The member of the animal kingdom most frequently associated with jewelry heists is decidedly feline: the cat burglar.
But in my case, it was a chicken. A chicken named Condi.
Her full name, actually, was Condoleeza Rice. Like all of my hens, she was named after a famous woman I admire. Her “sisters” – the first batch of day-old chickens I ever raised – included Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhardt, and Margaret (Maggie) Thatcher.
Baby chicks are every bit as cute as you might imagine, and perhaps the only thing more amazing than the fact that their sex can be determined when only a day old (it’s not a perfect science, but still…) is that you can receive an order of day-old chicks in the regular mail, via the U.S. Postal Service.
The box that Condi and her siblings arrived in. It's still hard for me to believe that baby chickens can be sent by mail, but it works! There is a minimum order of chickens required (which varies by vendor) so that they keep each other warm enough.
I picked up my box of peeps – aptly named, seeing as the container, pocked with airholes for the little babies, was emitting a constant chorus of tiny “cheep cheeps." It is a delightful sound, contented but also slightly plaintive and faintly curious, and every bit as fragile sounding as the newborn chicks themselves appear to be. Listening to the noises coming from the cardboard box had me grinning from ear to ear during the entirety of the short drive home from the local Post Office.
Fresh out of the box: Condoleeza as a day-old chick. Is there anything cuter than a baby chicken?
Despite their delicate appearance, baby chicks are remarkably self sufficient, as long as they are provided with the basics: shelter, heat, water, food. As directed by the instruction manual I read (and re-read, since I was a first-time chicken mom), I dipped each of their tiny beaks in water to teach them how to drink, though I suspected it wasn’t necessary and that they instinctively knew what to do. And what they did was limited to four activities: eat, drink, poop, and sleep. Often, they would accomplish two of these actions at once, falling asleep, for example, right in the middle of a meal, their bodies slowly sinking down until their little heads rested wherever they were – on top of the food dish, in the water bowl (that’s why you put marbles in the water – so that the depth of the water becomes too shallow to let them to drown). Since I handled them regularly, they would often fall asleep in my lap, or the crook of my arm, or shoulder, or wherever. Sometimes they would poop there, too.
Even when the girls outgrew their adorable chick phase, turned into awkward pullets, and then nearly full-grown hens, I spent lots of time with them. Maggie liked to cuddle, and would jump into my lap every time I sat down in their pen. Condi would often join her. Amelia tolerated snuggles but didn’t particularly enjoy them. Rosa had zero interest.
The morning of the jewelry heist started like any other winter day. I bundled up to go open the chicken coop and bring the chickens fresh water and treats. As always, I sat down on an overturned bucket in the chicken’s yard to spend some time with the flock. Condi was getting some cuddle time, and, as she often did, she stared at me with her golden brown, reptilian eyes. Condi was unusual this way; chickens don’t usually stare. Instead, they are in near-constant motion, heads bobbing, eyes constantly searching. I liked to think that Condi was more curious, more thoughtful, and possibly even in search of an emotional connection with me. This may have been what I was thinking when I felt a sharp pain. I reflexively reached up to touch my throbbing earlobe, and realized it was bleeding. It took a second for me to realize that my earring was missing.
I scolded Condi (and myself for being so ridiculous as to think my chicken was staring lovingly into my eyes – she was simply eyeing my shiny studs) and set her on the ground. Now, you might ask why I was wearing earrings while tending the chickens. Or you might be wondering why I would be holding a chicken in my lap. I wear my earrings – diamond studs that my husband bought me many years ago, which were an incredibly extravagant purchase but the only jewelry I’ve ever coveted – all the time. 24/7. I sleep in them, shower in them, pretty much never take them out. As for the lap time with the chickens? They’re pets. Don’t judge.
I began searching the ground around where we were sitting, and, after a few minutes, found the earring’s backing. But no earring. I looked for a long time before giving up and heading inside. There, I found the number for our insurance company and gave them a call, grateful that I’d taken out a floater policy for my expensive jewelry – which was limited to my engagement ring and my diamond earrings.
