Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Damp Settles In

Autumn has well and truly arrived here in the midlands. Temperatures have plummeted, and the house once again resembles an industrial laundrette. The damp air is doing interesting things to my hair, but more amusingly, it's doing interesting things to Gladys.

Poor Gladys. Being frizzled apparently comes at a price. While all the other hens look sleeker now that their feathers are damp, Gladys has puffed up. She now resembles a pom pom with legs. Her neck feathers have curled so far over her head that she has to strain her neck out to see where she's going. She looks strangely alien as she wombles across the lawn looking for bugs. If the rain was anything other than this barely there drizzle, she wouldn't have this problem. Even frizzles de-frizzle when very wet. However, this current dampness just adds to the curl. She looks magnificent, but also embarassed.

She has taken to perching in the Palace grounds, and determinedly preening. With painstaking attention to detail, she attempts to flatten out the worst offenders. I think this serves to act like an open bladed scissors on ribbon, and just curls her feathers more extravagantly. Eventually, she sits and sulks. With her head tucked in, it can be tricky to work out which end is which.

The other girls are being suitably sympathetic. Maude has taken to following the follicly challenged youngster about. Not to chase or peck her, but seemingly purely because she can't believe her crazy hairstyle. If chickens could laugh, Gladys would hear nothing else.

I think she's gorgeous.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

All Is Well

Doris has gone in to moult in the last few days. Copious amounts of silvery feathers are blowing about the garden making the place look untidy. The moulting hen seems quite embarassed about the whole situation and is lurking in the shrubbery, leaving soft piles of fluff every time she moves. The rest of the flock are being generously decorated, and Purdy spent a good ten minutes yesterday trying to remove one of Doris's knicker feathers from her comb. The Palace's grounds are a swirling mass of ex-Doris. I am secretly hoping for gale force winds just to tidy the place up a bit.

Maeve has been busy in the garden this week. She finally managed to dig up one of my recently planted daffodil bulbs. Not content with this minor act of vandalism, she dragged it over to the back step and left it there while I was eating a sandwich. The Dark One eyeballed me through the patio door, just to make sure that we understood each other. Attempting to plant things in her dust bath was not going to end well. With a resigned sigh, I replanted the bulb in a less sunny spot. She is training me well.

Gladys and Hilda are still running the flock gauntlet with aplomb. Celia has taken to giving them a hard time during her infrequent forays from the nest. They out run her easily, and follow impressive figure or eight routes around the other girls before coming back together to compare notes. Celia is benefitting from the exercise, but getting increasingly psychotic. Any day now she will explode through indignation.

In other news, it's possible that two more pretty ladies will be joining them by Christmas. Details to follow....

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Ascending To The Palace

The new chicks on the block, Gladys and Hilda, have been with us three weeks now. It was always my aim to have an integrated flock by the time that the weather turned, but the speed at which the new girls have been accepted is astounding. The two factions eye each other warily, but the usual violence is conspicuous in it's absence.

I went out to shut the hens up for the night at dusk yesterday, and had a mild panic. Hilda and Gladys were not cosied up in the garage. I hunted around the garden by torchlight, looking for a glimpse of Hilda's rubbish camouflage. Finding nothing, I opened the coop. Celia is still nest bound, and growled at me grumpily. The other five ladies were arranged about the perches in that very exact way which relates to the pecking order. And right in the back, huddled in the corner, were the two newbies.

I closed the coop door, and retrieved my jaw from the top of my wellies. My 14 week old baby pekins had voluntarily gone to bed with the big girls. I couldn't quite work out whether this was a stroke of awe inspiring courage, or extreme stupidity. It was entirely possible that Maeve would wake up bright and early and eat them both for breakfast, barely stopping to cough up a feather. Not to mention how the mighty Mille's might respond to these tresspassing young upstarts. Moulting makes a girl have cowbag tendencies.

As I stood there dithering, the ever tolerant husband stuck his head out of the back door and told me to stop standing in the garden with a torch like a loon and come and drink my wine. This seemed like a brilliant idea, so I locked up the Palace and trudged back to the house.

