Monday, 30 March 2009

Adventures in Chicken Hunting - Part Two

After several days of phoning/emailing every chook breeder on the internet, I was beginning to think my search was hopeless. Most birds have only just started laying again after their winter break, and fertility is only just beginning to climb. What birds that were available, tended to be weeny chicks rather than rough and tough pullets who could hold their own. Damn.

I decided to widen my search area, and managed to find two places that had birds. One place had three kinds of pekin, black, black mottled and buff. No frizzles. The other place had frizzled silkies. No pekin. Oh, and they were both nearly seventy miles away. Damn.

Now, the ever tolerant husband must have got sick of me going on about finding a new chook. He nodded and smiled in all the right places as a rambled on about various distances, couriers and possibly getting the bus. With a resigned air, he told me to grab the kids some snacks and get in the car.

I will just take a moment here to say just how fabulous the ever tolerant husband is. Yesterday, he drove a hundred and forty mile round trip just to pick up a chicken. The man is a star. Or possibly certifiable.

So, we set off in search of the silkie frizzle. The lady had sent me a lovely picture of one of her young pullets, and I was quite smitten. We barralled along the country roads, attempting to find the most obscure little village imaginable. Several phone calls and wrong turns later, we pulled up outside the breeders cottage.

And what a cottage! It was a gorgeously charming little rough stone place, honey coloured and cosy looking. Two blonde ringleted children were playing out the front, surrounded by assorted fabulous birds. The breeder waved at us from the spot where she was wrestling a guinea fowl, and we went through the gate into this bird utopia. I was in heaven.

Introductions were made, and I rhapsodised over her set up. The boys ran off to play with her children on a huge trampoline, and we discussed all things fowl. It was all going terribly well, and I couldn't wait to meet my new pullet.

Suddenly, from behind us, there was the most bizarre noise. Turning around, we were greeted with a truly terrifying sight.

Tom the turkey stag was seriously annoyed, and seriously big. He stood tall, wings spread and dropped to the ground, feathers all raised in a threatening display. The tips of his wings dragged over the grass, making a really creepy ticking sound. He seemed to hover about the garden, like some feathery dalek. To be fair, no turkey is particularly good looking, but Tom looked like someone had turned his head inside out. This turkey was huge, slightly deranged, and apparently wanted to fight and/or mate with us. Yikes.

One of the breeders children casually walked past this psychotic vision and nudged it with a ruler, at which point he hovered off in the other direction. Nervously calling to the boys to stay on the trampoline because, gosh, isn't it fun?! (Nothing to do with the giant insane christmas dinner, noooooo), we wandered around various pens looking at her impressive collection of birds. I have to confess, I would have enjoyed this experience a lot more if I hadn't felt it necessary to keep one eye on the hovering turkey, who kept sneaking up on us with creepy speed. I casually dropped my handbag from my shoulder so that the strap was in my hand, ready to batter the evil Tom around the chops if he made a mad dash towards me, or tried to eat my children. He settled for gobbling at us periodically, and looking scary.

The breeder dropped down on her haunches to show me the silkie/frizzles parents, and I dutifully copied her. The turkey hovered behind us, a bit too close for comfort, and when the ever tolerant husband issued a manly scream I thought he'd been turkeyed. However, it was merely that the breeders friendly pet pigeon had decided to sit on his head.

Finally, we went to look at the chooks for sale. I fell in love with one of the little silkie/frizzle chicks, and picked it up. It instantly pooed on me, and then decided to be ambiguous about it's sex. Silkies are notoriously hard to sex unless they either crow or lay an egg. Now, the husband is extremely tolerant, but the idea that he might have to do this crazy journey again to return a cockeral was too much even for him. Reluctantly, I put her back and considered hubby's choice.

This is the first time that the husband has ever shown any real interest in choosing a chook, but he was immediately drawn to the only pekin this breeder had. This tiny feather footed chick stumbled forward, gave us both the once over and then had a peck at my finger nail. Baby pekins are almost insufferably cute, and of course I melted. They are also much easier to sex, and this baby black mottled was definitely a girl. As I gave her a cuddle, I was dive bombed by the friendly pigeon. Hubby had seen it coming and ducked. What a gentleman, eh?

So, I am pleased to tell you that we now have a new black mottled pekin pullet by the name of Maeve. The husband even named her. I knew he'd get the bug eventually!

