We have a reputation for being a bit dotty about our hens. We have two. We bought them from a garden centre on the outskirts of our town where ex-battery hens are sold. They are Hy-lines or ESA Browns, I’m not sure which. The shop man picked them out of their pen in a flurry of feathers and popped them in a box. Once the lid was closed they crouched down sweetly and were quiet but for a scrabble of feet if the box tipped. He passed me the box and I felt the thoughtful, weight of them through the cardboard. I marvelled at their stillness in the darkness of the box.
Wonderful man one had put a house together for them in a section of the fenced vegetable garden. The house came in a flat-pack from a pet shop and has an egg box and and upstairs roosting section and a little wire yard. It is large enough for our two hens, sort of, as the egg box is to short for them to sit in comfortably. It is too small to get inside and clean, unless you are seven years old or something, in which case, in my experience, you aren’t very good at cleaning. Like some cheap clothing, the house looks right without a creature inside it, but doesn’t really work for real living hens.
Hen learning number one: Spend more, and buy or build a hen-house you can walk inside to clean it yourself and with egg boxes that a long enough for a hen including it’s tail feathers.
Wonderful man three looked dubious when he first saw them.
“Wipe their legs with kero,” he recommended. “If it’s worth it. Looks like their on their way out.”
Hen learning number two: If a hen’s legs are all rough and sort of flaky looking, then you put kerosene on a rag and wipe their legs down with it. Mites burrow into the scales on their legs. The kerosene smothers the mites.
Hen learning number three: Don’t light a match near your hen after deploying hen learning number two.
For the first week the hens stayed in the pen. They would climb upstairs into the roosting part of the house at night, but they wouldn’t get on their perch. We would lift them on once it was dark. Otherwise they sit in the poo they do overnight.
Sometimes battery hen varieties of chook need to be re-taught their ancient roosting lessons.
Their water and grain needs to be raised off the ground so they don’t poo in it.
Hen learning number four: Hens are messy creatures
Every day they each lay an egg for us. At first the eggs were laid anywhere in the straw. We left two brown wooden faux-eggs in the egg box and the hens started to lay their egg with the wooden ones, hoping to make a clutch.
Hen learning number five: Hens are always hoping to make a clutch of eggs (about ten) so they can sit on them
The hens we have are pretty docile and easy to pick up. If you stride up with confidence they sort of crouch down and walk, nervously on the spot. If you keep their wings tucked in, they relax and even doze off.
We handle them often. In the first few months of having the hens I would often look out from the kitchen sink to see the children walking around the garden, their very own hen tucked under one arm.
We noticed fleas jumping off them when we picked them up. We covered them in flea powder, so when they flapped their wings huffily afterwards puffs of powder clouded the air.
Now, our hens only go to their pen at night. The rest of the time they have the run of the garden. Unless I have to pop them away, so I can plant seedlings or something.
They come to the kitchen door, hoping for a treat, like sunflower seeds, especially Pepper. When the sun comes out they sink down onto the doormats on the sunny verandah and lie sideways, like a beached dinghy. They stretch and unfurl their wings in the sunshine with the slow grace of a ballerina. They dig holes in the dust and snuggle into them, filling their feathers with dirt.
When anyone gets a spade or a garden fork they appear in a rush from no-where because a digging person is much their favourite sort of person. A digging person is a finder of their favourite food: WORMS.
I hoped the hens would eat the garden creatures I regard as pests: slugs, snails and such. Our hens, unless very hungry, turn their beaks up at slugs and snails. What they love best is worms. They see them and have them in their beak at lightening speeds, stretching and tugging them up from the earth. They are ruthless. The hop about at our elbow, or under our feet as we dig. They jump in the hole intended for a new plant. They make little noises of encouragement to urge us on as we sink a spade or trowel into the earth. It’s a mercy they haven’t been accidentally clouted with a spade or a hoe.
