I write this with a heavy heart because I have some difficult news. At least, it’s news to us, although you may perhaps be better informed. Indeed, ask any of my hens – the original four plus yourself and Bertha – and you may all be able to say, “Yes of course … what did YOU think, then?”
The fact is, Bunty, and it pains me to say it, but you’re almost certainly not a hen. By which I mean you’re probably a boy. We had absolutely no idea whatsoever until last Saturday, when you most definitely crowed. Not a noisy, wake-you-up-at-dawn yodel but none-the-less, a gentle, tentative crow. Certainly not a cluck.
We all heard it and at once Googled “how to sex chickens”. And then the pennies started dropping…
You know how we have always loved your big feet? How we have dragged every visitor to our house since August into the garden to marvel at your footspan and your long, strong legs? How we joked that your feet looked ostrich-size, not chicken-sized? How tall you looked next to the diminutive Bertha, but also when measured against our older, fully mature hens? And you just a baby, etc, etc? A mere 24 weeks old as I write today?
Well, there was more. Your comb, remember, was always much bigger than Bertha’s, and your wattles. With Bertha, we had to look to find it at first, it was practically not there, unlike yours. And just recently, your comb and wattles turned bright red and I rubbed my hands in glee and considered the possibility of your first egg… How foolish I feel now!
Then again, remember when you had just arrived and someone said you looked like a cockerel (they did say they were only teasing me though), and I had a quick look under your feathers and found your vent? It had never occurred to me that it might just be a bottom! I took that as proof you were a hen, and from then on your big feet and tall stature were just a source of amusement.
If you hadn’t crowed, Bunty I might not have twigged for weeks more… but Google searches also informed us that a cockerel has distinctive saddle and sickle feathers, as well as longer neck feathers. As you and Bertha have recently moulted your baby feathers, I thought it would be as well to check what was growing back… It hadn’t occurred to me to look closely before, because I was not expecting much of a change. But when we looked, last Saturday, following the crowing incident, it was immediately clear that the feathers on your saddle were long and slender, like willow leaves – very like the now more prolific and long neck feathers – and there is just the merest hint of a couple of more prominent sickle feathers in your lovely Orpington bustle…
The other hens seem to know that something is up. They still boss you around, and you still run away from them. But they look at you quizzically, as if not quite sure how to behave around you. You have also started to do that thing where you stand up tall and flap. I think that’s a boy thing too. And of course, you’re tentatively practising your crowing. There are other strange sounds too, that very deep throaty noise you made when you came indoors yesterday, perhaps because you didn’t know my visitor, and you felt a bit anxious.
Then there was the time recently when a cat appeared in the garden, and you got very vocal and warned me and the hens about it.
So – and here’s the worst bit, Bunty – if you’re going to be a boy, I can’t keep you here. It’s just impossible, as close to other houses as we are. Your first owner, the lady who hatched you, though shocked that she might have got it wrong, is happy to take you back. I don’t think she has any spare hens for you to live amongst, so you may need to get used to the bachelor life. I am so sorry. This has been such a difficult week. Every time I see you it makes me sad, because you are so sweet and friendly and you would have become something of a favourite, I am sure.
I don’t know how Bertha will cope without you, you two have been together since you hatched and it will be a terrible wrench for you both. I will keep an eye on Bertha and give her lots of extra treats and chats to try to make up. But Bunty, I won’t be able to keep an eye on you. I won’t know how you are coping away from the love of your life, Bertha. You follow her everywhere and if she looks distressed you are agitated until you can get to her. She is always OK – just a bit skittish and flighty – but you need to follow her round the garden like a loyal hound; even when she hops over the fence with grace and agility to see us humans, you have to follow her, big and cumbersome as you are… You are brave enough to come into the utility room when allowed, and would probably do this for as long as you could jump the fence, after that I imagine you would join the others in sitting wistfully near the back door on your side of the fence.
I will miss seeing the pair of you perched on our garden seat as if you owned it, looking into the kitchen windows and checking up on us all inside! You sit there for hours on the arm, preening yourselves and watching the world go by. The highlight of your day is when the back door opens and out comes a handful of mealworms, preferably the wriggly ones. It makes your wait worthwhile.
But Bunty, the longer we wait now, the more like a cockerel you will become, and the harder it will be both for us to say goodbye to you, and for you to adjust to a different home. So with sadness, Bunty, I have to take you back to your first owner very soon. I know she will look after you or find you a caring home, where you will be in much demand, and where your cockerel-ness will be properly appreciated and where your cock-a-doodle-doing won’t upset any neighbours.
So it’s soon going to be farewell, Bunty, and we will miss you. You have certainly made a big impression on us all.