Rita, it seems, is an all or nothing kind of a girl. She seems to be getting into the habit of missing a day and then delivering an enormous double-yoker egg of monster portion size. They’re well over twice the size of Sylvia’s and Doc’s. I have no idea why she is doing this. She is still the best rotavator though, so maybe it’s something to do with the amount of bugs she consumes. The day before yesterday she found a weakness in our chicken fence and escaped into next door’s yard. Luckily we saw this quickly and retrieved her before the formal flowerbeds showed signs of her work. I do enjoy her greedy, determined presence though.
Sylvia continues to lead the revolution in her quiet, understated way. She is nearly always the first to break new ground then, after enticing the other two to join her, will step back and see what happens. We’ve had to fence off our slightly scruffy but bee-freindly flowerbed after Sylvia led her gang over the ornamental barrier (some drift wood!) that had previously contained them. She is the plumpest and prettiest, conveying an air of innocence to the uninitiated. Her fluffy blue-grey feathers cry out to be stroked. I think she knows she’s good-looking though. There’s a kind of haughtiness about her. She delivers regular, smooth eggs, of the size you would expect from such a young bird.
Doc is becoming my favourite. She’s the smallest and youngest I think, although her comb is now beginning to grow. She is definitely the talker. She is always chattering when I approach her or when she approaches me. She seems perhaps a little more thoughtful and smarter than the other two. I realise I’m anthropomorphising here but there does seem to be a certain amount of curiosity and questioning going on. She tests everything. She was the first to figure out the spiral vegetable feeder and the first to discover the secret of eating snails. I was beginning to think that the famed use of chickens as snail control was a myth. I’d thrown loads to them that they excitedly grabbed then almost instantly gave up on. Their run began to resemble a snail enclosure there were so many gripping the sides trying to get out. Then I decided to swallow my squeamishness about killing a living beast and crushed one for Doc to eat. She seemed to immediately get it and began bashing every snail she could find for the tasty protein-packed meal inside. Doc produces a small but beautifully speckled brown egg on most days.
The rain has descended again in our normally damp part of the world after almost a month of sunshine. It’s kind of a relief and the garden is certainly grateful. It gets a little hard on the chickens though. They didn’t get out of their run all day yesterday. Although a bit of light rain doesn’t seem to bother them, yesterday’s was relentlessly heavy and I didn’t even give them the opportunity to come out. They didn’t seem too upset by this but I felt guilty. There’s something about shutting an animal in that pulls at my conscience and strikes a chord of recognition somewhere deep within me.
This week has been both storm-tossed and stormless. The storms have all been emotional in the pressure-cooker humid air, while the weather forecasters continually pushed back the arrival of expected thunderstorms.
My partner and I threw hurt at each other in an argument that had been brewing for weeks and finally exploded in a cyclone of resentful words. We both carry far too much baggage and this sometimes becomes a jostled, destructive pile like suitcases carelessly thrown into the hold of an airport shuttle coach. My partner finds these periodic explosions easy to recover from. It’s almost like he has purged himself and can then get back to normal. I take the pronouncements that we shouldn’t stay together to heart. I brooded on this, trying to imagine what my next step might possibly be, and then he beckons me over to start discussing designs for the refurbishment of our half-built kitchen. My heart can’t do these quick turnarounds anymore. It takes me a while to adjust. I get a little sick on rollercoasters these days.
Out in the yard I thought I’d made a breakthrough. While Rita has always carried out the strange stooping motion if we approach from a certain angle, the others have started doing it too. Their bodies dip to the ground and their wings are tucked in but raised to form a ‘u’ shape with their backs. When they’re in this position I can stroke them for a while. Their wings drop and their eyes half close as if they are relaxing. Last night I was told they take this position because they think I’m a cockerel. This has greatly disturbed me. While I haven’t seen chicken sex, I lived on a boat for years and saw plenty of ugly and violent mallard duck gang rapes. I’m hoping that my new chicken friends are not seeing me as a potential rapist.
