Houdini, Chicken of Mystery

We have five chickens, all of them completely impractical birds. There's one whopper and four midgets, smaller but less destructive as a result. Not from any lack of trying, though.

Gigi is the foster mother of the other four. She is a quiet giant in a sea of tiny beings: take Yao Ming and put him with my family and you have a good idea of the imbalance in size. Or maybe take a Saint Bernard and surround her with chihuahuas and you've hit your mark. Regardless, she stands out. She lords her enormous girth over the rest of the flock with no small amount of dignity, or maybe I'm projecting: she used to be the whipping-chicken in Flock Number One, but she has reclaimed her chicken crown. Woe be to the tiny challenger who would take her on.

There are her four foster bantams: L'il Bit, Lulu, Sam the Eagle and Houdini. With the exception of Gigi who is an unfair match against the others, there is a balance of power between breeds: two bantam Cochins and two bantam Brahmas. They parry and duck and weave between each other, fighting for domination with tiny blows from their beaks. It is difficult to divine the pecking order; Sam the Eagle will turn on her Brahma sister L'il Bit with fury, but then the two of them will turn on the Cochins together. Lulu and Houdini take turns picking on each other, and depending on their mood will rumble with the Brahmas. Then all five hens will mingle peacefully, Gigi in the lead, and universally turn their avian cruelty upon my spring bulbs. Such is the life of hen.

It is not like having a personable cat for company, but they do have distinct and interesting personalities. And I don't like to play favorites, but lately it has been Houdini who has won my heart.

Houdini, the Escape Artist. Houdini, Chicken of Mystery.

Ever since I got into the chicken habit, I harbored a fantasy of having the most exotic, absurd birds one could acquire. But there are limits to the number of chickens one can bring home, and we are subject to the whims of the hatcheries and what they send to the nursery. The first chicken batch I had was a lovely set of birds, but extremely chickeny; they were temperamentally ridiculous but looked an awful lot like your basic farmyard chickens. I wanted something...more.

Had I been at the nursery when this breed came in, you can bet your bippy I would have picked one up. But alas, there were none the day I went, so instead I decided to move forward with an eccentric collection of feather-footed friends, including my future favorite, Houdini.

When we brought her home, she was not a Houdini; she was named Zsa Zsa due to her lovely white coiffure to-be, hinted at as a tiny chick-let by the curling ends of her downy pin feathers. It was tough to see the cotton ball of absurdity that she would become in those first days, but I knew that the barest hint of curling feathers meant a career of comedy gold.

For she is a Frizzle. And Frizzles epitomize absurdity.

She is for all intents and purposes a Cochin, a breed of fluffy chicken feathers right down to the tips of her talons. But she is a Cochin with a little extra sumptin'sumptin', a genetic anomaly that makes her feathers bend backwards instead of laying flat against her. Non-useful in any kingdom except for Man's in his Quest for Useless Adaptations, she is the winner in the war of specialized chicken breeding.

So instead of being just ridiculous like her close counterparts Gigi and Lulu, she is an over-the-top-can't-stop-staring,-what-the-hell-happened-to-that-chicken? chicken.

She looks like a poorly dried mop or a poodle in an electrical socket, or maybe just a chicken flushed down the loo and fished out again, like the hapless loser in high school after a swirly. But in spite of that, or maybe even because of it, all two pounds of her exudes a sort of chickeny dignity that eludes the others.

Sam the Eagle (named after "Sam the Eagle" of Muppet Show fame) is simply beautiful. There's no real humor to be found in a chicken of this loveliness. A Light Brahma, she's white with a black collar and black lacing in her tail feathers, a petite comb and graceful carriage. She's a perfectly lovely bird but a lousy comedienne. L'il Bit is the yin to Sam's yang, a Dark Brahma who remains the best argument I've seen for the avian/saurian relationship: she's a dinosaur shrunk to manageable size, running like a velociraptor across the yard hunting for bugs and the company of her fellow chickens.

