Nov 172011

Dear Bunty,

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?”

Bunty resting on the bench

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.

Bunty and Bertha standing on the benchIf 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.Bunty and Bertha resting on the Bench

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.

Oct 272011

If my calendar-counting is correct, my new arrivals are now 23 weeks old… that’s Bunty and Bertha, the chocolate Orpingtons I bought in the summer. Two sisters, who I think were hatched together from the same stock. Although now I am wondering… because Bunty and Bertha – or my Twinnies as I call them – look more like Little and Large than genetically similar siblings. We are definitely talking Danny de Vito’s “Twins” here…

Whilst Bunty started off bigger and has continued growing exponentially, Bertha has always been a bit of a titch. She is what you call height-challenged, and is now possibly as wide as she is tall, her growth apparently being concentrated in girth.

A quizzical-looking BuntyWhen they walk around the garden together, Bertha needs to look up to see Bunty. Bertha can fly maniacally out of the Hen Garden and (regrettably) into the Human Garden. To my astonishment, so now can Bunty – though in her case it’s not the impressive upward launch of her Twin but more of a laboured hop. We have had to put a garden chair on our side of the divide so she can get back (the alternative was for me to lift her back). Chickens can’t always work out how to do the opposite of something they have just done. So having managed to escape, they were at first unable to get back without coaching! Or a chair!

One of the best pieces of information I ever read about Orpingtons was from the delightful book by Francine Raymond, “The Big Book of Garden Hens”, in which she says that a large Orpington would need rocket powered assistance to get airborne. That marvellous image has stuck with me over the years and possibly formed the basis of my desire to own an Orpington (or two). I just wish my two had read the book… but then we do have a very low mesh fence, which rather incredibly kept all our other hens safely confined until the Terrible Twins arrived and started breaking rules.

But there’s another thing about Bunty – her feet. They wouldn’t look out of place on an ostrich. Her long legs look like a marathon runner’s, built for strength and stamina. But as she also has a few small feathers sprouting on them I am starting to doubt her pure Orpington parentage. Might she be a closet Brahma? Is Bertha really a bantam? Can someone tell me what’s going on?

Of course it’s all academic, as they are here to stay.

We just hope that Bunty won’t get too big to fit though the popholes…

Oct 062011

It was a sad day today in our Mac-driven household to hear of the death of the iConic Steve Jobs.

Not only was our old henhouse sourced on a Mac but the amazing new one (the Hen Pad) was designed on one, using the latest in rotational animated plans which even included the ability to plot the direction of sunlight in your garden at precise times of the day and year, so that we could predict where the shadows would fall, say, 6months from now at 2.30 in the afternoon on a building that was not then even built.

All of my online hen pin-ups (the breeds on my ever-growing wishlist) have been sourced on a Mac, and much of my hen supplies are bought on one. My two rescued ex-batts were applied for and approved via my Mac and the constant support I received from likewise. And of course, every chicken blog, poem or Tweet I have written has started out on a Mac.

So as a mark of respect my hens today invented a new App. Short, in this case, for “Appetite”, the hens did however demonstrate application in pursuit of their new game. It’s called “Hungry Birds” and it proved quite addictive.

In our version, 6 hens pit their wits against a large tin of dried mealworms, to see who can win the most points. No pigs were harmed (unlike the real app!) and no Hungry Birds were catapulted skywards, although Bouncy Bertha had been practising all day in case such skills were required.

The final score was: Entry levels won by Bunty and Bertha who scored 102 each in a team effort, as well as 9 bonus points won by spotting and eating the strange black insects that have hatched in the current sack of mealworms, much to the the hens’ delight.

As the game progressed, Bunty and Bertha were eliminated by Minty, who was then wiped out by Lily, though neither made much impact on the scoreboard. This was largely due to Florence (herself a somewhat “largely” bird) manoeuvring deftly into position over the mealworm tin, and in true Hungry Birds style, hogging it. Well, we had to have a nod to little pigs somewhere in the new game. Florence’s closing score was 327. At this point the tin was removed for health and safety reasons.

