I wrote the Blog entry below about two years ago, I think. The chicken referred to as “Red” in the story was later named Bertha by my wife (It’s a Grateful Dead thing). I wouldn’t say she was a sweet chicken. She was more on the wily side of the spectrum. A loner. A good forager and predator - I saw her eat a mouse once. And she loved to chase down small snakes. Most of all, though, she was Amelia’s guardian angel. Bertha brought balance to an immature flock that was turning on our girl. 

Pretty Chicken

Bertha enjoying a sunlit forage

She was also smart and tough. A hawk attacked the flock one afternoon, almost flying off with one of the wellies. I just walked out at the right time, startling the hawk, who left before I could retrieve my shotgun. (Yeah, I know…but you don’t understand. These are our girls). The wellie was freaked out and took refuge in one of the dense rhododendrons near the coop. (How we got her out is a whole other story). The problem was I could not find Bertha. She was gone.

I spent an hour searching. I looked everywhere. The worst thing about it was I didn’t even find any feathers. I figured the hawk hit her fast and got airborne quickly, leaving no trace. Anna and I were crushed.

Then…hours later, after we had resigned ourselves to having lost her, Bertha walked across the yard like a boss. Like nothing had happened. The wellie was still shivering in the rhodo. But Bertha was walking across the yard in the broad daylight, as if the Carolina sky was not full of hungry raptors, with her same confident, redneck swagger. Anna teared up and I…well, I might have had something in my eye. But, I am sure, if Bertha could have spoken, she would have looked at us and shrugged her beautiful russet shoulder feathers and said, “Hawks…amirite?”

Anna’s assessment, after getting to know Bertha, was twofold. First, Anna said she was, "A unique combination of regal and feral." And it's true. Bertha was both of those things. Second, she was older. Our neighbors have many chickens and don’t dote on them like we do, so we came to doubt their estimate of her age. Anna thought Bertha was several years older than our flock and, after some observation, I agreed with her. 

She seemed tired. And, at the end, was not herself. When we first got her (See the story below) she was an avid forager. The first to get out in the morning and the last to return. And she ranged farther and more widely than was wise. Anna worried constantly that she would fall prey to a fox, coyote, or bobcat on our perimeter. But Bertha loved it and would not be dissuaded.

At the end, she hardly left the coop. She would pick a spot near the house and stand for hours in a daze. When she did move, she was lethargic. She seemed unhappy. 

We found her in the coup one morning when all the others were out. She was laying in the soft bedding, head tucked under a wing. She looked peaceful.

Now she rests on one of the highest spots on the ridge overlooking the coup. 

The story below is how we got her.


Original Entry - Summer 2022

Anna and I had wanted to get chickens for a while. When we moved up to the top of the ridge, it finally seemed like a good time. We ordered them in February, like everything else in this world - online.

The chicks did not arrive until early June and I think I spent every spare moment in those intervening months building their chicken coop. Bespoke and from scratch, the coop suffered from a bad case of scope creep. (Wouldn’t it be nice if they had a skylight?) I didn’t finish it until the middle of July.

The chicks arrived in the mail on June third. 

That’s right. 

They mail them. 

Chickens are born with about three days of fluids and calories on board. I guess so they can deal with contingencies the minute they hatch. Breeders take advantage of this evolved trait and drop the newborns in the mail. You can get a package almost anywhere in a day or two, so it works pretty well. 

Our local post office called and let us know there was a sweetly tweeting box waiting for us. They didn’t want to drive it up the mountain because their delivery jeeps get hot in the summer and they did not want the little girls to overheat. Anna was busy, so I drove down to get them. 

I was excited.

The little box was not much bigger than a shoebox with small ventilation holes throughout…we opened it when I got home and had to count them more than once.

There were seven chicks.

“I thought you ordered six?” I asked Anna.

She is the brains of our operation and, after her customarily extensive research, had ordered three chicken breeds that are cold hardy. The North Carolina mountain winters are raw and windy.  

“Yep,” Anna said, not able to take her eyes off the tiny cuteness in the box. “We got two Buff Orpingtons, two Wellsummers and two Golden Laced Wyandottes.”

“hmmmm…” I said. “So, who are you, I wonder?” I said to the odd girl out, rubbing her tiny head with my pinky finger. 

Anna called the chicken people, and it turns out they send an extra along sometimes in case one expires during the trip. So, she was a bonus chick.

We put the young flock in the brooding pen we set up in our basement and fumbled through the process. 

Fortunately, nature pretty much knows what do to. They grew quickly, despite our ineptness. 

As the chicks got older, they each started to take on the appearance of their breed. Despite these clues, we still had no idea what our odd girl out was.