A couple of weeks ago I looked up the man who raped me on Facebook. Periodically I want to know where he is. It was good to see that he remains thousands of miles away but horrifying to see he is now married. I feel terrible. I know she has experienced the same at his hands as I did. I know this because just before we split up he went to anger management counselling to try and keep us together. I left him while he was still going for these sessions. The counsellor was so disturbed and concerned for me by what he told her that she broke client confidentiality to contact me. She told me he had admitted doing the same things to his previous partners before me.
His new wife is large. Just a little more over-weight than I was by the time I left. I know she is in the cycle of being bought endless sweets and cakes, deterred from refusing his ‘gifts’ by the weight of what might happen if she steps on the eggshells of his fragile moods and ego. He will also be telling her that ‘fat girls smell different’ and she’s ‘alright as long as her belly doesn’t get bigger than her boobs’. Should I have gone to the police? Should I have reported him? Would it have made any difference? Would that large passive-looking woman with a possessive arm wrapped round her shoulder have been spared my fate?
The chickens seem to be happy. Yesterday we had our first 3-egg day. This made me feel happy too. I spent hours sitting in the garden in my new hammock chair with them pottering around about me while I read a book. It was extremely relaxing. I think my chickens are a form of anti-venom. Tranquiliser tablets in feathered form. I carry out my care duties for them with a sense of ease and comfort. They are wormed, get fruit, vegetables and herbs, and are given activities to keep them from being bored when shut in their run. They have a garden to explore when we’re home. They have rewarded us with delicious eggs that have cured my egg-phobia. They’re so fresh that they don’t smell eggy and I can eat them without wanting to vomit, thus banishing an annoying hang-over from my childhood. Another thing for which I am grateful. And though they cannot prevent the squalls from blowing in, Rita, Sylvia and Dr Sattler are becoming soothing and amusing life jackets in stormy seas.
Don’t worry, I don’t mean that most traduced of all female body parts that under the weight of misogyny is still the world’s worst swear word. I’m referring to the c-word that is commitment. (But while we’re on the subject of female genitalia, I cannot help but be reminded of such by a chicken’s comb and wattles. They don’t mention that in the chicken books.)
Chickens demand commitment. They have a routine and I must fit around it rather than them fitting around me. I get up every morning at six to let them out. By this time they are stamping around in their coop and leap out like paratroopers the moment I open the pop hole. Then they must be shut in again at night to protect them from predators, but this is after they have chosen to go to bed, not because I want to watch a film or settle down with a book. I had forgotten about these routines. My children left home some time ago. It took years of adjustment to realise that I didn’t have to be in the house at certain times to do certain things. I had an almost permanent feeling of having forgotten something. I obviously did adjust though, because now it’s coming as quite a shock to be back on a timetable that’s not of my making.
I hadn’t realised how rebellious chickens can be either. I know Nick Park tried to warn us of this in ‘Chicken Run’, but I thought that was just an amusing story. For the first couple of weeks I let them out into the yard for an hour or two while I was out to watch over them, and then walked them back into the run no problem. But two nights ago the Bluebell Ranger (previously one of the flapper sisters but who has suddenly gained in confidence and is now known as Sylvia after the gloriously rebellious Sylvia Pankhurst) refused to return to the run. She wanted to carry on grubbing so ran circles round the chicken run, dodging the doors and hiding under shrubs. The next night they all refused to go in. I think I’m destined to provide the neighbours with hours of entertainment as I play a daily game of hide and seek with my hens.
But they’re so amusing and soothing to watch I will forgive them anything.
Of course there is a dark side to chicken keeping. I’m talking about the guilt. Their run seems way too small to contain these three rambunctious girls. I could let them out in the yard all the time, but that has to be balanced against the real difficulties we’re having chicken-proofing to avoid forays into the veg patch on one side and the very neat formal garden on the other. I don’t want to upset the neighbours. And rather selfishly I don’t want our garden ruined either. Part of the pleasure of chickens is sitting in an untidy but beautiful garden watching them pottering about or pottering about with them. This would be somewhat marred if they were left to rotavate the whole yard all day long. I think an hour or so a day is fine. Isn’t it? I must admit I have had my usual knee-jerk reaction of thinking I should pass them on to someone who will let them roam free all day, someone who is more capable, or just plain better. My chicken gurus though advise against just letting them roam free all the time unsupervised. They’ve experienced the devastation of a visiting fox. This is something I don’t wish to contemplate.
