On Poe: An Obituary

This obituary was originally published nearly two years ago in the summer of 2019. I published Poe’s obituary the day she died, and the response was overwhelming. In one weekend, nearly 10,000 people from all over the world read Poe’s story. Many reached out to me to tell similar stories about chickens who were highly intelligent, curious, and life changing. This week, I traveled to northern Maine to get hatching eggs from the last known remaining rooster from Poe. I now have six eggs from Poe’s son under our sweet hen, Jane. I wanted to share Poe’s obituary with Farmer-ish readers, and the full story of Poe’s impact will be published in the print annual scheduled for publication for late August.

Poe was a very special hen. I still think about her all of the time while I work on our little farm. I like to think that her presence is still with me, and I am very hopeful about the hatching eggs.

Poe Sands
April 2016 – July 2019

Easter Egger Chicken, Grape Eater, Intelligent and Curious Soul, Dear Friend

Poe passed away today from complications related to ovarian cancer, a cancer common in laying hens who have been bred to be heavy layers, but Poe was much more than a good layer of beautiful light-green eggs; she was a highly intelligent, proud chicken who marched to the beat of her own drum; she was an independent thinker; she was a helper in the garden; she was a care taker for all misfit chickens on Sands End farm; and she was a good friend to our family.

Poe came to live with us via the United States Postal Service. She came to our family early in 2016 as a “surprise” chicken in an order of Ranger chickens. She was a little black fuzzball in a sea of brown and cream, so she was special from the first day we met her.

For many months after she arrived, Poe’s breed was unknown, but she stood out as an unusual hen early on. When other chickens came along who needed someone with them, as chickens shouldn’t be raised alone, Poe was our go-to hen for babysitting new babies or anyone who was injured and had to be temporarily separated from the coop. In fact, Poe helped raise our Welsummer rooster, Rooster, who just so happens to be awesome as well. In the moments of Poe’s death, Rooster crowed and crowed, loudly and sorrowfully, though he could not see her.

Poe came to be known for her quest for flight. She could fly higher and longer than any other chickens on the farm, and, as such, she came and went as she pleased for most of her life. Poe could be found in the garden helping dad by eating the grubs, in the backyard scoping out grubs and bugs, or in the duck area, eating the ducks’ food while they quacked and complained. Sometimes, Poe would fly out of her very large chicken yard, just to visit and hang out–or ask for some grapes, her favorite food. Poe would never say no to a grape, even in the end. Interestingly, even though Poe could have, she never left our farm. She seemed too intelligent to leave the safety of her home.

In the last year of her life, as flying became more difficult, I would let her out of the chicken area in the morning, so she could have her alone time. Poe would fly back to the chicken area when she was ready. But Poe was always a bit different and a bit of a loner in the flock.

Poe’s major accomplishments included eating almost the entire row of broccoli plants in our garden in 2017, being the mother of four baby boys, who have turned out to be good roosters, and having a poem written about her, which was published in 2017. It is the best poem in the history of chicken poems, and I would argue one of the best children’s poems ever written. It captured the spirit of our Poe, and what a monumental task that was!

In the last weeks of her life, Poe decided she didn’t want to be alone. She moved into the garage where she decided to be a squatter in the crate with our broody hen, Nugget, who didn’t seem to mind having a roommate while she sat on her eggs. When the babies hatched, Poe came to live in the house permanently.

In the last few days of her life, Poe fought valiantly to live, having some good days and bad days but, overall, doing all that was in her power to live longer. Three days before she died, she ate and drank almost normally and got to spend some time in the garden. But she could walk just a little, scratch just a little, and tired quickly. Still, that night, as she was being put to bed, she held her beautiful tail up straight and proud, something she had not been able to do in quite some time. For a moment, I had some hope that Poe may recover, but it was not meant to be. Despite her powerful will to live, her little body was sick and very tired.

Poe passed away this morning, July 21, in my arms, showered in my tears, and surrounded by our family, who also shed many tears for such a special chicken. In the end, she knew she was deeply loved.

Poe will be forever remembered for making only rooster babies (not one single baby girl), for her flying, for inspiring poetry, and for teaching this human just how very intelligent chickens are. In my years of keeping chickens, I have met many intelligent birds, and they all have their own ways of being smart and curious. But there was something special about Poe with her curiosity and independence that seemed, to this human, to be so very human like. We were able to connect with one another. She was like my familiar, and I loved her.

Poe will always be remembered by me as the one who taught me more than, perhaps, I wanted to know. Poe changed things, and I will never be the same. Poe was also then a great teacher.

Poe will be laid to rest with a stone marker on the Sands End farm. A small service will be held in her honor, and poetry will be read for her.

In lieu of flowers and donations, to honor Poe, please buy humanely-raised eggs. “Cage free” means nothing, so please look for the humanely-raised label on your eggs. Better yet, if possible, buy your eggs from a local farmer. You will pay a little more, for sure, but chickens are beautiful, intelligent, complex little beings and deserve good lives while they are here. Poe would want you to know that.

She wasn’t quite just a chicken,
and maybe more than a crow,
but it’s said she’s been seen with a raven,
the flying black chicken named Poe

from “The Flying Black Chicken Named Poe”
by James Sands
Why the Moon Tumbled Out of the Sky

Kate’s Story (or Loving a Difficult Chicken)

My chickens do not love the snow, not one bit, but I have a few free spirits who insist on leaving the coop every morning, despite the winter weather. Still, I’ve never had a chicken who will venture out in full-blown snowstorm—until Kate.

