When we moved here back in November 2019, we were lucky enough to inherit a healthy flock of chickens with the property. Twelve hens, led by our handsome red rooster Barry, spend their days roaming the countryside foraging for food, and their evenings snug inside their stone-built chicken barn. At first we couldn’t tell one from another, but as the days went on, we began to recognise each hen, and to get a sense of the individuals which made up our flock.
And then one day, in mid-November, a new hen, one we had not seen during the previous two weeks, suddenly appeared. She was a real stunner, jet black, with a huge hair do like an umbrella hat, and best of all, she had six tiny chicks in tow. We were gob-smacked, we had no idea that hens would have chicks so deep into the winter. The chicks were super cute, little round feathery balls of down, cheap-cheap-cheaping constantly as they scurried around their mum’s feet, copying her and pecking about in the dirt for food.
We soon found where she had nested, a lovely warm spot behind the hay bales, out of harm’s way. For the next three weeks we watched with delight as each morning she would appear with her motley crew, and we always made sure to give her a bit of extra food to help them along. On the whole, the chicks were well behaved, sticking close to their mum at all times. All except one, identifiable by a white stripe down his chest, who had a terrible habit of getting lost; easily distracted with a tendency to lag behind ignoring his mother’s calls. She was constantly having to go back and fetch him, and nag him to keep up with his brothers and sisters.
Then one day in early December, disaster struck. As I headed out at 7am to let the other hens out and give them all their breakfast, I found five of the chicks huddled together in a frenetic ball, stumbling along with no clear sense of purpose, cheaping loudly, a feeling of panic all about them. Critically, their mother was no-where to be seen. Nor was their brother with the white stripe. We called and called, and we hunted around, but it was all too clear that something untoward had happened; there was no way she would leave five of her babies out on their own in the cold.
We quickly decided we would try to round them up, we couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them alone to their fate. But that was easier said than done! Even with a large fishing net on a pole, we were unable to catch them; they had a highly tuned built-in aerial attack radar, and any time the net went overhead they were able to scarper out of the way all too easily. It look us two hours to catch them all; we eventually devised a method which involved me herding/chasing them into our car port, where they predictably avoided capture by diving through a small hole in the wall, straight into the fishing net which my mum was holding over the hole on the other side.
And then came the question of what to do with them now! We had five chicks, in a tiny cardboard box, and we had never done this before! In a flash the kitchen utility room was cleared, blankets and cardboard laid down, a little dish of water, some fresh hay. The next issue was heat; a quick dive into google told us we needed to keep them very, very warm. Around 30 degrees, given their age. It was about 6 degrees outside, and we certainly did not own a heat lamp, which is the recommended apparatus. We dug out the Dyson electric heater, and blasted it on at 30 degrees, choosing not to think about the monumental electricity bill which would undoubtedly follow. And then food; we didn’t have any chick crumb, which is what we learned we needed. Thank goodness for amazon prime! And in the meantime, hard boiled eggs chopped up, Brussel sprout porridge, and digestive biscuits, seemed to do the trick.
It was three o clock in the afternoon when we next ventured out, this time to walk the dog. As we happened upon the hay barn, we could hear a loud and curious ‘cheap-cheaping’. Casting around, we could not believe our eyes. The sixth chick! The little one with the white stripe down his chest! How he had survived seven hours on his own, on that cold November day, I don’t know! We managed to catch him using the old ‘fishing net over the hole’ technique, quite the experts by now, and reunited him with his brothers and sisters. We called him Lucky, a name which has stuck with him to this day.
Well, the chicks certainly made themselves at home in the utility room. Each day they dined on all sorts of ridiculous morsels; I’m not sure what the local farming families thought when I admitted to giving them blueberries and Greek yogurt for their breakfasts! They came to learn the sound of door unlatching, and would race over like a swarm of velociraptors whenever I opened it to give them something to eat. They could devour a banana in less than 60 seconds, and attacked any morsel with the enthusiasm of a gang of starving piranhas! In the evenings they would hunker down in a cardboard box filled with hay, cheaping loudly at one another as they settled down for the night. They grew incredibly fast; sometimes I could swear they had grown visibility in size within a couple of hours of me last looking in on them! In their sixth week, they suddenly decided it was time to roost on a branch at night, instead of hunkering down in the hay. It was fascinating to watch them follow their instincts, with no mother-hen to tell them when the time was right to roost on a perch at night. Each day I would bring them some form of amusement; an old slice of hay, a clod of earth and turf, a pile of fallen oak leaves. They approached everything with an aggressive enthusiasm, scratching, pecking, and gobbling up everything in sight. Their general attitude to all new experiences was a lightning quick assessment of ‘can-I-eat-it-will-it-eat-me’. And they took a bit of a shine to me, thinking it tremendous fun to jump on my shoulders and ride around on top of my head, pecking nosily at my earrings. As time went on, we gradually eeked the heater down, until we got them to about 9 degrees, by that time they were eleven weeks old. By now they were almost adult size, or at least three of them were. Lucky and his two biggest siblings were already clucking rather than cheaping, and I even heard Lucky attempt some sort of off-key attempt at a cockadoodledoo at one point.
We knew it was time to let them back outside, they deserved to live a free-range life like their aunts, and Barry, their father, did. But how to introduce them to the big wide world? And importantly, how to introduce them to the big hens and Barry? We had heard that chickens were not always the kindest of creatures when making new acquaintances. Would our little chicks be OK?
We started letting them out the utility door for a few hours each day the sun was shining, which was not very often in late December, I can tell you! The chicks seemed completely unperturbed by this new environment, each one of them intently focussed on scratching in the grass for bugs and worms, acting as if they had done this every day of their short lives. Next, we brought them out on the lawn in front of the hen barn, caged in a large puppy pen we had, with an old bed sheet for a roof. It was far from a professional set-up! The hens barely paid them any attention, with just one lady making the effort to go and stick her beak through the cage to give a nip to the nearest youngster. As chicken introductions go, it could have been a lot worse!
So one evening, when the weather was set to stay mild for a few days, we took the plunge. We took our chicks into the hen barn at about 4.30pm, just before Barry brought the girls in to roost for the night. We settled them in as best we could with food and water. Would our chicks know they were to spend the night in there? Would they understand that the poles along the walls were for roosting? And how would the older hens take to these neighbours? We waited with baited breath.
Well we could not have been prouder when all six of our babies jumped up onto a perch, and hunkered down for the night as if they had lived in the barn all their life. The hens came home and barely noticed that there was anything unusual. A complete triumph!
We never brought them back into the house; that night marked the first day of their adult lives, and since then they have lived with Barry and his flock. They roost on a low perch to one side, always the six of them huddled together, and never up on the top perches with the big girls. Each day they come out and they stick together; preferring to adventure as a small gang, rather than following Barry and the big girls around. They have an unnatural love of doorways, probably because they lived behind one in the kitchen for so long, and it is very common for me to find them huddled up against one of the cottage front doors, enjoying a little siesta. They still regard me as an amusing bringer-of-food, and often chase me around the yard, occasionally jumping on my shoulder to show off, or to warm up their feet on a cold day. The really funny thing about this is that the big hens, who never used to bother much with me, have got into the habit of chasing me too, copying the behaviour of their new young neighbours, with very little thought given as to why they are doing so!
So when you next come to stay at Tangled Bank, make sure you keep an eye out for Lucky and his gang, you may find them crowding round your front door of an afternoon, or chasing me across the lawn demanding bananas and blueberries and all the other delicacies they have grown accustomed to!