The Dirt: Baldy’s song

A chicken may die for a number of reasons, but seldom from “natural causes.” An animal so perfectly designed to be eaten, so attractive to a variety of predators, rarely gets the chance to expire of its own accord.

Baldy was different—but then Baldy was no ordinary chicken.

It was the spring of 1997 when my wife, Jenny, and I decided to move north to Wisconsin from her family’s farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Our plan was to serve a six-month apprenticeship on an organic farm and return with the skills we would need to start our own.

As it happened, the farmer we worked for was a whiskery, difficult man with a bad temper and a lax approach to personal hygiene. On 10 or more acres he raised 30 or more kinds of vegetables. Every summer, along with the produce and fresh eggs, he would also add broiler chickens to his offerings. The year we joined him, he decided to raise 600 of them.

The chicks arrived in early May in flat, corrugated boxes. Some of them were already dead, though most were peeping in a meek and distant sort of way. We set the survivors under heat lamps in pens lush with wood shavings, dipping their beaks into the watering troughs so they’d know where they were. They grew quickly, and in a month or so were ready to be turned out onto “the range”—a flat, wind-swept bench of land behind the barn, bordered by a low, sagging electric fence.

The day we moved them outside, most of the chickens were feisty, full of energy and new prospect. But in the process of emptying their pens we uncovered one less fortunate bird. He was bare-naked and hot to the touch, with only a tuft of feathers showing here and there. He had wedged himself into a corner of the stall, beak-first and cowering.

Jenny and I took him in and named him Baldy. A cardboard box inside our travel trailer became Baldy’s new home. A Cool Whip container was his water bowl; a margarine tub likewise served as a place for feed and grit. In one corner of the box we placed a small mirror, in hopes that the illusion of company might lift his spirits.

For the first week or so, Baldy mainly sat and panted. I don’t know that he even looked in the mirror once. But in time his fever abated, his skin’s salmon cast paled to pink, and he began to grow feathers. One late night we heard the rasp of talons against cardboard and sat up in bed to see that Baldy had propelled himself over the lip of his box and into our world.

Baldy’s plumage grew in thick, and it wasn’t long before he’d developed the knock-kneed gait and swagger typical of the “meat breeds” of chickens. In the evening, he would circle our bed, craning his neck to see us. It was endearing, if a little strange, to have a chicken attached to us in this way.

The rise of Baldy’s fortunes coincided with his peers’decline. Each day brought a new calamity to the range. Disease spread. Sunstroke struck. Dehydration withered. By night, a great horned owl would swoop in and carry off a bird or two. One especially inclement evening brought rain—a heavy, cold downpour that drowned several of the young birds outright and morbidly chilled the rest. In the morning’s wan light, we performed chicken triage, washing the liveliest birds with warm water and toweling them off, hoping this might save them.

After four months, however, Jenny and I decided that we’d learned all we could about farming from our host. It was time to leave Wisconsin, and we took Baldy with us. The drive back to Virginia lasted two days, during which time Baldy sat hunched in the back of Jenny’s coupe, sharing a wire cage with a jade plant. In Columbus, Ohio, we snuck him into a La Quinta Inn for the night.

Baldy took to the South well—maybe too well. He grew bigger at the expense of his surroundings. He plucked my mother-in-law’s grapevines free of a season’s worth of ripe fruit, dug earthworms and grubs out of her front yard, chased crickets down her sidewalk. His temper worsened. Get near him and his neck feathers would stir faintly, warning of the coming attack. Come close enough and they would snap straight out, reminiscent of nothing as much as the frilled dinosaur that killed the fat guy in Jurassic Park.

Baldy chased children. He chased grown-ups. He chased dogs. He was fearless—4 pounds of flying beak and spur. I was terrified of him, and I found myself spending less and less time in his company.

It’s hard to know just why Baldy died—even in our litigious society, autopsies are rarely done on chickens—but the likely cause seemed to be a heart attack. It’s hard to sustain Baldy’s brand of unspecified anger for very long; it takes a toll on a body.

Perhaps equally important was the fact that Baldy belonged to a race of chicken that was never designed for the long haul. A genetic imperative drives his type to mature in the space of two months, destined to land on America’s plate soon thereafter. Baldy was a package of frenzied growth, seasoned with rage. Much like Andre the Giant in this regard, he carried a knot of terminal flaws with him into adulthood.

I was out for chores with my mother-in-law one morning when we found Baldy prone on the hen-house floor, stretched out as if reaching for one last bit of cracked corn. I nudged him with the toe of my boot, checking for life. There was no response.

My mother-in-law reached down and lifted him up by his scaly legs. His body swung upside-down and into a commalike shape, suggesting—to my mind, at least—an unfinished thought.

“Gracious!” she said, staring down at what was left of Baldy. “He’s got some balls on him.”

I told her I’d take her word for it.

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