 Also, to my surprise and wonder, the chicks started to manifest personalities.

Yes. Personalities.

I was not prepared for that.

As a dog guy, I have always regarded other animals, certainly birds, as one dimensional and boring. 

But within weeks, each of the girls started to adopt unique behaviors and expressions.  

Also, despite an old chicken expert’s advice to me, they each soon got names. 

“Dont name ‘em,” he told me. “Saves on the funeral expenses. And, see’n as to where you live, you’re gonna have a lot of funerals.”

(We live on a hundred and fifty acres next to a 40,000+ acre watershed reserve. So… a lot of predators and wildlife.)

We named them anyway. Couldn’t resist.

And we named our odd girl out Amelia because she was the first of the flock to fly.

She was first at everything, really. From the beginning she would scoot over to greet us when we stopped by the brooding pen, would sit still and luxuriate as we pet her, and would jump up on the small perch we put in for them and gaze around, curious about what lay outside in the wider world. Her outgoing personality established her early on as the default flock leader.

Best way I can describer her is, adventurous and sweet. 

And, yeah…I know that sounds ridiculous. But she was.

She was our favorite. 

I mean, we loved the others too. But Amelia was our sweetheart. 

In late July, when the flock had grown enough feathers and matured enough to be able to stand a cold mountain evening, we moved them into the coop.

Anna and I put two old chairs out in their run. We like to sit out there with a glass of wine and watch the girls work the ground for worms and grubs.

Scratch, scratch, peck. Scratch, scratch, peck. Scratch, scratch, peck.

We had no idea how fun it would be to watch them work the ground. 

We got our first egg in November.

It was Amelia’s, of course.

And you know what? It was an army green egg.

Turns out there is a whole breed of chicken called “Olive Eggers,” that lay pretty olive green eggs. Finally, we knew what she was.

Shortly after they started laying, Anna and I noticed things in the flock seemed to change. The Buff Orpingtons had grown to be big chickens. We joked that they must be half butterball turkey, because they were always eating. A confidence seemed to come with their size, and the Buffs became more outgoing. They also seemed to ascend to the top of the pecking order, with the largest, Dolly, at the apex. 

She was not an overly assertive flock leader. But the other girls behaved with a noticeable deference to her.

We also observed that Amelia seemed more and more isolated. The other girls tended to hang around with their “sister” chicken, foraging together, roosting next to each other at night and generally looking out for each other.

Our Amelia, who had been so outgoing in the beginning, seemed withdrawn. We wondered if we were imagining it. Projecting, perhaps.

Then the trouble started. 

Amelia’s eye got infected. Swollen and half shut, it was clear she was having trouble seeing. We had been warned that you kinda have to be your own vet with chickens. 

As another chicken-experienced friend told us, “Yeah. You can take your $5 chicken to the $200 vet visit. But we don’t. We’re on the Christian Science pet plan.”

We tried to put some salve on her eye and kept a close watch over our girl for the next few days. We were worried about her and concerned about an eye infection spreading through the rest of the flock.

A few days later, we saw the problem. It was worse than we thought.

It wasn’t an infection.

As Anna and I checked the internal security of the coop one morning, the girls gathered at the chicken wire door, as they always do. I check the inside almost daily to make sure snakes or rats have not penetrated my fortress. (I’ll be surprised if they ever do. I will describe that over-engineered monstrosity sometime)

At this point, the girls think of Anna and me as grub-bearing PEZ dispensers, so they cluster as close to us as they can whenever we are around. 

As the hens jostled each other and pressed against the wire for my attention, one of the golden laced Wyandottes pecked Amelia in the eye.

It was a vicious precision hit, and I expected Amelia’s eye to come out of its socket, impaled on the attacker’s beak.

A couple of things happened at once.

Amelia squawked in pain and ran to the back of the coop, rubbing her swollen eye against her breast in agony.

I screamed in despair and rage.

“Nooooooooooooooooo!” I howled.

My scream terrified the chickens, and they fled in all directions.

Now, remember the coop is not that big. It’s really just for sleeping and laying eggs. 

Oh, and also, Anna and I decided not to clip their flight feathers. We wanted them to be able to escape predators.

So they can fly.

Sort of.

Terrified, out-of-control chickens ricochetted around the coop.

They made loud grunts and squawks as they collided with the walls, ceiling and each other.

Anna, also startled by my scream, grabbed the back of my jacket as she yelled, “What is it? What is it? What is it?” and tried to pull me out of the coop. She thought I had spied a Timber Rattler like the one that almost got the dogs last year. (That story is for another time)

Anna and I tumbled out of the coop.

