Petunia came to the Counting My Chickens flock on May 11, 2014, and left it on May 31, 2019. She wasn’t one of my original hens, but she was a longstanding member of the flock and a good friend and sister to Mabel and Hazel, who have been around since Day 1.
In a tribute to her, I’m going to tell you Petunia’s story. This is her chicken obituary.
But first a little backstory.
Counting My First Chickens
I got my first three chickens in June 2012. This was a much anticipated event, and I already had their names picked out. My original plan was to get a fourth chicken, which would be named Petunia, but as a newbie, I was nervous that four chickens would be too many. You could say I “chickened out” (ha ha).
So, in the end, only Mabel, Hazel, and Penelope came to live in my backyard.
The chickens came from my sister-in-law Jen, who had received a mixed batch of 36 baby chicks by mail order that March. She told me I could have as many as I wanted, so Bob and I converted an unused dog run into a chicken pen and built a chicken coop from a kit. When we were ready, Jen dropped off three pullets at my house one afternoon and my chicken keeping adventure began.
After years of wanting backyard chickens, I learned chickens were much more than a source of healthy protein, they were beloved family pets. Life was good with my three pet chickens.
Until one day two years later. When I went to let out the chickens in the morning, I found Penelope dead on the floor of the coop. There were no signs of “fowl” play; it appeared she simply passed during the night and fell off the roost.
Fortunately, Mabel and Hazel were fine. But I adored Penelope. She was a gorgeous white-crested black Polish – too beautiful to be of this world, I said – and I was devastated by her sudden loss.
Shortly after Penelope’s untimely demise, we were over at Jen’s house for a family gathering. The talk, of course, turned to chickens, and Jen shared that all of her Polish hens from that batch of 36 chicks also had passed (underscoring my “too beautiful for the world” theory). But, with the exception of a few who had been lost to predators on the farm, most of the other hens survived.
After a few glasses of wine, Jen said to me, “Let’s go get you another chicken.”
“Okay,” I said.
Jen yelled for Lucas, my teenage nephew, to get the cat carrier and follow us to the barn. The next thing I knew, the three of us were traipsing down to the barn, me with wine glass still in hand, and Jen musing, “I wonder if I’ll be able to catch one.”
“What?” I said. “Don’t they come right to you?”
She gave me a look. “Deb, my chickens are wild.”
We entered the chicken coop inside the barn and before either the chicken or I realized what was happening, Jen grabbed a random chicken off the roost by its legs and shoved it into the cat carrier. As the poor hen squawked in surprise, I tried to offer some comfort.
“Hi chicken” I said. “Your name is now Petunia. You’re going to come live with me and have a wonderful life.”
And I took her home.
A New Girl in the Flock
Although introducing a new hen always disrupts the pecking order, Petunia assimilated quickly to the flock. I liked to think she fit in so well because all three remembered their time together in the brooder two years earlier. She was the same breed as Mabel, which I initially thought was Barred Rock but eventually concluded was Dominique because of their rose combs.
It didn’t take Petunia long to figure out the routine in her new home. She laid an egg the day after she arrived, and became a reliable layer of big, light brown eggs. She didn’t seem to mind being confined to the pen, even though she was used to having a whole barnyard to roam in.
But Petunia always was standoffish when it came to me. True to Jen’s description of her wild chickens, Petunia wasn’t one I could pick up easily, and would give chase when it came time for her regular physical assessments. But eventually she came around to the point she would eat meal worms right out of my hand, although more reluctantly than the other two.
Petunia and I did have one little bonding ritual. She was never one to go willingly into the coop at night – she preferred the outdoor roost. So I’d always have to chase her around the pen for a while before she finally jumped up into the doorway of the coop. There she would squat and wait for what I called her chicken massage. I’d rub her under her wings for a bit before finally giving her a little push into the coop so I could shut the door. For a chicken that generally didn’t liked to be touched, she sure did enjoy her nightly chicken massages.
Counting More Chickens
Eventually, I added three other hens to the flock. Marigold and Betty, the Easter Eggers, came as pullets in 2015 and Bernice, the little red rescue hen, in 2018. Petunia was never as welcoming to the new girls as Mabel and Hazel were to her.
Petunia was bossy. She had a half-crow that sounded like “cocka” without the “doodle doo.” Her favorite thing was the dust bath, and she somehow managed to hog both dust baths at the same time whenever I filled them with new dust.
She may not have been at the top of the pecking order, but she was Mabel’s winghen. I like to think of her as the muscle who kept the rest of the flock in order, but always differing to her lookalike.
Petunia stopped laying eggs sometime last summer. I think it was maybe July when I realized I hadn’t had an egg from her in a long time. She made it through her molt in the fall and the long winter, although I was worried during the polar vortex, but she never really perked up in the springtime like chickens do.
She started spending a lot of time by herself, in the nesting box, on the outdoor roost, or in a nest of straw in the corner of the pen. She stopped going nutty over meal worm treats.
For the last couple of months, I’ve been telling Bob that I didn’t think Petunia was long for the world.
Sadly, I was right.
I came home Friday after a long day on the road and went out to see the chickens. I found her in the chicken playhouse I had fashioned out of an old overturned laundry basket. (The chickens recently had rediscovered the basket after months of ignoring it and had been nesting in it during the day, several of them piled in like clowns in a car.)
Petunia’s body was cold and stiff when I found her, so she had been gone for a while. I imagined some of the others had been in there with her when she went. It would have been a peaceful way to go, in a favorite spot surrounded by her best friends.
Like I had done five years earlier, I enlisted Bob to dig a hole in the backyard so I could give her a proper burial (in an Amazon box). I tossed in a few mealworms for her trip to the rainbow bridge, taped up the box, and we said goodbye. We toasted to her later with glasses of red wine.
The other chickens seem sad, especially Hazel, who had been especially attentive to her lately.
I won’t lie; I was surprised by how sad I felt at the loss. But life goes on in the chicken pen, and I do feel I kept the promise I made to Petunia that day in the barn.
She had a pretty great life.
Rest in peace, sweet Tuners. The flock won’t be the same without you.
Additional reading: How to Deal With the Death of a Pet.