Friday, 27 March 2009

Adventures in Chicken Hunting

I spotted an ad in my local petshop last week, while the sadness at losing D was still raw. Today, feeling much more chipper, I decided to call the number on the ad which claimed to be selling 'laying hens and bantams, all sorts'. It was a mobile number, and getting the answer phone, I left a short message and my number. My friend and I went off then and had a brief adventure involving casing a house and a flat tyre, but that's not relevant, so I'll pick up the story at the point where the lady called me back and said I was more than welcome to pop around and view the birds.

Denise knew the street where the hens were located, and we pulled up outside a typical (for where I live) terraced house. We were taken down a long, narrow garden, where at the bottom were several small sheds. I could hear the hens from the street, and I could smell them from a good ten feet away.

In two sheds, there were maybe thirty birds. Mostly cross breeds, with the occasional utility thrown in for good measure. In short, not pets for the garden. Several cockerals took umbridge at being disturbed, and set about crowing to show us how hard they were. The hens were all nervous and flighty. I knew fairly soon after we stepped through the hedge to the sheds that I didn't want any of these birds. So that left me with that curiously English problem of having to say no.

I made a show of examining a few birds, made a few half hearted attempts at implying I wasn't interested, then panicked. I began to seriously consider buying one of these completely unsuitable hens just so I could leave without causing offence. I asked some questions, stalling for time. Desperately, I looked through the heaving flock in a bid to pick out the smallest/healthiest/least vulture like bird available. Even that hen was far too big for my other girls. Pekins have very short legs, and these hens all looked like they were on stilts. I had visions of my ladies squawking up the garden as this amazonian hen, with her ginormous pins, goose stepped after them to deliver vicious head pecks.

Realising that the conversation was floundering, and that the lady of the house was looking at me expecting me to make my choice, I settled on a flat out lie. I casually stated that I hadn't brought a box with me to take any hens home (LIE! Denise had brought her cat carrier) and that I had to talk to my husband first (LIE! He didn't even know I was out prospecting a hen purchase). I followed up with the ultimate load of chicken guano: I'll call you (BIG FAT LIE!!!!)

I can still smell the ammonia. I think that it singed my nasal hair.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Replacing Delilah

Even though the remaining hens are all getting on, and Mini hasn't been shunned, I'm still thinking of getting another hen. I never thought I would miss Ms. Stroppyknickers, but I do. RIP Delilah, you were a cow, but you laid beautiful, tasty eggs. The flock isn't the same without your shrill shrieking and bad tempered clucking.

So, now the exciting bit. A new hen! Ooh, the possibilities! I could get a blue egg layer! Or a chocolate brown egg layer! Or a miniature Brahma, those chooks that look like they're walking upright with feathery trousers on. Ooh, or a blue laced wyandotte, with the gorgeous plumage. There are so many bantam/miniature hens available, but ultimately, my heart belongs to the pekin.

What isn't to love about pekins? They are fluffy, and cute looking. They run with a comedy waddle, head down and bum up. They are easily tamed, and curious. They even lay lovely eggs, with hardly any white. Perfect.

Now, Mabel, Maude, Doris, Belinda and Mini are all smooth featherd pekins. But there is an alternative. The frizzle.

Frizzles are a breed in their own right. They are characterised by their feathers, which curl backwards instead of laying flat. The effect is rather like a bad hair day, or an unfortunate accident with the mains. Many other breeds have had this charcteristic bred into them, including pekins. So that's what I want. A chicken that looks like it's been electrocuted. The search begins.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Egg Glut

Now the girls have got the hang of this egg laying lark, there's no stopping them. Last week they managed 18 eggs between them, and this number is likely to rise throughout the summer months. The ever tolerant husband is doing his bit, dutifully munching his way through four or so a week, and the youngest son does enjoy a boiled egg and toast. That still leaves an awful lot of eggs.

I've given eggs away to the neighbours (it pays to keep them sweet, especially with Doris's egg announcements), and I've managed to sell three boxes to friends. Now, though, I have two full boxes of eggs stacked up in the kitchen, and another will be filled by the end of the day. No one has repeat ordered eggs, so I'm at a loss as to what to do with them. I may resort to harassing minor aquaintences in the playground, mugging them for eighty pence and forcing them to carry home fragile eggs in a ridiculously large box.

I suppose I could put a sign in the window, but with the recent spate of chicken rustling in the area, I'm reluctant. I could just give them away, but I really wanted the hens to buy their own sack of pellets.