You may be wondering if I have a name for the third hen yet, the Black Rock. Yes I do. I’ve decided to call her Dr Sattler after the character in Jurassic Park. This is because she, like her botanist namesake, is always taking hold of plants just to see what they are. And also because she most reminds me of a velociraptor.
Sometimes I feel I’ve floated free of the Earth. Yesterday was one of those times. I drove to work in some kind of space ship, gazing out at an unfamiliar, alien world. I didn’t understand that world and it seemed so disconnected from me. I feel like this at some point in every week. This is much better than the everyday space trip I used to be on in the early days. Now it usually kicks in by the third day of my fantastically short working week. I only do three days. About one and a half days in I usually say something that I then worry about for the remaining one and a half days. I can’t seem to stop myself from voicing opinion, and then I endlessly berate myself for not being smart or humble enough to just go with the flow. I know this is meek and annoying and rubbish and passive.
Not so long ago I watched an inspiring short film from the ‘Women who Spit’ series on BBC iplayer. Vanessa Kisuule, an amazing sassy woman, performs her poem ‘Take up Space’. I aspire to do what she says but I find it incredibly difficult to follow this through. My chickens are showing the same contrasting characteristics.
My Light Sussex hen has more or less chosen her own name. She is completely focused and industrious in the way she goes about things. When I say ‘things’ I mean eating. She rips through the undergrowth like a machine, clawing at the ground, turning out any unfortunate bug that happens to be there. We’ve called her Rita Rotavator. The others follow in her wake, testing the ground she has already cleared for leftovers. They do a bit of their own clawing, but it’s tentative, held back, nervous. They move nothing and no one. Rita, on the other hand, really means it. She strikes the ground with confidence and intention. The other two flap around and go into panics at the slightest thing. They seem to be quickly overwhelmed by information overload. They literally take flight, bumping into each other, trees, the dog, me, anything and everything really because they have no idea what they’re flying from or to. They’re just frenziedly flapping to get away. But the sorry truth is they can’t fly higher than a few feet off the ground. So they bump into things. And they miss out on their bug dinner. Meanwhile Rita works her way steadfastly round the yard for the most part unconcerned. I’ve even been able to stroke her while she is eating. And Rita is the only one who has so far produced a glorious, perfectly-formed, full-size egg. It’s not difficult to see which chickens I currently most resemble.
Now to find names for the flappers….
P.S here’s the link to Vanessa Kisuule: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B72_O9D4jNg
The sun shines gloriously on this the fifth day of the great chicken therapy experiment. The universe is being particularly kind to us as the sun has been shining like this every day so far. This has allowed me many enjoyable of hours of sitting and watching the behaviour of my three gorgeous hybrid pullets – a Black Rock, a Light Sussex and a Bluebell Ranger. This is what I have learned so far:
- Chickens have the most insanely fascinating feet. They look just like I imagine reptilian hands would be. Imagine an upright snake with arms and you’ll get the picture. They’re pretty chunky too. When they hold up one leg with their foot tucked up behind, the feet sort of hang there, curled up like a baby’s hand. They’re also bigger than I imagined. If chicken’s feet are like puppy’s paws, I think these hens are going to grow quite large.
- Chicken’s have bums that look like mouths! When they go for a poo they lift up their feathers and their vent pops out. It looks like a small, pale pink mouth which opens into a circle to fire out a shot of poo. After the poo has fired, the vent opens and closes several times like a mouth conducting singing exercises. I think this would look hilarious with a musical soundtrack.
