I haven’t yet been able to get a photo of the hens posturing, facing off with their feathers fluffed out. When I enter the coop I’ve got my hands full of food bowls and assorted treats that need to be carefully administered amongst my vast flock, and then, I don’t want the camera always between myself and the hens, disrupting what ought to be a free-flowing relationship. There must be many parents struggling with the same problem. I didn’t, I didn’t have a camera except for the occasional disposable camera I bought, and Simon only took his out on occasion. (But I would have been one of those who, when asked what I would save in a fire, would have said the photo albums. Would anyone say that now?) In any case, when I do have the camera poised ready to take pictures of the hens, they sidle off or stand contentedly where they are, and it is only the minute I put the camera down that there is any action. I did however capture a particularly splendid cluck of Goldie’s – the video shows Maude and Mabel in the foreground but it is Goldie, under the trees, issuing a genuine three-part clucking sequence. Meanwhile, Maude and Mabel are also beginning to cluck, sometimes sounding a little unmelodious, but sometimes managing a quiet, adult-like conversation between themselves.
I am still finding out what the hens most like eating. It is cicada season, which was an exciting time with the flock I used to have, but when I caught a cicada and brought it into the coop Mabel leapt back from it in alarm, and then acted frightened of me as if I had deliberately set out to panic her. It is rather a relief to be able to feel as friendly as I ordinarily would towards the cicadas, without my feelings of friendship complicated by an impulse to catch them and feed them to the hens, but I miss being able to bring a cicada to Orly and liven up her day. Today I tried the new hens with peas, which was a much more successful offering. It helped that I only had a few, and offered just one to begin with, so that when Mabel got it Maude felt she had missed out, and was all the more interested in the next pea. I let them compete to keep their interest up, but threw a few wild peas out for Goldie and Wilma to have a chance at, and to keep Maude and Mabel active in the game. I don’t know why I am particularly keen for them to like peas, it is just gratifying to find things that they like eating and to have them more interested in what I can offer than the lawn. I’m still trying to tame them, I can’t handle either Goldie or Mabel. If I stroke Mabel’s back she lets out a squawk of great alarm and retreats fast, and I haven’t got close to stroking Goldie. Orly and Fly, my much-missed Orpingtons, were raised in our coop as chicks hatched out (along with other chicks we didn't keep) by Piccadilly and Rizza, my Rhode Island Reds, and were handled from the day they hatched. I used to think about incubator chicks when I saw the way these chicks lived, with the mother hens always there for them to run and hide under or warm themselves under when they felt cold (they would make peeping cries and the mother hen would lower herself down over them at once till they ventured out again), and with the mother hens always teaching them what to eat and how to behave. Their entry into the pecking order was managed with their mother’s protection gradually lessening over time as they became more able to hold their own, and with their friendships and rivalries with their siblings taking place off centre-stage, with the main contests over food and other prizes (best perches, dust bathing spots) going on between the bigger hens. For these young hens it is very different, having had to learn everything from their peers, and knowing humans for their first months only as food dispensers. At least I am quite a deluxe dispenser. They do seem to like to eat their mash best, too, when I give to them out of my hand.
(Here are links to pictures of Fly as tiny chick, with Piccadilly; Fly with Piccadilly on one of her first outings as a young hen; Rizza taking Orly and Barney on an outing at a similar age; and Rizza with Barney - Orly would have been under Rizza's feathers, so you just have to imagine a tiny grey chick keeping very still. Barney was very naughty and every night, after Rizza would have called all her chicks in to her nesting box and got them settled at last, Barney would nip out again for one last fling.)