Lulu is the quintessential chicken with the exception of her fuzzy feet: snow white, dainty, her bright red comb pert but slightly listing to one side. I picked her out of the brooder at the nursery for this very reason: she looked like an Easter Peep, all downy yellow, nimbly bobbing and weaving in the galvanized tub through fifty other chicks. She was a stereotype then, she remains a stereotype now, except that she's filthy from the mud and rain. Chickens are not a tidy race.

So that leaves Houdini, Chicken of Mystery. She announced herself as an odd ball with the wacky feathers, but it is her knack for comedy that endears.

Chicks are pretty devoid of personality their first couple of months; truthfully we couldn't name them because they were pretty tough to distinguish from each other until they were older, and, let's face it, more crafty and malicious. It isn't until they start beating up on each other that you really get a sense of them and what's working underneath the feathers. Once Gigi made clear through some well-placed pecks that her fosterlings were out of the nest and on their own, they began to menace each other with flare to carve out their identities.

In this Houdini excels.

I first took notice of Houdini by losing her. Every night we make sure the hen house door is locked against all comers looking for a late-night chicken dinner to get a head count soon after dark. And in most cases they're all there, huddled up on the roost bar, shoving each other aside for prime real estate. But one night, Houdini wasn't there. She was just gone. I began to panic, as we had learned that opossums are opportunists and raccoons are a bloody-minded lot with a real taste for fresh bird. I looked in the run, I looked in the nest box, I looked everywhere in their immediate vicinity. No Houdini.

I took the flashlight and searched more thoroughly through the yard, looking for tell-tale signs of malfeasance, like piles of shredded feathers and bloody dismembered chicken feet, horrors like that. I poked the beam under shrubs and in boxes, in the shed, in the bamboo forest next to the coop. I was out there for half an hour looking for the little Dickens and was just giving up when I put the light under the least likely of shrubs where she huddled, all mop and scowl, reluctantly giving up her spot under the bush as I tugged her out to place her with the team.

While we free-range them some, this flock does not run as rough-shod over the yard as the last gang of thugs. Instead, I made sure when they were small and didn't know any better that their run would accommodate them comfortably, and then we'd let them out once in a while as a treat.

But Houdini was not satisfied with my arrangements. I'd sit at the dining table while writing, facing our double paned door, and out of the corner of my eye I'd spot a white blob rolling across the yard. Casually meandering without her crew and no-one to compete for bugs, she would relish her freedom picking at dirt, stroll there pecking at pebbles; she was unusually confident for one so silly looking.

I would try to find the spot she had escaped through to no avail; she always made a break for it when I was looking elsewhere. One minute I would look out and all the hens were in the run, the next minute like a magic act Houdini emerged through unassailable walls, and I would discover her taunting the others by eating grass right next to them, but separated by the run of chicken wire she had slipped through.

She was clever enough to find her way out; finding her way back in was her Achilles heel. Which was how I discovered her under a shrub: she had sneaked out but had been unable to get back in the run once the sun went down. Apparently chicken-smarts are a one way street. So the next time I went out looking for her, because she again was missing from the roosting bar, I wasn't that concerned.

Apparently neither was she. Just about the time I re-opened the hen house to assure a quick entry once I found her, she calmly strolled out from under a different shrub, all cock-of-the-walk, waiting for me to pick her up and put her in the hen house. As if she knew...as if she was waiting for me.

This is how Houdini has worked her way into my soul.

She mocks the others with her escapes; that it took me months to divine how she was getting out should give an idea of her rather remarkable cool. But it is her ability to elude the others, to escape without them figuring out how she did it right under their beaks that impresses me. It must have driven them mad to see her there, blithely chomping away on delicious morsels in the freedom of the greater world. They would pace back and forth, back and forth, clucking a low grumpy growl of a cluck while she plucked at delicious weeds and filled her crop with pebbles from the path. How it must have driven them mad!

It was only when we went out of town for a few days and someone else was watching the girls that I covered her seKrit Houdini Egs-it. I had become too fond of her to let my poor neighbor become distraught over the missing chicken in the night. It was with a little tinge of sadness that I blocked her escape route with leftover plexi from their coop.

But she's earned her name, and though I'm fairly sure she hasn't found another escape path she still manages to surprise me.

