Tuesday, 13 March 2012

chickens' tears

Our chickens were distressed today. I could hear their anguished cries as soon as I pushed open the gate to Cordwood and mistakenly, at first, took it for the agitated cries of a hen about to lay. I was surprised though, when I opened the run to find that it was Emmy, one of our oldest and quietest hens who was the vocal one.

Our small 'flock' of Light Sussex bantams began when my cousin bought a few for her orchard. When they produced chicks she insinuated them into our hearts and we became back garden hen keepers too.

Twists and turns along the way saw the bantam family of six reunited last year.

The cockerel, Edison, stands above the hens and their squabbles, shaking his wattles and comb and occasionally administering discipline to this aging group of ladies, all too old for regular egg laying..

But the real social story lies with his wives/sisters.

And it is interesting to watch this society in action.

The matriarch is Curly, a grizzled old fowl with arthritic toes and shrunken comb. She is evidently in her cantankerous dotage but brooks no argument from her younger daughter/sisters. She has a strong bond with Edison. In the photo, taken on Saturday, Curly is the hen on the front right of the picture.

Emmy is the next oldest and is reserved and quiet.

Skye is in stark contrast to the quiet Emmy. Frequently agitated, pacing and as close to hen nervous exhaustion as it is possible to be. She was the dominant hen when she and her two sisters lived in our former garden and carries the scarlet and enlarged comb of the dominant hen.

Bonny is the largest of the hens and is a creature of comfort. She eats voraciously, adores sand baths and sun bathing.

Holly is the tiny one, eased out of her shell by my cousin when it looked as though she wouldn't hatch, she is small, reserved and faints when caught up. Her breathing is shallow and comes in quick stabs. She is at the bottom of the hen pecking order.

Recently, big Bonny has asserted herself over Skye. Skye paces and twitches more as a consequence.

So, yesterday, the hens were in a subdued state when released into the garden, with the exception, as I say,  of Emmy who wailed all day.

But only four hens emerged. When I opened the sleeping coop I discovered the source of the chickens distress: Curly the matriarch had died in the night. We cleaned out the coop and removed the dead hen. But the hens continued to behave differently throughout the day. This continued until roost, when they showed a real reluctance to retire.

In the wild, jungle fowl do operate as social groups. They have a matriarch and a male bird and clearly, from our evidence, form strong bonds. It was so sad to see Emmy's distress at Curly's death.

Curly had had a privileged  life for a hen, dying of natural causes after a life of seven years. I buried her in the orchard and planted an apple tree on her grave.

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