Sadly blown out of the water was Sumo, who failed to score any points at all, having not realised that mealworms were on offer and being far busier testing some delicious new berries that had just arrived hot-foot from the garden centre on a tasty new shrub.

So currently Florence holds the top score for round one of Hungry Birds. The next level will see the Hungry Birds doing more daredevil things such as jumping onto picnic benches or flying over the pond. Level 3 involves compost-bin manoeuvres and fighting invading starlings who attempt to alight on the mash hopper. Should any attempt to invade the seed trays, it’s death by beak.

So there you have it. We have lost a great, incisive, far-sighted visionary who in thinking out of the box, got everyone wanting a cube…. and then a pod and finally a pad.

…..And my hens, who are blessed with neither iNtellect nor iNsightfullness have invented a new game….Jobs well done.

But there’s a mighty gap at the top of the pecking order now…

Aug 162011

Is there a better way to go to slaughter? This is not a topic I ever thought I’d find myself writing about, keeping hens as I do for pets and not chicken portions. However I find myself today embroiled in a discussion about broilers. Or more precisely on to how send meat birds sedately on their way.

Big drum roll please for the latest in hen-rounding-up equipment, the Apollo Universal Generation 2 Chicken Harvester, apparently soon to be deployed for use by a major UK chicken meat manufacturer.

By all accounts, this is indeed the most humane mechanical way to “harvest” hens. This is essentially a shed-wide machine that gradually forces the soon-to-be Ex-Hens into a reduced area and then lifts them onto rubberised conveyor belts, which funnels them along neatly until they are deposited in transport cages at the rear. Have a look for yourself (here’s a link to the Apollo video on YouTube) and see what you think. I did.

Admittedly I am not well-versed in pre-slaughter mechanics, so I am unable to do a pre-Apollo comparison. But something is sticking in my throat like a piece of microwaved chicken nugget. Maybe it was the slightly cheery soundtrack that overlaid the visuals, or perhaps it was the sheer size of this beast (for the Apollo Universal is quite a beast), but my initial reaction, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, was, “Sick, appalled, angry, sad” and for good measure and before I ran out of my 140 characters, “Raise hens in smaller nos. and avoid this.”

For this is what has really made me reel… only need a vast pre-slaughter scooper-upper if you raise chickens in vast, uncatchable numbers. These are not ears of wheat or early potatoes we are discussing, but living, sentient creatures who would not in any other circumstances find themselves amassed in such big groups. Yes, chickens are flock animals and may feel stress if deprived of other chicken company, but that doesn’t mean farmers should expect them to live in groups so big that no real whole-flock bonding can occur. Hens in the wild don’t live in flocks of 10,000 after all. So to cram them together cheek-by-wattles in such vast numbers is wholly unnatural, and thus inhumane.

For now, the new-generation Apollo Universal may be on a mission towards higher pre-slaughter welfare – no doubt those who deploy it believe it to be a better, kinder product. But whether you think the new Apollo appealing – or appalling – depends largely on your relationship with animals and food production. For my conscience, though, until hens are farmed in smaller, more manageable, less-gargantuan-sized flocks, the Apollo and its successors will remain very much on the dark side of the moon.

Aug 012011

Well I did it, having viewed some juvenile Orpingtons on Saturday there was NO WAY I was going to resist! At 12 weeks, they are a bit smaller than I am used to, but I decided not to let that deter me.

“I’ll take these two,” I found myself blurting out. A friend was also collecting hers, so the little flock was minus 6 by the time we had both filled our cat carriers!

“I think they’re about the same size as Lily,” said hubby, obviously deluded by scale. They are not the same size as Lily (Cream Legbar), still less as Florence (Welsummer), known fondly as Fatty Florence. In fact, they are smaller than any chickens I have owned, since I have not grown on any youngsters before. They appear as Lilliputians next to Florence, who if unzipped, could fit at least 3 into her volume!

