I just got pecked by some raging feral hen-beast, whilst sitting innocently out in my own back garden. I’m pretty sure we’re the only madhatters who allow their chickens to have complete run of the whole garden, like some undersized and over fluffed wannabe peacocks. Chicken keeping is experiencing a bit of a renaissance amongst the urban cool set; it’s the new ‘grow your own vegetables.’ Green living, sustainability and what not. Columnist and author Wendyl Nissen has featured the joy of chicken-raising regularly in her columns and latest book A Home Companion: One Year of Living Like My Grandmother. Her hens sound delightful, and distinctly un’crazed. Our hens, on the other hand, are a whole different beast.
Roaming about the garden as I type this are: Cheryl (because she seemed a quintessentially Kiwi sheila); Cheryl’s long suffering sidekick Linda (named because Linda seemed like the kind of name a Cheryl may have as her bullied second. Think ‘Do it Linda, do it! Cross the road or you’re out of the gang.’ ‘I’m not sure, Cheryl. I’ve heard the jokes, I know the risks.’ ‘Do it Linda, or I’ll push you across myself.’) Cheryl and Linda were raised from eggs by their surrogate mothers, and now the hen-pecked lesser poultry-gang members, bantams Fluffy (self explanatory) and Charlie (named before we knew her gender). Our spoilt four have a hen house the size of a child’s playhouse (probably because it formerly was a child’s playhouse), yet insist on being completely free-range spirits, and spend their days wandering the garden, and treating the patio and lawn as their toilet. I was once again reminded of the madness of this the other week when I had friends over for a BBQ and had to put ‘lock up chickens’ on the To-Do list, next to ‘make salads’ and ‘clean BBQ.’ I hear you asking ‘why not just keep them permanently in the hen house?’ Because (and yes we’ve made our own bed here) the gang are now accustomed to their palatial paradise, and scream when locked up. Yes, scream. Chickens don’t just cluck quaintly to themselves like Beatrix Potter drawings come to life. They scream, cluck, crow, and screech in sometimes blood-curdling ways. Their favourite time to let rip is after laying an egg. This seems to be rather an evolutionary flaw, to draw attention to the egg’s arrival and location so that every egg-eating animal knows exactly where you are and what you’ve done.
Our hens, I suspect, would put up quite a fight against any small mammal, and they have our cats well and truly cowering in fear. Despite the cats having a weight advantage, there’s something about the mania in the hens eyes, and their surprisingly speedy waddle which makes them quite a force. If you hold cute images of hens living off a bit of grass and a few ants, than you would be shocked and disturbed to see their vulture-like destruction of any meat given their way. It’s like watching a pack of small, feathery lions at work, complete with the hierarchy of who gets to eat the flesh, and whose left poking at the carcass. Cheryl is even growing ever bolder at creeping into the house, and making a bee line for the cat’s food bowl.
There are of course advantages to inhabiting Cheryl’s territory. Their eggs are fantastic, with brilliantly bright yellow yolks from all the chlorophyll they eat while destroying the lawn. I never have to worry that I’m eating eggs from a hen whose had an awful life, as I’ve seen the glee in Cheryl’s eyes when she catches a bug, and I know they are all living very fulfilling (and adventurous) lives. It’s a fine line though between keeping chickens, and becoming a crazy chicken lady. I mentioned to a colleague that I kept chickens and he seemed surprised. ‘Gosh, you don’t look like someone who’d have hens.’ I was quite relieved to hear this; the metaphorical straw clearly isn’t quite yet sticking out from my clothes. Cheryl and her motley gang may be allowed to stay on yet.