Of chickens, and eggs

NAWAC’s proposed new minimum standard, for ‘enriched’ cages for battery hens, still denies the hens the daily things that bring most joy to their clucking hearts: freedom, and humanity

Joan Chooken the matriarch, Peggy and Ruth, Poppy and Rose Buff-Orpington have stepped through the ‘meadow’ in my back yard; under the plum trees, some of them are dust-bathing now, eternally.

Lined up in the wings, as it were, the names of next year’s pullets are hatching in my mind: Betsy, Vera, and Charlotte.

They are all the same — and all just a little bit different. They are smart, in a chickeny way — good at the things that matter to chooks. They ask little of life. Every day in which they get to do those things is a good one, and they like to do them, every day.

> A stroll along the roadside, in the early morning.
> Catching insects, at dusk and dawn, perching on a stump.
> The odd moment of hilarity: all of the chooks, which are fat, attempting insect-catching on the same stump, which is small.

Bathing-holes dug, with love, for chooks will be politely inspected, then ignored. These are not the right chook-shape; they make their own, and melt into it, and each other, a puddle of feathers. They need sunshine, to calcify their eggs — they hang out their wings to catch it, like Icarus. Have you ever seen a chook, eyes closed, in what really ought to be a private moment, turning herself inside out, in the dust, in the sun?

> A fossick through a pile of fresh weeds — chickweed, of course, with a worm or two still attached.
> Dainty grass-seed snipping.
> Standing on tippy-toe, picking redcurrants off the bushes.

They are social birds. Someone broods, someone dies, someone makes a new best friend; they establish and re-establish the pecking order. Once that protocol is observed, they are a happy harmonious little band. Part of being social, for them, as for us all, is a bit of space.

They are sustainable gardeners. I give them a bag of sunflower chaff. They eat some, and ‘plant’ the rest. Sunflowers grow, which I like, and go to seed, which pleases them.

They have the grace to look guilty, and the smarts to run, as fast as their short legs will carry them, when discovered on accidental recce in the garden.

They can tell friends from strangers, especially strange men, whom they do not like, and cats.

Rose Orpington spends her summers brooding, certain that if she thinks hard enough about babies, babies there will be. I buy her some fertile eggs: she is stubborn, I am tired of fighting, and it feels like the right thing to do. Babies duly hatch — five pairs of bright brown eyes, snuggled under Mummie’s chest — and I watch a feather-brained bad-tempered little bird transform into the best wee mother in the world. She has found her purpose in life: it is the only thing she wants to do, and it is such a small life, in the scheme of things, a half-dozen years at the most. Why should she not?

Little mother Rose knows on which side her bread is buttered. We have some trouble with a stoat. She learns to bring what is left of her family inside at night — right inside, down the hall, every evening as the sun goes down. “This way, babies. Come on, babies.” It is just like the advertisement.

For their keep, for a few years, they lay eggs that no money can buy.

For the record, there is nothing economically rational about it: these are expensive eggs. But there is some sort of bucolic sense, that defies a dollar analysis.