We have chooks. To anybody unfamiliar with the Aussie vernacular, a chook is a chicken. When we first moved to the Hills, we were intent on adopting several critters. It was surprising to discover that we were not permitted to keep hoofed animals on our acre, especially considering there are properties in the immediate vicinity who can (and do) keep a motley assortment of horses and sheep.
Being vegetarian at the time, it was only a matter of days before Geoff and I had set ourselves up to receive our first-ever chooks, anticipating eating “our” own eggs. There had been a little garden shed on the property that we moved to a better spot; Geoff fashioned a none-too-shabby pen adjacent to it and, armed with a roll of chicken wire and some star pickets, we proceeded to erect the world’s ugliest fence. I guess about 15% of our property was given over to the chookyard, wherein lies a small orchard.
And so we went to a chicken farm and picked out our first four biddies. Of course they were all given names – Burping Mango, Thelonius, Reg and Hooter. No prizes for guessing Geoff named Hooter; it was his revenge for me naming the other three. My friend, Delys, had been helping me at work and one day had eaten some mango. During our conversation a little while later she puffed up a polite little belch and announced, “Aw, now I’m burping mango.”
“That,” said I, “is a great name for a chook!”
Those four, calm, friendly hens gave us a taste of how good it is to be amongst our fellow beings in love and respect. Every morning they would come scooting up excitedly to greet us and then they set to work at squeezing every chook possibility out of the day – enthusiastically and with an obvious great amount of enjoyment. If I was digging with a shovel, they’d be hanging around to see what I would unearth; sometimes they would even perch on the shovel while I was using it. Our neighbour would watch in disbelief and declare, “Would you look at how tame those chooks are!” Why wouldn’t they be? They had nothing to fear from us. As far as I could tell, they were very happy and that translated into incredibly delicious eggs with intensely golden sunshine yolks. I had given a dozen to the lady who owned the local convenience store and she told me how she used a couple of them in a cake recipe. The recipe had said to break in the eggs and beat the mixture until pale. She beat and beat and beat, but that mix stayed a glorious saffron yellow.
Time passed and one day I noticed that Burping Mango looked a bit depressed. A couple of days later we realised that she was unwell and took her to the vet. She was dying and the decision was made to euthanise her. The vet advised that it is difficult to find veins in chickens and so they inject them in the chest cavity. He said that it takes about five minutes for them to pass and is virtually painless. I was so distraught that it didn’t even occur to me to ask exactly what he meant by “virtually painless”. Or even how he knew. But about ten minutes later he brought out the cat carrier with our dear little Mango in it, lifeless.
Geoff dug a grave and we put her in it and said goodbye. It is testimony to these amazing, funny little creatures as to how much they fill our hearts, and how much they are missed when they die. And how much better they deserve than to be crammed into tiny, wire battery cages with other birds with about the space of an A4 sheet of paper for each hen, robbed of every natural behaviour that brings them pleasure, from stretching their wings to dust bathing to scratching the soil for goodies.
We have sourced ex-battery hens from a battery farm in a well-known Western Australian wine region. Visitors have access to an area with battery cages in it that contain hens for sale, but are not permitted into the main battery area. In the visitors area is a mixture of point-of-lay pullets and “spent” hens that are around 18 months old. After a year or so a hen’s egg production decreases from what is considered economically viable and so they are disposed of. Some of the spent hens at this egg farm are sold off for $5 each, usually, as the woman there informed me, “for the pot”.
We buy spent hens in favour of pullets these days because the pullets have a better chance of being bought by someone who will keep them at home (alive) for eggs. The ones we buy look terrible – they are missing many feathers, are mortally terrified of humans and often have wounds. There are often three chickens in one cage and they smother each other trying to get away from our hands. Geoff once pulled a little girl out from under the other two, her toe broken, and we took her with us and named her Squash. While there is anticipation of being able to give some of these girls a second chance at a real chook life, choosing who to take and who to leave behind is an immensely taxing procedure.
Once back at home, we pop the cat carrier on the ground in the chookyard and watch the heartwarming, yet profoundly heartrending events unfold. Firstly the existing chickens start making their disapproval heard and that sounds a lot like chickens trying to moo. The newbies stay in the carrier for a while because they haven’t been on the ground for a year and I guess they just don’t know what it is. The bravest one will slowly come out, followed eventually by the others, all stiff and hobbling. They pick up their feet and watch them as they gingerly put them back on the ground, obviously dealing with something odd, because they have been standing on wire for most of their lives. They are learning to walk again. The single most incredible thing about the process of introducing spent battery hens to our chookyard is that within five or ten minutes, all of the girls, every single one of them, will be indulging in some kind of natural behaviour that they haven’t been able to do since they were put in the cages. Most will begin to feebly scratch the dirt. Some will lurch onto their sides, a skeletal wing elevated. The first time I saw a hen do this I thought she was going to kick the bucket right there. Then I realised that she had felt the sunshine for what was probably the first time in her life, and had rolled onto her side, featherless wing held aloft, to let the sun’s glorious warmth in. Occasionally one will even manage to figure out how to have a dust bath.
There are lots of things they need to learn. Within a few days, after a bit of biffo as the new pecking order establishes itself, the motheaten featherless ones will be enjoying their new life. They have to learn to eat things other than crumbles – they don’t even understand what lettuce is at first and only peck it and other goodies by observing the oldies. They learn to go into the chookpen at dusk so I can close the door behind them to keep them safe from foxes. There is a hole in the wall of the chookpen that leads into the chookshed. They have to learn to go into the chookshed at night to sleep on warm straw. There have been times I have needed to gently push them through the hole because they don’t quite catch on when the old chooks disappear through it. I have come to let the chooks out in the morning to discover the newbies aren’t in the pen. When I check in the shed, sure enough they’re still in there looking a bit bewildered. Sometimes they just don’t know how to get out of the shed via the hole, but I have never had to show them how more than once.
