Back a few years ago, when Emile the rooster was a mere teenage cockerel, he got a bad case of sour crop. He reached a point where he was all hunched up in a corner, staring into space and literally near death. Happily, I was able to bring him back to good health and full recovery. He became an amazingly docile and friendly little rooster after he recovered, maybe because of all the handling that was necessary when he was sick. But I like to think that perhaps there was also an element of gratitude involved.
Anyway, over the last year he’s undergone a huge change in attitude. He makes it clear whenever I go into the coop that it’s his coop, not mine, and that he’s in charge not me. There have been a few instances where he’s taken me on—actually lunged at me feet-first with those long pointed spurs. This usually happens when he feels I’m harassing his hens in some way, but sometimes it’s just because I maybe look at him wrong, or possibly only because he’s in a foul (um, fowl) mood. Being attacked by an enraged rooster could be disconcerting if it weren’t for the fact that Emile is a bantam Cochin roo and the biggest thing about him is his ego.
When he goes on the attack, I usually respond by putting on a pair of gloves to avoid contact with those spurs, then I pick him up, pet him, and tell him that he just needs to think calm thoughts and concentrate on his breathing. This really does seem to calm him, although for all I know he may just be icily plotting his revenge.
|Emile with some of the girls|
The last couple of months, Emile has been on edge a lot. The whole flock in this coop has seemed a little tense, actually. I can only guess as to why this is, but one of my theories is that it may be due to attrition. I've lost a few hens - two just this summer. And most of the hens in this coop are in their fourth year, so they’re getting old and attrition will continue. I need to come up with something to lift their spirits. Maybe bingo?
This week the level of anxiety in the coop has reached new levels and Mary the golden Campine is entirely to blame. Amazingly, Mary has gone broody. Mary has never been broody before and she is the last hen in the world you would expect to be holed up in a nest box all day. There are hens that you can picture clucking contentedly while sitting on a clutch of eggs, and then there are those hens that you best picture forging through the tall grass while the wind gently ruffles their feathers and “Born Free” plays in the background. Mary is definitely in the latter category. I moved the flock into Coop 1 when Mary was just a pullet. The hen pen, at that point, had six-foot high fencing but no roof. The day I got to work adding a hen pen roof was the day I saw Mary cheerily flying over that fence. The coop had eight-foot high walls. The ceiling was ten feet high, so there was a gap between the top of the walls and the ceiling, but what chicken could fly that high? Answer: Mary. But I’m sure you expected that answer.
I discovered the answer to that question myself on the night I went to the coop to put the chickens to bed and found Mary happily roosting on top of the eight-foot wall. The immediate problem I had to solve at that moment was how to get Mary off the wall and back into the coop. So since the top of the wall was way above my head I grabbed a shovel and waved it menacingly at Mary from the outside of the coop. Mary watched the shovel from her perch with perplexed interest. My next endeavor: I got the shovel right in her face and waved it again. That caused a response—she hopped off the wall and onto my shovel. There I was, standing by the coop holding a shovel in the air with a chicken on the end and wondering why it was, exactly, that I had these chickens. My next endeavor: I walked carefully toward the coop door with shovel and chicken with the hope that I could open the door and chuck said shovel and chicken into the coop. No such luck. With a squawk, Mary, flew off the shovel and disappeared into the depths of the dark pole barn, which was still littered with piles of coop construction material. After a lot of searching and chasing, I finally got the little hen back into the coop. Mary was physically and emotionally exhausted. So was I.
So having Mary in a state of broodiness almost seems like the universe has gone akilter. There are three actions open to me when hens become broody. The first option is to do nothing at all. Then they just keep sitting on an empty nest, day after day—driven by their hormones to hatch nonexistent eggs. This, obviously, is not a good course of action. The second option is to give them some fertilized eggs or baby chicks and let them be moms. With winter approaching, baby chicks are not a good idea, plus I’m not sure what sort of mom Mary would be. And that doesn’t even take into account the space limitations. So I am forced to cross out this possibility as well. That leaves the third option—the broody crate. In a broody crate there is no nest and no nesting material. A few days without a nest usually brings a hen’s raging hormones back into control and her life can get back to normal.
Mary, you will not be surprised to learn, hates the broody crate. She blurted out a huge squawk of surprised when I picked her up out of her nest. She protested even more bitterly when I put her in the crate. I feel so bad that I’ve enclosed this little free-spirited bird into such a small space and her proclamations of outrage continue to play on my guilt. “Hey! He put me in jail! Hey! I’m in jail! Hey! Somebody help me! Hey! Let me out! I’m in jail!” Her protests are practically nonstop and go on pretty much all day long. And that has amped up the uneasiness of the other citizens of the coop, to be sure.
|Mary in jail|
If I can blame Mary for raising the level of unease in the coop with her protests, the most recent incident was entirely my fault. It started with the sweaters.