- Like babies, they test everything with their beaks, even me. They don’t always peck at things. Sometimes they just touch them, prod them, maybe to see what happens, maybe to smell them. (Do chickens have noses? I guess they do, well I assume they do seeing as they have two nostril-like holes on their beak but perhaps that’s what I’ll find out today)
- Chickens are shy and uncertain at first. They eventually made it out of their henhouse and into the run mid-afternoon on the second day they were here. They seemed to take it in turns to lie in the pop hole and watch what was going on. They started taking a few tentative steps down the ramp and then quickly turned round and went back into the henhouse. Eventually the white one stood half in and half out for quite a while and then took the plunge. She was wondering around the run for several minutes while low clucking was heard from the henhouse. She responded several times and then the other two followed her out.
- Chickens sort of know what they have to do. On the evening of their first day outside they took themselves to bed without any prompting. I’d been warned that I might have to pick them up and put them in for a couple of days until they worked it out but there was no need. Two of them made their first attempt at an egg on the third day they were here too. They both returned to the nest box to do this. How do they know without anyone showing them?
- When free ranging, chickens like to stick together. They move about the garden in a little group and if one takes fright and flies a few feet they all take flight and fly a few feet. All three of them did this over our border collie. They noisily launched themselves from just behind her and I feared the worst, but Molly just watched them land then stood up and retreated to her kennel.
- Chickens are not afraid of dogs but are terrified of sparrows flying overhead. They don’t seem at all worried by Molly (which they should be) but take flight whenever anything flies over them. I guess this is an instinct that saves them from raptors. But tiny sparrows? Come on girls.
I haven’t held my chickens yet. I’m letting them gradually get used to me first so that they’re calm when I first pick them up. They’re getting closer and closer to me. Yesterday all three came and sunbathed right next to me. And last night I sat in the doorway of their run and they kept coming right up to look at me. The Bluebell Ranger, by far the largest and possibly a few weeks older than the others, came over to prod me with her beak. As soon as I lift my arm to touch them though, they flee. I will be patient and build up their trust. I do after all know what it’s like to be nervous of interaction.
But are they doing me any good I hear you ask. Well, as usual on my weekly four-day weekend I haven’t really interacted with any humans other than my family and my neighbours. No change there. However, I have spent a lot of time in the garden interacting with and watching other living creatures. I’ve had to work out how best to make them relaxed, sort out their food, their water, their run. This has left very little time for brooding (if you’ll forgive the pun). I’ve had to get up early every morning (no lingering in bed afraid of the world) and I’m now powering through a large editing job that I’ve been putting off forever. So, on the whole I’d say yes, they are doing me good. It also feels good to be needed again. There’s something about having another living thing to take care of that binds you more tightly to the world.
As for eating them, I think that would already be very difficult to do. This is something I need to interrogate as it begs the question why will I eat other chickens that are treated much worse than this? Even free-range are only given limited space. But for now I think we can safely assume that naming them will cause no greater dilemma than I already face. Now to choose the right names……
They’re here! My three beautiful hens arrived yesterday. They’re currently huddled in their henhouse unwilling to come out to face their new world. I can’t say as I blame them. After weeks of stringing me along, the chicken vendor suddenly rang on Wednesday night and said I’m bringing your hens tomorrow and there’s no alternative for weeks. Charming! I couldn’t get the day off work, which yesterday was miles away. I was out until 11pm. There was no one who could be here when they arrived so the vendor just put them in the henhouse. My partner opened the door for them when he got back from work, but they didn’t want to come out. Apparently it can sometimes take days.
So here is my first tip on becoming a chicken keeper – never buy your hens online. Never.
I was up at 5.50 this morning, hoping to get my first sight of the girls. I could see them through the henhouse window but didn’t spend too long looking as I didn’t want to terrify them with my big moon-face peering in at them. I have only really glimpsed them so far. They look beautiful.
But are they going to be good for my mind? Well, already they have got me up out of bed and at my desk writing by 6.15am. I’m not worrying about the shambolic national political situation or the global turmoil. I’m not worrying about being defrocked as a fraud if I step out of my door. Instead I’m worrying about how I’m going to make my hens feel relaxed. How I’m going to coax them into their run and then, later, out into the yard. I’m worrying about how I pick them up (another reason to meet your vendor face-to-face!). I’m worrying about whether or not to clip their wings – some say yes, some say no. So I guess I’m still worrying, but it’s a more positive worrying, if such a thing is possible. I guess it’s a worrying over things in which I have some power, some agency. I can alter all of these things with my actions. I have the power to improve the lives of my hens. So it’s worry with a purpose. Perhaps that is how the mechanics of my mind may be realigned in time.
