The hens seem to approve almost as much as the cat of having their people kept at home, quickly adapting to life in and around the home office. They find their own work to be getting on with, chasing insects, grazing on the lawn or searching in the shrubbery close by, but take a keen interest too in what I am reading and in what the cat is watching. The outdoor home office is rather more manageable than the indoor home office, the hens proving to be easier colleagues than the cat to share a workspace with, though they can be distracting in their own way, particularly when I happen to have a phone with a camera about me. Even so, I managed to miss the splendid display of posturing between Goldie and Maude. I had thought the posturing days were over and I'd missed my chance at capturing it on film, but yesterday Goldie started it off by chasing away a blackbird (surely not Wilma's) who had come down onto the lawn, and then Maude raced over to join in and Goldie, startled, puffed up her feathers setting Maude off in an instant retaliation. For a few exciting seconds they faced each other off, dancing around in a small circle like boxers, up on their toes, feathers out, then they both fluttered off up onto the deck chasing Mabel, who led them into the irises where they distracted themselves chasing flicker moths (what we always called the passion-vine hopper - flicker, or flicka, moths because they flick themselves away when you touch them or even come too close, very wise especially if you might be a hen, or someone with pet hens always trying to please them).
I took the hens into the bush today, Wilma leading the charge over the bridge. She has got over whatever spooked her on the day I cleaned the coop and is up there with Mabel at the top of the pecking order, allowing Maude and Goldie no liberties, and then, too, she has always been the most accustomed of the hens to going into the bush, after the lonely days when she had no flock and our daily spider hunt was her greatest comfort. We had some good spider finds this morning, Maude and Wilma particularly good at waiting for me to lift a log, ready to dart in, but all four hens were very happy to put the hard work in themselves once all the logs had been shifted, each of them finding patches of leaves to kick aside, and keeping an eye on each other’s finds. When the three smaller hens decided it was time to go back over the bridge, Maude hurrying to catch up with the others, Mabel and Goldie cautiously checking over the side of the bridge as always. Wilma and I stayed for a little while longer in the bush, but it was me, not Wilma, who was looking for consolation today, and the loneliness hit harder when I left the house and followed empty streets down to the coast, missing my children who are quarantined in homes of their own, and missing the years when they were smaller and closer.
It can’t be good for hens to eat nothing but strawberry muffins, and yet we have so many, so I thought I’d take some to the hens at the Tapu Te Ranga Marae, where we often walk the Manawa Karioi tracks that Simon helps to look after. I’ve stopped to poke bits of grass through the wires of their coop before and found it hard to get away, with all the hens so eager for a blade of grass, and always still one hen who seems to have missed out, waiting. So I brought a bag of old salad leaves left over from the café as well, too old for us to want now and of no interest to my own hens who have free range of all the weeds on all the slopes of our section and the sections on either side. But when I got to the Marae the hens were out free-ranging after all and were certainly not interested in the grass I had picked them heading up. They weren’t very interested in the muffin, either. They did like the barley I’d brought along, but were much keener to get into the bag of salad leaves. I thought it must be a misunderstanding, that there was something else they really liked they were used to getting in bags like this one, but no, when I brought out the salad leaves they were overjoyed, and called all their friends over, and seized on every leaf with cries of excitement. I wondered whether in fact there was something special about these leaves, and even tried a few on my own hens when I got home, but they just put their heads to one side and gave me that “really?” look hens, at least my hens, all hens I have ever owned, are so good at. When I brought out their strawberry muffin they relaxed and settled in to some contented squabbling, until I tried to stroke them, that is. The hens at the Marae were very nice about it when I tried to stroke them, and raised their wings and crouched low in a well-behaved submission posture. But my own dear hens, being fed on strawberry muffin which the other hens mightn’t have liked but which they like better than anything else, acted as alarmed and indignant as they always do when I try to be too intimate. My hens do have softer feathers than the Marae hens, though, and a lot of character, not all of it bad.
