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.
We’ve been getting low on hen food which has made the hens very friendly towards me, or not so much friendly, as hopeful whenever they see me they might get something to eat, and more willing than usual to come and dig in the bush. As for the outdoor office, as soon as I bring out my books they hurry up to the deck to take up their posts around the chair, quite companionably except that I find the air of hopefulness a little hard to bear. It has been over a week since I had hen pellets for them, so they were eating scraps combined with much larger amounts of the Scratch and Lay mix, essentially a mix of hen treats, not quite junk food but not what a hen should be raised on, and then even the Scratch and Lay was running very low and had to be rationed. It has made them much nicer about coming when they are called for their tea, except that the cat has also stepped up the campaign for earlier mealtimes and so follows me for the hen-feeding, which unnerves the hens, which the cat takes advantage of with a playful sally, which can send Goldie in particular into one of her tremendous flights she is not easily coaxed back from, however hungry she has become. But today the hen pellets arrived! I filled up a large bowl full, and then worried they would be disappointed having lived on a diet of one treat after another for a week, so added a few mealworms which I thought would work to soften the blow, if it were a blow, or celebrate the return of pellets if the hens were happy enough with the amount to make up for the return to their standard nutritional diet. I needn’t have worried though, they were ecstatic with their pellets and in fact carefully ate around the mealworm garnish, wanting only one pellet and then another and then another and still more.
The hens safely grazed again today, after their breakfast of white rice, stale bread and floury apple. These hens have not shown the enthusiasm for rice that the Rhode Island Reds used to show, which Simon put down to culture rather than nature, having experimented with throwing them pieces of pear yesterday and getting them quite passionate about pear through the effects, he thought, of competition, which fits my experience with the peas as well. This morning though the hens took to the rice with alacrity, so I wondered whether perhaps it was just black rice they didn’t care for, and perhaps the Rhode Island Reds may not have particularly cared for black rice either, had they been offered it. Though it could also be that I am feeding them a little less after wondering whether Maude had got too heavy to fly up to the perch. She was down on the roof of the inner hen-house, underneath the perch, when I looked last night as well, so I made sure it had a nice thick layer of pine shavings on it today for her to sleep on. Maude did quite well in the bush today, and deserved to as my most attentive hen. She was the first to follow me into the bush, but when she saw the others weren’t coming she hurried back over the bridge leaving me to turn over logs rather pointlessly. Eventually I was able to persuade Wilma to join me, and as soon as Maude saw she wouldn’t be alone with me in the bush she hurried back to find herself two well-earned worms, a spider and a large number of little hopping things. Mabel and Goldie eventually came over too (Goldie's moment of lameness really was just a moment, she's been racing around like anything, as have they all, gamboling you could even say) but the early birds had already got the worms and before long Mabel gave up and lead the whole flock back over the bridge and up to the lawn.
This morning when I opened the coop door Mabel, Maude and Wilma came rushing at me as usual, but where was Goldie? Then down she flew from the door of the inner coop, where she'd been perching. Goldie is a bird who loves to perch so I thought little of it till they'd eaten all their breakfast and were wandering out onto the grass, when I saw Goldie was limping. Had she been perching because her foot hurt to walk on? I followed her up to the feijoa grove and she was definitely limping, but what could I do? These hens do not let me pick them up. All day I worried, but by the afternoon she seemed to be walking just like any hen. I can't say she came running for her dinner because they had all taken themselves into the coop already, and only Mabel and Maude came rushing out to greet me, but there was no sign of limping as she rushed around the coop racing the other hens to be first at each grain of wheat. I will keep a close eye on her tomorrow, but perhaps her foot had just gone to sleep from perching too long. I have had the same thing happen to my own feet lately, with all the blog-reading I have been doing.
Hens may safely graze, I was thinking, as I sat in the sun reading a book about medical ethics and the hens grazed on the lawn which offers quite a range of greens from dandelion to purslane, buttercup to dock, even the occasional rare blade of grass, sought after by the hens though just about the only form of greens people can’t eat. Maybe if we’d evolved to eat grass we’d never have been able to raise sheep and other grazing animals without eating all the grass ourselves, and Bach would never have written “Sheep may safely graze,” I was thinking, as I watched over the hens, trying to work out how anyone decided to go anywhere. The hens themselves seemed not to have an idea between them, I was about to write, well, have written, but it is the other way around, the only seem to have ideas between them rather than original ideas belonging to an individual hen. Every hen keeps a close eye on the others, and when one hen moves off, the others follow in case that hen may have had an idea. A lot of the time they just wait around, keeping themselves busy idly trying out a leaf here, a leaf there, waiting for someone to make a move, which can begin just with a glance in one direction or another, followed up with a step in that direction by another one of the hens, which will set another off to follow, and one hurrying to keep up will get ahead and confirm the flock decision, investing it, even, with some urgency. And then suddenly there was real urgency, a warning volley of clucks, heads raised, a dash for the irises from Mabel, a confused run with flapping wings from Maude, first in one direction and then in the other, while Goldie took off like a merlin hawk, with a most magnificent soaring flight right over the top of the bank down to the feijoa grove. This was all because of Albi, a small cat, hardly more than a kitten, from a couple of doors down. Momo, who likes to join them in their forum on the deck, they’ve come to warily tolerate, even sit down with, and they only slowly edge away from Storm, who lives next door and comes out every time I have laundry to hang on the line, a particular interest of his, but the dramatic response to Albi’s arrival was impressive and gives me hope that Goldie, at least, would get away if a real predator was after them. As for Wilma, who was the one hen who did escape the dog massacre which took the lives of Fly, Orly and Brownie, she was nowhere to be seen, until she eventually emerged, with the others, from the depths of the feijoa grove, their place of safety.