I won't be eating them. Eggs are revolting.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Best Spot

There are two nest boxes in 'The Convent'. Guidelines for hen keepers recommend one nestbox per four hens, so two should be more than enough. Five chickens should be able to share two nestboxes no problems. Except, of course, they can't. The four currently laying hens all favour the right hand nestbox. So, this morning, all hell broke loose.

Belinda is on the verge of going broody. She sits in the nestbox, lays her egg, and then sits on it. If I open the lid and peer in at her, she doesn't so much as ruffle a feather. Belinda is in the zone. Her chicken eyes stare vacantly in to the distance, her wings are spread over the nest and her little feathery bum is stuck up in the air as she balances on the definitely infertile egg she has just laid. This has been going on for a few days, and the amount of time she has spent on the nest is gradually increasing. I'll allow her to sit for a little while, and then unceremoniously boot her out with the others. Up until today, she has taken this good naturedly and toddled off to eat worms. Today, however, the broodiness is taking hold.

I knew that she was in the nestbox, as I could see the others pooing/munching/bokking their way around the garden. I peeked in on her, only to be met with that peculiar stoned stare. Tutting to myself, I shut the lid and let her get on with laying her egg.

Five minutes later, there arose such a racket I thought we might have been visited by a fox. Rushing outside, I counted two hens. Not good. I yanked open the door to the coop, and was greeted with a ridiculous sight. Belinda was sticking fast to her position in the nest, but Mabel absolutely could not wait. So, instead of using the perfectly acceptable other nestbox, she decided to wedge herself in beside Belinda. Mabel is twice the size of Belinda, so it was a little cramped.

Sniggering at the daft hens, I suddenly realised I was still one hen down. After a quick and fruitless recce of the garden, I peered more closely into the nestbox. Yep, there was Mini. It seems that Mini had been first to climb in next to Belinda. Mabel obviously came across this arrangement, decided that Mini was only practicing egg laying at the moment, and was also bottom hen. So she sat on her. All that was visible of little Mini was a beak, jutting out from underneath Mabel's matronly bosom. Shoving the humungous Mabel aside, I rescued the slightly flat adolescent and stood her on the ground to check for squashing injuries. She looked a little dazed, gave herself a shake and then speedily legged it back up the ramp and into the nestbox. Clambering over Mabel and Belinda, she wedged herself at the back. All the while, the perfectly clean and comfy adjacent nestbox sat empty.

Chickens: not MENSA candidates.

Qick update: Mini has laid her first egg!! It's my first five egg day! Woo hoo!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Power of Poultry

The ever tolerant husband has been won over. For the last nine months, he has attempted to maintain a facade of indifference/bemusement about the hens in the garden. With a weary sigh, he has gone to the feed warehouse to collect sacks of pellets and corn, or horse bedding and woodshavings. He has handed over money for various chicken treatments in a resigned manner, and without complaint, but I suspect that deep down he always thought I was a little mad. While I prattled on about this feed supplement, or that anti fox measure, he smiled indulgently. However, I always felt that behind his back he was furiously pressing the 'wife has finally succumbed to hormonally induced craziness, please send back up!' button.

This weekend, though, there has been a break through. While hubby was busy rubbing down paintwork, digging holes for shrubbery or lugging bags of compost around, he had a shadow. Mini decided to befriend him. She's not the first of the hens to make friendly overtones to him, but she is the most dogged. Usually, the hen comes near hubby to see what he's up to, only to be shooed away. Most hens give up after a few attempts at friendship. Not my Mini.

Mini just cocked her head at his wafting/shooing gesture, and then pecked his wedding ring. She bokked conversationally at him while he sanded the back door, deftly dodging the flecks of paint and dropped sand paper. She attempted to sit on his foot, no matter how inconvenient. When he walked back into the house, she sat by the back door, waiting for him to re emerge. Eventually, he bent down and scratched her head. That was all the encouragement she needed.

Mini is in love. I have to say, I applaud her taste.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

A Spring Clean

After the trauma of yesterday, today we had to turn our minds to practical matters. Delilah may have died of an infectious disease, so the coop needed a thorough clean. I stripped it all down, and washed it all with disinfectant. The bedding in the run was all scraped out, and the ever tolerant husband gave it a good scrub. The dismantled coop was left to dry in the sunshine.

