Our Chickens Have a Guest for Dinner

A day-old chick
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I was deep into a Netflix movie–a good way to fill evenings like last night when Ann works late–when I realized it was almost dark and I hadn’t penned up the chickens for the night.

The evening was warm and calm between rain showers; lightning flashed soundlessly in the far distance as I slipped on my boots on the back porch. I leashed the dog and set out into the dusk of a spring evening, grumbling but secretly grateful for the duty that would have me briefly in the crepuscular world of the night shift creatures before I let them have it to themselves til morning.

With the dog walk done, I clipped his leash on the garden fence while I took care of “the girls”, crossing the raucous creek on the wet foot bridge, then up the three flat stepping stones in the bank, and up into the twilight shadows of the barn, ‘round the spicebush at the corner, and into the chain-link pen built against the side of the barn.

We make a habit of waiting long enough each day so that the chickens put themselves up; trying to stuff them in the little coup-house when they aren’t ready to go is like putting toothpaste back in the tube. All was quiet save for some soft clucking that is almost like the purring of a cat.

Earlier in the day, Ann had leaned the 4×8 plywood on its short end, up against the house, a habit we started during the snows so that the drop-down door would open onto bare ground instead onto of a foot of snow. We’ve continued the practice when it rains, as it gives us a place to put their feeder to stay dry and it gives them a little “porch” to shelter under.

But when it comes time to close the chickens up for the night, the plywood becomes a bit of a work-flow liability. Even so, it was not snowing or raining at that moment last night; the wind wasn’t howling; and so with practiced efficiency, I was able to tilt the wet sheet of wood enough to rest it against my back while I reached down to lift then latch the plank door and close the birds up safely for the night.

Somewhere along Nameless Creek, a Screech Owl trilled its throaty scream twice as its day dawned, then grew silent. The rains returned, fat drops splatting against the board still resting angled on my back. I had yet to open the hatch door for the eggs.  We’ve been getting up to four on the recent longer days, so I knew there would be a hen sitting on the eggs and I’d have to slide my hand under her to find them by feel alone in the near-dark, slip them in my shirt pockets and go back to the house and finish my movie.

That my fingertips made contact with something smooth, cold and soft was puzzling. Must be the bird’s reptilian legs, I supposed with a raised eyebrow, so I tried again to go a little lower to wedge my fingers under the setting bird. More soft coldness heavy against the front half of my right hand. I think we have a situation here.

Lifting the board behind me to let in a bit more light, a dark mass filled the round depression in the hay where the bird should be warming the eggs. From the evidence I’d already gathered, there was now an unidentified snake occupying that space, and it was not a small one. And it was not there to visit Blanche or Rhoda.

Here one must make a calculated decision. We’ve not seen enough poisonous snakes here in a decade to make that a likely ID for this egg-sucker. Chances were high that it was a king snake or more likely, a rat snake. The latter two are mild of disposition (compared to something like the brown water snakes that also hang around the barn–which would strike for sure, but cause more emotional than cutaneous trauma.

I reached in, grabbed a loop of snake, and quickly dropped the dark tangle onto the hay of the pen. So heavy it was that it sounded like I’d thrown down a sack of flour. It lay in a loose coil like fifty feet of garden hose, a white object in its mouth, swelling its head to three times its normal size.

Poking at it with my boot, it moved only a little. A few prods with the broken hoe we keep for coop-cleaning got him moving, inch by inch, foot by foot, through the chain link–and this continued for well more than five feet. There was the hint of a pattern on what (I think) was a dark phase gray rat snake. I’m sure this is not his first taste of chicken eggs.

And I don’t know how to insure it will be his last. I wiped the snake spit off the single surviving egg, and headed towards the golden glow inside the white farmhouse, back across the rushing creek through the smell of spring to home.

We’ll gather eggs earlier and more often. And I will always look first before reaching in for cold-round to be sure I don’t instead get a handful of cold-scaly.

Ready for another tall tale: Go join Floydian Jim Connor On The Porch. But put on your water wings first.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Reminds me of the time my daddy reached into the feed sack and found a copperhead instead…just be careful!

  2. Snakes seem to appear when you least expect them and disappear just as easily. Seems to be part of their mystique. A wonderful and surprising experience for sure.


  3. When I kept chickens, I encountered snakes in the nests several times, usually black snakes. My practice was to collect eggs in late morning since most were laid by then. I never figured out how to keep snakes out of the hen house.

  4. Wow!

    Reminds me of my own surprise. I was in Botswana. 18 and working for de Beers as a diamond prospector. It was the week end and I was sitting in my camp chair reading of all things, a copy of Playboy – the articles!

    I heard a scratching noise under my chair. Thinking it was my dog, Monty, I put my hand down to stroke him. I felt the same thing you did in the hen house. This was not a dog. I looked down and there was a very surprise Puff Adder. I did the world record sitting high jump – he did the world record snake sprint.

    As I read your piece it all came back – heart pounding and all.

  5. Ye, gods! ALREADY?????!!!! Jeez! I’ve got to be more careful…and get the eggs earlier, too!! Holy Smokes! I know snakes are “good guys” and I know they get far more rodents and other pests that we give them credit for….but…..eeewww!…I suffer from herpetophobia! MM’s the “snake guy” and is my hero when it comes to evicting said snakes from the chicken coop every year! All I do is yell,


  6. Just one of many reasons I take a flashlight with me when I go out to lock up and count beaks. We’ve learned to lock up early too–if only to make sure all are accounted for! How is Pearl doing?