Except that…I hadn’t. The claims adjuster was very helpful, but there was no record of my having insured the earrings. The floater covered the ring alone. I started to cry. I felt so stupid. What kind of idiot forgets to insure a valuable item – and then lets a chicken steal it? The timing couldn’t have been worse. The company I worked for was undergoing massive layoffs in my division. My job security felt precarious, and so the weight of the loss of the earring felt far heavier than it otherwise might have. I felt sick to my stomach as I took the remaining earring out and placed it in my jewelry box, knowing that it would be a very long time before we would feel financially solid enough to buy a replacement for its missing counterpart.
I didn’t give up searching for the missing earring. Part of my search involved Condi herself. It had occurred to me all along that it was possible that Condi had consumed the diamond. If you’ve ever seen a chicken catch and eat a bug, or peck at a favorite treat (like corn on the cob) then you know that chickens don’t linger over their food. They use their beaks with accuracy, speed and force. It was entirely possible that Condi had dispatched the earring from my ear and into her crop (the equivalent of a stomach, in a chicken) in one quick movement.
So I did the logical thing (um, right?) and brought Condi to the vet for an x-ray. “If you don’t mind me asking, how much is the earring worth?” the vet asked. I told him, and he let out a low whistle. “That’s one expensive chicken we've got here” he said as he walked out of the exam room with Condi under his arm.
The x-rays cleared Condi of possession of stolen property. One of the vet techs was clever enough to use one of her earrings as a reference, so we’d know exactly what to look for. While a diamond is invisible on an x-ray, the metal post and prongs of the reference earring showed up as clear as could be. But there was no contraband inside Condi. Zippo.
I decided I needed a metal detector, since it now seemed likely that the earring must still be somewhere in or near the chicken coop. I called the local hardware store – Nichols Hardware, a treasure of a shop, an old-fashioned hardware store in which you have to ask someone to help you find anything, because it’s all packed into an impossibly tiny space – to see if they rented metal detectors. “No, ma’am” the young man who answered the phone said, “we don’t rent or sell metal detectors.” I heard a gruff voice in the background say “what’s she lookin’ for?” and the phone changed hands. This gentleman explained that he’d retired from Nichols Hardware but just happened to be visiting that day, that he had a very powerful metal detector, which would be needed to find something as small as an earring, and that he was undergoing chemo and thus wasn’t strong enough to do any searching during the cold of winter. “But give me your number and if we get a warm day and I’m feeling OK then I’d be happy to come out and take a look.” I did so, but hung up the phone thinking that I’d exhausted all of my chances for finding my earring. It was time to accept the loss and try to stop kicking myself for my carelessness.
The wall behind the counter at Nichols Hardware, in Purcellville, VA, where every receipt is still written by hand.
My day job – the one I feared I might be about to lose – is a desk job. Most days I work from home, spending the day on the phone and my laptop. One unseasonably warm day in late January, while sitting at my desk upstairs, the phone rang. I picked it up, expecting a colleague or customer. Instead, a gruff voice that seemed vaguely familiar said, without introduction, “Well, it’s warm today and I’m feeling pretty good, so I’m going to head over right now to look for your earring. Now, where are you located, exactly?” It took me a second or two to realize I was talking to the gentleman at the hardware store who owned the super-powerful metal detector. “Good thing I don’t have any meetings for the next hour or so,” I remember thinking to myself, as I pulled on my boots and headed outside to greet this metal detector-wielding good Samaritan and show him the scene of the crime.
We spent hours searching the area for the earring. We found several old nails (the old-fashioned square kind) but that was it. I enjoyed talking with Mr. Smale, as I learned was his name – he had all kinds of stories and was the nicest man. When he refused to accept any sort of payment for all of his efforts I went into the house and brought him several jars of jam and other canned goods I’d made. He informed me that he made wine out of various foraged fruits and several days later I opened the front door to find a bottle of homemade locust blossom wine on the stoop. “Only in the country,” my husband said when I told him how much time Mr. Smale spent trying to help me – someone he’d never met before – with zero expectation of anything in return. Sadly, the last time I asked about him at Nichols Hardware, they told me Mr. Smale had passed away. I will always treasure my memory of that wonderful, funny, generous man.