You can loosely describe their colouring as Chocolate – Bunty has got a buff head and neck, with more chestnut and milk chocolate colouring elsewhere, whilst Bertha is much more chocolatey all over, with speckling. At present she looks exactly like a large baby robin, and almost became Robyn because of this.

They are living in temporary accommodation in the base of our Ark but this is not satisfactory and a plan has been hatched – more on this soon!

Meantime, they have settled in well and love their food. They have been introduced to the deliciousness of dried mealworms and fall over each other to get to them, their loose derriere feathers flapping violently like little brown bustles, heads down, bloomers up, keen eyes seeking out the treats.

The only problem is I can’t stop going into the garden to check on them!

Perhaps a hencam would be a good idea after all…!

Jul 282011

As Robert Burns almost said, “the best laid plans of mice and hen most often go astray”. I am in danger of going astray now. I am waiting for my new henhouse to be built. I have been waiting a very long time. However it should be here fairly soon and it should be wonderful. So wonderful that hubby and I might want to move in too. The sensible plan is to get the new henhouse and then think about some new arrivals. Right?

But everywhere hens keep popping up for sale. Not only am I booked in to see some 12-week old Orpingtons this weekend, but my local hen shop has just today taken delivery of a flock of point-of-lay hybrids. And then there are the many ex-battery hens who would benefit so much from a place in our new dormitory….

So what’s a henhugger to do? The options as far as I can see are:

  1. Wait: forget about new hens and focus on getting the henhouse first.
  2. Don’t wait: Go shopping for new hens and hope the new henhouse arrives soon
  3. Don’t wait plus: Go shopping for new hens AND a small spare house to act as an airlock between the existing hens and the new arrivals.
  4. Combine b) and c) above and ignore a).

So what would YOU do? Or to put it another way, what do you think I “Orp” to do – to buy or not to buy?

Jul 222011

Just been watching breakfast tv and suddenly we see, not humans as such, on the breakfast couch, but humans who LOOK like chickens! OK, I have yet to have my morning cup of tea, but despite obvious possible hallucinatory affects of dehydration, the resemblance is clear. So far we have had a wonderfully homely lady who was if not a Buff Orpington then at least a Buff Sussex, and now I have just spotted a magnificent Brahma…..what is going on today? Is it me, or is the whole world turning chicken?

Jul 182011

When I saw Sumo sitting down in the roost area this morning, I feared the worst. Having nursed my elderly ex-batt through a mystery illness, only to see her recover magnificently to the point of skipping round the garden in recent days, the last thing I wanted was to discover that her recovery had been short-lived.

Minty (aka Araminta) was simultaneously busy in the nestbox, and her loud and hiccupy clucks were resounding urgently around the peaceful rain-slicked garden. So loudly that I feared death by falcon/fox/drowning/rabid dog or other assassin lurking in the bushes.

I was able to peer through the ventilation hole at either end of their Ark, like a child squinting through a pirate’s telescope, so that from one end, Minty appeared in her nestbox, whilst from the other, the reclining Sumo in the roost area came into view.

Now I never like to disturb the girlies whist laying – what a breach of privacy that must seem – so I went indoors, reminding myself to check later. Soon enough, both hens were down and outside again. Sumo seemed quite normal, and not at death’s door after all, whilst Minty had, thankfully, stopped hiccupping.

A quick check in the roost area also revealed an egg, yes indeed, AN EGG- from Sumo! This week has been a blur (for other human, not hen, reasons) so I hadn’t really spotted that another identical, brown and very speckledy egg was also smugly perched in our Eggskelter in the utility room. So it seems that Sumo was not gasping her last at all, but diligently “doing her duty”.

One of the reasons I was unsure whether Sumo was dying or laying arises from the way she often lays her eggs in stoical silence. But bear in mind her battery farm roots- maybe when you are in a hot, dank and deafening shed, trying to cluck to announce your own egg seems rather pointless. No creature will hear your particular joyful cluck above the 360 degrees of crashing noise, and none could decipher your message anyway – try to isolate and listen to a single morse code message when 10,000 others are also tapping out fast and furiously!

