To Most, She Was Just A Chicken — To Me, She Was So Much More

Photo: Kzenon, chuckcollier, Marie Wurm, anyka | Canva 
Little baby chick

Two years ago when I moved to Kosovo, the number one thing I wanted to do was raise chickens. I love them and have wanted them since I was a child. So I knew that I would get some after moving to my husband’s homeland.

One day in April 2022 my husband came home with four hens and a rooster. I was delighted. 

Group of chickens and ducks

Photo by author

It took about a week to get our first egg. The joy was incomparable. I knew if they were laying eggs, they were healthy and happy with us.

In July, two of my hens wouldn’t come out of the coop. They were sitting on the floor in the corner. I was worried they were sick. I checked them out to see if I could determine a problem. Underneath were eggs; they had decided that they wanted to be moms.

My concern was quickly replaced with excitement as I realized we would be having babies.

Is there anything cuter than a baby chicken? I don’t think so.

I calculated the day that they should hatch and waited patiently. It takes 28 days for a chicken egg to hatch.

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Chickens sitting on their eggs

Photo by author | Lacie (left) and Liza, sitting on their eggs

The suspense was killing me — worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.

The day finally arrived that the eggs should start hatching. I almost didn’t notice because I was sick with the flu but when my phone notified me, nothing could stop me from dragging myself out to the coop in my pajamas to see if any chicks had hatched.

There I found a problem. One egg had started hatching but the chick got stuck.

As the chick struggled, the inner membrane had dried, trapping the chick. It could breathe, but it was already attracting ants. If it didn’t get out, it would die.

Chick trapped in her shell

Photo by author

The chick's mother had pushed the poor little struggling chick out of the nest. Nature is cruel and chicken moms have no sympathy. A chick has to be able to get out of the shell by itself or the mom rejects it.

I found it just in time. All thoughts of my own ailment went out of my mind. I had read about the problem and knew what to do.

Carefully and slowly I peeled off the shell. Thankfully it came off easy. The chick had been completely separated from it and had fully absorbed the egg yolk.

I was able to get the little chick free! I tried to put it back under the broody hens, but they weren’t having it. They pecked at the little thing, rejecting it. I knew what the little thing needed.

I took it inside, wrapped it up, and mothered it myself.

Newly hatched chick

Photo by author 

For two and a half months that little chick was my constant companion. And I mean constant. A chick normally spends 24/7 with its mom. If mom goes too far away, the chick will start to make a lot of noise until mom is close again.

A chick, a few hours after being born

Photo by author | A few hours after Zoë the chick was born

At first, she slept in a little box by my bed where I gave her a heating pad to stay warm just like she was sleeping under a hen. Chicks need to stay warm or they will die.

When she was older, she insisted on sleeping with me, screeching if I put her in the box. I gave her a little basket lined with soft rags to sleep in. It sat on my pillow, next to my head. I can’t say I slept well, but it was something.

When birds hatch from the egg, they "imprint" on the first living thing that they see. Usually, it' their mom. Sometimes it's someone else. The chick doesn’t care. They will follow that individual everywhere and believe it is MOM.

I was mom.

After about two weeks I finally felt like I could leave Zoë for a little while. When we would leave the house, we would put her in a small dog carrier with food, water, and a soft place to sleep.

Chick in her crate

Photo by author

As Zoë grew, she became a part of our everyday lives. She loved to beg my husband for some of his breakfast. She learned to perch by sitting on our feet.

Every day, I would take her out into the yard so she could see the other chickens and they could see her. I prayed that eventually, she would grow up to be a normal chicken.

Lacie and Liza with other chicks

Photo by author

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It's hard to tell the sex of a chick just by looking at them. You have to wait until they grow up. However, that doesn’t stop people from guessing. Most thought she was going to be a boy, but I felt from the first day she was a girl. I gave her the name my younger self had always wanted to give a daughter: Zoë.

One month old chick perching on foot

Photo by author | Zoë at about one-month-old

Zoë is very close to the Albanian (the language we speak here in Kosovo) word zog. A zog is a chick. So instead of calling her by her name, my husband quickly nicknamed her Zoggie.

Before I knew it, Zoë (aka Zoggie) was spending all day outside by herself among our other chickens. But every night she would come inside the house to sleep.

And that was the way it was for a few weeks. Until one night my husband and I were going to go out for the evening. The sun was setting and all the other chickens had gone into the coop, as usual. Zoë waited patiently for me to bring her inside and put her in her cage.

Instead, my husband said, "Enough is enough. She is old enough to sleep with everyone else." He scooped her up and put her in the coop and locked the door.

Six week old chick

Photo by author | Zoë at about six weeks old

I was terrified. I knew that chickens could be horrible to each other. Especially to a lone newcomer. I was sure she would be pecked to death.

For most of the night I listened intently in case I heard any sounds of assault coming from the coop. I barely slept. I wanted so much to go out and get her! But I knew that if this worked, it would be better for her. She needed to be a chicken with other chickens.

I got up extra early so the other chickens wouldn’t wake up and murder her before I got there. But when I let everyone out, she was fine. From that day, she became a member of the flock and never slept inside the house again.

That didn’t mean she never came inside it though. If we left the door open, she would saunter on in looking for me. She always got a treat, some loving, and then a gentle lift out the kitchen window and back into the yard.

We finally knew for sure that she was a girl when we saw her "make friends" with our rooster. I know it's weird, but can I say that I was proud? She had become a normal adult hen and had been accepted by the group. It was everything I had hoped for.