Condi was the first chicken in our tiny flock to lay an egg. It was a typical pullet egg, meaning that it was a miniature version of the eggs she would eventually lay. It wasn’t too long after she laid that egg that Condi got sick. When I opened up the hen house that morning only three chickens came out. I looked inside, and Condi was still up on the roosting perch, weak and unable to move. I scooped her up and headed to the vet. She had a large mass – possibly cancer, possibly an infection – around her uterus. The vet informed me that the best option was to put her on antibiotics and hope for the best.
Condi died in my lap later that day. I had put her in a small dog crate and had her with me in my office all day while I worked. She didn’t want to be handled but for some reason I decided to lift her out of the crate late that afternoon anyway, just to hold her for a moment. Her breathing had become labored, but she lay quietly in my lap. Then, suddenly, she stretched, shuddered, and went limp. I remember hoping – unreasonably – that perhaps she was just unconscious. But she was gone. I felt deep sadness, and loss, and that stunned sensation that comes with the realization that something utterly irreversible has happened. I buried my face in her beautiful black and white feathers and cried.
I realize that to grieve the death of a chicken is sheer lunacy to most people. We’ve lost other chickens since then, and with one exception (my dear, sweet Maggie) I haven’t felt the same degree of sadness. Death is inescapable on a farm, and I suppose I’ve built up a bit of an emotional callus as result. But Condi was a pet, and, as I do anytime a beloved pet dies, I alleviate my grief by expressing it in writing. So I wrote a poem about Condi. A really, really bad poem. But the act of writing it made me feel better, and that was the purpose.
A Poem for Condi
Please rest in peace, Condoleeza
You will be terribly missed
Though some might say you were "just a chicken"
Your passing, for us, is not so easily dismissed
You were always one of the first
To jump into mommy's lap
And we will always be thankful that that's where you were when you left us
To take your eternal nap
You were the first one to start laying
And one of the most prolific
Your sweet disposition was true to your breed
Which was Dominique, to be specific
The story of your (far too short) life wouldn't be complete
Without pointing out that your inquisitive nature (as well as your very quick beak)
Also earned you your nickname
Which was "the diamond thief"
The sound of your voice
May be what I miss most acutely
Your distinctive dove-like coos and happy trills
Never failed to cheer me
Your time on this Earth was way too short
You never even got to experience Spring
As everyone knows who loves their pets deeply
Saying goodbye is the one truly hard thing
Goodbye, sweet chicklet
We will never forget you
Now hurry up to Heaven to find your new flock
Look for two floppy eared German Shepherds - and a Cockatoo
A week or so later I was out in the vegetable garden when our next door neighbor, Stace, stopped by. He handed me an envelope and said “We heard about your chicken and we’re very sorry.” This gesture – a condolence note for a pet chicken – was especially touching coming from Stace, an avid hunter who treats his pet dogs like, well, dogs (as opposed to furry humans, which my husband and I could certainly be accused of doing). Stace has a practical and largely unsentimental view of animals.
Things made more sense when I opened the envelope. There was no condolence note. There was a diamond.
My husband was in on the plan and was waiting with his camera when our neighbor dropped by. I wish you could see the look on my face.
Unbeknownst to me, my husband had asked Stace to conduct, shall we say, post-mortem, exploratory surgery on Condi’s crop, on the off chance that the earring was there with all of the pebbles that chickens keep in their crops to assist with digestion of their food (after all, a diamond is just a really hard rock, right?). Why the earring didn’t show up on the x-ray, we’ll never know. Stace found it almost immediately.
When my husband took the earring to the local jeweler to have it re-set, they eyed the mangled metal and asked what happened. After Mike explained the story, the jeweler admitted that it had to be one of the craziest they’d ever heard. So much so, that they planned to feature the incident in their monthly newsletter. When my husband informed me that he had forwarded them my sophomoric poem so that they could include it in the story, I was rather mortified.
We buried Condi in the garden, and I planted a Shasta daisy on top of her otherwise unmarked grave. I’m back to wearing my earrings every day, though I’m a LOT more careful around the chickens. I also got the earrings insured. Thankfully, I didn’t get laid off from my job.
Even though it's been several years since she passed, I still think about Condi. She was a sweet, inquisitive chicken, and I miss her. My little diamond thief.