Signs posted at Montana trailheads usually warn of bears, not chickens. But on Monday, Missoula resident Nadia White left a note on the Barmeyer Trail more for the benefit of chickens than hikers.
White, her friend Jen and their dog had decided to take a quick, smoky hike up the Barmeyer Trail before Jen went to work on Monday morning. They had the trail to themselves as they started up the switchbacks. Or so they thought.
They’d seen a small pile of white feathers on the ground, a clue to what lay ahead.
“We looked ahead, and Jen said, ‘Isn’t that funny? That log really looks like a chicken,’” White said. “The dog started after it, and it moved, and we said, ‘It is a chicken.’”
A large white rooster stood by the trail, looking a bit startled itself. White told the dog to leave the chicken alone as they gawked at the sight.
Sadly, the rooster may be one of the next round of abandoned urban chickens to end up in more wild settings where they are ill-equipped to survive.
In 2013, abandoned chickens made headlines after it became popular for city dwellers to keep chickens to harvest their own eggs. Some bought into the craze without really considering what it takes to keep chickens. Later, animal shelters were overwhelmed with unwanted chickens. No doubt a number were abandoned outside of towns then too.
“Many areas with legalized hen-keeping are experiencing more and more of these birds coming in when they’re no longer wanted,” said Paul Shapiro, former Humane Society of the U.S. vice president in 2013. “You get some chicks, and they’re very cute, but it’s not as though you can throw them out in the yard and not care for them.”
Now, there may be another uptick in unwanted chickens after some people panic-bought chicks at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, thinking they’d need their own food sources. Now that winter is approaching and they see that grocers are capable of keeping food on the shelves, some may be tiring of chickens’ daily upkeep.
Roosters are most at risk of abandonment because they don’t lay eggs and crow when people want to sleep.
So that’s probably why the chicken crossed the Barmeyer trail.
White and Jen hiked a little farther before turning around. As they neared the chicken again, White wanted to try to catch it, fearing that it might not survive the usual barrage of morning dog walkers. But Jen had to get to work and couldn’t wait for White to wrangle the rooster.
“So I just put a note at the trailhead, saying ‘Alert, there’s a chicken on the trail,’ telling people to keep their dogs on a leash until they get well past the chicken turnoff,” White said.
But after White returned to her house at the bottom of Pattee Canyon, the chicken’s plight kept gnawing at her conscience. She’s had dogs that weren’t as well behaved as her current pet, and she’s heard coyote calls from up the canyon. So she turned to social media, posting about the chicken on the “Fetching Ted” Facebook page.
“That’s where KC saw it. And she sprang into action,” White said.
Down in the Bitterroot Valley, KC York read White’s post and started to fret. She’s had to rescue chickens before.
In November, she responded to another post about a rooster abandoned near the Bitterroot River south of Hamilton. That chicken – a frizzle known for laying good eggs but not when they’re roosters – is still with her.
But she was a little reluctant to go after the Barmeyer bird. She was suffering from a foot injury, the wildfire smoke is making her asthma worse, and she had no idea where the Barmeyer Trail was. But after seeing that no one else was going to help, she got in her car.
“I thought, ‘If he’s dead, at least I went,’” York said. “I always regret the things I didn’t do more.”
She finally found the trailhead a little after noon and saw White’s sign. Seeing a woman coming down the trail, York asked if she’d help rescue the rooster. The woman was happy to, and York hobbled up the trail after her.
“And there he was, just standing in the trail, the poor guy,” York said. “He was obviously dumped – he just didn’t know what to do with himself.”
After York put some food in the trail, it didn’t take much for the two women to corral the rooster and pick him up. York said he’s a young bird and wasn’t aggressive. Once she held him, he was calm as she took him back to her car. The other woman – York didn’t catch her name – was thrilled to help the bird after having seen it on the trail.
York said many people had walked by the chicken that morning, and maybe some thought it had flown there from a coop in Pattee Canyon. But chickens don’t fly that far, and White said she had seen the wings were clipped.
After she returned home, York posted about the rooster rescue on Facebook, where White saw the photos.
“I laughed – I was having a pretty COVID-like Monday and was a little fed up with masks and distancing. Then I laughed so hard, it really made my day,” White said.
But the laughter was followed by some serious thoughts after White learned about the problem of chicken abandonment.
“It does seem a little cruel to me that you would get into the urban chicken business and not have the fortitude to slaughter the roosters and eat them – if that’s what’s going on – that you would just turn them loose to be coyote fodder,” White said.
“It would be very traumatic for a lot of dog owners if their dog were to kill it. The rooster would be equally dead, and the people who released their rooster rather than put it into chicken soup – I don’t think their hands are any cleaner.”
York is caring for the rooster but is hoping to find a home for it. Anyone interested should send a Facebook message to “KC York.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.