The chooks arrived on election day. It was local elections this time, and in a few short weeks it will be the general election. Perhaps if I break another rule of chicken keeping and name my girls, I should choose the names of suffragettes to pay homage to those who fought for my right to take part. Of course I will never be able to eat them then. Who could eat a suffragette?
This week I met Ghazi Hussein, a Palestinian/Syrian refugee and award winning writer. He spoke of his experiences both in his adopted home and in Syria before he left. Now I am in no way relating my own experiences to his, but there were a few things he said about himself and his fellow prisoners that got me thinking. Trauma surviviors have their own superpowers. They each have a particular enhanced skill that helps them to exist. Ghazi has two. He commands words. With his poetry he is able to transmit highly charged emotion through the simple conveyance of sound, creating vibrations that directly connect him to the heart of anybody listening. A true superpower.
The other is less obvious. I knew it was there but for most they only saw it when he told us about it. When asked how he gets through each day he told us a story. He spoke of his family when he was a child. It was a very large family, with something like fourteen siblings all vying for his mother’s attention. To get his fair share Ghazi used to lie down and play dead. Now, he says, he stands up and plays alive. Anyone whose neurons fire through the altered state of a traumatized brain will immediately recognise this superpower.
For myself I claim the power of invisibility. Unfortunately I don’t seem to control this power but it’s manifestation usually occurs when I am in an uncomfortable social situation – which is where I would place the majority of my forays out into the world of people I don’t know or situations I’m not accustomed to. This week no fewer than three people who I’m well aquainted with walked straight past me without even a glimmer of acknowledgement that anyone was there. I’m talking inches between us. How can this be if I am not invisible?
On the chicken front there is some news. After two emails and a telephone message I finally got a response. My chickens should be here in the next two weeks. Hoorah! I test-drove my new hammock seat from Venezuala last weekend. I intend to sit in it and commune with my chickens when they eventually arrive. I’m happy to report that it’s tremendously comfortable.
Not long now. The feathered therapy experiment is back on track.
No chickens yet, and only silence from the vendor. I fear they’ll be past their best laying years by the time I get to meet them. In the mean time, all hell is breaking loose. Since I started this blog, America has bombed Syria and Afghanistan. Trump has sent an ‘armada’ to threaten North Korea, who in return have threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes. And, of course, there’s been the weekly terrorist attacks and the horrendous and ignored ongoing plight of millions of refugees. Closer to home, our own slippery-slidey, authoritarian, political opportunist, doublespeak prime minister has called a snap election. So much is horrible and frightening in the daily news it’s difficult to know where to look or what to think. Is it ok to worry about things closer to home when all this is going on? Is it ok to glory in the sunlight hitting the hillside opposite your house? Is it ok to go on about chickens and their potential therapeutic properties? I just don’t know.
Terrorism. Here’s a word that is beginning to lose it’s meaning. Acts of terrorism come so regularly that they have almost become absorbed into normal, everyday life. An atrocity that would previously have dominated the headlines for weeks, if not months, now only gets a few days attention before it is banished from the front pages by another. The infamous place in history once promised to those who martyr themselves for their cause is no more. They’re names forgotten almost instantly. No wonder they must be promised the glory of heaven.
Sometimes I wish I believed in a god. But not one of those self-obsessed thou-must-have-no-god-but-me kind of gods. I’d like a benevolent, kind, non-judgemental kind of a god. The kind that makes you serene and confident of your place in the world. Like the people you hear on those Thought for the Day type segments on the BBC. They always seem to be so calm. Of course, all sorts of things could be happening in their personal lives that we don’t know about. And they often are. One of the last newspapers I read, a couple of weeks ago, contained not one, but two stories about clergy involved in theft and adultery. So I guess that’s no real route to serenity either.
