Fall is my favorite season, not only because of its beauty, but because it embodies the impermanence that blesses and taxes our lives. Nothing so says loss — and yet so hints at renewal — as trees again shedding once- verdant leaves whose color now speaks of exhausted potential, of depletion.
Unless, of course, it’s a bunch of crabby chickens in mid-molt.
Every fall, my little flock of nine hens undergoes the painful ritual of dropping spent feathers and acquiring new. In this way, they are like wild birds, signaled by decreasing day length to renew their plumage for migration and cold weather.
Molting occurs in a generally predictable sequence, beginning with the head and neck and ending with the wings and tail, though some areas molt simultaneously. It takes an immense amount of metabolic energy; my hens stop laying when they begin to molt, and won’t begin again until lengthening daylight portends the arrival of spring.
The process itself can take months, and it’s never pretty. The best layers tend to molt hard and fast; I once had a barred rock who was so painfully disoriented by the pin feathers emerging between her legs that for days she staggered drunkenly around the coop.
My current flock is faring better, but it’s still excruciating, for all of us. The friendliest of my girls, usually happy to be picked up and cooed over, now avoid any possibility of being handled. They are not themselves in other ways, too, ways that remind me of how we humans sometimes respond to changes in our lives that feel traumatic: We lose confidence; we forget our strength, our beauty.
This is evident in my chickens through a radical disruption of the pecking order. This year, one hen — Em, a big beautiful Brahma who was near the top – molted early. She is now sporting brilliant white plumage, fully restored to her former glory. Yet, she is still letting Charlotte — a diminutive Welsummer at the bottom of the pecking order — bully her.
Usually meek, Charlotte has seized the shifting energy of the molt to similarly harass Tess, a buff orpington and flock leader whose otherwise supreme self-confidence has diminished with every shed feather.
Meanwhile Chirp, my beautiful but mildly retarded salmon faverolle, seems even more confused than usual. And Ellie, a gentle Americana who lays beautiful green-shelled eggs, is keeping her distance from everyone, quill feathers poking through a half-naked neck and a single ratty tail feather about to drop from her bum.
Change can look just like this, especially in the middle distance, when what was is gone, and what will be has not yet arrived. In the aftermath of loss or disruption, I have felt just like my hens; maybe you have, too. We forget ourselves and, sometimes, our place with each other. We are not what we were, nor yet what we are becoming. We are a little lost.
It’s a good time to hunker down, to rest, to nourish. I watch my hens as they stand listlessly in the yard, bright eyes lidded in the Indian summer sun, or as they sit in the shelter of their run, acutely aware of their increased vulnerability. I offer them crumbles of ground beef; they take it eagerly from my fingers, savoring the protein-rich treat.
And I offer them encouragement, to keep the faith through the change that periodically blesses and taxes all of our lives: You are in the process of becoming, I tell them. Be patient: Remember who you are, your changeless perfection. You are still, and ever, beautiful.