I was shoveling the snow to make a path for the chickens one morning, and the conditions were terrible. It was snowing pretty heavily, and the winds were high. It was a good storm, but when I made my way to the coop door and opened it, Kate hopped out and took off.

I didn’t think she would go far, but when I looked up from my shoveling a few minutes later, I saw that Kate had trekked across the snow, and in the distance, though the snow was coming down all around her, I could see Kate walking around the tool shed on the far side of our property.

I had to know what this chicken was up to, so I trekked out there myself. I could see her footprints in the snow, but, suddenly, there was no Kate.

***

Kate was born on our little farm during the first few months of the COVID pandemic. It’s confusing to me that I have no baby pictures of her. Usually, my camera is full of baby chick pictures. But last year was different. It was like I was moving through molasses every day, and I did all of the farm chores, completed my work, and parented all while in some kind of “fog” that seemed related to stress.

But Kate brought me joy—and a little extra stress. She was the cutest thing I think I have ever seen. Kate is part Rhode Island Red and part Easter Egger, so she was this adorable reddish-brown color of the Rhode Island Red with the puffy cheeks of an Easter Egger. She looked like a chipmunk. That’s what I called her for several weeks.

“I hope my chipmunk chicken is a girl,” I would announce to my husband. We really hadn’t planned on keeping her when we were counting chicks as they hatched (I had been incubating chicks for others in our area who couldn’t get them), but when I saw her, I knew I had to keep this chicken. My husband, who is usually the voice of reason when it comes to the number of chickens we can keep happily in our space, didn’t argue a bit.

The chipmunk chicken won him over too. She was more than cute. She was brave, perhaps too much so for my taste, and, well, she was just sassy.

She was being raised by our mama hen, Pumpkin, along with another chick. Right next door to that little brood, another hen, Beethoven, was raising two chicks. You never know how a mama hen is going to react to other babies. There is some chance she will kill other babies.

We have never had this happen and have had hens raise babies together a few times. They generally end up co-parenting the whole group, and it’s magnificent. But, because of the potential risk, in the first few days, I will always build a little wall to keep the two broods separate. My little walls have always worked in the past, but Kate wasn’t having it.

I feel limited in my capacity to describe the cuteness of Kate’s little nightly adventures. After everyone was supposed to be tucked in with their correct mama, Kate would head out. She would take her tiny little chicken-nugget self all the way around that wall I built and would go visit the other mama hen and her babies.

She would never stay too long—just long enough to cause some chaos—and then she would head back around the wall, sort of. She would check out the garage, explore things, just sit there a little—all while the other baby chicks were tucked in with mama and going to bed.

I would often go out and scoop her up and try to deliver her to her mama, Pumpkin. But, when you pick up a baby chick, they will often cry. Let me tell you, you do not want to be holding a mama hen’s chick while it is crying. Mama hens fluff up to the size of a small turkey and become enraged at whatever is making their baby cry. I have been attacked by a broody mama hen several times in my life. I have always lived. But there has been blood, and I do not enjoy it.

One night, as I delivered Kate to her mama, Kate was extra loud, and Pumpkin gave me the full-on attack. Kate was certainly making my life difficult.

But Kate’s spirit charmed me, and when I found out Kate was a girl, I named her after Shakespeare’s famously-stubborn and powerful character, Kate. Of course, despite Kate’s charm, I figured she had a personality that would likely add to the number of gray hairs on my head.

***

I was a little worried at first, when I didn’t see Kate anywhere in the snow. Thankfully, I was able to follow her tracks. I followed her little chicken footprints all the way around to the back of the shed where they disappeared.

Kate was heading under the back shed to lay her eggs! This explained why I hadn’t seen one of Kate’s magnificent khaki eggs in a couple of weeks.

“That little stinker,” I thought to myself. I got down into the snow and crawled around. I couldn’t see her, so there was nothing to do but wait and dread the smell that would surely be coming from rotten eggs this spring.

When I saw that Kate finally returned to the coop later that day, I did a mean thing. I went out to the shed and covered her entryway with some spare fencing.

The next morning, when I opened the coop, it was another miserable morning, but I watched Kate as she took off and headed to her shed. She couldn’t get in and was visibly stressed. I spent the better part of that morning trying to convince her to go back to the coop to lay her egg.

I spent the better part of the next day doing the same. I didn’t want to leave her out there alone too much, as without the leaves on the trees, she was in a pretty exposed area, and we have had a couple of hawk attacks in the past. On the third day, I was growing weary, but I spent a good deal of that day tracking and coaxing Kate.

I was late on a deadline at work, so I was hoping Kate was going to accept the reality of the situation. How do you explain to your supervisor that you didn’t finish some work yet because you have a difficult chicken?

Thankfully, after three days of stubbornness, Kate accepted her fate to lay her eggs in the next boxes with everyone else. Kate’s beautiful eggs are back in the daily collection. Her little khaki eggs are like beautiful works of art to me.

Kate’s egg is the beautiful khaki brown on the right.

The morning after I finished drafting this story about Kate, she discovered she could fly over the gate. When I saw her do this my shoulders slumped, and I let out a sigh.

I can see that Kate is going to teach me things about behavior and about myself. This is one of my favorite things about raising animals—the learning. I am just going to have hope against hope that I can teach Kate some things too.