This was the moment when I realised I'd made a mistake. Belinda was wandering around the garden, vigorously shaking her head from side to side and muttering a low growl. Classic Belinda behaviour when she needs to lay an egg. It's almost as if she's trying to deny the inevitability of having to lay. If she could speak, I'm sure that weird growl would become, 'Ohhhhhh nooooooooo! Nooooooooo! I don't wannnnnt toooooooooo!'. Poor little chicken.

She wandered up to the coop door, and did a funny little double take as she realised that the floor of the nesting box was missing. Not to be deterred, she tried to climb into the space where the nest should be. Hens have little appreciation for the laws of physics. One small red hen tumbled inelegantly to the floor. She stood up, shook herself, muttered a bewildered 'bok?', and then went back inside to have another go. After the third attempt, I managed to stop laughing enough to shut the door and therefore thwart her comedy prat falls.

Shut out from the coop, Belinda decided to make her displeasure known by shrieking her head off while strutting around the garden. Even throwing her a handful of corn wouldn't shut her up. I hastily attempted to rebuild the nestbox, while a small red hen hopped around the lawn with her legs crossed. As I dumped in a handful of wood shavings, she streaked across the lawn, up the ramp and on to the nest. She opened her beak in a chickenny sigh of relief, and pecked me for taking so long. Typical.

Now that Belinda had control of the nest, she was reluctant to give it up. At one point there was a bizarre queue on the ramp of desperate to lay chickens. It looked like they were waiting for a bus. Who knew that hens could be so utterly British?

Friday, 20 March 2009

A Sad Day

I took Delilah to the vets this morning to be put to sleep. She was making no real improvement, just getting thinner and more miserable looking. This morning she wouldn't even eat her weetabix, just sat gasping for air. I knew then that my nursing was keeping her alive, but not making her better. Poor D had given up.

I phoned my friend, who was an absolute star. She took the boys to school, and then came and fetched me and Delilah. She even came in to the examination room with this hysterical, crying, snot flinging woman. Thanks , Denise, you're a star x

The vet gave her the once over, and agreed that enough was enough. I left her in his capable hands, after scratching her head one last time. He didn't even charge me, I was that upset and pathetic.

I wish that this story had a happier ending.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Clean knickers

Delilah has become a bit whiffy, what with lying in her own filth for days, so this morning she had a bath. I'm rather glad that she feels too ill to fight me, as I suspect that a healthy Delilah plus a bath would equal me losing an eye. As it was, she settled for giving me a look of pure malice while I washed her drawers.

Delilah is only the second chicken that I have bathed, so this is probably a hideous generalisation, but chooks seem to really enjoy being blow dried. D lay on a towel, eyes closed and lifted her wings as I blasted her with the hairdryer (on a low setting, I had visions of spontaneous combustion otherwise). During all this palaver, I realised that D is actually bald all along her underside. This is a classic symptom of a broody hen, so I suspect that she was going broody. A broody hen doesn't eat or drink very well, and is therefore much more likely to succumb to illness. The mycoplasma would have been in her system, waiting for her to weaken enough for it to take hold. She's giving it a run for its money, though.

After syringing water/medicine into the poorly chook, and shoving her beak into some weetabix until she either ate or suffocated, I went outside to tidy up the healthy girls. Pekins have huge fluffy knickers, and they can easily get covered in minky cloacal poo. Wiping a chickens bum not only feels weird, but doesn't really achieve anything. Think playdoh in a deep pile carpet. Hence, when those knickers need cleaning, out come the scissors.

I donned my pink 'chicken business' glove, armed myself with the scissors and grabbed the first hen. Mabel was less than impressed with my chicken grooming, and her beautifully rounded undercrackers are now severely lopsided. Oops. It isn't an easy task, though, and requires more hands than I actually have. I've had to adapt the technique, and the results are functional but not particularly aesthetic. Grabbing a handful of the poo coated bum fluff, I gingerly trim them below said poo. At the same time, the hen is desperately pulling in the other direction in a bid for freedom. Therefore, when the last feather is snipped, the chook goes bombing up the garden, totally unprepared for the sudden release. Bloody funny to watch.

So now they all have clean underwear, but I'll never make a hairdresser.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Mini wants a cracker

Delilah seems slightly improved this evening, managing to eat a few beakfuls of weetabix from a spoon and flexing her left leg a bit. She's also been preening a little. This sudden worry over her feathers has made me relax a little bit. Surely a hen at deaths door wouldn't concern herself with feather shininess?