A pecking order isn’t always as simple as a chain of dominance in which each hen maintains its position over the hen immediately below it on the chain. It is based not only on feelings of rivalry between the hens but also on feelings of friendship and antipathy, which don’t always align completely neatly with their sense of relative power. Wilma is clearly feeling more comfortable these days now the little hens are larger and she is back in her familiar position as the most deferential of birds, following rather than leading a flock, and standing back when the food is put out. With the hens allowed out into the garden more she is more a part of the flock than she was, and this morning all four hens shared a bowl of mash without any fighting. Yet when I was hand-feeding Wilma some sunflower seeds and Mabel pushed in, Wilma still gave Mabel a cross peck. It didn’t bother Mabel who kept pushing in as cheerfully as before, but it was nice to see Wilma showing some assertiveness. After all the posturing between Maude and Mabel, Maude now seems to be deferring to Mabel, allowing Mabel first go at Wilma's sunflower seeds, although any pecking order is not too obvious when they are all hungry and there is plenty of food to go round. Mabel is the more adventurous eater than Maude too, always the most interested in trying new things and also the keenest on any kind of fresh fruit or vegetable. (Hens have quite individual tastes – my Rhode Island Reds were all passionate about corn, but out of this flock only Mabel shows any interest in corn, and even their preference in weeds is different. I keep looking for the leaves that Orly used to love and picking them for the hens who are not interested at all, preferring the buttercup leaves that Orly would never have wanted to eat. None of these hens particularly like rice, which Orly and Fly both adored. I wonder whether Orly and Fly would have set a better example, with Fly in particular a hen who could have offered some leadership. Most hens like anything to eat better if there is some competition for it.) In any case, Mabel seems to be allowed by the other hens to go for whatever she wants, while the main posturing now seems to be between Goldie and Maude. I saw Goldie and Maude stand staring eye to eye at each other, then, oddly, Goldie leaned over and pecked first at Maude’s beak, as if pecking off a bit of mash from it (which she possibly was) then gently pecked at Maude’s back, perhaps finding something to eat amongst her feathers, while Maude stood completely still. Afterwards, a little later, Maude flew at Goldie, and the two fronted up to each other again, chests out, feathers fluffed, then both backed off. The next time it was Goldie who initiated the challenge. Yet all headed off to the feijoa trees as a flock of friends, Mabel and Maude as usual side by side, Goldie and Wilma taking a more independent route.
The hens have had a satisfying weekend roaming free, which is to say sitting under the feijoa trees. A couple of years ago I read a commercial chicken farmer writing in response to revelations that so-called free-range chickens were staying in their barns, not accessing the available outdoors. Chickens are forest birds, was the defence, and prefer to remain under shelter. I read this in disbelief, as my hens sprawled at my feet lounging on the deck, where they spent much of that summer sunbathing, in between bouts of grazing on the lawn. Forest birds! But Maude, Mabel, Goldie and even Wilma (who used to sunbathe on the deck with the others) would seem to agree. (Even so, if the farmed chickens choose not to range freely, they are not free-range chickens, and won't count as free-range chickens until they are given access to an outdoors they actually like to go out into, perhaps with feijoa trees.) Under the feijoa trees, and in the coop, the hens all seem to get on very amicably these days, announcing the discovery of something interesting, sharing dust-baths, dozing in little feathery heaps. When they first leave the coop in the mornings, though, quite a bit of what I call posturing goes on between the three little ones. Two of them will suddenly face each other with their chests out, feathers fluffed out and heads held high, each trying to look bigger than the other, staring each other in the eye, and then suddenly it will all be over, whether one, usually Goldie, lowers her head in a submission pose, or sometimes just makes a wild dash for freedom, or whether, usually when it is Maude and Mabel, both will just drop the pose as suddenly as they put it on, and go back to their business nibbling on weeds or digging up the garden. It seems pretty evenly matched between Maude and Mabel these days, which might be why so much of the posturing is going on, and even Goldie did stare down Maude in one contest. Maude is more bluster than follow-through, I am beginning to suspect.
