By Sigrid Bjarnason
Originally published in The Flying Shingle, September 23, 2013
Betty, Veronica, Thelma, and Louise – the four bedraggled hens who arrived, fresh from the factory farm, to live with us last September – have taught me a lot.
I found out that chickens clearly recognise one person and one hen from the next, often have best friends, and generally have a lot to say. Fowl language. What a concept.
I used to be under the impression that chickens made just the one sound: cluck, cluck. But after hanging around listening to them I’ve come to realise that hens have important things to say. These hens sometimes give an almost rooster-like call.
When Betty is ready to lay an egg and someone is in her favourite nesting spot she paces around and screeches loudly over and over again. And it works. The other hens shove over.
When I wander outside with a bowl of corn and blueberries the chickens squawk with excitement and run along, weaving back and forth in front of me. I wonder if it’s an attempt to get those treats just a little bit sooner by tripping me and sending the blueberries flying. And that sound of cheerful anticipation is nothing like the chicken version of “disappoooointed!” that erupts when I emerge from the house treat-free.
This spring a neighbour arrived with a lovely Rhode Island Red hen who was left over at the end of the local chicken swap. We named her Peggy Sue. Thelma immediately took a liking to her and we often saw them laying together soaking up the sunshine.
When Peggy Sue started to linger in the coop in the mornings, not feeling well, Thelma would stay inside with her and fuss around, clucking sympathetically. Sadly, when I took Peggy Sue to the vet we discovered she had an incurable virus. Thelma suffered the same fate and they were both humanely euthanised.
I was sure, when I first let Louise out of her transport crate, that she wouldn’t live a week. She was somewhat misshapen – with an enlarged crop, making her chest-heavy, and a limp that gave her walk a comical air.
She wouldn’t win any beauty contest but as it turns out, Louise is a curious chicken with a strong spirit. She’s always the first to venture into our house when we leave a door ajar, wondering what goes on in the human coop. She comments with gentle questioning clucks as she makes it inside as far as she can before we shoo her back out the door.
One day late this spring a mink grabbed Veronica in broad daylight. We heard her ear-shattering scream as she ran across the stone patio with the mink hanging onto her neck. We got there just in time to see Roscoe, the resident terrier, chase the invader out of the yard.
We treated Veronica’s wounds and she recovered nicely. Score one for Roscoe.
But one day in July when the hens were on their own, the mink came back. When we got home we found Veronica’s body stashed under the staircase. Caring for chickens is not for the faint of heart.
These days when I get home from the Village, it’s comforting to see the girls’ heads bobbing up and down as they cluck, scratch, and peck for seeds and bugs in the garden with friends new and old, just as involved in their lives as we are in ours.
When I remind myself that chickens are routinely jammed into cages inside noisy, smelly barns without enough room to spread their wings – no more important than a pile of old shoes – it breaks my heart. Of course we know that in the grand scheme of things our chicken rescue efforts don’t amount to much. But from the personal perspective of our chickens? It’s made all the difference in the world. Just ask them.