The chickens spilled out into the run one by one as I told Anna what I saw.

We stood in silence for a moment and stared at the offending chicken. She strutted around the run like nothing had happened.

I looked at Anna.

“No,” she said.

“But I want to kill her,” I said.

“I do too,” Anna said evenly. “But no.”

Anna and I have a motto up here. 

No assholes and no drama.

We mean it.

One of the first things we put up on our 150 acre piece of sovereign, sacred land was a big gate and a security camera on the only way to get in.

We’re over it. All of it. And not tolerating assholes or drama in our sacred space. And that is all I have to say about that.

So, that little fucking Wyandotte had just violated both tenants of the rule.

I wanted to kill her.

But…Anna was right. We were new to chickens. We needed to figure this out.

We monitored the flock closely for the next several days while we consulted friends and researched the situation. There were seemingly a million potential reasons the flock was turning on Amelia. None of them suggested a solution. My chicken expert friends did not offer any hope. 

“When they start laying, things can change. Sometimes they just turn on each other.”

Amelia suffered as we tried to figure out what to do. She rarely came out of the coop and spent most of her time huddled in the corner, bad eye facing in, seeking to avoid conflict. Chicken shit gathered on her feathers since the rest of the flock slept above her on the roost. Each morning when Anna and I came out to the coop, we steeled ourselves for finding her disfigured, her closed eye finally pecked out, or dead.

“We gotta get her out of here,” Anna said.

She had been talking with our neighbors about the situation, seeking advice. Tom and Sue live a few miles down the road from us and have been here for about twenty years. They are wise and know the mountain, the seasons, and animals. They have a large flock of chickens of all ages. Over two dozen birds. And they had a setup that allows for segregation. 

Sue had offered to take Amelia in while we tried to figure things out.

Anna put Amelia in the back of her car and drove her down to Tom and Sue’s. They set her up in her own little area with a potential buddy to see if they would bond.

“You shoulda seen her,” Anna said when she got back, wiping away a tear. “She just stood calmly in the back, looking out of the window, watching the world go by.”

The weather got cold and windy for the next few weeks. Then a storm hit and we got over two feet of snow. All the while, Sue experimented with partners for Amelia. Anna called her daily to check in.

Sue would give an update, and she and Anna would talk about whether and how to reintroduce her to our flock. Or should we just leave her with Sue? At the end of each conversation, Sue would say the same thing. “She is the sweetest chicken I have ever known.”

One day, Anna asked Donna what she thought of Amelia’s green eggs. 

“We haven’t seen them yet,” Donna said.

“What do you mean?” Anna asked her. “She is like clockwork. Lays an egg a day. Every day.”

“She hasn’t laid a single egg down here.”

That meant she was stressed and made us really sad.

We wanted to try to get Amelia back, but didn’t want her to get attacked again. We were leaning towards leaving her with Tom and Sue until we realized that she actually was not integrated into their flock. Sue was keeping her segregated to protect her, which made sense. But also made us more sad about the situation.

Anna and I were stumped. We wanted to get Amelia back. But we were pretty sure the Wyandottes were going to attack her again. 

I proposed killing them again.

“No,” Anna said. “Not ready to do that yet.”

Sue saved the day.

“Here’s the plan,” she told Anna. “Bobby has a small flock. Let’s give him your Wyandottes, and you can take Amelia and Red.”

Bobby worked the property for Tom and Sue. He lived in a house on their land with his family.  

Red was a Rhode Island Red chicken that seemed to get along with Amelia. Sue said they got Red from Tractor Supply and that she was Amelia’s age and that she didn’t have a close friend in their flock. 

“I’m not going to say that Amelia and Red are tight, but they get along. To be honest, Red is kinda crazy. But she’s not aggressive. She might be just enough to neutralize the bad energy your flock has at the moment. To balance it out.” Sue said. “But there is a good chance this won’t work at all. If the rest of your flock has gotten it in their heads that Amelia is a pariah, they’re going to stay after her till they kill her.”

Anna and I decided it was worth a try. We didn’t have any other ideas.

“But if there is the slightest aggression,” Anna said. “We’re going to have to get her out of there.”

I nodded. Agreeing, but not really knowing how we would handle it. 

Anna and I grabbed the Wyandotte’s and put them in a makeshift cage in the back of her car. She drove them down the hill to Tom and Sue’s.

I couldn’t go because I had to work, but when Anna got back she told me how it went.

