They Call Me “Poor Buttercup”

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Our first group of chicks were growing up, two springs ago, and gradually earning names. There were eleven girls, and at one point inspiration waned so I began giving those pullets names of squash and spices. Sadly, Cayenne and Curry and Pumpkin have succumbed to predation, but Buttercup is still with us. She was never akin to “Poor Buttercup” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore; Buttercup was the clear leader of the flock in the days before we had a rooster. She strode at the head of the feathery phalanx who ran from the coop each morning. She “crowed” to alert the other girls of a tasty cache of bugs in the flowerbeds. She sounded the alarm to her sisters when she sensed danger. When the late Claude Girouxster joined the flock, she gathered the twelve other ladies together and quickly hatched a plan to let that rooster know who was in charge on Hard Hill, and that it was not him. Although Claude was eventually welcomed into the outdoor family, that first night was a rough one for him.

Buttercup continued to be a leader, alive and clucking, as her sisters were stolen away by the still-unidentified, late afternoon predator. She successfully repelled the early and awkward amorous intentions of Stripe, the new roo who was raised here on Hard Hill last summer by the late, lamented Little — Buttercup’s Buff Orpington flock sister. Summer passed into autumn, and the ranks of the original flock continued to decline. Stripe grew from a pesky cockerel into a handsome, if not huge, rooster. And as it got colder, Buttercup ‘s energy seemed to ebb. Was she sick? Was she lonely? Was she anxious about avoiding Stripe?

As Buttercup entered her first-ever molt, her status seemed to sink along with her energy. She huddled half-naked, trying to stay out of the fall winds, finding safety in the alpaca’s barn from both the chill and the pecking of her flock mates. She would not enter the coop at night without a human with her. She slept alone in the vestibule of the coop, and we gave her a head start out in the morning so she could find herself a safe spot for the day before the others came out. She also had a few independent minutes to eat the morning scratch without fear of attack. She was struggling. The girl who had lead the other hens from the brooder to the coop and through the blizzard of 2016 looked bare and scrawny and didn’t seem like she was going to succeed in managing the natural changes in her life.

We allowed Buttercup to care for herself. We gave her extra protein in the evening. Two of her sisters — who had themselves miraculously survived predator attacks last fall, followed by their own molts — took turns sleeping in the vestibule with her at night, keeping her warm and companioned. Her feathers grew back in to the point where she no longer looked half-plucked. She stayed alone most days, but she was regaining her weight. She greeted us each evening when we came out, trotting around the barnyard and clucking about her day. She had made it.

Buttercup has moved on with her life, returning to her chatty hen-ness, sitting on our laps, and escorting us around the farm. Her vigor has returned. It is unclear if she will regain her flock status or feel safe again, or if she will continue to thrive when winter reasserts itself, or if the predator returns this spring, or when the chicks we have ordered for April arrival feather out and move into the coop. But right now, she seems to have accepted her changes with grace and style. Poor little Buttercup? I don’t think so.