Sunsweet and Moonlight

Love, loss, philosophy, and chickens

(I thought about writing about free speech and no-platforming and the paradox of tolerance and so on, but I’m still doomscrolling and collecting my thoughts. So instead you get chickens.)

I have a 9-year-old daughter, and she’s suffering pretty severe social isolation since the COVID lockdowns. She spends maybe an hour a day doing virtual unschool and another four hours a day with e-friends on a Minecraft server, but both are poor substitutes for in-person play time. (That said, we are extremely grateful for both.) We’ve done a few socially-distanced play dates but they are somehow not satisfying.

And so over the summer I decided we’d get some chickens. They’d give us eggs, sure, but also they’d bring some quarantine joy into our lives.

Did you know you can order chickens by mail? I believe it’s guaranteed by the Constitution or something like that. So I ordered three chicks, one for each of us to name. My wife picked Abigail, after some TV character from some show that the two of them watch. I picked Jack Chick, after the cartoonist. And 9yo picked Sunsweet, after the prunes. (We had a bag of them sitting on our kitchen table at the time.)

They hatched on a Monday, were promptly put into an Express Mail box with a bunch of straw, and arrived on my doorstep Wednesday morning making little chirping noises.

We opened the box to find a little yellow one (Sunsweet, obv), a little brown one (Jack Chick), and a little almost-black one who didn’t survive the trip. (RIP Abigail.)

Chickens live their first weeks in a box or a tub, with a heat lamp to keep them hot and a food dish to tip over and a water dish to tip over and paper towels to shit on. The first night they slept in our room, making little cheeping noises all night, and so the second night they got moved downstairs to the entryway, where they ate and shat and grew and started trying to escape from their tub.

As they grew they developed little personalities. Sunsweet was the aggressive one, the bully; Jack Chick the quiet one. Sunsweet the one always trying to escape the tub, Jack Chick the one who was happy in her little home and an at-best-reluctant explorer.

Eventually I got a little chicken tractor/coop and moved them outside where they kept eating and shitting and growing:

Sure, Sunsweet would try to escape sometimes, and whenever I gave them some grubs (their favorite treat) Sunsweet wanted all of them, so much so that I started distracting her with a few grubs and then secretly giving Jack Chick a big handful.

Anyway, I think you can tell where this is going. One morning we let Jack Chick run around the yard (she won’t go too far) and left Sunsweet inside the run. Sunsweet was not happy about this, and demonstrated this unhappiness by making loud rooster noises.

Probably we should have realized this earlier. Possibly we were in denial about it. We live in unincorporated county, so it’s actually legal for us to keep a rooster around, but we also live really close to our neighbors, and I think we’d be pretty unhappy if one of them suddenly got a noisy rooster. Categorical imperative and all.

Chick sexing, it turns out, is an imperfect art.

That left me with two problems: first, what to do with the rooster. And second, how to break it to 9yo that we had to get rid of one of her beloved chickens.

Let’s focus on the first. The place that sold me the chicks offered a refund policy, so that I could get my $4 back, since I specifically ordered hens. But that was as far as they’d help me. I needed to either find someone who wanted him, or else I needed to get rid of him. There are Facebook groups for “rehoming” roosters, and also people use Craigslist for this. But also you can never be sure that the people adopting your rooster aren’t just planning to eat him.

And if the latter was the case, maybe I should do that myself. After all, I eat chicken all the time. If I’m not willing to slaughter the one chicken I happen to know personally, how should I think about my willingness to eat all the ones I don’t know? I can’t really explain it, but I had a deep moral sense that if someone was going to eat Sunsweet, it ought to be me. I went as far as watching a couple of YouTube videos on how to slaughter and cook a chicken, although this probably would have been life-scarring for my kid.

Luckily, this ended up not being necessary, as my friend Jake keeps a large number of chickens and was interested in adding a rooster to his flock. We chose a date a week out, explained the plan to 9yo, and threw a big going-away party.

The next day we delivered Sunsweet to his new home, which was probably sadder for us than for him. (There are a lot of hens there, which ought to work out pretty well for him.)

There is no way to explain to a chicken that her only chicken friend is gone forever, but Jack Chick couldn’t help noticing that she was alone now, and she started looking pretty forlorn. We weren’t exactly up for raising chicks again so soon (and they won’t ship a single one anyway, since I guess the survival odds are pretty low in that case, and we don’t really want more than 2 chickens in our current setup), so we ended up buying a started pullet that was a few months old. The USPS is pretty useless around Christmas, but right after the start of the year our new Black Australorp was shipped out.

I wanted to call her Moonshadow (like the song), but 9yo does not have the same memories that I do of going to sleepaway camp and sitting around a campfire and listening to some would-be hippie counselor breaking out the acoustic guitar and singing Cat Stevens songs. (I still know most of the words to “Father and Son.”)

So the new bird is instead Moonlight, and her experience is different. Jack Chick and Sunsweet hatched, were put directly into a box, and started their lives in our Rubbermaid tub when they were 3 days old. We are (or were, in Sunsweet’s case) the only life they’ve ever known.

Not so with Moonlight, who spent her first several months growing up somewhere in Montana, presumably surrounded by a cohort of chicken friends and presumably not living in a chicken tractor in my front yard.

Arriving here was a culture shock for her, so much so that she immediately escaped (totally my fault) and ran and hid under the neighbors’ house. I crawled under the house on my hands and knees, flushed her out, had a different neighbor run interference, and finally managed to grab her (Moonlight), which she did not like at all.

It’s hard to know what goes on in a chicken’s brain, or what it’s like for an adolescent chicken to get taken from its home, be put in a box, travel through the mail, and then emerge into a new, wholly unfamiliar life full of unfamiliar people, unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar foods, and unfamiliar surroundings. But there’s some level on which I feel bad about doing that to her. (On the other hand, something like that was going to happen to her no matter what, and she could easily have ended up in a worse situation.)

When we first got the chickens one of my neighbors with chicken experience warned me “they’re dumb creatures,” but I quickly discovered that they’re not. They’re no geniuses, but they’re strategic and emotional and personalitied (“chickenalitied”?) in their own ways. I don’t really yet have a theory of “chicken mind” but I feel like a year from now I might.

It’s been more than a week for Moonlight, and she still seems to not like me very much, I guess based on her initial escape and my capture of her. But she and Jack Chick seem to get along, and she loves the same dried blackfly larva treats that Jack Chick does, and I think she’s slowly getting used to the idea that she’s stuck here with us, and isn’t that pretty much what family means?

Goals Update:

  1. novel progress: 11.5k words (goal: 100k)

  2. current weight: 171.0 (goal: 160)

  3. (a) new podcasts: 0 (goal: 12), old podcasts edited: 0 (goal: 2)

  4. newsletters written: 1 (goal: 24)

  5. music made: 0 (goal: >0)

  6. [redacted]: no progress, trending toward acceptance that maybe it won’t happen in 2021

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