‘Lady looks sad today.’ My husband informs me Lady is a hen and she is fine. He comments that I am experiencing my emotions through my chickens. Like us, they are also in lockdown, not allowed to free range, due to an outbreak of avian influenza. We are all bored and frustrated and do not know when this will end.
We became henkeepers in the summer when lockdown restrictions were at their most relaxed, some friends had lost their home and I eagerly offered to rehome their 3 hens – Lady, Ginger and ‘Not-Lady’, plus one small grey fluff ball of a hen chick, named Chick, being raised by Not-Lady. They settled in very quickly and got to work escaping from their pen and destroying our lawn.
As each summer evening passes, outside after work the hens become accustomed to our presence. They learn our voices. Ginger lets us pick her up, but prefers if I come act like a chicken with her. Together we scratch the ground and she is excited that my much larger feet can brush sticks and dirt aside much more efficiently allowing her a feast of bugs. If we eat our dinner outside, the hens then to try jump in our laps and get in our bowls. I can never leave any food outside, not even a pot of chilli sauce.
One day the chickens get into the compost and it is like Christmas day! They uncover a nest of recently birthed baby rats and it’s a hen feast all round! One of the girls beheads a slow worm and proceeds to race around the garden with her kill dangling from her beak, the others chasing her down wishing to steal her meal.
Their playfulness and silliness a welcome relieve from our current reality. The chickens a reason to get away from the laptop and into the garden, into the air and out of our heads. Every morning I get up at sunrise to let them out their coop, and every evening I remember to put them to bed, and I may as well get some sleep too now. Every lunch break I head to the hens to talk to them and keep them company, they keep me company too. The hens’ needs set my daily routine.
The first day I had to go into work, instead of wfh, I rush out the house. I get home and Ginger is missing. As the sun sets, and after hours searching, my husband finds her body. I cry for two days, maybe more than you would expect for the loss of a hen, but right now they are more than just chickens. Lady mourns the loss of her best friend for months.
We rename ‘Not-Lady’, Penny, and learn that Chick has not only grown up into a moody teenager, but also a boy. She, I mean he, is renamed Buckbeack. He crows his first crow, a high-pitched laughable effort, while we are in the garden to see it. I dig a new potato bed and the chickens join in. I sit outside reading, wrapped in blankets, and they all perch along the fence opposite me in a line. They seek my company as much as I seek theirs now.
I talk to them as if they understand me and they learn to communicate their needs too. Penny grumbles loudly if her hen box has not been cleaned just right. Buckbeak crows in the daytime when they run out of food to get my attention. I can see him from my desk in my living room. He knows there is a cat in the garden before I see it and warns us all. His alarm call repeats until I chase the cat away. Bucky has started to look after his hens, he shares any treats I give him between the girls and takes none for himself. He has an eye on the sky and growls at passing crows. I watch sea eagles pass heading to Glen Etive and I am glad for the net over the pen required for the chicken lockdown rules.
Bucky crows every morning. For hours. We have neighbours and start to look for a new home for him. A friend is taking him for us. In the car I cry the whole way. He settles in well and we visit him again the next day. He runs over as soon as I call him. We don’t eat poultry anymore. My girls are lonely without him and the garden too quiet. We order two new hens to join our flock.
As lockdown continues, keeping the hens is keeping me in purpose.