“Well, the Wyandottes thrashed around the entire way down. I thought for sure they were going to hurt themselves,” she said, rolling her eyes in disapproval. “When I got there, Tom and Sue already had Amelia and Red in a small animal cage. Bobby came over and grabbed the wyandottes from the back of my car. I could tell by the way he scooped them up he knows how to handle chickens. I told him their names, but I don’t think he cared. He just nodded at me like, ‘That’s nice,’ and took them away.”

It was late in the day when we took Amelia and Red down to the coop and let them out. We were anxious as we watched them mill about. The two buffs seemed indifferent, focused more on eating, as usual. But the Wellsummers, Nina and Frieda, were tuned in to Amelia…and not in a welcoming way.

Nina ran over and pecked at Amelia. 

Anna and I shouted, “No!” 

The chickens ignored us.

I had read that you can tap a young chicken hard on its back between its wings and they will take it as a kind of correction. 

I tried to do that when the Wellsummers pecked at Amelia. But it didn’t seem to do any good.

“This is a failure,” I mumbled sadly.

“Not yet,” Anna said. “They may settle out. It’s only been a few minutes.”

It was getting dark, and the Buffs made their way into the coop. Chickens are basically night blind, so they put themselves to bed each day before darkness falls. 

Then the Wellsummers waddled in.

Amelia and Red hung around outside for a few minutes. Anna and I watched them anxiously. What would they do? If they stayed outside they were basically saying that the coop and their flock were a greater danger to them than the dark, hungry wilderness. Wouldn’t be a good sign.

Amelia went in.

Then, finally, Red followed.

Anna and I went into the coop to observe. 

The coop has a nice big roost on the inside that I set up high so that the girls can sit and look out of one of the large, screened ventilation windows. (Again…the scope of that coop kinda got away from me as I was building it). 

When I showed a friend the set up before moving the chickens in, he told me it was too high, that the chickens would never go all that way up. 

But they did. Right away.

Now, getting up there is a big of a process for them, involving three hops from the floor to increasingly higher roosts. It is a process that Anna and I love to watch.

This time, though, we watched with concern as Amelia made her way up to the high sleeping roost. The four other original flock members, the two Buffs and the two Wellsummers stared intently at Amelia as she hopped closer. 

Finally, she made it to the roost. Because of the angle of the hops, the typical arrival spot of an ascending chicken is in the middle of the roost bar. Amelia hopped up into a spot between Dolly and Nina.

“Shit,” I said.

“Shhhhh!” Anna said. “It may be OK.”

Nina glared at Amelia.

I held my breath.

And then Nina pecked at her.

“Oh no,” Anna said.

We stood motionless, staring at Amelia.

She seemed as crestfallen as Anna and I. She squared lower onto the roost and lowered her head in defeat.

Nina pecked her again, striking Amelia on the back of the head.

Then again.

“She’s holding her ground,” I whispered.

Amelia was not enjoying it. But the strikes were not hitting her eye. She sat stoically with her head lowered in a defensive posture, letting the blows come. But she didn’t move or make any other attempt to get away.

Nina pecked again.

Then Dolly took notice.

Nina pecked Amelia again.

Dolly stood up straight, towering above Amelia. She looked at Nina for a long time.

Nina moved to peck at Amelia again, and Dolly struck.

Dolly arched her neck over Amelia and lashed out at Nina with a strong blow to Nina’s neck.

Nina blinked.

Dolly glared.

I wanted to cheer, but bit my lip.

Anna and I glanced at each other with hopeful smiles.

Nina looked at Amelia.

Dolly stretched tall again and leaned over Amelia toward Nina.

Nina turned away from Amelia and pointed her head and eyes straight ahead. Slowly, Nina settled lower onto the roost as the chickens do before going to sleep.

Dolly watched Nina for another minute and then settled down on the roost.

Amelia relaxed a bit.

Anna made a “Hell yes,” gesture with her fist and then we backed slowly out of the coop and shut the door.

We were nervous the next day and took turns checking in on the flock. But Nina left Amelia alone.

Also…Amelia laid an egg. As if on her first day back she was saying, it’s good to be home.

We watched the flock closely over the next few days, looking for signs of aggression. 

But there was none.

Dolly scratched and pecked around the run, focused solely on finding worms. But the peace she established held fast. Within a few weeks, Amelia and Nina acted like the sisters they originally were, enjoying dirt baths next to each other.

A few weeks later, Anna came up from visiting Sue and said, “Well…I feel kinda bad for the Wyandottes.”


“Turns out Bobby has a rooster,” she said.


“Yeah,” she said. “I had no idea.”

“Karma’s a bitch, aint she?”








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1 comment

Regal and feral, that’s a nice description. RIP, Bertha.

MyLinh Shattan

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