Five minutes later, I trudged back out, opened the pop hole and made sure that there was another feeder and drinker in the run. I then checked that no one was using Gladys as a pillow and poked maeve a bit until she hissed at me, just to make sure she wasn't ill. Crossing my fingers that all homicidal tendencies would stay well hidden, I left them to it.

This morning, the girls got themselves up for breakfast. When I came downstairs, the five non-broody ladies had finished their breakfast and were lounging about the run. Taking a deep breath, I opened the coop. Celia was still pancaked on her imaginary eggs, and mumbled a bit at being disturbed. The newbies were sat on the perches, unharmed. I checked the coop for stary feathers that should still be attached to young bums, but found none. No feathers, no blood and apparently no big deal.

They are not a fully integrated flock yet, but it's very close.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Don't Hate Me 'Cause I'm Famous

Blogger has a nifty new tool. I can now access information about visitors to my chronicles. Not creepy 'I-know-where-you-live' info, but general stuff such as which country they are in, which browser they are using, when they accessed the blog, and also how they found it. It is the last of these which has intrigued me. A fair bit of traffic comes through google (which is to be expected), but the search words that people are entering are most enlightening. The most searched term which brings people here is (wait for it) 'ASBO chicken'.

That's right, the small black hen with a big attitude appears to have a fan base. Now, techinically, I suppose it's just as possible that people are googling through frustration at a neighbours noisy poultry and wish to obtain an ASBO. However, I prefer the idea of a celebrity chicken. She certainly has the arrogant sense of entitlement nailed.

If she was aware of her new following, I'm sure she'd be making lots of unreasonable demands about heating in the coop and only drinking Evian. As it is, she is blissfully unaware of the public's adoration. Love her or hate her, she does not care. She'd peck your toes either way (I have the painful experiences to prove it). What I am sure of is that if Maeve was a human celebrity, she'd be of the train wreck variety, possibly punching photographers. I'm thinking of a slightly less polite Liam Gallagher.

As I type this, the Famous One is glaring at me from the back step. She is waiting for her toast, and will start tapping on the back door if I don't make a move soon.

The job of a personal assistant is never done, especially when you have such a demanding boss.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Dining Al Fresco

One of the first lessons I learned when I went in to chicken keeping is that chickens will eat just about anything. They will eat most of your garden, and also most of the food that you like to eat. Naturally, I restrict their diet for their own good, but they are never happier than when they procure some 'illegal' food stuff and hot foot it under the rhododendron bush so that I can't seize it. The youngest is regularly relieved of biscuits and cakes in this way, and comes inside howling with indignation. Eventually, he will learn that if you don't want to share, don't take it outside.

I will have to take some responsibility for this thievery, though. I am an extremely indulgent chook owner. When preparing the human meal, I often make a bit extra for my girls. Particularly when the weather is cold. Therefore, it is not unusual to see the human family sat at the table eating a roast dinner, and the chicken contingent sitting just the other side of the patio doors waiting for their share. Spoiled doesn't really cover it.

Yesterday we had jacket potatoes. Now, if there's one thing a chicken really, really likes, it's a spud. Once I was reasonably certain that the ever tolerant husband wasn't watching, I lobbed a 'spare' jacket in to the garden. The hens were in raptures. They attacked it like mini jack-hammers. Bits of potato flew. The aim of the game appears to be burrowing in to the potato faster than your flock mates, therefore getting all of the good squishy spud. Maeve regularly wins this contest, and ends up wearing the potato shell like a helmet. Once it has been completely hollowed out, then begins the race for the skin.

Eating the skin is harder work, but they seem to see it as a delicacy. There is often a lull in proceedings as they all catch their breath. They regard Maeve and her potato helmet solemnly for a while, before one of them leads the war charge. Last night, Mabel did the honours.

Maeve and her spuddy head gear is then chased about the garden, in a Benny Hill stylee. I think that this is a very clever way of burning off all those carbs. During the race, the potato will begin to disintegrate. Maeve becomes a sort of chicken pinata, shedding yummy flecks of skin as she goes. Impressively, the rest of the flock barely break their stride as they hoover them up. Eventually, Maeve loses her edible crown, and the rest is devoured. They then laze about in a gluttonous stupor, occassionally pecking bits of spud from each other's heads.