We were eating breakfast this morning (not eggs, no one lays eggs) when Simon saw a hen crossing the lawn. Our hens have been spending more time on the lawn by the deck, when not on the deck itself, lately, almost as if they liked our company, but this was before they'd been let out of the coop for the day. Was it someone else's hen? No, that was Mabel alright, and when I went down to see what was going on, first Maude and then Wilma also came out of the shrubbery in a rush to see what I had for their breakfast (the usual pellets). I was a bit worried, especially as Goldie was nowhere to be seen - had a dog broken into the coop? But then I found the latch on the ground by the coop door, and realised I'd been opening it by turning it to the left, then closing it by turning it to the left, so that each time I'd opened and closed it I'd unscrewed it one turn further, until it was loose enough to just fall out with the slightest gust of wind. As for Goldie, she'd gone off in her own direction and was eventually coaxed out from the feijoa grove. I think she was just showing her customary independence, and love of perches, although she did hesitate at the door to the coop when Wilma loomed near, and didn't come in till I'd lured Wilma over to the feeding bowl, so possibly she was in the feijoa grove hiding out from Wilma. Everyone seemed cheerful and friendly enough throughout the day however, and when I went to check on the hens this evening Goldie was on the perch snuggled up close to Mabel, Wilma off to the side on the diagonal perch in the corner (she's hard to see in the dark, just a dark smudge). But where was Maude? She is a even harder to see in the dusk than Wilma is, being dusk-coloured herself, but I spotted her eventually sitting on the roof of the inner coop, under the perch where the others were perching. I thought she must just be a bit slower than the others at putting herself to bed, but when I came down about half an hour later, she was still on the roof while the others had all fallen asleep over her head. Perhaps she will sleep there all night? Perhaps she always sleeps there? The truth is I haven't looked in on the hens sleeping for a long time, perhaps not since the nights following that astonishing, dramatic night when I first left the inner coop door open overnight, and found Goldie had made the bold move of flying up to Wilma's perch. The next night, Maude and Mabel slept on the coop roof but by the third night, all the hens were up on the highest perch. Has Maude since grown too heavy to fly so high? Or will she fly up there later? Will I be going down in the dark, with a torch?
For the first time I captured a show of posturing between Maude and Goldie, the two who most often face off with each other. It is only the end of it, I didn’t capture the challenge at the start, even though Maude was clearly in a provocative mood – I’d already filmed her dashing after Mabel in a way that might have led to fluffed feathers if Mabel had taken any notice. I’ve never had chickens who do this before, not even the hens I raised from little chicks, perhaps because the mother hens were present to fight their battles for them, or perhaps it is just Maude’s temperament and the other hens are just keeping up. I think they are having fun, like puppies play-fighting, their feathers are never ruffled up for long and they follow each other about afterwards and all day long, Goldie sometimes wandering a little further from the others but not out of nerves, just out of curiosity, and because she doesn’t keep such a close eye on the others as Maude and Mabel do, always making sure they aren’t more than a few paces apart from each other. Wilma has finished her moult and has her new winter feathers in, looking splendid and glossy, and has all her confidence back, which was never a lot, or at least is tempered with the diffidence she always showed, so she still tends to let the others reach the food bowl first, but will give Goldie or Maude a low warning cluck or a peck if they don’t get out of her way when she’s out of patience. They’ll obediently move aside, mostly, but if she lets them they will all eat together from the bowl, and this afternoon they all dug up the patch of garden where I had been going to plant my spring bulbs and had a bath together, Wilma in the prime spot. I’ll have to put some kind of netting over this patch if I do put bulbs in there, but perhaps I’ll let the hens keep working on their dust baths while the ground is dry enough. It really is an excellent location, with room for several separate bowls of dust on different levels, like the most splendid of Roman thermae. The deck meanwhile is becoming a sort of Roman forum. The hens are all in the habit now of coming up to the deck when I bring out my books, and hover hopefully about in case I have anything to eat, then if I don’t, or after they’ve eaten it, settling down behind or under my chair, Mabel and Goldie often sitting down on the deck, Maude, today, falling asleep as she stood by the chair, her eyes slowly closing even as she continued to quietly murmur some friendly remark.