In between hen intensive care, I pottered about in the garden today. Poor little Mini followed me about like a puppy. She's not sure what to do without Delilah. Feeling sorry for her, I kept sneaking her treats. This led to her deciding I was her very best friend, and when I bent down to fill the watering can she decided to move our relationship up a level.

I managed to water the greenhouse with a small chicken on my shoulder, but it wasn't easy. She happily chattered in my ear and occasionally peered around to stare me in the face (quite unnerving). In order to stay perched, she dug her talons into my jumper and at least the top layer of my skin. Ow. More disturbingly, she decided to turn around. I then found myself cheek to chicken arse. Not particularly fragrant.

In order to get her down, I had to bend low to the ground so that she could sort of abseil down my back. She promptly ran around to the front and pecked my hand to check for treats. Finding nothing, and deciding that my usefulness was therefore all used up, she waddled off to eat a snail.

Got to love hens.

Playing vet

Quite frankly, I've had enough of waiting for Delilah to either get better or drop off the perch, so I've decided to take matters into my own hands. The poorly chook has been put in a cardboard box and moved to the living room. I have made up a sloppy oat porridge, and am determinedly shoving it down her throat at regular intervals. This is no easy task, as she clamps her beak together and glares a me in a 'don't even think about it, mate' manner. There then follows a bizarre struggle, as I try to hold on to the hens head, prize open her beak and poor porridge down her neck. This is a task which easily requires three hands, but I'm managing it. Poor Delilah does end up covered in globs of breakfast cereal, though. She really hates me now.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Garden v Farmyard

I had this notion that I could keep chickens in my back garden as sort of living statues. They would artfully pose in the borders, adding a certain rustic charm to the view from the kitchen window. I would occassionally throw them a handful of corn, and they would cluck gently all day before taking themselves off to bed at dusk, so that we could sit outside and have a barbie. Oh, the naivety.

Chickens are only like living statues if the statues in question leave their own weight in poo all over the garden. Seriously, they are manure machines. And they don't stick to the borders. In fact, their absolute favourite place to poo is just outside the back door, where they stand glaring in at me until I fetch them something nice to eat. I can regularly be seen sweeping the decking and lawn with a yard brush, looking like a complete fruitcake. The chooks watch me with interest, before running over to the newly swept ground to check for interesting and tasty bugs. To make room for these delicious morsels, they will of course need to poo. Great.

We have a charming wooden coop for the hens, that I have nicknamed 'The Convent'. It has an attatched covered run, enabling me to leave the girls outside if I'm not at home. In the run, I use horse bedding. They love to dig/scratch around in this stuff, and it absorbs the poo (Poo is becoming a bit of a theme, don't you think?) Despite the ever tolerant husband putting a little enclosure around the bottom of the run, they still manage to fire an enormous amount of this bedding out into the garden. Seriously, it's carnage. Now that they are laying, they also like to get lumps of this bedding and deposit it around the garden as temporary nests.

The hens and I are at war over ownership of the garden. At first glance, it appears that they are winning.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Quick Update

With a heavy heart, I took Delilah to the vet this afternoon, fully expecting to come home minus one chook. She was flat out in the box, gasping for air and generally looking at deaths door. The vet picked her up, examined her and made lots of 'hmmm, this doesn't look good' type noises. At this point, my stiff upper lip crumbled, and I made a bit of a prat of myself, sobbing over a chicken.

To my shock, the vet seemed pleased by her condition. He said that despite her obvious illness, her temperature was up, and that was good. A high temperature indicates an immune system response to infection. Delilah was giving it some!!! Mr. Vet seems fairly certain that D has mycoplasma, an extremely common respitory illness in poultry. Apparently, myco can put a hen off her feet, as the joints are swollen and painful.

He promptly injected her with something I've forgotten the name of, told me to keep syringing water into her beak at regular intervals and to give her a course of Tylan, an antibiotic.

I can't even begin to explain how delighted I was to leave that examining room with one live hen. She's not out of the woods by a long shot, but there is hope. And while there's hope, there'll be a vaguely deranged woman in a dressing gown, syringing sugar water into a pissed off hen at 9pm.

Spring has sprung

Quick update re Delilah: No change. I'm trying to tempt her to eat, but she's not really interested. She's shuffling about if disturbed, but otherwise just looks pretty sad and unwell. I suspect a trip to the vets is on the cards for this evening.