The dance of the jacket potato is complete.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Latest Season's Trends!

My millefleur girls are very special to me. They're special because they were the ladies which introduced me to the realities of hen keeping. I spent many weeks researching chickens, and the best way in which to keep them. Once Mabel and Maude arrived, I had to put all of my theoretical knowledge to the test. Every time one of them sneezed, I panicked and thought: myco. Every time one or other of them snaffled a stray knicker feather, I thought: calcium deficiency. Now, experience has taught me that a hen that sneezes might be doing so because she stuck her beak in something unsavoury, and that feather snaffling is sometimes done just because they don't yet know the difference between each other and food. Me and my mille's have been on a journey together, that thankfully they have survived.

Both girls are currently going through their moult. Typically, they spend the first half of said moult feeling rather rubbish. As the old plumage falls out and the new quills push through their skin, they are obviously in some discomfort. I always ensure that the flock is given supplements during moulting season. It takes considerable energy to grow new feathers, and this is a prime time for illnesses. Luckily, my mighty mille's have survived this first stage with nary a sniffle. They are now in to the emerging pattern phase.

The picture at the top of my blog is of Mabel when she was in her first year. Post moult, she became a lot whiter and more matronly looking. So I am watching her with interest as the new feathers begin to emerge. She is much happier in herself, and has decided to randomly thunder up the garden towards the new chicks, causing them to scatter in amusing ways. Once satisfied with their terror, she boks happily to herself. I can already see that her markings are going to be even whiter than last year. Do hens lose feather pigment as they age, I wonder? Will Mabel eventually be as white as Hilda and demand a blue rinse?

Maude is spending oodles of time dustbathing. I wonder if the new feather growth is itchy, and this is her way of scratching. Maude emerged from her moult last year stunningly beautiful. I very much hope that we have a similair effect this year.

The other girls will moult in turn, but it's not nearly as exciting as seeing what the mille's will do. A single colour hen will moult and grow back single colour feathers. A patterned hen, though, could surprise you. Not with corporate advertising on their backside, granted, but still. There are possibilities.

They should be displaying their latest creations within a fortnight.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Celia Gets It Wrong

Today has been the first truly autumnal day of the year. Stray leaves are blowing about the garden, and all of the trees are at least thinking about throwing down a few more. The two newest ladies came out of their garage home for a wander around the grounds, decided it was cold and windy, and went back in. They were last seen snuggling up in the mini coop, deep in to the woodshavings, and having a bit of a sleep.

The rest of the flock, minus Celia, have been more resilient. With determination, Maeve lay in her favourite dustbath with the aim of catching a few rays. Eventually, she had to aknowledge the lack of hot yellow thing in the sky, puffed herself up and grumbled away in to the shrubbery. Mabel and Maude seem to be feeling the wind even more keenly in their semi-clad state and have retreated to the Palace. They venture out for snacks, but that's about it.

Celia has decided that this is exactly the right time to experiment with being broody. At first I thought she was just taking her time about laying. Upon investigation, however, it became apparent that the little madam was sitting on two eggs. The psychotic glint in her eye told me everything that I needed to know. As I reached forward she began to growl. Inch by inch, I slowly advanced. Celia's growl increased in volume and screechiness until I actually dared stick my hand under her to retrieve the eggs. This did not go down at all well, and she attempted to remove my hand at the wrist. Snatching back my much needed appendage, I solemnly regarded the young hen. She glared back. We then engaged in a ridiculous game of 'Fetch The Egg' where by I advanced on the nest, then lost my nerve. All the while Celia went from low growl to insane harpy mode. The undulations were reminiscent of an old air raid siren, and drew my neighbour to pop her head over the fence to make sure we hadn't had a chemical spill.

Finally realising enough was enough, I distracted the Evil One with a glove while snaffling the eggs. She savagely set about the glove with a quite worrying amount of glee. Certain that she had well and truly killed it, her tiny mind returned to her nest. On the discovery that her eggs were missing, she raised her hackle feathers and hissed at me. That's right, hissed.

Now I have dealt with some determined broodies over the last two years, and I have regularly run the gauntlet with the affectionately named ASBO chicken, but this hen seems positively dangerous.

