I was woken by Geoff saying, “You’d better get up. One of the chickens is dead.”
Now, I am not a morning person, and even “I’ve made you a lovely cup of tea, dear” does not always evoke the most positive response.
My fuddled before-10:30- and-three-mugs-of-builder’s-brew mind struggled to compute.
“What is he saying?”
“What does he expect me to do about it?”
“How on earth do we tell Rosemary?”
“Might this be a dream?”
“Oh, please don’t let it be Henrietta!”
Unfortunately, the bad news was not a dream, and even more unfortunately, it was Henrietta who was lying stiff and cold on the floor of the coop.
Chickens, we have found, do have distinct personalities, some more distinct than others. Parmesina is a bossy boots, who will stalk about the run with her new-romantic comb flopping about, making sure that everyone knows not to mess with her. Celestine isn’t as ethereal as her name might suggest, but is possibly the most timid of the ladies, while poor Cordelia is the one with no particular distinguishing features, the one we can identify by process of elimination, the mousey one who made up the numbers.
Henrietta Tikka-Masala was the smallest of the chickie ladies. She was good-natured, affectionate and chatty, and had won a special place in Rosemary’s heart, because she was little and had most difficulty eating. She had a rather disfigured beak, thanks to the careless and barbaric job somebody had done on her when she was tiny. Rosemary used to take her away from the others to make sure she could forage and eat undisturbed by her larger companions. Rosemary became her champion.
The chicken cam footage revealed that Henrietta had fallen off the perch in the early hours, picked herself up briefly, and then dropped like a stone. It seems she had suffered a stroke, which is not uncommon in this particular breed.
Sentiment aside, we could not risk feeding the dogs on chicken, in case they decided to help themselves to the other ladies, and we had to keep Henrietta away from prying eyes until we could decide what to do. We wrapped her in an old sheet and let her lie in state in the garage while we deliberated.
In the end, Geoff stoked up the wood burner, while Rosemary and I made Henrietta a smart, toblerone-shaped cardboard coffin, held together with parcel tape. It was not very elegant, but it was made with love and respect.
“She was a good chicken. She made good eggs.” Not the greatest funeral oration, but it sort of said it all, as we consigned her little body to the fire.
Rosemary and I hugged, and Geoff retreated, slightly moist-eyed to do some man stuff on the computer.
Our little flock was down to three. Geoff had made an incubator for Rosemary for her birthday, but there are no duck eggs available yet, so we decided to see about finding some young chicks. By the time the duck eggs are about, the chicks should be large enough to join the ladies in the coop.
Fortunately for us, there is a family not far away, who are living the self-sufficient dream. Greg and Rosemary (another Rosemary) agreed to let us have three of their recent hatchlings. Less fortunately, they would need to be collected early in the morning. The babies would be transferred into an insulated box with a hot water bottle in the bottom, and then brought home and put into the incubator to keep them cosy. If we left home at 7:30am, and the babies left their home at the same time, we could meet at the market where Greg has a stall, and have them snug in the incubator at home by 8:00
We decided that we would like two girls and one boy, who could grow up and look after all the ladies, perhaps in time producing some offspring. What could be nicer?
It was still not light when we left home, bleary-eyed, with cool box, hot water bottle and quiet excitement. Dawn broke over the mountains as we made our way to the rendezvous. The area we live in has huge skies over range after range of mountains. As we drove, the rays of the rising sun turned the mountains varying shades of grey, purple, yellow and green, while the sky faded and merged into a fabulous range of gold, yellow and pale blue. The pink and white almond blossom stood out against the dark branches and trunks of the trees, and all around, the ground was a mass of yellow and purple wild flowers with the occasional patch of poppies. We agreed that it was very lovely, but that we were unlikely to be up early enough to see it very often.
The chicks were gorgeous. The boy was mainly white and the two girls were mainly black and grey, with stumpy feathers beginning to work their way through the baby fluff. They cheeped and squeaked manically all the way home, and were soon happily scuffling about in the incubator.
Naming them proved to be a problem. We had known very quickly what we were going to call the ladies, but the chicks did not instantly inspire us.
The little boy was happy to be cuddled and seemed a quieter disposition than the girls. He became a bit of a favourite, and acquired a name: Doodle Doo.
The girls spent most of their time fighting and chasing each other. They were far less interested in cuddles than Doodle Doo, and we wondered how our mild-mannered little boy would ever keep order with these little harridans in the flock.
The three of them grew at an amazing rate, often seeming larger in the morning than they had been at bedtime the previous night. Rosemary constructed a fabulous cardboard luxury pad for them, complete with infra red heat lamp, so that they could move out of the incubator and run about more freely.
When we thought the weather was warm enough, we let the chickie ladies out onto the garden to free range for a while, and took the opportunity to let the babies spend a little while in the run. The two girls bounced about and flapped their wings, more assisted jumping than flying, and carried on an argument they had started indoors. Doodle Doo joined in the flapping, but was unfortunate enough to get between the two girls, who then set about beating him up. He came away from the experience with a bloodied comb, cheeping his distress.
The ladies came over to see who was in the run, and watched with interest as the three babies capered about and scratched in the soil. Doodle Doo was somewhat intimidated by the much larger ladies, but the girls came right over to the wire, stood up tall and tried to stare them down.
As the days went by, the two girls continued to squabble and prance threateningly at each other, while we pondered long and hard about names for them. They capered about, bickering and flapping, not suiting any of the names we came up with. Then we made a discovery: the markings the girls were developing meant they were probably not girls.
It is notoriously difficult to sex tiny chicks, but by this time, they had been with us a couple of weeks. All of them had enough feathers and had grown enough to develop some clearer indicators of who was what. We chatted with Greg and Rosemary, and compared notes. The constant squabbling was making more sense, now we knew the girls were in fact boys. It is simply not feasible to keep more than one rooster, because they fight viciously over the hens, so it was decided that we should swap the two darker boys for two girls.
We met later in the morning this time, as the chicks are more robust now, and can be away from a heat source for longer without coming to harm.
The boys did not seem the slightest bothered to see the back of us, so we bid them farewell, and after a chat about all things chicken with Greg and his daughter, Emma, we came back home, with Doodle Doo and his two new friends getting acquainted in the cardboard box on Rosemary’s lap.
The two new little girls are both white with soft grey markings, and very pretty. One has a bantam grandfather, so she is a little smaller than the other, but they have different markings in any case, so we shall be able to tell them apart.
Our babies are now a month old, and most of their baby fluff is disappearing. There are still moth-eaten looking patches around their necks, and their combs are tiny, so they have a way to go before they will be ready to join the ladies. By that time, we hope to have some duck eggs in the incubator, on their way to producing our next batch of fluffy bundles of fun.
PS You may be wondering about the reference to Beyoncé. For some time we have been tunelessly crooning “Oh the chickie ladeez, oh the chickie ladeez,” and occasionally “If you like them you’d better put a ring on them.” I knew I must have picked something up from the ether, and thought I would investigate. It turns out I have been unwittingly channelling possibly the worst bit of drivel that has hit the charts in a very long time. If you have not heard it, you can judge for yourself here.