Sumo therefore gets on without fuss or commotion, whilst the Minty’s and the Lily’s of this world nearly go hoarse from their post-partum broadcasts! Watch out all you low-flying RAF airmen, that interference on your radio frequency isn’t caused by a local radio ham, but by a vocal laid-io hen!

Jul 162011

It’s raining and the hens are looking glum. Their favourite spot close to the back door has become a muddy mess, and only the ever-hungry Light Sussex, Araminta, is still loitering there, waiting for the door to open and delicious Hen Treats to be deposited her way- a handful of mealworms, maybe, or some tomato and cucumber remnants.  The other hens are nowhere to be seen, which is surprising, given the petite size of our garden. Yet there are often times when I can’t see any hen anywhere at all, hidden as they are under the many shrubs and trees in their patch.

I’ve no doubt at all that hens like to get under cover. I have observed over my seven years of hen-keeping that they are not fans of big open spaces and  I often wonder why free range farms offer their hens just that – large expanses of grass and sky. No wonder many free range hens opt to stay inside, in the “safety” of their shed. Even in my small garden, this fear of open spaces is clearly demonstrated, when one hen will peer out from the shrubbery and sprint (in that gangly chicken way)  as quickly as she can, across the patio or the sandy patch where they like to scratch, to the safety of the shrubs beyond.

Mind you, that caution is not without good reason, since our garden is occasionally visited  by birds of prey, some of which have been terrifyingly big, and have scared even me! At these times the hens go deathly quiet, then quickly take cover and remain standing motionless for ages. They are terrified of the airborne predator, but fortunately for them, these aggressors are  usually hunting the smaller wild birds that also frequent the garden.

My hens are without doubt most at ease when tucked discreetly under a dense bush, or when “hanging out” by our back door – perfect because not only does it offer the safety of  the bushes, but also the protection of their Top Chook – me!

But what a pity this rain drives them further under the shrubbery- I am already missing those four alert little faces, beaks cocked, waiting for me to spoil them. Or rather, those three faces, since the  water-resistant Araminta will still be waiting for me, whatever the weather, as her tummy clock is permanently set to “lunchtime”.

Jul 102011

Phew, ten days of  hauling elderly ex-batt Sumo indoors at bedtime to have some additional sustenance “offered” to her seems to have helped. She was barely eating enough to keep going and had started sleeping in the nestbox at night, and moping around by day.

The vet could find nothing obviously wrong, apart from some abdominal swelling, which might or might not be the cause of her poor appetite. Armed only with some supplements for her water, I continued with the  child-like practice of rolling dampened Allen and Page ex-batt crumbs into tiny balls resembling plasticine peas. Sumo was the perfect patient, tolerating me squeezing her beak open to pop in the “peas” one by one. She didn’t try to flap my eyes out, nor to leap off my  lap onto our aged cat, who looked on with obvious incredulity.  OK, she did peck dementedly on my finger at each offering, but this didn’t hurt me at all, and if it let Sumo vent some of her annoyance, that’s fine. After all, I wouldn’t much care for someone shoving balls of sandwich down my throat, especially when accompanied by squirts of energy drink to wash it all down.

I still need to keep an eye on her food intake, but she is much more interested in food again, which is good, and she is also resuming her role as Top Chicken with some gusto. By which I mean that she is once more able to peck poor Araminta (Minty for short) who as bottom hen, was starting to enjoy the reprieve caused by Sumo’s illness, and in particular getting a space at the food bowl. So whilst Sumo’s waistline decreased, Minty’s burgeoned, as she spent the whole ten days of Sumo’s malaise eating from dawn to dusk and well into hen-night.  Ah well, it had to end some time…..we wouldn’t want Minty exploding in a burst of white feathers now, would we?