Help me Obi-wan Chicken-obi, you’re my only hope.
The days roll on and still my coop remains empty. In desperation I’ve broken the first rule of chicken club – I’ve ordered chickens online. Days passed with no confirmation of my order. I phoned. I emailed. I phoned again. The money had gone but where were my chickens? I began to think it was all an elaborate con. The family business involving three generations, the twee farm name, the green rolling hills in the background of all the photographs. It got me to thinking about the internet in general. So much of it is make believe. Some of it innocent, much of it not. There’s gaming, of course, and there’s fake news, fake biographies, fake photographs, fictions presented as truths, straight-out cons to get your money, propaganda, and Facebook. No wonder people are retreating into their belief systems, closing the door on ‘alternative facts’.
The happy news is that the vendor did eventually email to confirm my order. He said he will be in touch about delivery but I’ve not heard anything since. So here it is, the Easter bank holiday weekend and I remain chickenless, unless you count the free-range bird carcass currently situated in the bottom of our fridge. It’s a strange thing to be omnivorous and be yearning for chickens as pets. It’s not an easy line to tread. My bible to all things chicken refers to this dilemma. Suzie Baldwin writes candidly about eating her chickens and the horror with which some people greet this news. I must admit to feelings of revulsion myself but why is this? Surely if I’m going to be revulsed by eating something that’s had such a good life, then I shouldn’t eat meat at all. How many beasts have suffered appalling lives to feed me cheap beef, lamb and chicken before I became more aware? And don’t the chickens themselves happily eat anything that comes into their path; snails, slugs, worms, bugs, frogs and mice? It’s the transfer of energy from one living thing to another. Everything does it. It’s only our ignorance about the life of plants that makes it seem ok to eat them. But should we really be so complacent? I listened to a podcast recently about the amazing communication network of a forest. So much is going on beneath our feet we don’t know about. We cannot know if plants feel pain, are conscious of their own mortality. We can presume it based on our knowledge so far, but presuming doesn’t make it so.
But back to the chickens. It’s perhaps a good thing that they haven’t arrived yet. I still have a little more chicken-proofing to do to the yard. Patience my friends, they’ll be here soon.
The scene is set. After weeks of work the back yard of our ramshackle, half-renovated home now houses a cute little chicken coop and a mid-section they can roam in seperate from the planned vegetable garden (my partner’s project….we’ll see, we’ll see) and the herb garden near the house. The ‘cute’ and ‘little’ part of this is the most troubling. Once again I have been fooled by the internet into believing something was bigger than it turned out to be. The last thing I want to do is traumatize some chickens! The description said it will house 4 to 5 hens. I’m going to start with 3 to be on the safe side. Apparently you should always have at least 3 to stop any bullying. This intrigues me. Perhaps the relationships of chickens are more complex than I have previously been led to believe. I fear this whole experiment will make me completely vegetarian.
Unfortunately I have hit my first hurdle. Only I could have chosen the middle of a bird flu scare to start keeping chickens. Restrictions on allowing birds outdoors have led to shortages of point of lay hydrids in this area. Wait, I hear you cry, why aren’t you rescuing battery hens? Well, there are a number of reasons. I don’t feel I have enough experience to care for traumatized birds yet. And there’s something about clearing out used-up birds so they can put some more in that makes me feel like I would somehow be contributing to an industry I hate. I haven’t really thought all of these reactions through yet. Sheesh, nothing is simple.
Still, even before my new friends arrive they are helping. Just working out how to use WordPress and write a blog got me out of bed this morning when I was all set for my familiar hide-for-a-day-in-bed after an accumulation of work and socialising. How silly and self-indulgent that sounds when written down. Right now I have another tab open on my laptop. It’s an Amnesty campaign to demand justice for the victims of an illegal gas attack in Syria. What those poor people are going through. And here’s me, exhausted with my luxurious, safe western lifestyle. I know this. Of course, I know this. But traumatized minds and the body functions that follow don’t always follow the rules of logic. How refugees get through every day I don’t know.
I must go and find some chickens……..