The Good Life: Failing To Think Like A Chicken
Replenishing our chicken flock should have been simple.
It was not. But it was entertaining.
A month ago, four possums munched through our 22-chicken flock, leaving just one traumatized survivor. I dealt with the predatory possum problem conclusively, dispatching the invading varmints to possum heaven.
But the surviving gold-colored buff Orpington hen was obviously shaken. She hid in nesting boxes. She walked hesitantly in the henhouse, fleeing into corners when I tossed corn-rich scratch grain to her during daily feedings.
She was lonely. She was lonesome. We feared that her health would decline if she remained solitary.
The solution? Brighten our hen’s life with a clutch of new coop-mates.
That made sense to me.
Then again, I am not a chicken. I did not take the “pecking order” into account.
With chickens and other herd and flock animals, a pecking order of sorts is a necessity. Someone has to rule the roost in times of decision-making. Who gets the best nighttime sleeping spots? Who is first to sample the new feed supply? It won’t do to have daily bloodletting fights over such matters. Flocks and herds would quickly become injured, sick or easy prey to lurking varmints.
A pecking order smooths things out. The more dominant animals assert their places with bluffing outthrust beaks and noisy clucks, but no actual contact. The less dominant animals retreat.
Occasionally, the pecking order gets reshuffled. But most of the time, a pecking order stays stable, allowing the flock to stay stable.
That stable pecking order was the case with the seven laying hens we got from Chris, my oldest son. He is planning to move soon. Keeping his current chickens would complicate the matter. Caging, hauling and re-establishing the flock might even cause the hens to stop laying, perhaps for weeks or months, while continuing to consume feed and need daily care.
“If you want them, you can have them,” Chris said. He, his wife and their son were saddened but accepting of the necessity.
So my wife and I journeyed to Collegeville, near Philadelphia. We had a nice visit and celebrated a great-granddaughter’s second birthday. We returned with Chris’s flock.
Our Orpington was not pleased. Here were these interlopers, stomping all over her feeding spots, usurping her nesting box and, adding insult to injury, ousting her from her own roosting spot on a rod about six feet above the ground level in the dirt-floor coop.
My wife heard the squawking and spent some minutes being entertained by the fuss and feathers. She saw that the controversy was actually caused by one new bird.
The dominant hen of the new flock is a beady-eyed, nasty fowl of middling size and mottled brown coloration. She attacked our beloved gold-colored Orpington with beak and claws. The rest of the new flock lined up menacingly behind the beady-eyed criminal, threatening to overwhelm our hen.
My wife sprang into action.
She is a seasoned chicken handler. She grabbed the offender by the legs and held it upside down. That induces a trance-like state that keeps the offender mostly motionless.
Nearby stands a smallish wire dog crate, used on occasion as a Death Row for chickens being kept food-free when we prepare them for posthumous introduction to our stockpot.
Into the dog crate went the offending hen. The wire door slammed shut. Solitary confinement!
Deprived of their pugnacious leader, the remaining new hens engaged in a harmless standoff, soon settling down.
Our plan was to dethrone the belligerent hen by several days of confinement and to then reintroduce her to the flock.
Why not simply send the offender directly to the stew pot?
Eggs. The offender produces a shiny white egg every second day or so, adding to our larder. She has value.
So we put her on parole.
I moved the dog crate to sit inside the chicken house. The still caged offender could be cheek by jowl (beak by comb, actually) with her erstwhile coop-mates as well as with our surviving Orpington.
That worked, after a fashion. After some days, we freed the offender. She attempted to reassert dominance but was challenged, not by our Orpington, but by one of her newly empowered sisters. That challenge is still being played out, but mostly with squawks, wing flapping and fake beak stabs, not with actual bloodletting. Our survivor seems less flighty, less scared of every shadow, now that she has companions.
And for us, instead of one or two lone brown eggs a week, we now get about two dozen yummy eggs each week.
Plus, we get the nightly roosting-time rumble to provide entertainment on a par with television’s “Monday Night Raw,” and about the same degree of realism.
I am thinking of bringing lawn chairs and popcorn.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.