pecked. Any opportunity, Elinor would peck. Her favorite pecking places are hands and just behind the knee. 

But a couple weeks ago Elinor stopped pecking, and Mrs. Dashwood is back on top. The other night I put the chickens to bed and had managed to herd Mrs. Dashwood and Ethel into the coop and then heard squawking from inside. I shone my flashlight in to see Mrs. Dashwood towering over a flattened and submissive Ethel, repeatedly pecking the back of her head. I stuck my flashlight in and gave Mrs. Dashwood a little push to get her away from Ethel because I couldn’t bear the sight. I know me breaking up the bullying didn’t solve anything, in spite of all they have to teach, chickens can still be cruel. And even though Ethel is on the bottom of the pecking order, she needs to figure out how to stand up for herself.

Ethel the chicken looking in the window
Ethel looking in the window

Interestingly, Ethel’s strategy appears to be an attempt to befriend Elinor, the one who used to be her tormentor and who she always kept a good distance away from. The weather today is partly sunny and warm at 22F/-6C, so the run door is open and the chickens are able to come and go into the garden—well more like the deck—as they please. Ethel has always gone out of the run whenever she has the chance in order to escape being picked on. Today Elinor has been out too.

Generally Ethel would not be on the deck at the same time as Elinor. But today, she is following her around. Whenever Elinor has been on the deck, so has Ethel. When Elinor goes back to the run, so does Ethel. Ethel is definitely allowing Elinor space, but there is a “I want to be near you” vibe coming from Ethel. Elinor, for her part, is tolerating Ethel and not chasing her, posturing, or even glaring at her. I do hope Ethel succeeds because she has wormed her way into my heart with her befuddled sweetness, and Elinor needs a friend. Elinor and Margaret used to be a pair, hanging out together, and since Margaret died in the summer (her death prompted us to add the Nuggets to the flock), Elinor wandered the garden alone, which, besides being top chicken, is maybe why she pecked me and James so much.

But last weekend, before Ethel had formulated her befriend Elinor strategy, she was on the deck alone roosting on the deck rail. I went out and we had a lovely chat. She was so relaxed and comfortable with me leaning beside her on the deck rail, that I dared to pet her. 

I know a good many chicken keepers who have cuddly relationships with one or more of their chickens, and that’s fine, but to me chickens aren’t for cuddles. I do want them to be easy around me and friendly, but I have never aimed to make them friends. Maybe it’s because none of the Dashwoods were interested in hanging out. Ethel is different. She likes to hang out with me, probably because I don’t peck her. And seeing she was so relaxed, I wondered…

I slowly reached out and stroked from the back of her head to the middle of her back. She looked a little alarmed, but I kept talking to her in a soothing voice and she relaxed again and let me pet her. I didn’t do it for long, I didn’t want to press my luck, but I was thrilled. She’s so soft! And of course, I now have thoughts about whether we can work up to neck scratches. We’ll see. 

Later in the day she was still roosted on the deck and the temperature was dropping along with the sun, and the wind was picking up. I went out to encourage her to go back to the run but she refused to leave the deck rail. I scooped her up under my arm, holding down her wings and supporting her feet with my hand. She was surprised, and I could feel her testing to see if she could flap her wings. I talked to her as I carried her toward the run, and she relaxed and didn’t fuss. 

This is a new development for me. None of the Dashwoods like to be picked up and fight for all they are worth, especially Elinor. She somehow always manages to get a wing free and flap it in my face, not to mention the pecking. Ethel though, didn’t even try. Perhaps it is because she has been bullied into submission by Elinor and now Mrs. D. And maybe I imagined it, but she appears to have almost enjoyed being carried across the snowy garden. 

I am not aiming to cuddle with Ethel. She is so sweet and gets picked on so much that I only want to give her extra affection and find ways to help her feel safe and loved. Ethel deserves joy and companionship too, even if it’s only from an imperfect human who isn’t around as much as she wishes she could be. Since I’m not in the flock every day, I hope she and Elinor do become friends. They’d both be happier.

  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. I am hit and miss with Erdrich, this one is a definite hit.
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Still reading on my lunch break, and still in awe. Though lately sad because so much is still the same in spite of everything.
  • How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates. I told James earlier in the week that Gates is a dick. I didn’t really feel one way or another about him until I started reading this book, and the more I read the more I despise the man.
  • Ants Observed Healing Wounded Trees in Bizarre, Never-Before-Seen Behavior . I hate the title of this article, why are ants healing wounded trees bizarre, especially when the tree in question is their home? But that we have scientific proof of this now is fantastic.
  • Ten Love Letters to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh. Each one is a beautiful prayer.
  • In the Heights. In spite of the controversy over the casting of the film, the music and story was wonderful. When I realized Abuela was dying during the high heat of the blackout, I kept murmuring, no Abuela, no!  And when Usnavy didn’t go to Dominica, I got all teary. Now if only directors would fix the colorism problems with movies like this. Tell the story true and find actors who are actually the same race/ethnicity as the characters they are playing please.