All is calm in the coop, in fact the three little hens were in the coop for no particular reason in the middle of the day and so when Wilma joined them, I closed the door on them for the afternoon so Simon and I wouldn’t worry about them when we were out walking, talking about how we would arrange our days during the lock-down starting 48 hours from now. The hens usually all come running cheerfully enough in the evening when I lead them back into the coop for their dinner, but yesterday Wilma refused to set foot past the door, pacing back and forth in the little track between the coop wall and the bank below the feijoa grove, making plaintive little cries, not able to tell me what was wrong, and, in any case, showing no inclination to trust me at all. She clearly knew I would herd her into the coop if I could, and would even contemplate trying to catch her, and when she did at last venture tentatively out from her track to where I was patiently crouching with a handful of kibble, she darted and dodged back to her track at the slightest move from me. Eventually I gave up and left her to sleep out wherever she would, and this morning she hurried out from the feijoa grove to meet me, calling to me in the friendliest way when she saw me, and followed me straight in to the coop, only pausing for a moment at the coop door, and darting around the three hens who had started on the kibble I sprinkled near the door, to meet me at the other end of the coop where I presented her with the morning bowl of mash. I don’t know what had her so spooked, whether she had got on difficult terms with one or more of the other hens, or whether it was the coop clean-out that had unnerved her. I’d covered the ground of it with a nice layer of dried leaves I’d swept up from the front of the house, and perhaps the texture of them disconcerted her, or perhaps she was troubled by the diatomaceous earth I’d sprinkled around on the clean ground, reminding her, perhaps, of the terrible days of the mite treatments, before her return to health? Perhaps, also, the hens have been just a little too well fed the last few days. With Simon’s café closing during these days of the coronavirus epidemic, there soon will be no more strawberry muffins for the hens, but just for now there is rather a glut of muffins for them to get through. Hens that actually laid eggs would be good to have at a time like this, but mine at least have a contribution to make dealing with the left-over muffins.
The hens are enjoying the last of the autumnal weather. They have no idea what bad weather is coming or how long it will go on for, never, except for Wilma, having lived through a winter. Seasons must take so long for hens. They will wonder, in the depths of winter, if it really was always sunny when they were little chicks or whether this was just a dream, if hens think about time at all, that is, or think about the seasons. They must have some awareness of the different weather and they must learn, after the first time, that rain, for instance, doesn't last forever. It almost will though for much of the winter. I've been stockpiling sacks of dry pine needles to supplement the wood shavings I will order for the coop, which gets very muddy in the winter, being under the slope downhill from the feijoa grove, though still some way above the swamp garden and the stream at the very bottom of the section. In the meantime they are spending most of their days roaming free, and mostly sticking together as a flock, Wilma, on the whole, included. All I really have to report lately is: they like kumara mash very much indeed, which surprised me a little; Goldie and Wilma were the two who most liked the chilean guavas - I would have guessed Mabel, who is usually the keenest on fruit, but she wasn't interested; they all like Simon's strawberry muffins above all else, which is not surprising at all.
Nothing is more bonding for hens than a shared dust bath. It took Fly a long time to make friends with Brownie and Wilma. She paid almost no attention to Wilma from the start, seeing at once Brownie was the only possible threat to her position, and even after she seemed to have got used to having the two of them tagging along after her I wouldn't have said they were friends, not really until the day I found Fly and Brownie fluffing themselves up together in a great hole they had created in the middle of our lawn, a hole that is still there today well over a year later. When Mabel settled in for a dust bath in the coop yesterday and Wilma swaggered over, I think she was intending to oust Mabel from her spot, but Mabel looked up at Wilma unconcerned and carried on fluffing up her feathers, even as Wilma pushed in beside her. Perhaps Wilma really did have friendly intentions but at any rate, Mabel accepted the gesture as a friendly gesture and the two hens before long were kicking dirt over each other with little purrs of contentment. Before long, all four hens were dust bathing, Goldie in a little hole beside Wilma's, Maude making a third hole close by, and Mabel, having made peace with Wilma, heading over to have a second bath with Maude, the two of them fluffing and purring as the hole they made got deeper and deeper.
