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  • Cat Dorman

In Memory of a Neighborhood Chicken

In 2013 I graduated high school. That same spring, the grade school a block up the street from my parents’ house- named for hot dog and bologna magnate Oscar Mayer- added a chicken coop to their community garden project, forever changing our leafy street.

The school already kept bees which I found delightful, but they mostly kept to their hives. The chickens however, were highly active. There was one kicking up dirt; there was another walking the perimeter; there was one digging a shockingly deep hole for herself, another approaching the exterior fence in hopes of snagging a snack. Each hen had a distinct personality.

Adding to their distinctions were their incredible names, chosen by the school children. A board outside the coop identified each hen: Big Blue Nugget, Turbo Goose, Mrs. Pearl Feathers, Millie Mariposa, and -my personal favorite- Chicken Serious. In my mind Chicken Serious was always the leader of the pack. She walked with confidence, distinguished with her orange, grey and black Ameraucana coloring.

I changed my commute so that I could walk past the coop most days and watch the hens. I brought friends to see the chickens and sent them regular text updates. On a stormy August weekend when friends used my house as basecamp for the Lollapalooza music festival, I led them past the chickens on the way to the Fullerton CTA stop where they would catch the L to the festival. And later that night when they inevitably lost their way as the storms sent partiers running in all directions, the sight of a chicken coop was a beacon of hope, they were close to safety and to dryness. I had claimed the chickens as a landmark in my personal map of Chicago. They weren’t my chickens and yet I felt a sense of ownership and protection for them.

And it seems I wasn’t alone in that. In a local news article, the Garden Project's leader said, "neighbors who didn't even know each other's names are now standing at the fence together watching the chickens." And as the months and years passed the chickens did change my relationship to my neighbors. Almost nothing in the world could induce me to engage in conversation with a random stranger on the street, but the chicken coop was a common ground, a way in. I made a habit of standing outside the coop, watching the birds and chatting idly with dads and their toddlers, the keepers of the coop, and passersby experiencing the coop for the first time. The sight of these funny little birds on a residential street in downtown Chicago built more community than almost anything else.

When I was in grad school my parents left the city behind. I no longer had neighborhood chickens. But since moving away every time I visited the city, if at all possible I made a pilgrimage and paid my respects to Chicken Serious and her sisters. I chronicled these visits on social media, so friends from around the globe now knew about my love of Chicken Serious.

3 photos of a mottled orange and black chicken with other chickens roosting behind her
Credit: Oscar Mayer Garden Project

Over the years the cast of characters began to shift. The names on the board changed and the garden group dutifully posted heartfelt memorials online to each bird when she died, but Chicken Serious remained. With each passing visit, my anxiety increased that Chicken Serious would be absent from the coop, but time and again she remained. The big, beautiful bird.

During the pandemic, I no longer lived a block away but I regularly made my solitary 30 minute walk over to see the birds. Past the closed shops, the houses of neighbors now long gone and retired in the south, and through my own sense of impending doom and isolation. The birds were still living as though nothing changed, and it grounded me.

This past September was the last time I saw Chicken Serious. My friend Kaley, another longtime Chicken Serious devotee, picked up iced coffees and stood at the coop for over 30 minutes reminiscing on our times at the coop, it’s new location and expanded footprint on the back side of the school and how Chicken Serious was the true queen now that she had outlived the Queen of England.

A few days ago, it was time to say goodbye. Chicken Serious died in her old age, the last of the original hens.

It’s strange to feel the loss of a chicken that in recent years I’ve only seen a few times a year so deeply. And yet, I grieve. The past 10 years have been a period of immense change for me- I moved more times than I can count on one hand, between countries and cities, I finished high school, college, graduate school and entered the workforce. I weathered a pandemic. Even when my parents left the city and the street that I loved, Chicken Serious tied me to that place. She tied me to my 18 year old self getting ready to leave behind my childhood, my community and everything I had known. Essentially, I was leaving the safety of my own coop. Chicken Serious has come to represent not just the delight and wonder of chickens suddenly appearing on my city street but of all the things I loved best in my adolescence spent walking by as she kicked up dirt, probably not even knowing I exist.

Rest in Peace Chicken Serious, you were one of the greats.

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