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17 thoughts on “Oh Sweet Ethel

  1. I know exactly how your chickens feel, it is still broad daylight after 10 pm in the summer in Scotland and I hated having to go to bed in the daylight as a kid. I was under the impression that Gates WAS a good guy – apart from being a rotten husband, I obviously need to do some research, but I don’t think I want to read the book!

    1. Heh, I get it too Katrina. Summer sun sets around 9:30 here and I always feel a bit wrong going to bed when it’s still light out. Gates is very full of himself and likes to say how great he is. He may at one time have been a good guy, now he’s just another rich white guy who thinks he has the answers everybody needs without asking what anybody actually needs.

  2. I have to say, Elinor sounds like a tool. Then again, I’m sort of humanizing these chickens, which immediately takes me back to middle school. There really was a verbal pecking order then, and it was cruel beyond anything I’ve experienced since. All that pecking ME would have landed the lady in a soup. Then again, I know toddlers can be like pecking chickens, testing the world, finding out where they belong, being unintentionally frustrating. Possibly why I do not have toddlers.

    1. Heh, GTL Elinor is just doing what chickens do. There is always a pecking order, that’s they way chicken flocks operate even when we humans don’t like it all that much. Oh lordy, middle school was the worst. Couldn’t pay me to relive that era of my life. 😀

        1. Hahaha! I’ve snared a few coworkers into following the chicken drama too and they go home and tell their spouses who then get sucked in and them to to work with questions they want answered 😀

  3. Sweet girl! My chickens are not cuddlers either (and I’m not really the sort to cuddle with my chicken anyway, much as I love animals) but I do have a couple that will let me pick them up every so often and I like doing that — it’s sort of fun to tuck them under my arm and wander around for a bit until they get impatient. I’m hoping to get a few chicks this year (no ducks yet — hopefully next year when the run is a bit more secure!) and I intend to socialize them a bit more than I did the others (although to be fair, the others had NO WISH to be socialized). It would be nice to be able to handle them to inspect for pests, check feet and toes, etc. My girls are currently enjoying the run of the land and making a total mess of the leaf piles and mulched garden beds. Oh well, they are aerating the garden, right? I tell them to enjoy it — once spring hits, they are restricted from the yard again unless under close supervision. I do intend to set up some rotating lightly-fenced grassy areas for them so they can get some greens until all the grass goes dormant in mid-summer.

    1. Too bad about no ducks this year, but I understand. Yay for some new chicks! I think because we were around the Nuggets more before they moved outdoors, they are much more okay with us picking them up and interacting with us. When I was trying to herd them up the ladder into the coop the other night, Sia jumped up and perched on my arm and didn’t want to get down. 😀 Chickens love leaf piles! I purposely give mine one or two in the fall and they kindly spread it around for me. Mulched garden beds though, yeah that’s always a disaster. There is always a certain amount of “putting the garden back together” once spring truly arrives and they get banned to their yard. Oh, are you going to make one of those fancy chicken tractors you can wheel your girls around in to various garden areas?

  4. I loved reading this. Ethel sounds very sweet in her own way. I hope she can stand up for herself a little bit.

    I cried during In the Heights too! I loved the music and the performances.

  5. Sweet Ethel indeed! I saw a similar dynamic play out between two of our feral cats in the neighbourhood: befriending one of them seemed to decrease the strain between the pair who had been so conflict-ridden, just a new dynamic I think. Have you seen the videos on Tiktok of Chester the Toucan? The sound he makes when he gets neck scratches! And, yes, I cried at that part in “In the Heights” too. Yay, I thought you’d love The Sentence!

    1. Oh interesting Marcie regarding the cats! I am not on Tik Tok so have not seen Chester. He sounds adorable. I’m glad I’m not the only one who cried at In the Heights 🙂 Loving all the bookish fun of The Sentence!

        1. I learned something new about tik tok! 🙂 Chester is adorable. I love the little honking-wheezing sound he makes for his head scratches 🙂

  6. It is ok to just stop reading when the level of disgust is high. You have established that Gates is an asshole. Probably not much more to gain from the book but indigestion. 🙂

    Also not much you can do with those types. They’re just useless drag on the planet. Still waiting for Peter Thiel to build his island and round up all the tech fascists for his prepper utopia. Or, even better, maybe Elon Musk will take them all off-world. And then we can unplug the comm link…

    On the other hand, I love hearing about Ethel! Makes waiting for the chicken run space to work itself out much more bearable.

    1. Heh Elizabeth, yeah I almost stopped reading several times, but at this point it’s a total hate read. Also, since he is so beloved and influential, I feel like I need to know what the enemy is up to. He’s about to discuss geoengineering, I will have to read in little sips, otherwise I might inadvertently rip apart the library book and have to pay to replace it.

      I get the impression Gates actually thinks he is doing good work in the world and sadly has no interest in going to Mars with Musk, which in some ways makes him even more dangerous.

      Glad you like hearing about Ethel! Oh, I hope you are able to get your run space sorted out and welcome chickens to your garden in spring!

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