Stargazer is Dead, Long Live Stargazer

Deceptigod and Stargazer, 2021

We started out in 2020 with seven chickens, raised as chicks in two batches. The first batch included Jess Junior, Bella, Biscuit, and Eggo. Later on came Sally, Deceptigod, and Ostro. As you can tell, my niece and nephew named most of them.

Cody and I are both researchers at heart, so when we decided to get chickens we immersed ourselves in literature on chicken farming. We stocked up on electrolytes and medicines, and carefully regulated the temperature each night — first, to keep them warm enough, then to harden them off to cooler temperatures. I made sure to handle them and give them enough attention, so they’d become used to me. Of course I worried, too. It’s what you do when things that are alive depend on you. When it’s your job to keep them safe.

Young chickens make the tweeting sounds of wild birds, and that spring I became accustomed to hearing this surreal sound in our dining room, emanating from the air vent connected to the spare bedroom. When they were old enough we moved them outside to a large wooden coop. We surrounded their new home with a chicken run made of two-by-fours and covered with welded wire and hardware cloth. This was a pandemic project, built with limited tools as the hardware stores had nearly everything on backorder. Despite the fact that we cut the two-by-fours with a sawzall, a tool you use to demolish drywall, it came out pretty straight. It was a real DIY Fort Knox of a chicken setup, safe against both ground predators and hawks.

Predators ended up being the least of our problems. Instead our enemy turned out to be invisible to the naked eye.

Sally was the first of the batch to get sick. She was barely out of her downy chick feathers when I found her wobbling around the run, one wing tipped to the ground, her feathers caked with diarrhea.

“We should bring her inside,” I said to Cody, who nodded in response. And so I did, and bathed her in the never-used jetted tub in our farmhouse bathroom. Once again I dragged out the dog play tent we raised them in, and set her up with electrolytes and fresh bedding for the night.

By the next morning she was gone, lying on her side and cool to the touch. I went outside and checked the other birds, who all seemed as healthy as ever. But it didn’t feel right to leave it at that, so I called the local extension office.

“We could necropsy her for you,” the vet said. “It’s inexpensive, we do it as part of our backyard poultry program. Then you’d know if it was something your other birds could catch, and how to treat it.”

And so that very morning we packed her up in an old Amazon box, with ice packs, and affixed the mysterious biological specimen labels the vet emailed and instructed us to print. It’s a true notch in the bedpost of farm life, mailing a dead animal somewhere.

A few days later they called back, and we learned that she had Marek’s disease.

Marek’s. the great nemesis of all chicken keepers, the worst of all chicken ailments. Highly infectious and usually fatal. All birds who are exposed — vaccinated or not — carry the virus for life.

Despite our best efforts, which included vaccination, we now had a Marek’s positive flock. But given that most seemed healthy, and life has no guarantees anyway, we decided to allow this closed flock to live out their days. I stopped worrying about the hawks and possums so much, and gave them free run of the back yard.

Summer and fall came and went, and in February we hauled the remaining six birds out here to the cabin with us. They weathered the changes as best they could, reshuffling the pecking order as they explored their new, unfamiliar home. Eventually things stabilized. But while the others got brighter and healthier in the deep country, Deceptigod and Ostro got thinner and developed a wobbly gait — all early symptoms of Marek’s. Still, on sunny days they would wander the yard like the others, indistinguishable from afar.

One day about a month later I came out to find Ostro lying down in the fenced yard, her head twisted into the air in a position called “stargazing.” Despite its poetic name, it’s a horrific, awkward pose — something that calls up visions of demon possession. I considered putting her out of her misery, but something in me decided to wait. For a few days she stayed in this state, occasionally straightening up to eat or drink. She’d get a little worse, then a bit better. Deceptigod and her were always close, but now they became inseparable, huddled together on the roost or sleeping in a pile. I thought to myself, “It’s nice she has a friend.”

Given this decline, I figured Ostro would be the next one we’d lose, so I was surprised to come out one day and instead find Deceptigod lying in the coop, already stiff. She must have died early in the morning.

We gave her a proper burial, in the woods by the lake, and marked the spot with a flat stone. Now we were down to five birds.

It was around this time that we renamed Ostro Stargazer. The term no longer evoked that awful, tortured pose for me — instead it made me think of dreamers, astronauts, explorers. It was a great name, actually, and especially fitting for this strange little survivor. In truth I expected her death in weeks, if not days. But to my surprise months passed, snow yielding to spring flowers, then to summer corn and tomatoes, and eventually to fields of goldenrod. And every day Stargazer, my strange, wobbly bird, was still there — dust bathing under the mountain laurel, or traipsing around the compost pile. Each morning she’d jump down from the roosting bar along with the rest, and burst into the cool morning air.

I couldn’t explain it — no one could. It’s a progressive disease, Marek’s. Birds don’t just get better. And yet I was faced with this outlier every day, who defied both science and common sense. As I trudged out to the yard each morning to let them out and fill their food, I’d count the birds coming out of the coop, expecting to find only four. Throughout the day, I’d peek out the window from my makeshift office, to count birds. Still five. Still five.

A few days ago I looked out to find Stargazer lying in front of the coop door. I went out with a handful of food, the other birds scrambling around me and pecking the ground. When I put the food in front of her, she just looked up at me calmly. She was never a big fan of petting, so I gave her a single gentle stroke and left her to sit in the sun. In my head, I said, “goodbye.”

A short time later we checked on her and she was gone, dead in a peaceful sleeping pose. I had worried about her a little bit each day, over these last months. It’s what you do when something’s life depends on you. It was my job to keep her safe, and I know we tried, in all the ways we could. Chickens don’t live a very long time; it makes me wonder what those five months felt like to her. Years, I suppose.

She’s among the stars now, a friend said to me. I like to think of it that way.

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Jessica Martin

Jessica Martin

Former city gal living in a country cabin as we build a forever home. Stories about life and sometimes death. 2021 Medium Writers Challenge Finalist.