The damnedest thing about hens is that they keep going broody on you, even though you've made sure to keep Hen Island free of gents. They just can't help themselves, and they'll camp out on an empty nest for just as long as you like before they become convinced that there's no there there. Depending on their temperaments it could be a couple of days, or, as turns out with both Lulu and Gigi, six weeks before they take the stupid, enormous, skull-crushing hint that no mini-chickens will emerge from the nest strangely devoid of ovoids and the hen house strangely devoid of a rooster.

At least they've tried to outwit me in one respect. It seems they might have cottoned onto the fact that I keep stealing their future progeny, so they have been trying to keep me on my toes as to where they're leaving them. In most cases I stumble upon them if they're not immediately obvious in a couple short glances around the coop and environs. If they're being really sneaky, they'll stash one in the bamboo. But it's a perpetual Easter Egg Hunt around these parts, and I'll be damned if I can keep up with them.

But I was prepared for the winter break at least, and was unsurprised that they left off laying as the light shrunk and became willowy and thin. Chickens are both diurnal and seasonal, going into a touch of hibernation in the winter when they stop laying so copiously, while making new feathers and saving up for the bumper crop of spring. No eggs came as little surprise to me once I stopped finding three or four a day. If I found one, I felt I had won a coup of chicken against human wits.

My husband came in from the nightly lock-up of the coop, warning me that Houdini had flown it again. It was dark. She was missing.

I pull on his boots which make me look like a stubby clown and went to check the chicks. I wasn't concerned. It wasn't like this wasn't familiar to me now.

I searched high and low. I looked in the bushes again, and the bamboo. I looked everywhere in the coop, obvious or not. I again began to give up hope when, with one last look in the hen house, lit blood red with a heat lamp since it's been so cold, I took count of our girls on their roost again. Four.

And then a growling hiss of a chicken, murmuring hostility and protective fury at the blood-red human silhouette ducking into her space while she sat on their most recent secret nest.

It was possibly the most clever, most inappropriate place for a nest ever. It was in their roosting house on the floor tucked in a corner behind the only window. To see a chicken there I would have to, by necessity, bring my whole upper body through the window to see what was there. It was warm and dark and cozy and all her friends were there; they were just stacked above her like cordwood, where they would be raining bird guano dangerously close to her all night long.

She was flattened out like a sheepskin rug, with just a tiny little comb and two fierce chicken eyes staring at me. Her tiny two pounds were focused with intensity upon their biological priority: hatching eggs. She was wider than she was tall by a mighty bit, pulling her wings out on either side of her, stretching her meager portions over her precious mission.

I caught sight of an egg beneath her and reached under her to pull it out. Then another. At a second glance I realized that in some masterful avian agreement they had all been using this special hideaway, this retreat from thieving primate fingers and laying eggs for quite some time. She was squashed as flat as she could make herself, providing the warm real estate to incubate an impossible number of eggs for anyone, especially a chicken two pounds soaking wet.

I needed a bowl. I needed a really big bowl.

I got it and stole a potpourri of the whole flocks' eggs from under a disgruntled Houdini: small golf balls from Lulu and Houdini, weird tiny torpedoes from L'il Bit and Sam, and mighty, rich brown wonder eggs from Gigi the Über Chicken.  I brought them back to the house to the open confused expression of my husband. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. It was a lot of eggs. They had been working in secret for a while and their efforts had paid off. Absent a rooster, they were mighty close to their goal of chicken dominion without the stupid humans ever catching on until it was too late.

Houdini is pissed now.

Unlike our other broody hens, she is not sitting around idle waiting for more eggs to magically appear under her. She's embraced her cause with vim.

Last night I panicked again, having done the nightly headcount: all accounted for, except Houdini. So out came the flashlights even though it was barely dusk, and just as before she was in the last possible place I could look, in this case an old nest box that I took out of the coop because it was getting a little crusty.

There she was, exposed to the raccoons and the possums, the mangy cats and the elements, stoically sitting on eggs she had hidden from me. She bristled as I pulled her out and put her back in the safety of the coop.

But be assured she is plotting her next escape. Quietly. Patiently. Passionately.

She will find a way to outwit me. She is Houdini the Escape Artist, Chicken of Mystery.