The fit five are happily destroying my lovingly tended garden. They seem to ignore any new plants, until they start looking lush and pretty. Then it's carnage. The windflower by my back door has no foliage at all, although they have left the flowers. A couple of hardy geraniums that were filling in nicely are now nowt but stalks. Bugger.

The sun is out, the sky is blue and the chooks are in playful mood. As well as the aforementioned garden wrecking, they have taken to 'singing'. In a futile attempt to attract a cockeral (good luck with that, ladies) they are shrieking their little hearts out. Bok, bok, bok, bok-ARK!!!!! Now, this wouldn't be so bad if they weren't in competition with each other. Once one starts, they all join in until there's only one triumphant hen bellowing across the county. Every time this madness starts, I can be seen wafting a tea towel at the offenders and theatrically whispering 'Shhhhhh!'. Of course, they ignore me and just get louder. Bum.

At the moment, Doris is queen of the leader board, managing an eardrum bursting bok-arkkkk! at the end of her song that has actually shocked next doors dog into silence. No mean feat, I can tell you. Luckily, the neighbour on the other side is a drummer, and has damaged his own hearing so much he doesn't seem to have noticed. Fingers crossed, eh?

When they're not singing, garden wrecking or pooing on the decking, they like to get in a little greenhouse vandalism. I have to take my share of the responsibility for this, as I stupidly left the door open. Fearing the suspicious silence, I poked my head out of the back door to see all five of them happily pricking out my seedlings, and eating them. Thanks girls.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Hanging in there

I fully expected to lose Delilah over night, but this morning I found her alert but sitting in the nest box. Her face is still far too pale, and she's still not able to move around properly. Good news is, it's not the dreaded Marek's disease, as she isn't paralysed at all, just very uncoordinated.

I opened the coop to examine her, and she made a determined effort to get out of the garage to freedom. I'm pleased by her spirit, but saddened to see her struggle to clear the step which Mini lightly leapt over. It took D a few attempts, and absolutely exhausted her. She stumbled off into the shrubbery, and lay there with her beak open trying to get her breath. The others came over to investigate, muttering chickenny greetings, before wandering off again to eat bugs.

Leaving her to lay in the sun for a few minutes, I came inside to prepare chicken comfort food. Chickens adore porridge, mixed with water, raisins and a bit of poultry spice. When I carried this concoction to the garage, I was mobbed by a flock of greedy birds. When they saw me put said treat in the hospital wing, they stalked off muttering chicken obscenities. I collected D from the shrubbery, and put her near the porridge. With great effort, she turned her back on it and dragged herself back into the coop. Now, she's either extremely unwell, or this is D's spirit shining through. It would be just like her to tell you to naff off, even when you've gone to lots of effort.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The down side

Delilah, on the right.

There is a downside to hen keeping, and I've been reminded of it today. Chickens are such funny little characters, that you find yourself getting attatched to them almost without realising it. So when one of them gets ill, it's very upsetting.

Delilah is a very sick hen. She doesn't seem able to move very well, staggering like a drunk and using her wings to steady herself. Her face and comb are pale, and she's spent a lot of the day huddled in the run. We've been to the vets, and she's been given antibiotic and steroid injections. A temporary hospital wing has been set up in the garage with lots of deep warm bedding, food and water. Her best chicken pal, Mini, is with her. There is nothing more to be done, but wait and see if she is alive in the morning.

I feel bad for calling her a cow now.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Egg Tally

When Delilah started laying, I thought it would be, er, fun to keep a record of who lay what, when. Sad, I know. Anyway, the ever tolerant hubby dutifully organised a spreadsheet for me, which I have been filling in for three months. Ahem.

This worked fine when I just had three hens laying, as I could generally work out who had laid which egg. Now there are five laying though, I haven't a hope in hell. So, I have taken to guessing.

Basically this means that I am entering false data onto a totally unnecessary spreadsheet. A completely pointless task. I should really stop.

Chicken keeping can have a negative effect on your mental health.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The pecking order

When I just had Maude and Mabel, I used to think that Maude was the top hen. She seemed the most confident, the most likely to come haring up the garden for treats, and the most likely to land on visitors shoulders, scaring the crap out of them. Mabel was more aloof, preferring to watch all of her sisters shenanigans from a distance. Even when we threw Doris and Belinda into the mix, I still thought that Maude ruled the roost. Both of the older chooks gave the newbies a bit of a chase and put them in their place, but it was still Maude that was the show off. I have since learned that an outgoing personality has absolutely nothing to do with hen hierarchy.

