I feel compelled to write about our chickens, because recently our latest arrival, Anjunka, has gone missing. Missing, in fact, for over twenty four hours now (presumably having escaped as Grey was left unharmed), and having leafleted the village, someone popped round with a few feathers to say it’s unlikely she’s alive. No body was found, so I’m still hoping she had a narrow escape and is just living a lovely life in the woods. The kind of life that she was meant to live.
She was never a pet, in fact I don’t think I ever even picked her up. She was free-spirited and feisty. She lay blue eggs. When we first got her, she had a Toya Wilcox hairdo. She got on very well with Grey, who had survived both a fox and dog attack and seen the loss of two of her comrades.
Keeping chickens. It’s more difficult than some people would have you believe. There are the times of joy, the first egg for example, which in our case was a double-yolker. The times of laughter, like when we found one hen on top of the other in the nest box, both trying to lay. The times of annoyance, when they escape from the run and start digging up the veg patch. The times of travail, when you have to go out in the snow and de-frost the water and serve them porridge (this is optional I guess). Generally though, they are a joy and also weirdly interesting to watch, each with their idiosyncrasies. I particularly like the way they scratch at the ground, jump back and each time have renewed surprise at what they have uncovered.
What I really like though is the eggs. They beat even the poshest of free-range eggs, and moulting and disappearing aside, they’re normally laying one egg a day. There’s no comparison. There’s something about the way the yolk and the white are separate entities. There’s no weird creaming when you scramble one of their eggs. Each part has a distinct colour, texture and flavour. The whites are actually delicious, and aren’t liquidy, they almost have a gel-like quality.
I also like the fact that we’re producing food, right here at home. Molly loves to feed the chooks (or rather tease them and boss them around). They’re cheap to keep (once the initial housing has been costed up). A sack of grain that lasts around six months, only costs a tenner. I’ve been having to buy eggs again recently, and couldn’t believe that I was paying almost £2 per half dozen. And they were rubbish eggs!
The chickens sure like to poo everywhere though. And it’s big poo. They poo on each other’s heads, in their food and water, they seem to be oblivious to it. But, they defend each other, and they talk to you. It’s hard not to get attached, but each death makes you more resilient. It’s a bit like relationships in that sense. Henbit was our first lesson. She was killed by a fox. We stupidly let them roam free in our garden in Oxford in those days. We stepped inside to watch a bit of the FA cup final, next thing we knew Gertrude was running into the house, hotly pursued by Gozer our cat, and then the fox. I picked Gertrude up, and Jamie chased off the fox. I remember holding on to Gertrude, and with breaking voice asking about the others. Jamie discovered Henbit’s body by the henhouse. We both wailed. The neighbours commented afterwards. Henbit was our favourite as she was the friendliest. She would follow you around talking to you, and generally had a very sweet nature. The grief was the same if not more than that of a close relative dying. We found Grey in the outhouse, all flustered but fine. I just kept stroking Gertrude in an almost catatonic state and then Jamie and I hugged for what seemed like an eternity. I’d never seen him that upset.
A chicken! Seems ridiculous, but she was our chicken and we felt like we’d let her down. I also felt cheated as she was the favourite. We were beside ourselves for a good couple of days, and I remember the drinking binge continued for at least a week. I think she symbolised our lives together, and something had come in and shattered that.
So Henbit was gone. Next was Gertrude a year or so later once we’d moved to the country. This was a bit of a freak attack, in that it was a crazed rescue dog from up the lane that had escaped and jumped over the wall into our garden. To be honest though, Gertrude wasn’t happy; she was a self-harmer. She would peck herself raw. No amount of beak bits, anti-pecking spray or distractions would keep her from doing it, and she’d also peck Grey.
So we then acquired Anjunka, and fortified their run. Not well enough so it would seem. That for me sums up chicken-keeping. Chickens want to be free, but will die. No matter how large the run is, they’ll want to be on the other side. So, you keep them penned in and hope they’re happy enough. They’re a great asset, but it’s not all eggs, eggs, eggs. Unless you’re made of steelier stuff than us, prepare to get hurt.
Let me therefore present our chickens: Henbit, Gertrude, Grey and Anjunka.