The hens, affectionately known as THE CHIKKINS, the ladies, the girls, have been with us for almost two weeks. The daily routine of letting them out of their under-stairs coop and wheeling their run to a patch of weeds is now virtually second nature. We frequently find ourselves peering over the fence to see what, if anything, they are up to. Their welcoming bustle and wurbly chatter entice us to go and find them something nice to eat, so I have a feeling that we are being trained more successfully than they are.
My usual bin of trimmings, scraps and teabags for the compost heap has been replaced by an evolving system of bits for the chickens and bits for the compost. Because their beaks have been badly trimmed, I am cutting everything into pieces small enough for them to manage. It seems barbarous to cut their beaks, but we know it is common practice. When the breeders have hundreds of them cooped up together, the poor creatures would soon tear lumps out of each other in boredom and frustration, if their beaks were intact. The obvious solution of giving them more space is, apparently, not economically viable.
We have adapted and modified our original designs for their coop and run, changing things as we go along, but the changes have been small, and we are pleased that we got it so nearly perfectly right first time. I may, at some point add a page about our coop and run design and construction, in case other chicken fanciers in Cyberland are interested, but I would not encourage anyone to hold their breath.
One of the adjustments we had to make to the coop was replacing the round bowls we had put in for nest boxes. Until we can find a good way to stop them tipping, we are using some old Addis crates we used to use for storing children’s toys. They just happen to fit between the supports, and, being rectangular, they are more stable than the round bowls.
We noticed that the chickens were not using the beautifully crafted and lovingly smoothed perch we made for them to roost at night. They seem to prefer huddling on the doorstep. We think it might be that they have never had a roosting perch before, and they might get the idea in time. Vamos a ver, as we are learning to say.
Juan, our elderly neighbour, has about half a dozen chickens in a pen attached to the side of his garage up the street. Juan is not around much during the week, but his chickens always have plenty of food and bits of vegetation, and appear well cared for and healthy. Before our ladies came to live with us, we would sometimes sneak up there to say hello, taking some lettuce or other greenery for them. They are a friendly crowd, and always come over to greet visitors in their cheerful chickeny way
While we were away last weekend, Rosemary had a visit from Juan. Rosemary speaks very little Spanish (de nada is about it, and only useful in a limited number of circumstances) and Juan speaks no English at all, so their conversation was helped along by Di, another of our neighbours.
Juan was very complimentary about our arrangements for the comfort and care of our little flock, and repeatedly said how content they look, and how lucky they are to live with us. He urged Rosemary to make them work a little for their food, to stop them being bored, and took her for a brief forage on the rambla, showing her which of the plants growing there to collect for them.
Favourite is a sort of wild brassica, which grows prolifically around here. Juan called it a type of spinach. It has pretty purple flowers, smells recognisably cabbage-like, and is, Juan says, a good source of calcium. We are already feeding our girls ground up egg shells, but we shall be generous with the wild spinach while it is in season. I have considered trying some, but more research may be in order before I commit myself!
Juan seems confident that the ladies’ beaks will grow back in time. Until they do, they will continue to have a slightly kissy- mouthed appearance, and I shall continue chopping their scraps up for them.
Of course, the eagerly anticipated arrival of our first egg took us completely by surprise. The man at the purveyor of all things chikkin had said two weeks, so we were quite prepared to wait until after the weekend, to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Having a little brown egg arrive on Tuesday morning was a welcome distraction from the worry of Minnow’s post-operative misery.
The egg was photographed from various angles, in the nest box and posed upon a flattering green paper napkin. Geoff weighed it, wrote the date on it in pencil, and stored it in the fridge. We decided that we would wait until we had three eggs, and then have one each, rather than trying to cut soldiers and share one forty-three gram egg between us.
On Wednesday morning, a second egg awaited us. At fort-seven grams, it promised bigger, better things to come. We think our hens are ISA Browns, a breed much favoured by battery hen farmers, because they are prolific layers. If we are right, our girls will lay between three hundred and three hundred and twenty eggs each per year. The size of the eggs should increase a little as the ladies mature, but they have a way to go before they are average super market egg size.
Thursday’s egg came a little late, so by the time it made an appearance, we had already had breakfast. Forty-five grams was a bit of a step backwards, but as we do not know who is responsible, we are not in a position to give her a talking to. We suspect it may be Cordelia Chasseur, (did I mention their surnames before?) as her wattles are slightly redder than the others’.
Do we have plans for enhancing the ladies’ accommodation and monitoring who is perpetrating which eggs? Of course we do! Rosemary is currently plotting a spy-cam to be installed and linked to El Perro. We have tentatively called this the Chicken Feed, and details will follow in due course. I can already see the potential for chicken fans around the globe reporting back on what they have seen the ladies doing in the hours when we are asleep, and for a Señoras Ponedoras Fan Club. Members would receive a certificate and small inducements to sign up like-minded friends.
A less ambitious plan is to have a plaque mounted by the door of their little house. Las Señoras Ponedoras, it will say – The Ladies Who Lay.