Once Delilah and Mini arrived, it became apparant very fast that Mabel was top hen. She strutted around, hackles raised, bellowing at the top of her lungs her displeasure at these new chooks being in her territory. She herded the other three members of her flock away from the interlopers, and anyone who tried to make friends with them got a severe duffing up. Her favourite game became chasing the new girls around the greenhouse in a Benny Hill stylee.

Within a month of the new arrivals, the pecking order was established. Mabel is top hen, and gives the others the occasional peck on the head just to remind them. Next comes Maude. Doris, Belinda and Delilah seem to be somewhere in the middle, and poor little Mini is at the bottom.

Being bottom hen is a bit rubbish. She has to eat last, go to bed last and rarely gets any of the treats. Belinda is particularly fond of grabbing a beakful of her neck feathers if she gets too close, and Doris thinks chasing her is the best fun ever. Upsetting as this can be to watch, it's normal hen behaviour. Mini isn't mature yet, so she automatically has less importance in the flock. Hopefully, when she comes into lay, she'll grow some metaphorical balls and peck back, and they'll learn to leave her alone. She is, already, more integrated in the flock than she was, and is beginning to steal bits of bread and tear off up the garden with them. My little girl is growing up, and learning that being a devious bitch might be the only way of getting her fair share. Good on her.

A recent development in the pecking order involves Mabel jumping on the others' backs, in imitation of a cockeral. The first time she did this, Doris let out a bewildered squawk. The second time, she crouched. I presume that this is just Mabel asserting her authority, and not an indication that I have a rampant lesbian chicken on my hands. Time will tell.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

First egg!

I remember coming across the first egg back in January with absolute delight. I saw this little, perfectly formed ovoid shape and assumed that a) hubby was playing a trick on me, or b) the kids were playing a trick on me. But no! Delilah had laid her/our very first egg! It was a ridiculously joyous occassion, and I really hope that none of the neighbours are in possession of a video of me literally dancing around the garden with glee.

The egg was boiled, photo's were taken (I kid you not) and the the other members of my family had a spoonful each. They proclaimed it the best egg ever, and I gave Delilah an extra raisin for being such a clever girl. After that, there was no stopping her, and she now regularly gives us 5/6 eggs a week.

Maude was the next to start laying, just a fortnight after Delilah's debut. Her eggs are almost white, and bigger than D's mini eggs. Two weeks later, and Mabel joined the layers club. With three hens laying, I was getting around 14 eggs a week, far more than we'd eat, so I gave a few boxes to the neighbours.

Just this week, Doris and Belinda have started laying. They seem a little intimidated by the bigger girls though, and have taken to laying eggs in unusual places rather than use the nest boxes. I'm not quite sure what to do about that at the moment.

So now I only have little Mini not contributing to the food chain. I don't expect her to start laying for a couple of months yet, as her head gear hasn't reddened up nor does she crouch. By the end of May, though, I expect to have six hens a laying!


When my ever tolerant hubby asked me what I wanted for christmas, I suspect he already knew that it would involve something with feathers. I casually replied I'd like two more hens, fully expecting him to laugh himself sick and then tell me to get stuffed. Instead, he told me to phone the breeder.

The breeder invited me 'round that very weekend, and after a bit of oohing and aahing, I came away with Delilah, a partridge hen, and Mini Mildrid, a splash. Mini was, and is, a very sweet hen. She's a few weeks younger than the others, and is bottom of the pecking order. Delilah is an extremely handsome hen, with a wonderful comb. She is, however, a complete cow. If she's in a mood, which is more or less constantly, she will try to peck you to death. Delilah is noisy and bad tempered, and the smaller hens stay out of her way. However, she is completely beautiful, and lays the most eggs, so we forgive her. I have a pair of gardening gloves which I use to prune the roses, and to handle Delilah. Neither of us like this arrangement, but it will have to do. Delilah can often be found staring in through the patio door, perhaps plotting chickenny vengeance.

Life with chickens

So, I jumped in at the deep end, and learnt on the job. Maude and Mabel settled in quickly, happily pottering around the garden and scoffing all my favourite tender plants. And decimating the greenhouse. The kids were fascinated for about five minutes, and then their attention was caught by something else. The ever tolerant husband grudgingly admitted that they were sweet, and weren't turning the garden into a farmyard. I had well and truly caught the bug, and talked the other half into aquiring another hen.