Chicken sweaters are a real thing. There are actually people out there knitting sweaters for chickens. I’ve never felt that my chickens needed sweaters. They’re clothed in feathers, after all. Then my seven-year-old neighbor gave me four knitted chicken sweaters. And she was very excited by the prospect of the hens trying them on. So while I never would have gone that route on my own, today I found myself walking down to the coop with chicken sweaters in one hand and my camera in the other. Chicken sweaters would never be a long-term thing in the coop, I reasoned, but without a doubt hens wearing sweaters would be pretty cute, so I could take a few pics and post them on the blog.
I scattered some scratch grain in the tractor alley of the pole barn and opened the coop door. “Hey girls!” I said in my sweetest and most innocent voice, “Come here and get some nice scratch!” Some of the hens perked up their heads and sauntered through the door. Jennifer the white crested Polish hen was first. She was followed close behind by Rosa the Red, and Arlene and Darcy Barred Rock. After Darcy was through, I slammed the door shut. Four sweaters—four hens. Four was all I needed. I got my camera ready and nabbed Jennifer. Jennifer is used to being handled and had absolutely no issues with being picked up. However when the sweater came out things got ugly really fast.
What follows is a verbatim transcript of our conversation with the Chicken translated into English with the help of a Star Trek Universal Translator and my own imagination. Jennifer: “What are you doing? What’s that thing? Help! He’s got a thing and he’s putting it over my head!”
Randy: “No! It’s OK. It’s just a sweater.”
Jennifer: “Help! He has a thing! And it’s a sweater! And he’s putting it over my head!” The other three hens were, by this point, edging quickly to the dark corners of the tractor alley and nervously muttering, “He’s got a thing! And it’s a sweater! And he’s putting it over her head!”
I managed to get the sweater over Jennifer’s head and then slid it back over her violently flapping wings. The sweater actually held her wings in place, but her feet were still churning crazy circles in the air. Jennifer started screaming, “Help! Can’t move my wings! He’s got a thing! And it’s a sweater! And I can’t move my wings!” By this time Mary had joined in full voice, “He’s got a thing! And it’s a sweater! And I’m in jail! And I can’t get out! And she can’t move her wings!”
“It’s OK,” I said in a calm voice. It’s just a sweater.” I put my hand into the little armhole and tried to pull one of her flapping wings through. Instead, Jennifer’s wing movement forced the sweater back toward her head and then her head popped through the arm hole. She looked at me with terror in her eyes and said, “It’s a thing! And it’s a sweater! And it’s over my head!” Then Emile started in, “Hey! You brute! You devil! What are you doing to my girl?!”
“It’s OK,” I said as I extracted Jennifer’s head from the arm hole. “It’s just a little wool sweater.” “Wool!” retorted Emile, “Does she look like a sheep to you? She’s got feathers! She doesn’t need any stupid wool! Unhand her you cad! You bully!”
“It’s a thing!” sobbed Jennifer. “It’s a sweater!” interjected Mary, “And I’m in jail!” “Come in here!” ordered Emile, “You come in here now and I’ll show you a thing or two, you fiend!” The other chickens were actually picking it up one by one, “He’s got a thing! And it’s a sweater! And he’s a fiend!”
By this time the sweater was wadded up around Jennifer’s head. I made an attempt to pull it down over her flapping wings which set off a fresh round of protests from Jennifer. “He’s got a thing! And it’s a sweater! And he’s killing me!” By now, the commotion had disturbed the chickens in the other coop and they started in. “What’s going on?! We don’t know! But there's a thing! And it’s really scary!”
“Leave her alone!” barked Emile, “You cad! You bully!” “He’s a fiend! He’s a fiend!” cackled all the other chickens. Then in a swift terrified motion, Jennifer pulled herself completely free of the sweater and flapped out of my grasp, and ran for a corner. I chased after her, made a dive and nabbed her. As she screamed and cried, I carried her back to the coop, opened the door and gently placed her back into the coop. As I opened the door, Emile started for me with murder in his eye, while all the other hens chanted, “Fiend! Fiend! Fiend!” I quickly closed the door, and one by one rounded up Rosa, Arlene, and Darcy and got them back in the coop as well. Then I picked up my camera and the sweaters and dejectedly walked to the house. All the way I could hear the chickens discussing sweaters, things, and my fiendhood in excited voices.
“Not that chickens have thumbs,” I told my wife, “But the chickens didn’t really give a thumbs-up to the sweaters.” She didn’t seem surprised. “We discussed it at length," I told her, “And they didn’t feel the need to be beholden to every new fashion whim that comes along.”
I actually felt more than a little guilty about inflicting this new stress on a coop that was already on edge. And yet…those sweaters were a very dapper way to herald the fall season. So camera and sweaters in hand, I searched the house for other victims, um—volunteers, I meant to say, that might be more willing to model the sweaters. And I found some! So at last, here’s the Hipster Hen Chicken Ranch Fall Collection:
Maia: “Ok, fine. Do your thing. Put the crazy sweater on me. Later when you sit writing at your computer, I’ll even sit on your lap. I’ll even purr. But there will be retribution. There will be glorious retribution!”
Emmy: “One word. Hairball. Not saying when—not saying where. But hairball—definitely hairball.”
Bailey: “Oh, I don’t know. If you like it, then I like it. And my ears even poke out the little wing sleeves! Will you pet me now?”
[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #217]
[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #217]