Including Gracie and Bessie, there were fourteen chicks to raise in my sunroom. Eight were for friends. Six were for me. Those were some of the busiest, noisiest, but altogether happiest days of my life.
Several kinds of chicks were in the big brooder box there in my sunroom. Somehow, each kind knew when to say, “You’re like me!”Although it was easy for them to tell who was who, it wasn’t always so easy for me.
How do you tell baby chicks apart when you are not a baby chick yourself? They are hardly ever still and always eager to discover everything possible in their new world.
But you must be able to tell them apart before you can give them names. Chickens need names to let them know they matter. Gracie was neither the first nor the last to get her name. Often it takes time to find the perfect name.
Rudy was one of several Rhode Island Reds, but they each had subtle differences in their markings. Rudy had three broad and perfect stripes down her back.
The Brahmas had patches of colorful downy feathers to help identify them. The feathers on their feet had patterns too, but they were seldom still long enough for me to study any of these things. The Emperor and The Empress were the calmest, and that made them easy to identify. They were also the most regal, and they were usually content to watch the others play.
There was only one Plymouth Barred Rock. She was named Mayflower. She never got to say to anyone, “You are like me!” Instead, she was best friends with everyone.
Telling the Buff Orpingtons apart was not quite so simple. There were more of them than any other kind, and they didn’t have markings or patches of color to help identify them. Mostly I knew them by how they acted.
Lefty was easy to spot, and he was the first one I picked out myself on the first trip to The Feed And Seed Store. His energetic personality won my heart as soon as I saw him. He was curious about everything and was always running around to see and do all there was to see and do. He was determined to be the first at everything, and he usually succeeded.
Later on, his comb was the first to develop. That was when I began to suspect he might not grow up to be a hen. There is nothing wrong with being a rooster, but our city only allows hens and no more than six. His comb began leaning over a little to his left, and so he was named Lefty.
Gracie was also easy to spot because she was the opposite of Lefty. Where Lefty wanted to be first, Gracie seemed to prefer being last. She would always hang back from the group or stay close to Bessie.
There was also the lump on her side. She kept it facing the wall of the brooder box most of the time. She was afraid the others would spot it and tease her. As she grew, her feathers disguised it, and she became less shy.
More than anything else, Gracie’s gentle heart and the softness of her eyes set her apart. She would need a special name, and so I waited to give her the best one possible.
Bessie enjoyed playing with the other Buff Orpingtons, so she was easiest to find when it was time to rest. She was the only one who went to Gracie for companionship. Of the two, Bessie always made friends more easily. Even so, she knew who her very best friend would always be.
Bessie often told Gracie stories about silly things the others would do when they were playing. She hoped this would help Gracie to try new things without being embarrassed.
Gracie would tremble with excitement before jumping into one of their games and then jumping back out. But anyone could tell she was enjoying it by the way she would say “PeeP!” in the most delightful way.
Over time, my ears learned to pick out Gracie’s peeping because when she peeped, the sound always made my heart happy. Whatever “PeeP!” meant to a chicken, Gracie always said it with more joy and gratitude than any of the others.
Even with knowing Gracie’s voice, one “PeeP!” sounded like every other “PeeP!” to me. Before long, all the baby chicks were not only peeping, they were cheeping too. And, of course, those all sounded the same as well.
But I did wonder if there was a difference between “PeeP!” and “CheeP!” As silly as it seemed to me at the time, maybe they were real chicken words with different meanings.
As I learned to focus on only what Gracie said, I noticed her peeps to Bessie were not all the same. One “PeeP!” no longer sounded like every other “PeeP!” to me. Something was just a little different. The same was true for when she said “CheeP!” This was quite curious, and I was determined to learn more.
But my learning was not nearly as important as their learning. Baby chicks need to learn how to perch as high as possible to keep themselves safe from predators. To help them learn, I began stacking garden bricks in the brooder box. First there were only low stacks, but over time, I made them higher.
In the beginning, Gracie was only comfortable on the lowest bricks. Bessie was eager to try any new challenge, particularly if Lefty might accomplish it before her. She seemed determined not to let Lefty be the first at everything.
After reaching each new perching height, Bessie taught Gracie. She would make sure Gracie was watching her. Then she repeated it until Gracie would dare to try. Most of the time, Gracie would do it on the first attempt. But getting her to make the first attempt often took a good amount of convincing. Bessie kept right on encouraging her. A high perch is no fun when your best friend can’t be there beside you.
There were times when Bessie would put her beak under Gracie’s tiny tail feathers and act as if she was giving her a boost up to the next brick. But, of course, that tickled, and they both ended up laughing. Then Gracie would leap and flap up to the next brick with hardly any effort at all.
Soon, some of the baby chicks began to set their eyes on higher goals than stacks of garden bricks. As expected, Lefty was the first to make it to the top of the water bottle. Once he had made it there, all the bold Brahma chicks wanted to do it too. It was the highest spot inside their brooder box and the ultimate place to be.
Because the top of the water bottle only held one at a time, any new challenger would usually bump off whoever was already there unless they were both very careful. Being bumped off was not so bad because as they flapped their wings on the way down, they learned to fly.
In no time at all, Bessie and most of the others were able to reach the top of the water bottle, but Gracie never did. It may have looked like it was too much for her, especially the bumping off part of the game. Being bumped off might not have been good for the lump on her side.
Only later would she tell me about how she dreamed of doing something much more spectacular than reaching the top of the water bottle.