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.
Wilma is a miserable bird. She hasn't laid an egg since I took her to the vet, she shows no interest in exploring beyond the coop, and she backs away from me as well as the other hens. She looked wanly at her hen pellets, picked one up and dropped it again uneaten, then just stood there while the little hens tucked into their mash and chick crumble. She did deign to eat a mealworm and a handful of seeds, but retreated as soon as Mabel saw what was going on and pushed in. I am taking her to the vet again tomorrow, which won't make her feel any warmer towards me, but in any case I wonder whether maybe I should be taking her to a hen psychologist.
Today Wilma was holding back as the little hens rushed to their food so much I am beginning to worry. She wasn’t very interested in coming outside with me, either, and halfway towards the bridge hesitated, called to the little hens (I suppose she could have been calling me back from the bush, or calling her blackbird, anyway, she was calling), stood still for a bit then uncertainly turned around and started wandering back. I wondered if she had an egg to lay. I had given the coop a serious clean out the day before and hadn’t yet replaced her nesting box, instead just giving her a cardboard box full of shavings and an encouraging egg from the supermarket. She didn’t take off into the garden though but returned with me into the coop, only coming out when Maude did. I decided to let the two of them share some time in the grass. They didn’t exactly follow each other around the way Mabel and Maude stick together inside the coop, or the way Wilma used to follow me, but I think they were both pleased to have another hen on the outside. I did have to go to work (how do I find the time) so left them back in the coop with the others, and when I returned in the evening Wilma was more deferential to the smaller hens than ever, letting all three eat while she hovered in the background, coming forward to eat some pellets only when the other three moved on to their mash. She always was the most deferential of the hens in her former flock, so perhaps she is quite happy to resume this position, but it seems rather soon to cede so utterly to the others when she is still so much larger than them and it was, after all, her coop.
The hens now all line up at the door when I come to feed them, and make an equal rush at the hen pellets I put out first – this is what Wilma is supposed to eat, and will only eat when she is hungry and in competition with the little hens. They now fearlessly eat alongside her, and she no longer seems to mind. While she is preoccupied with chasing pellets, I settle down on the ground and the little hens come flocking over to where I feed them their pullet mash. If I have seeds or oats for them, I feed them from my hand, and when Wilma wanders over to see what they are getting, I feed her treats while the little hens eat their mash. It is an excellent system but while I was away in Auckland Simon found they could all sort it out harmoniously enough amongst themselves without a system at all. The only time I saw Wilma assert her position in the pecking order today was when I opened the coop door to leave, and Maude wanted to come out with us. I made the mistake a few days ago of allowing Maude to come out and wander around in the grass outside. She had a glorious time, sampling all the weeds, eating the little bugs off the dandelion stalks, digging around in the loose earth and chatting to Goldie and Mabel on the other side of the wire. I watched her for about half an hour, and although she is the world’s most charming hen, even so I was both bored and tense, ready to scoop her up the moment we saw a cat. It reminded me very much of when the children were small and I spent hours watching them doing not very much at all, or, rather, having a rich inner life I had no access to. Now she hovers around the door to the coop looking for her chance to make a dash for freedom again, which she will be allowed to have from time to time.
As soon as you put a chicken in a box, she will go quiet, no matter how vigorous a protest she puts up when she is put into it. I had noticed Wilma was missing feathers from around her vent so made an appointment for her with our local vet. She made a few quiet comments when I picked up the box, replied occasionally when I spoke to her in her box in the car, made some worried sounds while we waited to see the vet, and spoke politely to the vet herself when she was placed on the examining table, but was a lot quieter than usual, certainly a lot quieter than she was when she was squawking about being put in the box in the first place. The vet commented on how well behaved she was as she submitted to her inspection, but it didn't take too much of an inspection to discover the problem which I am not photographing because no one wants to feel as itchy as I did when the mites were pointed out to me. Mites! I am changing the subject. It is evening now, and I can hear a tui still sending out some notes after it should be asleep. I decided to have one last look at the hens to check out tonight’s sleeping arrangements, and had to run back to the house for a torch when I could only see the three little hens and no sign of Wilma at all. I searched the whole coop without finding her, till I looked on the perch again and there she was, on the tree branch in the corner just behind the other three little hens, not quite touching (so sort of quarantined). If you want to watch hens sleeping, don’t choose black hens. And by now they were all awake again, peering down at me. I wonder if they dream of me when they sleep.
