The Story of Chaga: A tale of a rooster, love, loss, and life
by my partner in life & business, Adam Lush
For years we wanted chickens. Six years ago Lauren and I moved into a beautiful rental property with a large yard. It seemed like the perfect place to begin our tiny farm. Unfortunately, the property owner bluntly denied our request of getting chickens. His words, if I remember clearly, were "You don't want chickens, they tear up the ground and they stink." Clearly not a fan of the flock. We were disappointed, to say the least.
A few months later Lauren and I decided to create a vision board for our future life. We cut out pictures of our hopes and dreams, of our goals and aspirations and of course, chickens. When it came time to pin the cut pictures to a cork board to hang, the picture of chickens was first on the wall.
Reflecting back, it's amazing to see how multiple small decisions combine and unfold to shape our lives. In that moment years ago, the desire for chickens planted a seed that would slowly grow into our current reality.
First, Lauren began to research chickens. She became well versed in all of the different breeds available. I remember her showing me pictures of all the different types of chickens and imagining which we would eventually get.
A few years later we decided that it was time to look for our own home. We looked at well over 30 different houses and each time our question to our realtor would be, "does this neighborhood allow chickens?"
On a side note, there was not always a clear answer. Often after viewing a property, we would go online clicking through difficult to navigate township pages to find lengthy zoning ordinances that we would sift through to find the rules on backyard chickens. It was surprising how many places disallow the practice of keeping such docile animals.
Finally, after nearly a year of searching, we found a beautiful home in Unionville, PA. A nineteenth-century home in a historic town nestled in the farms of Southern Chester County with a very open chicken policy. It was perfect. On August first the paperwork was complete and Lauren and I moved into our new home.
Home is a concept that humans have been reflecting on for ages. In its best manifestations, it's something that takes a structure of wood and stone and fills it with loving warmth. It provides the opportunity to focus on what you love, and grow a beautiful life.
Now that we had a home to call our own, it was time to build our flock. Lauren found a specialty chicken breeder in Ohio. Going through the list she put in the order for seven chickens. One Barnevelder, One Cream Legbar, One Jubilee Orpington, One Blue Laced Red Wyandotte and three white Silkies. During the hatching process, the breeder fell short of our order and gave us a Lavender Orpington in place of the Jubilee. Osha, our Lavender Orpington, is one of our favorite chickens today.
It's amazing how a slight shift of fate can turn out that way. One of my favorite sayings from Byron Katie, a modern-day sage, is "Life didn't turn out the way I expected it, it was perfect instead." This saying has given me joy in good times and has helped me to heal through sorrow. Looking back over my life I can see how some of the most difficult things I faced were what helped me to grow the most.
One of the most surprising things about ordering chickens is that they are shipped, alive and chirping, in a small box with hay on the ground and holes on the sides. We eagerly tracked the package of chickens and awaited its arrival. They were supposed to arrive at our house, but a mishap in shipping landed them in the nearby post office. This was a very close call. If the box of chickens was marked return to sender, it would be very unlikely that they would survive the trip back to Ohio.
Fortunately, we caught this error at the last minute and picked up our box of chickens from the post office. Fortune had smiled in our favor and the chickens were on their way to their new home.
Early on the chickens lived on a bed of wood pellets, in a small plastic storage container with the lid removed and placed under a hanging heat lamp. If you have never held a chick, it feels like a wad of cotton balls with tiny legs. They are extremely fragile and cute.
It didn't take long for them to start developing personalities. As they grew we begin to name them. We wanted to name them after herbs and mushrooms and fit the names to their dispositions. One particularly rambunctious chicken we called Chaga, then Osha, Amla, Sorrel, Myrtle, Buchu, and Palo Santo.
As the months passed, the chickens grew and we moved them to their new temporary home. A pen built on the dirt floor basement of our old house was the perfect place to keep them warm and safe while I set out to begin construction on their outdoor coop.
We spent a lot of time with them in the basement throughout the winter, handling them, feeding them, and observing their endearing behaviors. Chaga, for instance, refused to be ignored. Whenever we picked up any of the other chicks he would jump onto our arms demanding attention. He was on his way to becoming one of our favorites.
