The collective noun for chickens is a clutch or flock.
Whoever came up with this got it so wrong – they should have called it ‘a time theft’ of chickens. Alright, it’s not as catchy – but it’s more accurate. Every morning I take my coffee and wake up with the girls. Ten minutes turns into 45, and between them and the dog, I’ve spent a solid hour talking to the animals.
I’m fairly confident my neighbours think I’m slightly crazy. Whatever the weather they witness the morning walk – the fluffy dressing gown and wellies – sleepily making my way down the garden path to let the chickens out.
Fourteen months ago, we drove over to a farm to rescue three ex-caged hens. Having wanted hens since I was little, I’d done lots of reading. I thought I was prepared and under my care, they’d have long happy lives.
It turns out there was a lot to learn.
Their lives haven’t always been long, but they’ve always been happy.
I didn’t quite realise how much their little bodies had already been through before they made it to us, and over the last year I’ve been shocked when I found the first ‘lash’ egg (essentially a ball of pus) and spent evenings researching into treatments when we battled egg peritonitis – which sadly is common in ex-battery hens.
Here’s the girls’ first experience on grass:
I’m not here to write about the egg industry, but some background is important to understand the problems these girls face. At approximately 72 weeks, in order to meet consumer demand, chickens are culled and replaced unless, like in my case, they are rescued by a charity. Hens are therefore bred and selected to produce lots of eggs in a very short space of time – meaning that while some of them will continue laying for a while, some are sadly worn out. I read somewhere recently that the average lifespan of an ex-battery hen is somewhere between two and 12 months, which broke my heart a little bit – although some can live much longer.
Sweetcorn, hurrah! Even if my face is covered in mud…
Rescuing chickens was one of the BEST things I’ve ever done and I absolutely class them as pets. Their eggs are a bonus as I know exactly where they’ve come from and what the hens have been fed. In truth, I don’t really care whether they produce eggs or not. I want them to live out their days with sun on their back and dirt in their claws, but I also want to start putting everything I’ve learnt along the way in one place, in case it can help others looking to save some hens. I’ll put some of the illnesses and individual chicken stories in other posts, but here’s a starter guide of things I wish I knew before I got them:
*You absolutely will be able to tell them apart.
When we first got the girls, we got little leg rings to identify them. I remember being worried I might not pick up on one being ill if I couldn’t tell one from another. Little did I know, they all had such distinct personalities this was never going to be an issue, and the leg rings came straight back off. People think I’m mad when I say they have personalities like a cat or a dog, but I really mean it. Of our current girls, Bonnie is the most curious chicken you’ll ever meet, Ginger is a thug who will do anything for food, and Debs is a reserved sun worshipper. They also look completely different, but that’s a separate point!
*They are so much more intelligent than you realise.
There’s actually been quite a few studies recently about this – but hens are clever. Socially, their little pecking order is complex, but they absolutely know which pot has the sunflower seeds in and my morning routine. I know this because of how they get frustrated and sit by the greenhouse door when I haven’t got some scratch mix out. This intelligence will both surprise and delight you.
The dog isn’t looking, I’m going for his basket…
*Chickens poo. A lot. And you need to get to know it.
Those who know me know I’m not a fan of toilet humour. But seriously, chickens poo so much, and over the last year I’ve found poo is a great indicator of chicken health. The list of normal is SO long – and there are many great websites out there which document many different types for you to compare against. I’ve got to know the girls’ bowel habits – a sentence I didn’t expect to write. You can tell so much from their poo – if they’re sick, if their crop is emptying properly, if they’re stressed. I do a daily inspection and clean-up of their area, and I remember having a small heart attack the first time I discovered bright blue poo. It turns out they’d eaten some red cabbage. So yes, poo.
*Good house-keeping is everything.
This sort of links in with the amount of poo, but I can’t stress enough how important cleanliness is to maintain good health. Their litter tray and coop gets cleaned every morning. Food and water holders are sanitised weekly. Everything has a deep weekly clean in which the whole area is sanitised, and then a monthly clean where we dig out the run and add fresh wood shavings (we use dust-free horse bedding as it composts quickly). To keep clean and prevent mites etc, the girls need to enjoy a dust bath. But despite your best efforts, things will get muddy and the girls will constantly try to drink out of a dirty puddle rather than a clean water-holder – but I try my best.
Yes we like this food, many thanks.
*Chickens like to talk.
Every morning Ginger sings the most beautiful egg song. It can be heard by houses around, which is lovely, unless it’s summer and 7am and everyone has their windows open. I give the neighbours eggs and they really like the girls, so thankfully it’s not a problem! But I wasn’t prepared for the range of vocal abilities the girls would display. Their shrieks of excitement, their warning sounds (bird above, bird above!), their happy chitter chatter. It’s such a delight, and I find myself slowly learning basic chicken.
*Get a good vet before you need one.
This goes for all animals, but chickens are no different. I’ve spoken to people whose vets know nothing about hens – so join a forum and find your nearest avian vet. I’ve had people say ‘it’s just a chicken, you can’t take it to the vet’. My response is generally, screw you. I’d never let my dog suffer, so I have no intentions of letting my chickens suffer either.
*Become friends with your neighbours.
I have an amazing neighbour. I look after her quail and she looks after my chickens. We can both still go on weekends away and holidays and know the girls are receiving excellent poultry daycare.
*You’ll always want to give them more space. Extend their run just that little bit more. Rescue another perhaps?
This might sound a bit stupid, especially as they spent the first part of their lives in cramped conditions – but to flourish they need as much space as you can give them, because otherwise they get bored and feather-peck or fight. We have three hens, with a three-metre run attached, which they go into at dusk and dawn. From what I’d researched this was ample space – but in reality they always want more! The majority of their time is spent in an area which is roughly 25 metres squared, meaning it’s easier to keep everything clean and there’s always a new insect to chase. I was shocked the first time the hens were fighting to establish the pecking order – they can be vicious little gits. You should probably be prepared for that too.
CJ’s feather transformation was so rewarding.
*Be prepared for that extra broccoli to fall into your trolley.
Yes, you can budget and buy their layers pellets. And yes, this should absolutely be most of their daily intake. But you’ll buy them some fresh greens, and they’ll squeal with delight. Before you know it, they’ll be assaulting you when you haven’t delivered them a cauliflower. Then one day you’ll buy them a hanging-up seed-pecker with raisins as a treat, and hey wait, we’ve finished it chicken mum, and are you replacing that?! Luckily the allotment helps us supply them with fresh greens, but I’ve lost count of the times something has fallen into the shopping trolley for them.
*The first time they come to sit for a cuddle, your heart will melt.
I don’t really need to expand on this point, but when it happens, it’s really flipping special. The first time CJ (who sadly isn’t with us any more) snuggled down for no other reason than she just wanted to, well I was accepted. Knowing humans had caused her suffering, but she’d come to trust me, meant I was well and truly hooked to saving these little hens.
Really, this is the only point that actually matters – because saving chickens is the best.
To find out more or rescue some hens yourself, go and check out the amazing work of the British Hen Welfare Trust: http://www.bhwt.org.uk/