During my chicken research, I had come across silkies. Silkies are an unusual looking chicken, with fluffy feathers and black skin. They are also supposed to be gentle and good around children. I tracked down a farmer who said I could have one of his young hens for a fiver. Bargain!

Except she wasn't. She was evil. My eldest son named this chicken psychopath Alice, a lovely sweet name wholey inappropriate to the honking, screeching mentalist that was penned up in the back garden. Alice hated people, showing her displeasure with open beaked hisses and vicious pecking if you came within range. Alice also hated chickens, repeatedly trying to duff up the other two until they perched awkwardly on top of the drinker, refusing to come down while the crazed Alice circled underneath with that Jack Nicholson from 'The Shining' gleam in her eye. After a mere 48 hours, we decided Alice had to go. Using tea towels and a bucket, we managed to secure her in a box and the hubby took her back to the farm. I suspect she is continuing her reign of tyranny on some other poor hens as I type.

A few weeks after the Alice episode, I somehow managed to talk hubby into getting two more pekins. I did this sneakily, by telling the kids that they could have a hen of their own. I tracked down a wonderful breeder, and 6 weeks after Mabel and Maude arrived, we had a 6 week old red hen called Belinda, and a 6 week old blue hen named Doris.

Introducing chickens to an existing flock is a tricky business. There is always a fair amount of chasing, pecking and bokking. I took it very slowly, initially just letting them all see each other while in seperate pens. After a few weeks, they free ranged/ chased each other around the garden. Five weeks after Belinda and Doris's arrival, they were all in the same coop and the pecking order was established. To my knowledge, no hens were injured during this process, and it worked well for us.

So, now I had my little flock. They waddled happily around the garden, scoffing everything in site and leaving surprisingly large deposits all over the decking. They also started to make proper chicken noises, other than the chick 'meep' sounds they'd arrived with. Surprisingly loud chicken noises. Oh dear. They favour a bok-bok-bok-BOKKKKKK!! kind of call rather than gentle clucking. Basically, everyone now knew that we had hens.

The first post! Introduction

Well, I've finally managed to work out what a blog is, and get this far. I'm quite pleased with myself, actually. So, here's a bit of background.

I wanted a dog. Really, really wanted a dog. Even got so far as choosing a puppy. Said puppy then licked my eldest sons face, and he turned into Quasimodo. Not good. It was a dramatic way to find out that he was allergic to dog saliva, and put a halt on dog ownership. I was disappointed, but rallied myself and announced that we would get a cat.

The hubby and I trotted off to the local RSPCA shelter, and chose a gorgeous little kitty. She was adorable. We all fell in love, and the kids thought she was the bestest cat ever. Sadly, the next day the hubby was unable to breathe. Literally gasping for air. Bye bye kitty.

All of this aquiring pets only to have to take them back was quite demoralising. The kids were upset for about five minutes, and then wandered off to watch Ben 10. I was seriously peeved at my nearest and dearests inability to tolerate dog spit or cat fur, and might have sulked a bit.

Now, during some hormonally unbalanced stage early last year, I had toyed with the idea of chickens. It seemed like a good idea; gently clucking fat hens would wander around the back garden eating worms and aphids (the bane of a rose lovers life). When I mentioned this plan to the hubby, I got an extremely adament 'No'. As he pointed out, we don't live on a farm. Or even in the countryside, really. Also, chickens look vaguely threatening up close. A bit like dinosaurs.

However, about a week after we returned Sassy the kitten (See! She was named and everything!) he had a change of heart (I suspect the fact that living with me was a bit like living with a harpy at the time had something to do with it. I was thirty last year, so a bit mental with significant birthdayness) Hurrah!

Then began a long, drawn out process of deciding which kind of hens to keep, and also what to put them in. After a few weeks of research, the coop was ordered and I'd decided that pekin bantams were the birds for us. After a quick word with the neighbours, I set about finding a breeder.

Pekins are small fluffy chickens that look like they're wearing huge bloomers. They are also docile, easy to handle and allegedly don't dig up the garden too much (Allegedly. We'll come back to this point later) They're not the best egg layers in the world, stop laying during the winter months all together and frequently go broody. None of this put me off. In July 2008, I collected two 9 week old millefleur pekins.