Soon she started to lay eggs. Every day, she would position herself in the corner of our front door and lay her egg. I always felt it was her personal gift to me. She was the only chicken to ever lay there.

8 month old chicken laying an egg

Photo by author | Zoë laying an egg at about eight months

She grew big and strong. She wasn’t our largest hen. But she was my favorite.

Whenever she saw me or heard my voice, she would come running. If she heard the kitchen window open, she’d be the first to come running to see me and get a treat.

We would sit outside together while she would climb on me and peck at the flowers on my dress. She was always confused when I came home and was wearing my hijab. She would try and pull it off my head. Since I don’t wear it around the house, she wasn’t used to it. And she never once pooped on me after she grew out of being a baby.

Author and her chick, Zoë

Photo by author

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One lovely Spring morning I went outside to feed everyone. The sun was shining brightly. I sat for a minute and enjoyed the morning air with a mug of coffee in hand. I waited for everyone — Zoë normally at the front — to come running to me, begging for food.

Every day was the same. They acted like I never fed them.

But on this morning, no one came.

I am not a morning person. I often get up early, as you have to with chickens. But it takes me time to get fully conscious and alert. So for a moment, I sat and it didn’t hit me that no one was coming like usual.

Across the yard, I saw some magpies sitting on something. I didn’t have my glasses on and couldn’t see clearly. It was odd. I had never seen magpies in the yard before. And what were they sitting on? And where was everybody?

The emptiness of the yard hit me. Where were all my chickens!?

With growing alarm, I set down my mug and went to see what the magpies were interested in. The magpies flew away as I neared, upset that I had disturbed them.

On the ground, on her back, was Zoë.

Yet, it wasn’t Zoë anymore. It wasn’t the sweet chicken that I had raised from the first moment of her birth. It wasn’t the crazy little hen whose life I had saved and who had brought such joy to mine.

Instead, it was a carcass. No head. No insides. The ribs were gone and she was hollowed out like a jack o’lantern. Flies buzzed around her body. The body that I had so lovingly taken care of. In a futile attempt to protect her, I swatted them away. It was horrific.

My precious little gift was gone.

In shock, I looked around to find the others. The remaining chickens were all hiding behind the house. We lost three hens that morning. Zoë, Lacie, and Masie. But losing Zoë was the hardest.

The morning I lost her and the other hens was the hardest lesson I have had as a chicken keeper. As I said, I am not a morning person. My husband and I had stopped locking the coop door at night a few months prior. We would close it so the birds would stay warm, but in the morning our ducks would push open the door and let themselves out whenever they wished. Which was often very early — too early.

We did this because the ducks would quack so loud at around 4 a.m. that they would wake us up inside with the windows closed. This way they would let themselves out and we would get to sleep a few more hours.

Our yard is surrounded by an eight-foot-tall wall made of thick clay blocks. Where we live in Europe, we don’t have climbing predators such as raccoons or opossums. The wall keeps out all the rest such as dogs and foxes. I thought the wall kept the flock safe. I was wrong.

We determined later that a fox had used our car, which was parked next to the outside of the wall, to jump up and into the yard. It then used the wood pile to get back out.

The fox had been so hungry, it ate Zoë right away. Lacie and Maisey disappeared. No remains were ever found.

My husband found out from his cousin that the fox lived nearby in the woods and had kits. It had been killing chickens all over town.

I hate the fox. But I also understand wanting to feed and care for your young. I just wish she hadn’t eaten my young.

I also felt like a failure. It was my job to keep Zoë and the rest of the chickens safe. I thought the wall did that. I never considered how smart and determined a hungry mother fox could be.

We learned never to park the car next to the wall at night anymore. And now we always lock up the birds so they don’t go out too early in the morning. Dawn is the fox’s favorite hunting time.

We buried Zoë under a cherry tree. The same day, a rose that had never bloomed for me, bloomed a large, single pink blossom. In May. It was early. Now I think of it as Zoë’s rosebush.

Pink rose

Photo by author

For weeks I cried just from the mention or thought of her. I tried to hide it.

To most, she was just a chicken. To me, she was so much more. My husband understood. Trying to make me feel better, he offered to go buy me another chick the same day. I said no. I needed time.

Zoë seemed like a gift that was given to me. I chided myself when I considered taking an egg for myself when Liza hatched more chicks this year. It felt like stealing.

Even if I do raise another, Zoë cannot be replaced. She was a light in my life when I desperately needed it. I had moved to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language, had started menopause, and most of my family and friends were far away.

Zoë was my friend. She was my family.

Painting of a chick

Photo and painting by author | Painting of Zoë

In Albanian, they have a separate word for when a hen (normally called a pulë) becomes a mother. It is kovaçka. Hens go through psychological and biological changes when they become broody and are raising chicks. Science has recently proven that human mothers do as well. Our bodies change so we can grow and raise little lives.

I was never able to have a child of my own. I lost that ability due to an illness when I was younger. Not being able to bear a child has been the single, greatest sadness of my life. But even if I will never be a mother, Zoë made me a kovaçka. She will always be remembered as my precious Zoggie, a feathery little light in a dark time of my life. I miss her every day.

The last picture taken of Zoë the chicken

Photo by author | The last picture I took of Zoë on May 23, 2023

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HF Sylaj is an American writer who moved to her husband's homeland in rural Europe where she keeps a flock of chickens and tries to learn the local language. She writes regularly on Medium as well as the Facebook page "This Albanian Life."

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.