Having brought home three little hens just to keep Wilma from being lonely, I now have to take Wilma on excursions every day not only to keep her from being lonely but to give the three little hens time in the coop without her looming, harassing presence. She accompanied me as I put out the washing, did some weeding (mainly to keep her entertained), gathered some rich soil from under a pile of rotting leaves (for the garden, but it was so full of hoppy things I put a bucket aside for the little hens) and then when I sat on the deck eating lunch, she spent her time sunbathing, then lying in the shade under the chair, then aimlessly pecking at the deck and finally yelling at me to follow her back to the coop. I thought I could give the little hens their bucket of dirt to sift through, but when we arrived the three of them were so content dustbathing together, I couldn't bring myself to let Wilma in till they had finished, about a dusty hour later. She then wanted to take over the pile of dirt, even though she had already had hours of access to all the dirt in the whole garden and the bush beyond.
What would the new sleeping arrangement mean for the flock dynamics (if you can call them a flock yet)? What would happen to the pecking order if Goldie formed an alliance with Wilma? Would Wilma offer her protection from Maude? I hardly read the latest LRB over my breakfast bagel (on Coleridge and ghosts, and the ghosts of words in the poetry of Wordsworth and other Romantics, and on the ghosts of roads untrodden in Romantic and modern poetry, a review worth lingering over, worth a third coffee even, if hens weren't waiting), before I was down at the coop, the hens rushing towards the door, Wilma in the lead, Maude close behind, Mabel keeping close to Maude, Goldie hanging back. The pecking order, it seems, is completely unchanged. Wilma kept a fierce guard over her food bowl, when I fed the younger three Maude kept Goldie away, and Mabel deferred to Maude, and when Wilma came over all three fled from her. With a coop the size of theirs, and with its hen-house, free-standing nesting box, perches and bushes, there are plenty of escape routes, and with food scattered around in enough places there will always be access to food for every bird (including Wilma's blackbird), but there is no let-up of tension and no sudden bond between Wilma and Goldie. Maude did let Goldie join Mabel and herself when they curled up together in a feathered heap after Wilma chased them away from the food one too many times for them to feel like returning to the fray.
Astonishing news! Till tonight I have been keeping the small hens in the inner hen-house inside the coop at night, so they would be safe from Wilma and have free access to their chick crumble. Tonight I thought I would leave the door of the hen-house open so they could go in at their leisure and come out in the morning. Well! I went down just to see if they were safely asleep in the hen-house, and there was Goldie up on the highest perch, snuggled up with WIlma! Maude and Mabel had made it as far as the hen-house roof. I woke them all up taking photographs.
All three small hens have now fully explored the coop and Maude and Mabel have established a favourite corner just outside the inner henhouse where they curl up together. They were all very hungry when I came to the coop this morning. I scattered some pellets about for Wilma before opening the door of the hen-house, where Maude and Mabel were already pacing back and forth. Maude rushed out to eat chick crumble from my hand, and while Maude was out I could fill the bowl for Mabel and Goldie. Both Mabel and Goldie will now eat from my hand when they are hungry enough, and Mabel will also come for corn kernels which she has a particular liking for. Maude is already tame enough to curl up in my arms and close her eyes, drowsing in the warmth of my jersey. I took Wilma into the bush for our usual early morning hunt, to give the smaller three hens the run of the coop for a while, and when I brought Wilma back in to lay an egg, Maude and Mabel were exploring the coop’s further reaches, though Goldie had returned to her perch. Wilma’s old nesting spot was on the floor of the henhouse underneath the actual nesting box, and she wasn’t at all sure what to do when the door to the henhouse was closed the first couple of days. There is another nesting box, a free-standing box Simon had made when Rizza was hatching out her chicks, and I had filled it with plenty of shavings and put an encouraging egg from the supermarket in it. We were in the bush hunting yesterday when Wilma decided she needed to cut the hunt short and hurried back over the bridge, heading towards the coop but eyeing up the garden and making a suspicious detour through the irises. An indecisive hen is a funny thing to watch, she will take a few steps in one direction, stop, look about, take another tentative step, change direction, take another step, stop, change direction again, put a foot into the air to take a step then put it back down. She tried settling under an iris, even moved some blades of grass around, sat down, pulled some other blades about her, then stood up, moved off, hesitated, looked around, moved back under the iris, sat down, stood up, turned around, sat down, stood up, and wandered a couple of steps towards the coop. I didn’t think the iris was a particularly good place to lay though at least I would know where the egg was if I stood and watched the whole business, so when she looked like she was going off the iris idea anyway I called her into the coop and watched as she headed uncertainly towards the free-standing nesting box, changed her mind, headed away, headed back towards it, hesitated, took a step inside it, backed out, stepped back in, backed out, went in to her old spot, chasing Goldie out of the way, looked at her old spot, headed back out, made a small, half-hearted threatening gesture towards Maude which Maude ignored, stepped back into the nesting box, did a bit of nesting (I could hear the sounds of a bird turning around and rearranging straw), came out, looked around, wandered about a bit, walked back into her box, started making nesting sounds again. At this point I could take no more and backed quietly out of the coop, but in the evening, there the egg was, for us to collect. I expect she is laying today’s egg now.