Perhaps I am feeding them too much or perhaps they are just beginning to feel as if the garden belongs to them, but it is getting a little less easy to get the hens to come back into the coop. They followed Wilma into the feijoa tree grove this morning where they had an excellent time digging around in the mulch, making dust baths and finding all sorts of curiosities. I always used to let my hens roam free, Rizza, Rhoda and Piccadilly even sleeping out at night in the trees, but I am more anxious these days and so I worried about worrying about the hens all day long. I caught Eddy, the bird-catching next-door cat, up in my arms and delivered him home to Sally who was very sympathetic, though when she asked how big the baby chicks were now I had to admit they were essentially hen-sized, and then after I had got ready for work, made my lunch and even found my keys I had one more try at coaxing the hens into the coop, finally succeeding only to have all four escape out again before I could get the door closed. It took some crafty herding with the help of Simon to get the three smaller hens all back into the coop at the same time as each other, and we gave up on getting Wilma in with the rest. Then I spent the day worrying that they would have been happier all together in the feijoa grove. I came home an hour early, my work unfinished, just so I could hang out with them in the garden in the afternoon. Wilma hurried into the coop to join the others, then as soon as they'd all had something to eat they headed straight back to the feijoa grove where they all, pointlessly, sat down, exactly as they could have done on the ground of their own coop.
I have been back home for three days now, and the hens are getting used to having little outings beyond the coop. They venture out a little more boldly now and go a little further afield, though they haven't yet headed up towards the house or over the bridge into the forest and every now and then something will startle one of them and they will all rush back into the coop, running with their wings flapping. Goldie is still the most independent, quite happy to go off on her own finding her own routes through the garden, while Mabel likes to keep a close eye on where Maude is going. Maude keeps a close eye on the others as well, rushing over, wings flapping, if she suspects them of having found something she should take off them, every insect in the garden being rightfully hers. Wilma looks more like part of the flock when the four of them are in the garden, though I did see her hanging out with her blackbird again this morning in the coop.
I have had a week away from home, away from the hens, wondering how they would be doing in the coop. I had been hoping to give them their first outing outside the coop this weekend but arriving home today, I was worried they would need to get used to me again before I risked letting them out, in case they wouldn't come when they were called. I gathered up all the tastiest treats I could find to speed up the taming, but when I saw they had been given corn chips while I was away (totally against the rules), I thought I'd better make up a bowl of mash as well. It turned out they were all very hungry and would have eaten anything, and weren't remotely interested in exploring outside while there was any chance of more to eat. They still tend to eat as a group of three, with Wilma holding back, then eating from the second bowl I quickly filled from the first. Simon had said Goldie was clucking like a hen now, and I wondered if the two might also be sounding less like baby birds and more like hens, but they were still peeping away and Goldie's cluck sounds far more like a honk still to me than the sort of clucking I'd like to hear a hen say. In the video, you can just detect a faint honk after a couple of peeps from the other hens, shortly before the video concludes with Goldie sneezing. Eventually, all the hens had eaten all they could and were more interested in going outside the coop, though still very tentatively. Wilma settled herself down on the grass for some sunbathing, Goldie edged past her towards the upper bank, and Maude and Mabel kept close together and stayed close, too, to the coop, talking to each other constantly and trying out the various grasses. None of them went too far afield, not far enough to reach any of our best digging patches, so when I took Wilma into the bush I brought a bucket with me, to gather up some looser, more buggy dirt to bring back to the coop. They seem to like digging through it, and though she looked a little uncertain, I was pleased to see Maude tackle a worm.
A later update: Simon has found a video he took of Goldie's first attempt at clucking, definitely sounding more like a honk in this video too. Actually, she still pretty much honks rather than clucks to this day (24 February, two weeks later).