One day we went down into the basement to check on them and someone was missing. We panicked, where was Osha, our Lavender Orpington!? There were no signs of a struggle, all the possible exits were closed, she was nowhere to be found. We were ready to give up, but with a last ditch effort, I decided to look under the wood platform that held our washer and dryer off of the dirt floor. It was unbelievable, Osha had managed to squeeze herself through a small opening and work her way underneath the platform until she couldn't go any further and couldn't back out due to the direction of her feathers. I carefully removed the washer and dryer and slowly lifted the platform from the pillars embedded in the dirt. Osha was saved.
It is easy to take for granted the things that we love. We grow accustomed to having them around and our minds can spend time on the other distractions of life. It is often a potential or actual loss that makes us truly realize what's important to us. As Joni Mitchell sang "don't it always seem to go, you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone." In that moment we realized how much we loved our pet chickens.
As the weather began to warm I began construction on an outdoor coop. Having the tendency to underestimate the labor involved in such endeavors, quite some time passed before the final nail was in place. The chickens had grown larger and the small pen in the basement was quickly becoming inadequate.
I wanted to make the coop as safe as possible and large enough that they had space to roam inside. It had a spacious indoor section that was fully enclosed with a heat lamp and a branch for them to perch. The roof extended over the outdoor space which was fortified with heavy gauge chicken wire.
We placed the chickens in their coop and as it is with most living things exposed to new circumstances they were very apprehensive about the new environment. Slowly they began to explore and after a few days, they were settled in.
The chickens had also grown to a point where we noticed three of them were getting much bigger than the others. When we ordered chickens we requested all hens but it is difficult to determine a chicken’s sex at birth, especially with the smaller breeds. It turns out that two of our Silkies and our Blue Laced Red Wyandotte named Chaga were all roosters.
We began to worry. Roosters are loud and in our small village, our neighbors would not be happy with a crowing alarm clock that would begin to go off at 4 am. We decided that it would be best to find them a new home.
We posted pictures online and within a few days, we were able to find the two Silkies, Palo Santo and Buchu, happy homes. One went to a young family that had lost one of their roosters recently and the other went to the owner of a small wood shop in Unionville whose wife kept a flock of chickens at home.
Now it was time to decide what to do with Chaga. From his first days as a small chick, we had fallen in love. As he got bigger, he filled in with beautiful auburn and black feathers. He was a majestic bird. There was no way we were going to give him away. He was part of our family. But what were we to do about the crowing?
We researched online and came across a unique invention called a No Crow Rooster Collar. This simple solution was a combination of velcro and mesh that could be placed on the rooster like a necklace. Chickens are similar to frogs, they fill a sack of air in their throats that they use to create bellowing crows. The collar limited the amount of air that could fill in the chicken's throat when it attempted to crow and significantly reduced the volume of his crows.
We had found a solution that would save Chaga from getting shipped off. He quickly adjusted to the collar and would take his stance to crow, as regal as ever, and out would come a faint "ca-ca-caw." It worked perfectly.
Chaga, Osha, Amla, Sorrel, and Myrtle were a happy flock. Chaga made sure of it. He trained the hens to come to his call by making a "bak-bak" noise every time he found a tasty treat to share. Every time we would give the chickens treats, Chaga would immediately take credit for making them appear.
The other chickens listened to Chaga. When they were grown enough, we began to let them out in the yard to forage. We would keep a close eye out for hawks, but Chaga was always the first to see them. He would let out a "gwaaak" that would send all the girls running for the cover of the bushes. He was their protector.
While Chaga certainly had the demeanor of a powerful rooster, he also seemed to have the most health issues. The first major medical emergency came when we noticed that half of the top of his beak had broken off and he was walking around like nothing had happened. He must have got it caught in the chicken wire surrounding the coop and powerfully jerked his head breaking his beak. Lauren and I panicked. We quickly searched for what to do for a broken beak and fortunately found a simple solution. We wrapped him in a towel to hold him still and with a few carefully placed dots of super glue I was able to reattach his beak and hold it until the glue set. I now include chicken plastic surgery in the skill section of my resume.
A few months after the beak incident he contracted a respiratory infection. We went back to searching for medical advice online and the results were horrifying. We found many forums of people describing similar symptoms and an inability to save their chicken. We were very scared until we found a recommendation for an antibiotic. We gave him the medicine and a week later he was fully healthy. Disaster averted. He was back to his usual self.