Another peaceful weekend in and out of the coop and hen politics are so well managed within the flock it is hard to know what there will be to write about over the winter. Wilma still tends to maintain a little distance from the rest of the flock, out of a sort of timidity that perhaps also involves a degree of pride, a kind of dignity, that won't allow her to push herself forward. If she is hungry enough (under Simon's care, for instance) she will eat out of a single bowl with the others, but she prefers otherwise to wait her turn, or select pellets from where they are scattered on the ground. Goldie will get out of her way if she does push forward, whereas Wilma is wary of Mabel, and Wilma and Maude both seem wary of the other, wary and a little hostile, so that either one of them might making a warning sound at the other, or even aim a peck their way. The three small hens are firm friends with each other, with Maude and Mabel still particularly keen to stay together always, and Goldie more independent, sometimes following Wilma, sometimes going her own way entirely. She is also the hen who most likes to perch and will perch anywhere, on a door, on a branch, a few centimetres off the ground in the feijoa tree.
Autumn, and the sedum is abuzz with bees, always so exciting when after two months of looking like pale, spindly broccoli (also lovely) the sedum turns its rusty pink colour and the insects all congregate. It is so loud now in the garden with the bees, cicadas, tui, warblers and hens all talking at once, the hens now all sounding like hens rather than baby chicks, Maude and Mabel having gradually eased into clucking without the sudden honking that seemed to surprise even Goldie herself when she tried to speak after first losing her baby chirp. I am always so pleased to come home to my hens after a few days away, when they are always so well behaved, coming when they are called and clustering around their breakfast or tea, all four of them eating amicably out of the same bowl. Simon is a much better farmer than I am. But I don’t think my hens would have traded a day like today for another day with Simon. After a magnificent breakfast with oats, yogurt and garlic mixed into their mash, which is supposed to be good for them and in any case they didn’t object to, I took Wilma into the bush for one of our spider hunts and it was one of our best – five extremely large spiders were found, one after another. More surprisingly, for the first time ever Wilma and I were followed into the bush by the three small hens (they are bigger now than Wilma but I think will have to retain small as an honorific so I can continue to talk about them as a group). They were a bit nervous on the bridge, peering over the edge to see what was there (no trolls), but very enthusiastic about grubbing around on the other side and, alarmingly, quite interested in exploring well beyond our property. Goldie launched into a great flight back over the stream into such a deep growth of tradescantia she was almost buried by it, and we could only hear a muffled honking coming from somewhere deep amongst the leaves. I wasn’t able to coax her out myself but Maude and Mabel eventually succeeded, Mabel leading a well-organised and focused expedition deep into the distant reaches of the neighbourhood’s back yards Meanwhile, Wilma had returned to the garden and was calling to them from the feijoa grove. This is the call often heard as a declaration of egg-laying. I had always wondered what the evolutionary purpose could be of announcing every egg, but I think what is really going on is that it is after laying an egg a hen is often returning to the flock, and if the flock has wandered off she needs to find it, or ask the flock to find her. The heartless hens in the bush took no notice of Wilma, and they took no notice of me calling them back either, not even when I went and got the bucket of kibble (wheat, corn and sunflower seeds, supposed to be only an occasional treat). It was only after about an hour of exploring they allowed themselves to be lured back to our section, followed the little trail of kibble I laid for them across the bridge, hopped up the steps and at last let me call them home. It was worth their while coming home, too, as the next treat was a couple of ears of corn, from our plantation – every corn plant seems to like to produce one splendid ear of corn for us, and a second smaller one, about a third completed, with shrivelled little bits of corn on it, for the hens. I did want to get the hens all back into the coop eventually, because I wanted to hear Eamonn Marra talking with Annaleese Jochems at Bookhound, about his completely brilliant collection of stories / episodic novel 2000 Feet Above Worry Level. It was well worth going to as he gave away all his secrets which were 1. if you want to slow down the pace and make an event take longer, add extra words (e.g. the three lines of dialogue which take place over the first five pages of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse), and 2. any story can be turned into a story by adding two stories together into one document, so that the reader has to supply the connection and hence the story magically has subtext.
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.)