Once we had to fix our sewage pipes and a man came with a digger to dig a trench. The hens couldn’t believe their luck and spent most of the day feasting on worms turned up in the mountain of soil the digger made. I imagine the hens reminiscing together about this day:
“Remember that worm finder?”
“Oh yes, I remember.”
The yellow painted glory of it. The giant silvery scoop. The busy chug of the engine.
“That was the best.”
It’s companionable having them around when planting things, despite that they often get in the way. They cluck away constantly and I chat back. This feels very much like friendship. Sometimes though, I think about what they would do if I say, suddenly took ill and fainted in the garden. I fear it would not be long before they would go for my softest parts. They would hop on top of me and peck out my eyes.
Hen learning number six: Hens are ruthless in their pursuit of protein
Pepper, the smaller, bolder, scruffier hen, with the wider underskirts, laid a medium-sized egg each day for two years, without fail. That is 730 eggs. Extraordinary. Sometimes she hid them in a new spot for a little while. Only hens are not very good at keeping a secret, because they always want to lay their daily egg together with the others. We always found them, even when she’d taken the precaution of covering them with leaves.
Alice, the shiny feathered longer-necked, skittier hen, lays larger eggs. She too has laid pretty much every day.
“Well I’d lay an egg every day too, if I had the run of this place,” wonderful man three said.
We buy grain for them (they won’t eat pellets unless really hungry) and bags of crushed and tiny sea-shells. They peck at the shell-grit in the afternoons before they go to bed. The sea-shells provide some of the calcium they need to make the shells for their own eggs. There are several eggs inside them in various stages of development at any one time. If there isn’t enough calcium in their diet, the shell of the egg will be thin or almost non-existent.
Hen learning number seven: A hen who is bred to lay every day needs you to provide dietary supplements like shell-grit.
Recently the hens have been moulting and egg laying has stopped. Moulting is mentioned casually in our reference book about caring for hens. This is almost an aside, and it is said that it happens at the ends of summer. We were therefore entirely unprepared for the catastrophic nature of the moulting event when this first happened, not in autumn, but in winter last year.
Your hen stops laying. Feathers fall out. She looks entirely miserable. She will stand, chilled to the bone, tucked up and unhappy, on one leg. She will hate to be touched or picked up, as if her body where the feathers have gone and new ones are growing is tender and aching. She will be off her food and stop scratching as much, or luxuriating in the dust.
Last year when this happened to Alice in June we thought she was dying. We poured over the illness chapter of our reference book. I studied the picture of an egg-bound hen and became convinced this was the problem. Since first getting the hens and the reference book, the idea of being egg-bound had lodged in my imagination as a feared event, perhaps because I am a woman who has given birth to two children. Our reference book, which has hippy tendencies, suggested numerous remedies. We tried them all:
1. We chased her and put rescue remedy on her comb (rescue remedy is meant to make the hen relax, a pity about the tense chase before-hand!).
2. We put a hot water bottle under some straw in a cardboard box with some food and water beside it and put her in the box. She immediately flew back out and later we found Pepper (who was perfectly well) sitting happily on the warm hot water bottle and eating the food.
3. Worst of all, I gloved up, caught her (not easy), covered her head so she was in darkness and went quiet, tipped her upside down and applied olive oil to her vent (“vent” is the egg exit, “applied” is code for drizzling and popping the oil in with a gloved finger- easier than it sounds).
Despite all our treatments, Alice didn’t die and not long after the indignity of the vent incident, we noticed spiny new feathers emerging and her behaviour returning to normal. A revelation. I’d put oil up her butt and she was only moulting!
Hen learning number eight: Moulting is a catastrophic event and might happen in winter
This year, but for plying her with extra rations, like warm corn and barley porridge with a little honey in it, we have left Alice be.
Moulting is so catastrophic an event, that I have wondered if observation of it inspired the myth of a phoenix: the bird which bursts into flames every five hundred years, for a new bird to rise from its ashes.
Alice is miserable, but I hope soon, to see a new proud feathered bird rise from the ashes of her former self.