My mum’s hairdresser, a woman I’ve never met, recently asked my mum, ‘How are Helen’s chickens? Is she still in love with them?’ That a complete stranger would ask about my chickens is testament to how much I talk about my Girls and oddly enough, how much my mum must talk about them.
Four months on the answer to that question is a most emphatic yes! I did fall in love with my chickens when they arrived and the love and enjoyment has only grown. You know how some people adore animals and always feel drawn to them? I’ve never been one. I hated dogs from birth. We had a dog when I was three and I spent two weeks on the couch and once the dog chewed up dad’s garden hose and tomatoes, the poor wee thing was given to a family who wanted her more. We had other pet dogs over the years, breeds less likely to chew things and bark and I loved them because I knew them well but as a population, dogs freak me out.
Cats I find kind of creepy and unfeeling (although my sister talks about her cat the way I talk about my chickens, so I’ve learned to overcome the cat thing a bit).
Chickens have turned out to be the most obvious pets for a couple who wanted some animal company but weren’t sure on the right species. Our Girls are such a warm, fun part of the landscape of our garden now that I find it amazing I was ever a bit nervous about them arriving.
Four months on, their habits and personalities have become so much clearer and well known. Some friends who have chickens advised us early on that watching them would be like Chook TV. They weren’t wrong. Countless hours have been given over to watching them and laughing. And I think the experience has been as positive for them as it is for us. Why yes I am anthropomorphising my pets! I’m fairly certain that if we weren’t treating them well we’d be able to tell from their behaviour and so the fact that we are treating them incredibly well is equally clear.
Here’s an example. We have a sliding door at the back of our house and pretty early on they learned to identify the sound. On hearing it, the girls leap up from wherever they are and race excitedly towards the front of the enclosure. Immediately they start pacing, often leaping over each other as if they can somehow break through the wire and race towards The Lady with the Food.
They’ve become so attuned to our presence at the back section of the house now that we sometimes don’t even have to open the sliding door. I can walk across that room, close to the door and they’ll become alert and run to the wire fence.
You’d think I starved them from the way they behave so desperate for food but I’m pretty sure that’s general animal behaviour. Someone might feed me! Quick! Look excited!
Like children, I try not to have favourites but I must confess that for me, the red one, Shirley, has nestled closest to my heart. I think she’s the silliest one. She’s my run away. Most times if there’s an escapee, it’s Shirley. She’s the one who’s most likely to nip closely at my heels when I’m leaving the enclosure. Many’s the time I’ve had push her gently away with my foot.
She’s also the one who most often lets me pick her up and stroke her. Sometimes if she’s in the nest laying an egg, I’ll stroke her back (the feathers are so soft) and she doesn’t brush me off. I think she genuinely enjoys physical comfort. Last week I called my nephew Willem and told him that Shirley let me pick her up and have a real cuddle. He laughed and said ‘that’s crazy!’ I defy him to say that when she lets Willem (who, if you recall, was the one who named her Shirley) have a cuddle.
And then there’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
My instincts were right when I chose her for that name (the names came first – the assigning of the names followed). She’s the one who aggressively flies up to knock food out of my hands. She’s often first out out of the coop. When I was sitting on a log taking these photos, she was the one staring at the camera, trying to peck it, pushing the others out of the way. She’s assertive and frankly a little arrogant but you can’t help but love her when she stands proud and tall over her sisters. I think she’s a protector.
Miss Matty wasn’t keen on being photographed. In the photo above she’s the one busy eating and not paying much attention. She’s not assertive. She’s not an escapee. I think Miss Matty, true to her namesake (Miss Matty Jenkyns), is sweet and defers a little too much to her sisters.
And then there are the eggs. Oh the eggs. I first thought that three eggs a day wouldn’t build up very quickly. I remember thinking, only three a day? That’s not many. But have a few days where you don’t eat any eggs and suddenly you’re able to give half a dozen away. Or a dozen. Or you’re looking for egg recipes. We eat poached eggs for breakfast every weekend. We eat baked custard tarts. We eat potato and egg salad. And still we’re able to give them away. That feels really, really good. And it might sound corny but I say thank you to the girls when I collect their warm, brown eggs. It’s the least I can do.
Finally, the most fun I have with them is discovering what they love to eat. They love yoghurt that’s gone a bit off (I know! Yuk!), the watery seeds scraped out of cucumbers, spaghetti, porridge and the bloated, oversized zucchinis I discover in the garden. Bacon rind chopped up is a firm favourite and they love tinned tuna (we buy the generic brand tins for them – cheap as chips and offered as a special treat once in a while). Sometimes we just grab something from the fridge and say ‘do you think the girls will like this?’ Only one way to find out!
I’m already thinking of adding to the brood next spring.
When I see them like this, I wonder if this is the origin of the phrase ‘heads down, tails up’!