Chaga's favorite treat was dried mealworms. He would sprint across the yard to us at the sight of the bag and would even happily jump to peck them out of our hands extended above his head. He chased rabbits out of the yard and even had a showdown with our new puppy to make sure the dog knew who was boss. He was the first out of the coop in the morning and would greet anyone who walked by. We gave him the affectionate nickname of Chugs, fitting for his barreling stomps and the loud "thud" sound he would make when jumping off of his roost.
Winter was always a tough time for the chickens. We kept them warm with a heat lamp in their coop, but the short days, snow, and cold weather made it hard to find time to let them roam in the yard. Chaga would see me looking out of the kitchen window and pace back and forth at the door of the coop, his way of requesting to be let out.
During a recent snowfall, we needed to salt the path leading to the house. We were worried that the chickens may eat the salt and get sick so we didn't let them out for several days. Eventually, it rained and there was barely any salt left, so we decided it was safe to let them out as long as we closely monitored them. A few strategically placed meal worms seemed to do the trick. We did notice Chaga pecking at a patch of snow at one point but thought nothing of it.
I want to take a moment to reflect here. Life is fragile. I have experienced many losses, pets, friends, and family members. If I had the option of taking the sadness away from those losses, I would not. Grief is a deep well, but if I allow my feelings to sink deeply enough, I find that at the bottom grief is connected to the source of life. Joy and sadness are just two of the many colors that paint the beauty of life.
That afternoon we put the chickens away and later I went out to the coop to check on them one last time before bed. I saw the hens on the perch and then saw Chaga, lying on the other side of the coop. My heart sank, he was lying on his side, not moving. I quickly opened the other coop door and picked him up. His body was stiff. It didn't seem real. This beautiful rooster, so full of life just hours ago was now lying lifeless in my arms.
Still in shock, I walked back to the house opening the door to the kitchen. Telling someone you love something that you know will devastate them is a terrible experience, and I knew there was no way to soften the awful news. I held Lauren in my arms and I told her Chaga was dead. She joined me in shock and panic. We walked out to the coop together so that we could say goodbye to our beloved rooster.
For quite some time we stood looking at him, we pet his feathers. We both waited for the moment we would wake up and realize this had all just been a bad dream. The moment did not come. Instead, we were now faced with our minds trying to make sense of what happened while overwhelmed with emotion.
When I think of grief I picture an ocean. At first, the shock of a loss pulls out all the water, there is an eerie calm, then the tsunami hits. Tears, sadness, anger, and fear all wash over me. Then as time passes, slowly the waves begin to settle. They spread out, moments of calm followed by waves of sadness.
We couldn't sleep that night and laid in bed tossing and turning on the sea of our emotions. We solemnly faced the next day. My heart was broken. I felt the sadness of all the losses in my life. All grief is connected. While it was painful, I knew it was vitally important to let myself feel everything. Grief was showing me the depths of my love. My emotions intimately connected me with reality and the situation brought forth deep sadness.
The next day the world looked different. As I went through my day, I imagined the people that I saw all had experienced, on some level, the loss of something or someone they love. I felt a deep connection with all of humanity. This fleeting life that we all share is full of beauty and sorrow.
I came home from work that day and we ceremoniously buried Chaga. We wrapped his body in a red cloth, said prayers into tobacco and sprinkled it over his body. I placed him in his grave and laid sage leaves and a bone whistle from one of my sun moon dances on his body. We said some more prayers and slowly covered him with the loose earth. We slept more peacefully that night.
As the days pass and the waves of grief begin to settle, I am slowly adjusting to this new reality. I am taking more time to be present with everything that I love and am aware of how fragile life can be. I know that these feelings will fade and I wanted to write this story to remind myself to treasure life. We are temporary, along with everything we love. When I think of Chaga, I want to remember to cultivate a deep gratitude for every moment. It is my hope that this story may encourage you to be present with all that you love.
Today I sit outside watching the four hens, Osha, Amla, Myrtle, and Sorrel, pecking about the coop. The wheel of life continues to turn. Looking back through old pictures of Chaga brings a smile to my face. The sadness is still there but it is softening. I sit down and write this story as a thank you to Chaga for being a beautiful part of my life.