This has been a social weekend for the hens, although perhaps they don't consider humans as society. I was surprised to discover my first fine hens, the Rhode Island Reds, were shy of people they didn't know, having thought I'd tamed them - turned out, I'd only tamed them to know me, and a few other favoured people. I was quite pleased, actually. These were magnificent birds who roosted in the tallest tree on the property, and in the morning would fly down with a tremendous rush of wings when they saw me. Maude and Mabel, however, were only a little uncertain when I brought new people into the coop yesterday, and were soon eating birdseed out of anyone's hand. They liked Ames best, who is small, and stood back at first, then crouched down at hen-height and held his hand out very still. Wilma and Brownie ran and hid, and were no braver today when another round of visitors, with an even higher ratio of poets to non-poets, were invited into the coop (I am sorry not to have any photos of poets in the coop which would make quite a good instagram hash-tag if there isn't one already (I just checked - there isn't)). Wilma has been hiding in the smaller hen-house quite a lot in any case, but today took it even further, squeezing herself into the narrow space behind the hen-house, between the hen-house and the outside of the coop, where there isn't quite room enough to turn around, so she had a hard time getting out again. She has been growing more and more submissive, and today I saw Maude aim a peck towards her for the first time, when Wilma at last, shyly, took a step towards the food bowl. I had thought Wilma's deference towards Maude was coming from Wilma's own social anxiety, but perhaps this is not the first time Maude has let Wilma know she needs to be treated with respect.
It had been a stormy night, with a gale blowing that had worked the latch on the chicken coop door open, but the three little hens were all standing patiently in the coop waiting for me to come with their breakfast as usual. Only Wilma had left the coop, and she hurried back when I turned up with the hen food, rushing to stand at the door of the coop waiting while the other hens had first go at the breakfast. I have been looking forward to when the hens can all go out free-ranging together, hoping Wilma will feel more a part of the flock then, and not just a wary onlooker to the friendship of the other three. Then in the afternoon, the door had blown open again and this time all four hens came running back into the coop from the garden, Maude and Mabel in the lead, followed by Goldie and then Wilma. The door now has a new, sturdier latch, but I was happy to see the hens definitely behaving as a flock of four. There is so much Wilma could show the smaller hens. I wonder if she will take them into the bush, or, if I lead the way, whether she will be the first to follow me or hang back in deference to Maude and Mabel.
Wilma has hardly spoken to me since I’ve been oiling her for mites, she hasn’t wanted to follow me into the bush or eat from my hand, and it wasn’t easy to catch her and put her in a box to take her to the vet this morning. She was terrifically well behaved in the surgery though, so well behaved the vet asked if she was a particularly placid hen, when she is the flightiest, nerviest hen I’ve ever had. She passed her mites inspection with one hundred per cent clear skin, no mites to be seen, but I described her air of misery over the last few days and the vet found she had lost weight since her last visit. Wilma stood looking suitably miserable as the vet said it was likely there may be an underlying condition that had made her vulnerable to mites, and as Wilma slowly sank down to a sitting position letting out the occasional quiet sound as I stroked her feathers, I felt as if she and I were both playing the parts of devoted owner and beloved pet, as if the few lonely weeks when Wilma had followed me around was the truth of our relationship, rather than an unusual interlude that seemed to have come to an end with the mite treatment. In keeping with my performance I didn’t question the suggestion I spend $70 on a medicine that may or may not make any difference at all. When I opened her box back in the coop, I fully expected her to reject my offering of medicated mash, to which I had added garlic, cider vinegar, oats, yogurt and currants, but to my surprise she ate it with some enthusiasm, chased away first Maude then Mabel when they tried to steal some, and then even interrupted her own meal to suddenly chase after Goldie who’d been at the other end of the coop minding her own business. Then as I left the coop, she hurried to catch me up and leave with me, and looked so surprised when I started heading back up to the house that I changed direction and went over the bridge into the bush to see if she would come. She trotted along just as if there had been no estrangement between us, and we had a particularly good spider-hunting session, spotting a good half a dozen spiders every one of which she succeeded in catching. Meanwhile, breaking news back in the coop: till today all the little hens have only cheeped like baby birds, which is one of the reasons I don’t want to let them out of the coop yet given how inviting their cheeping would surely sound to a passing cat, but today Goldie started clucking! It sounds more like a kind of croak or honk, she is not the most melodious hen, but perhaps she will improve with practise.