It’s been several weeks since I first introduced you to my girls – the five hens that have become my little friends, soil tillers, compost engineers and food producers. Things have changed, the flock has grown, and we’re all learning a lot!
Meet Sweet Thing; she’s my new baby doll. Sweet, smart, and very cute, she seems to like me almost as much as I like her.
These girls never fail to fascinate me as I observe their sometimes cringe-worthy behavior and social mores. They’re smarter than I expected they would be (in some respects) and very instinct-driven. Each and every one of them has something distinct about her personality or behavior. They form alliances. They communicate effectively (and comically, too). They’re friendly, curious and they like to keep busy.
I went in on the purchase of several hens a few weeks ago with some other chicken parents in the neighborhood. I bought two, a Wellsummer, who I’ve named Jewel, and an Ameraucana, the aforementioned Sweet Thing.
Of course, I didn’t consult the five I already had, rather just introduced the new girls that first night at bedtime. It was almost dark and the event was low-key; chickens are almost blind in low light. I felt bad for the new girls, just sticking them in an unfamiliar coop in the dark, but I thought it might be easier on them overall. It may have made their first evening easier but their hazing began the next morning.
Introducing new hens into an established flock is hard to watch for this mother hen. Always a cheerleader for the underdog, I have a hard time seeing anyone picked on, no matter the species. I love wildlife documentaries, but turn away when predator overtakes prey, so watching my hens peck and chase away the new members of the family is no fun. And it’s always the ones that are newly promoted to “peck-er” from “peck-ee” status that seem to exercise their power the most. Come to think of it, that’s often true of people, too.
It’s perfectly normal, this pecking order thing, and as much as I try to resist anthropomorphic thinking, I find myself worried about their feelings about the rejections they experience after being thrust into a situation they never asked for. Not a lot, but a little.
The new girls have to wait to eat or drink until the older girls have had their fill. They get the lesser places on the roost when it’s time to sleep.
So we’ve evolved from this, when there were five……….
Sometimes the new girls’ way is blocked when they try to get into the garden. Sometimes they’re chased away as if they’re trying to crash a social situation to which they have not been invited.
All in all, these are some very happy hens. I’ve already realized a few mis-steps I made in planning and construction. I allowed for quite a bit more space per hen than was recommended, but I never considered how much the hens were going to love (perhaps need is a better word) their free range foraging out in the new part of my fenced garden. I didn’t really plan on them being able to safely graze out there without overhead protection, at least without my presence. Now that I’ve seen how much they get out of it, physically and mentally, I realize I’m going to have to rethink the area I was going to use for veggies this year. I’m gonna have to go vertical with the plants, I guess. It’s made me a committed weeder already. I want to keep their eager little selves busy making good soil so I’m frequently bringing them piles of weeds to process. They are highly efficient shredders. Here they’re doing their best to dismantle what’s left of a Pampas grass, a job that can make a grown man cry.
In the morning, I try to get out to the coop early so they don’t get too crabby being cooped up, but turning me into one who “gets up with the chickens” may be a losing venture. I’m doing my best. I hear their chatter as I approach, they turn up the volume when they hear me, then they rush to the door and as I swing it open, six hens come bounding out and run for the garden. Only one sticks around, that’s my little Sweet Thing, the baby, the one who is usually the brunt of the pecking. I don’t know if she sticks around for some quality time with me as I check the feed and water or if she’s just tired of dealing with them, but we have a few minutes together before the others come back in looking for breakfast. Once they’re at the feeder, Sweet Thing has to wait. She tries to grab a bite or two on her own, but before too long she’ll rebuffed by Idgie and Gilda, the nouveau-powerful Reds.
Sweet Thing does have some security and relief with Jewel, the Wellsummer, because they came together from the same breeder. Jewel doesn’t overtly protect her, but never bothers her and seems perfectly willing for Sweet Thing to tag along with her.
Jewel is just as new as Sweet Thing, but she’s bigger and obviously outranks her friend.
One more anecdote and I’ll close. One day a few weeks ago, I was working in my office. The window was open a crack and suddenly I heard some very insistent chicken hollering. It was one alarmed voice and I was a bit alarmed when I heard it, so I went out to check. In the garden area where the girls spend their days, there are two Euonymus shrubs. They have proven to be very useful to the chickens as a place to retreat from sun or cold or my dogs outside the fence or any perceived threat. That’s where I found them, all surrounding Buffy, the Alpha hen of the flock. That’s her in the center with the bigger red comb.
She’s a pretty cool customer most of the time but it looked like she’d called a meeting and all the attendees surrounded her as she shared some very critical information. Only Jewel started to stray off until Buffy called her back; the rest stood motionless and silent. That lasted half an hour or so.
Then, about ten days later, I heard the same sound but this time I was outside, not far from the coop. I looked in their direction as soon as I heard her and noticed a shadow cross the ground out of the corner of my eye. The girls had hightailed it into Fort Euonymus once again and hunkered down. I looked up at the pine trees that overlook the garden and there was a hawk, perched on a branch 30-40 feet up. Buffy squawked, then paused and squawked again, and again. It felt like a stalemate and after several minutes, the hawk flew away. I felt relieved and impressed with the hens and Buffy’s leadership. Very cool! And as much as the hawk unnerved me in that setting, it was quite a sight. So while I know my girls may fall prey to some animal sometime, I feel better about allowing them some freedom during the day. I no longer see them as helpless targets.
In upcoming chicken posts – Everything Eggs and more fun Hen Habits!