I told you about my chickens, right? That I had acquired two lady fowl to live in a little cage in the front yard, under a huge hollowed out bush. That my closest neighbour is deaf and that I loved recycling uneaten scraps into eggs. We’ll leave aside the fact that if I was costing my time/expenses each egg would end up being about $1.50 a piece. I told you all this, didn’t I?
I got the chickens as 14 weeks old un-laying pullets, from a battery farm. I felt good that I was rescuing them from a hideous life. Mind you, I had to pay for the privilege of doing so – around $16 bucks per beak. They were tenderly nurtured and placed into a cage that actually gave them more freedom per square feather than at the battery farm; there, free range is classified as 2.5 foot per chicken and an exit to get out of the barn, even though only the chickens immediately adjacent to the exit ever get to use it.
I fed them scraps and grains and resolutely refused to give them laying pellets on the grounds that I want hormone free eggs. It took a while but they started laying and I felt really happy that they had a better life than the one they were destined for.
Then I started to feel guilty. They really liked household scraps, particularly greenery, and I used to haunt the local supermarkets to pick up outside lettuce leaves and other spoiled stock. It was a brutal competition with other feathered pet owners. Try as I might, I was no match for the all-day-free-time-I’ve-been-collecting-here-for-years pensioner. They would get up at dawn to be first to the lettuce and they wouldn’t share, either. (At least two olds can be bullied into giving up some of their stash).
So I started my own greens garden. Specifically for the chickens. Oh, I lied and said it was for husband’s morning smoothie; for his heart friendly green glass of early morning gag, but it was really to supply Armstrong and Lady Henderson with their desired intake of chlorophyll. Yes, I named my chickens. After my now dead Dad and his wife. If that sounds fucked up, well, we are a family that finds humour in the most unlikely scenarios. Dad isn’t alive to be amused but Jenny rocks it.
I bought special comfortable hay and food and water containers that self-served so no feathered beastie had to go without. I gave them scraps and home grown greens every day. I picked snails off my plants and threw them in as a delicacy. Hell, I even stopped picking up baby snails in the hope that they would provide future slimy candy for my birds.
I started to feel like an animal abuser because my chickens were locked into this space that seemed really small. No matter that it was technically bigger than the official allowed ‘free range chicken’ space; they were confined and it didn’t seem right. They learnt to associate the sound of footsteps, a car arriving or the front door opening, as a potential food source and would cluck extremely loudly to attract attention.
So I built an enclosure around the original cage and it gave room for the chickens to walk and scratch and dustbath if they were let out. It was remarkable how all traces of greenery within that area disappeared, probably forever, in less than three days. But the chookens were really happy. On days when I wasn’t working I would let them out early in the morning and lock them up into their roosting cage after it had got dark. On days when I was working, I would let them out for an hour in the morning before my work and as long as it was light afterwards. They loved scratching and rolling around in the dirt and they couldn’t be seen unless somebody walked up to my front door and then made an obvious and deliberate effort to look over the fence four paces to their right. I discourage non-family drop-ins so this really didn’t seem to be a problem.
Until it was. The chickens decided that they weren’t happy in their expanded yard but that there was a whole green, worm-filled, nirvana out there. They learnt that flapping their wings, in an incredibly un-aerodynamic way, was often enough to give them access to the top of the fence and then they would do a clumsy half abseil/half gravity lesson dismount.
So I clipped their wings. Or, more precisely, one wing. They could still fly if they wanted but they were only going in a circle and that was a non-elevated circle that resulted in plenty of dust bath bombies. They had space but they were contained and wouldn’t give themselves away to neighbours by the hysterical clucks produced when confined in their original enclosure.
All was good for a short period of time. Then husband came home from work one day (much earlier than me – his earlier finishing time meant his responsibility to let them out for a scratch and a peck ) and lingered, looking at their behaviour. One chicken immediately started to climb the wire mesh of the enclosure, using the three point system of regular mountaineers. Except instead of two hands and one leg/two legs and one hand (always keeping hold with three parts of your body before moving onto the next hold), the chicken utilised a very effective variation – two claws and a beak. He showed me the video he had taken and I can confidently say that chickens would be great up there on the North Face of Everest.
We decided that they would get a limited amount of outside time. An hour at start of day and end of day so that we could keep an eye on them. But today, the Mallory of the feathered world had passed on her skills to an up and coming Hillary and they both climbed up and out; we became aware of them as a result of the disarray of all the neighbour’s carefully pre-summer mulch.
I have never had climbing chickens before. Indeed, I have never thought it a skill chickens possessed. Husband made me laugh tremendously when he stepped out onto the front door mat and announced his discovery of newly liberated poultry with the heartfelt sentence, “Oh, you dirty birds!”. (He’s Canadian: they are so polite even in stressful situations).
I honestly don’t know how much longer I can keep my illegal chickens. They are illegal because I had to ask permission of all neighbours to keep them and I knew damn well that not everybody would give me the head’s up. I just went ahead and acquired them anyway: I was planning to say that I was just minding them for a friend, if asked! But mostly I was hoping that the neighbours would turn a blind (deaf) eye to them because they liked me. I always knew that I would get rid of them if I had to; if anybody complained.
But if the chickens don’t keep to their role as hidden, odd, noises from the background, well, I don’t see how I can cover it up. A fat brown hen on your doorstep inevitably creates questions. I feel vaguely miffed. I have gone to all this cloak and dagger trouble in order to give my girls a so much happier life than the one pre-destined for them and yet they don’t appreciate it. They are certainly not grateful and every liberty/treat I have dealt out is taken for granted, with an immediate striving towards the next stage of freedom.
They are acting like teenage girls!
I think I need some new strategy. Something that limits them. This one springs to mind.