Maude and I had such a nice morning together it almost felt like we could live like this forever. We went for one last spider hunt in the bush, and weeded all around the coop, pulling out great clumps of onion weed bulbs from which usually one or two worms could be teased out. Maude pottered around on the bank while I gathered up all her worldly possessions, quite a lot in fact, and then last of all I brought out the box I planned to put her in when I took her away. How long could I put off the hour? Quite long. Phoebe rang and we had the longest, most satisfying and most necessary talk, and everywhere I went, Maude went, and everywhere Maude went, I went. I talked to Phoebe, and Maude listened, and preened her feathers, and when we moved up to the deck Storm came over from next door to join us, which alarmed Maude just enough for her to jump off the deck for about five minutes, before she came back up and settled down to sunbathe with Storm. Eventually the phone call did come to an end, and Maude wasn’t particularly willing to be put in a box, so I led her down to the coop, carrying the box with me, thinking it might be easier to catch her in the coop where she couldn’t run away. It was so easy I didn’t then have the heart to try and shut her in the box and decided I could carry her across the road in my arms. I even took a selfie with her half way, holding her with one arm. If I had taken a few more I might have been able to get one with her nestling her head into my shoulder, but she was more relaxed when I had both arms around her, and so was I. Really, it was a very nice walk, and even Maude didn’t seem to mind at all, just making the occasional comment on the oddness of it all, and politely greeting the neighbours whose coop she would be living in. I had felt sorry to wrench her away from her familiar grounds, with so many favourite places, and only thought I had to so she could have the companionship of other birds, but she seemed to take to her new grounds at once. She chased away the first, small hen she met, but the next hen was prepared to challenge her. They both flew up into the air, feathers out, chests puffed, making loud cries of indignation, totally justified on the part of the hen whose coop Maude had invaded, but entered into with just as much enthusiasm by Maude. Twice they flew up, feathers out, twice they landed and circled each other warily, and then they went off in different directions. Maude called out to the other hen once or twice but she kept her distance while Maude tried out the water, and the wheat, and the scraps, and generally took in all the pleasures of her new situation. I was back and forth a few times bringing all her things across, and every time I arrived with another pail of wheat, or bag of straw, she was busy in another area of the coop, no other hens in sight. At last all her things had been conveyed across the road. She strolled over to the wire to say good bye, or probably just hello, then she turned away and I filmed her one last time as she wandered off, disappearing into the bushy depths of what really is a wonderful coop, hopefully to find the other hens and fight their way to friendship.
The hen diary will soon be coming to an end, with one last post after this to record Maude’s move to her new home. Neighbours in the same street have kindly agreed to take Maude in with their own hens, after another dog attack took the lives of Wilma, Mabel and Goldie. I don’t want the dog to know where Maude lives so she can’t stay here, and she needs company, she has been calling and calling the other hens from the coop, and when I let her out she followed me everywhere I went, not ever moving more than a step away. This last year has been a year full of griefs and anxiety for me and through the hardest times it was always consoling to have the hens around, getting on with their own lives but including me occasionally in their conversations. I took an interest in spiders I wouldn’t otherwise have taken, and learned the panic calls of other birds that the hens always stopped to attend to. I don’t know how I will live without hens, I heard myself think today, but people do live without hens. I will live in my thoughts, another consolatory space, as well of course in the world, a world without hens for me but with Maude, after all, only across the road.
And then suddenly days have gone by and May is almost over and I have only just planted my spring bulbs, some beside the feijoa grove above the coop, some down by the bridge, and some in the lovely earth bowl excavated by the hens for the largest, most communal of their dust baths, situated at the highest point of the terraced baths they have constructed running down our bank, perfectly placed for spring sunshine. I covered it over with a giant sieve, the hens having already dug out the bulbs by the feijoa grove, and the hens wandered over to have a look, at first with mild curiosity, then with a bemused frustration that gave way to a fierce determination, Wilma and Maude working at digging their way in from the side, Goldie deciding to try and get in from above. Having overseen operations, Mabel left them to it and had a bath in one of the lower baths on the slope, while Maude decided to make a new bath beside the now inaccessible upper bath, edging their bathing territory even closer to the lawn. Goldie, meanwhile, found the sieve had its own charms as a grooming platform, though she did still wonder from time to time how the bath that she had known could have been quite so strangely transformed.
I was interested to see Mabel, Maude and Goldie following Wilma up the bank and taking her lead in scratching around where the cabbage tree leaves had piled up. Wilma’s status in the flock remains uncertain, at least to me and perhaps to herself. She still stands back at feeding time, often waiting till I put some pellets into her own little dish I have hooked onto the side of the coop. If she does decide to step forward, though, both Maude and Goldie will move out of her way, and even Mabel will let her take what she wants. Mabel is usually too busy checking out whatever Maude and Goldie are being offered to pay too much attention to Wilma, and will eat anything out of my hand, even if the same food or better is offered elsewhere, not out of any affection for me but because I so often try to smuggle some of the treats, or just some of the pellets, away for anyone who isn’t Mabel to get a share. The hens have had a change in their routine under level 3 of the lockdown rules, which has only increased the lockdown for the hens. With Simon away in the mornings I have taken to letting the hens out of the coop only later in the day so that I can manage zoom meetings without worrying every time I hear a squawk that a dog might have entered the garden, or can go out for a walk without having to round up the hens into the coop before setting out. They seem so contented with the new routine I wonder whether the extended hours out of the coop might have been causing them as much anxiety as pleasure. I came down to let them out this afternoon and Goldie was perched, as usual now, on her little door to the inner henhouse, and Wilma was having a serious dust bathe, and although Maude and Mabel ventured out to graze the other two carried on with what they were doing, bathing and perching, probably wishing I’d close the door again to keep the cats away.
Although there's a postscript to this, because in the afternoon when I came to call the hens back into the coop, with a lovely salad of pearl barley, feta cheese, cucumber and mint, only Maude and Mabel came running, Wilma and Goldie both preferring not to. This meant when Maude and Mabel had eaten their fill, they wandered out again to see what the other two were up to, so I had all four out of the coop and not at all interested in going back in. It seems they do like to be free-range chickens after all.