On with the leather gauntlets.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Planning Ahead

I have decided that summer is over. The sun is still making the odd appearance, but on the whole autumn is in the air. The moulting Mille's are busy redecorating the garden with bits of themselves, and I am trying to come up with a chicken proof gardening scheme which will see my borders full of greenery and colour instead of chicken poo and dustbaths. Deep down, I suspect that I am tilting at windmills.

When I survey my borders, I realise two things. One, that all of my beautiful, delicate plants have mysteriously disappeared. And two, that the surviving specimens are shrubs which can bear their foliage and flowers above bouncing pekin height. Oh, and aqueligias. For some reason, they are completely ignored. Also, true geraniums, although they are nibbled. All in all, it's a heartbreaking sight for a keen gardener.

Before the Palace was installed in its current location, I did have a clump of chives which they left alone. With this in mind, I have planted several varieties of allium bulb. I am hoping that the oniony taste will put them off. In the same vein, they ignore the rosemary bush. The ever tolerant husband suspects that they avoid all of the ingredients in Paxo through instinct.

Bedding plants are a complete no-no, and this year even the roses have come under attack. The rhododendron's have escaped unscathed, but the poor ceanothus is naked from the waist down. If this continues, it will develop a tree like structure rather than that of a shrub. In fact, I might end up with a garden populated with standard plants.

Any new, tender growth is scoffed with abandon. I resorted to fencing off the border last spring to give the emerging plants a fighting chance. The hens patrolled the partition, awaiting the opening of the buffet. Next year, with the fabulous Palace, they will find their free ranging rights severely restricted during growing season.  With these restrictions in place, and some clever planting, I am hoping to have a more botanical garden next summer.

Gladys and Hilda are now free ranging with the rest of the flock. The two groups warily dance around each other, and no harm has been done by either party. Indeed, the new girls even made their way in to the Palace grounds to help themselves to lunch yesterday. The chooks watched, incredulous, as Hilda had the temerity to poo quite literally on their doorstep. This broke the stunned inertia, and Maeve evicted the newcomers with ruthless efficiency. No one lost any feathers, however, so I am fairly optimistic of a smooth transition.

Lurking in the undergrowth, a moth-eaten Mabel, Purdy, Maude, Doris and Celia.

The usually beautiful Maude, minus her knickers.

Scoffing the roses, because apparently nothing is actually sacred.

Gladys and Hilda, the newest recruits.

Gladys being marvelously frizzly.

Hilda, still impressively white.

They destroy my garden, poo everywhere and force me out of bed early even at the weekends; and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Autumn Falls

Now that a good week has gone by, we are all settling down with our new flock. Gladys and Hilda have been out in a fenced off pen and getting their first taste of the great outdoors. The girls have shown minimum interest in the newcomers, with only Purdy really trying to stake her claim in the existing pecking order. Understandably, as bottom hen, she is not keen on any newbies rising above her in the chain of command. She can be seen strutting around the perimeter of the enclosure, puffing her chest out and grumbling. For the most part, Gladys and Hilda ignore her.

Maeve watched from a distance for the first day, and on the second sauntered over to flex her ASBO muscles. She was intrigued by Gladys, the anti-ASBO, with her curling feathers. Sensibly, Gladys refused to make eye contact and kept her head down. When her attention shifted to Hilda, however, there was an interesting development. Hilda was sat comfortably against the netting, which to be honest was a schoolboy error. Maeve glided up behind her, and gave an experimental peck. This was the equivalent of the school bully tapping you politely on the shoulder before punching you in the face. Hilda surprised us both, however, by reacting instantly and aggressively. Hackle feathers up, she rounded on Maeve and pecked back. Both birds jumped apart and regarded each other solemnly. After several moments, Maeve sauntered away. Interesting. Hilda went back to sunbathing, seemingly untroubled.

Mabel, our illustrious leader, is in full moult. The garden resembles an explosion in a pillow factory. Not to be out done, when I opened the coop this morning I found Maude sitting on a pile of her own rapidly dropped fluff. Where the Mille's lead the way, the others will certainly follow. I predict that I will spend most of the autumn picking up handfuls of feathers in an attempt to stop the ever tolerant husband wailing in dispair.

And that was the summer.