Over time they grow their feathers back. I’m unsure what the difference is but I have seen one girl regrow her feathers in three weeks and yet others take up to a year. There is lots to do as a chook in a yard full of fruit trees – there is dirt to scratch, and bugs to run after, and magpies to yell at. There is all manner of wonderful food to experience, often brought by the humans, and so they begin rushing headlong to the gate, wings flapping when I approach, to see what goodies are in the bucket. There are dust baths to lavish in and friends to cuddle up to while dust bathing. There is room to indulge in a good, long stretch. And there is the excitement of being let out of the chookyard for a romp around the rest of the property (but NOT in the silverbeet!).
Chooks are extraordinary little guys and some simply amazed me over the years. Herbie Henchook was firmly at the bottom of the pecking order and quite skittish. One day she disappeared and I assumed she had been taken by a fox. Soon after I was out the back of the chookshed when I heard a tiny little tap. I am not even sure I heard it so much as sensed it some other way. I looked down and there was a big flower pot with another one upturned in it. For some reason my mind considered that a spider might have made the sound and I nearly walked away. But something compelled me to lift that upturned pot and there she was, Herbie Henchook, standing half submerged in dirty water, bedraggled, wet (it had been raining) and shivering, but still alive.
Geoff and I gave her a warm bath, dried her but then she started to shake uncontrollably. I guessed she was suffering from low blood sugar and started feeding her VegeLayer crumbles mixed with maple syrup and rolled into balls. She ate them readily and eventually stopped shaking. I don’t know how she managed to survive – she had water to drink, perhaps she managed to peck a few flies that might have ventured through the holes in the pot’s base, but survive she did. She went on to live for another two years, so we had her for three years all up. That’s a pretty good innings because, as we discovered, chickens rescued from battery farms don’t live for very long. Three years with us, post-hell, is good. These hens live a very long life indeed compared to their male counterparts. Egg production requires hens, but half the chicks hatched into this world are males. Have you ever considered what happens to those babies? On the first day of their lives, most of them are either gassed or macerated. Yes, macerated. It means ground up. Alive.
Twelve million a year. Just in Australia.
Which brings me to Warren. Just over two years ago, Maree (our Animal Actionist) posted that the RSPCA in Perth had a rescued rooster who needed a home. We quizzed a few neighbours and then welcomed the handsome boy into our fold. When we let him go in the chookyard, he raced around and rolled in the sunshine and all but ignored the girls. The morning after I got a wake-up call, courtesy of Warren. 110 of them by 10:00am, in fact, and that is when I stopped counting. The peaceful ambience of Stoneville was rent by raucous and frequent and damn loud crowing. What had I done? Happily, he settled down quickly and set about introducing himself to the laaaaaadies.
For someone who had never interacted with a rooster, Warren was a challenge. Cute and boyish with the hens who received him when he felt horny, he was bad-tempered and aggressive with any who ran away from his ardour. He was also permanently pissed off with me for about the first 18 months. It wasn’t unusual for me to be strolling through the chookyard doing stuff, and suddenly have Warren hurl himself at me from behind, spurs-first. He has a roar on him like fingernails on chalkboard – only louder. Most of the girls love him and there is way less aggression between the hens since he took charge. None of them are trying to be the top chook because that’s Warren’s job. And how’s this – if we throw him a titbit, he will make his little cute sound and summon the girls so that they can have it instead of him. If they don’t see it, he picks it up and drops it for them, all the while making his cute sound. I have even seen him pick up a big titbit and break it into smaller pieces for his hens. If they accept his offer and eat the goodie, he puffs his chest out and looks very proud about it.
There have been hens since Warren arrived who cannot stand him and he can be quite nasty with them. One of them, Sharon, would jump the fence every morning to avoid Wazza and come hang out with us at the house. It didn’t matter how many times I took her back and plonked her in the chookyard, she’d jump straight out. I made the decision to let her do what she wanted, the alternative was to shut her in the pen 24/7 and that wasn’t okay. She would sit on the back doormat all day, just hanging. Sharon loved walking around with us and enjoyed a cuddle. Sadly, away from Warren’s protection and while we were out one day she disappeared.
We recently lost Marilyn to natural causes. She’d come to us via PAWS in Perth. She had been handed in by a couple who’d found her in their garden. The guy had threatened to eat her if they didn’t find a home, but by the time they delivered her to PAWS he had fallen in love with this gentle and chatty chook. Marilyn was ‘blonde’ and just as beautiful as her namesake. When I sat on an old chair in the chookyard, she would jump into my lap for a cuddle. Marilyn was particularly fond of a headrub and would sink into my lap, her head on my right arm, making contented little noises, as I gently scratched and stroked her head. Something has been missing from the chookyard since this little white darling peacefully died at 2:50pm on 3rd March this year, surrounded by the rest of our flock, something I’d never seen before. She was indeed special.
All of them are special, of course. We have had 46 chooks over the past decade, eight of who are with us now, including Warren. He and I have reached an accord and sometimes I even believe he likes me. The world’s ugliest fence is still standing and is no better looking, but is testament to how little the chooks need to be happy – scraps and crumbles, some space, dirt and plants. Love.
And no battery cages.
For the critters,