Who knew you could get so attached to a chicken? Just over two years ago I had no idea. Warning: you might want to grab a cup of tea and get comfy for this one.
I’ll always remember the day we went to collect our first ever ex-battery hens. I’d wanted to re-home some since I was a little girl. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – most normal kids want toys or sweets and I wanted chickens – but at 29 I’d finally made it.
We rescued three little souls from the British Hen Welfare Trust, driving over with the dog crate in the back of the car. I went to give my donation and select the chickens, where the lovely volunteer gave me a quick lesson in picking them up and holding them securely. I was convinced, and slightly terrified, that these funny little dinosaurs would peck my eye out.
Here’s where we made our first rookie error – Tom had gone back to the car to collect the dog crate, thus missing out on the crucial ‘how to hold a chicken’ guide. When he got back, a little scrappy featherless hen was thrust into his arms. Obviously he didn’t hold the wings down. So the scrappy little hen flapped even harder to break free and a small battle to get her in the dog crate followed.
I dared to laugh, before some bickering ensued that I’d forced the poor man to have chickens and he didn’t know what he was doing. In truth, neither did I. I’d done the research, spoken to chicken owners and read lots of books, but I was equally as nervous. However I remember hushing him, because I didn’t want the hens to hear that they weren’t for one second, not wanted. And that was the end of that.
I watched, fascinated, as they enjoyed their first experience of grass, enjoyed dust baths like it was the best feeling in the world, and stretched their little limbs like they couldn’t quite believe they had this much space. I remember for a few days they all squinted at the sunshine and frantically chattered away about any new vegetable offering.
Those three little hens were Mrs L, CJ and Debs – named after West Wing characters if you’re an Aaron Sorkin geek like me. Sadly Mrs L’s time with us was too short (we perhaps cursed her with the name), but CJ and Debs went on to become queens of our garden, and utterly steal my heart.
CJ (the scrappy featherless hen) arrived very angry with the world, perhaps understandably so. But over a few months she mellowed into the biggest softie, while always remaining top hen. A favourite memory is the evening I’d gone down to have a cup of tea and wait to pop them in the coop. Instead, she flew up to into my lap and settled down asleep to roost there. I know there and then I was smitten, no longer afraid they’d peck my eye out.
And oh, did they have their individual personalities. I wasn’t quite expecting that – these little fully-formed characters who just needed the time and space to blossom.
Debs wasn’t as confident as CJ to start with. She was generally one for quiet chitter chatter but had a loud squawk on her when needed, and could always be found stuck to your ankle in case something you were doing was slightly more interesting than what she might get up to solo.
There’s no denying she was a diva. This hen was proud of her looks (rightly so), making preening a priority and posing like a pro. When we collected two more rescues, Debs developed a strut, as if to say, ‘yeah guys, just follow me, I’m smashing this chicken life’.
And oh how she did.
Centre of attention – the proposal
Diva Debs liked to make sure all eyes were on her. And none more so, than on December 23rd 2016. Tom had planned to propose – and like all helpless romantics trying to woo a crazy chicken lady, obviously the hens were involved.
The plan had been to hide the ring in the nesting box, so when I went to pick up the eggs I was also greeted with a diamond. Unfortunately Debs got there first, laying what’s unpleasantly termed a ‘lash egg’, which is essentially a ball of pus. I now know there are many reasons for lash eggs (not all of them sinister), but that fateful Google on a crisp winter morning meant the day took a slight change of plan. Me, panicked about my hen. Tom, panicked that the proposal wouldn’t happen.
Even though Debs seemed fine, I was unsure and suggested we call the vet in case it was an infection. Before I knew it, Tom was on the phone and we were at the vets mere minutes later. I’d later look back and realise he was trying to get this sorted quickly – so the day could continue as planned, whereas at the time I thought he just loved Debs more than he’d let on. To confirm, he did love Debs dearly but that’s not the point of the story.
The vet checked Debs was OK and off we headed home. We decided to have a brew in the chicken shed (it was during the period of lock down for bird flu in the UK) with the girls. I remember peering out of the window to see Tom knelt down in the shed tidying it up. I’d never seen him clear up the chicken mess, and thought ‘wow – he must be worried about Debs’. Off I pottered with our cups of tea, and in the shed we sat, with two little hens pecking at our feet.
Then Tom pointed out something in the nesting box. At this point, you think a girl would work out something was going on – but rather worryingly, my natural reaction was to panic that Debs had laid a box instead of an egg. (A diamond ring might have helped with a donation towards her veterinary bills, but that’s not the point.)
ANYWAY, the day continued to be a very happy one and there’s one special chicken in our engagement photo as a result.
A taste for the finer things in life
She didn’t lay diamonds (or golden eggs), but she did have a habit of eating my pearl earrings. I don’t know how she did it, or how I didn’t learn for that matter.
Debs would love to come and sit on my lap. And sometimes, remove my earrings. One day she pulled a pearl earring out in one clean swoop. Chaos ensued as I ran around after a chicken who ran around with the earring in her beak, giddy with pride. Before I could stop her, she’d swallowed it down in one.
More googling, to confirm that as chickens break down grit for eggshells and digestion, she’d probably just break down the pearl too, and that was that. The earring was gone. Debs was fine. Sadly no shiny pearl eggshells were laid as a result.
The second time she pulled out a pearl earring it dropped through a crack in the decking. I’m mindful to think this was planned, and was a spot for safe keeping.
She was a hen of good taste after all – she clearly felt she needed a pair.
Above: Debs’ one year freedom party. Obviously there was a hat.
Feathers and fur: friends come in all shapes and sizes
We can learn a lot from animals. In the right environment, they seemingly don’t discriminate. Over two years, our pooch Dylan and Debs became an unlikely duo. Debs put Dylan in his place fairly early on in their relationship, and he would always follow her around, smitten, as a result.
When Debs had a nap in the garden, Dylan stretched out next to her to catch some Zs. When Dylan had some toast crumbs on his floppy spaniel ear, Debs pecked them off for him. Then there was the morning Dylan stole a cob of sweetcorn I was putting in the chicken holder. Panicked he might chew it, I ran out – to find him holding it in his mouth and a chicken jumping up and down pecking at it. Debs and later Ginger would wander around the lawn together, followed by a spaniel trying to pretend he was one of the flock. Those simple moments couldn’t fail to make you smile.
On the morning of our wedding I sat with Debs in the garden for five minutes of peace with a coffee. She was distinctly narked she wasn’t picked as ringbearer, despite Instagram’s best attempts to get a hashtag started. The point being there are so many happy memories I have of those two years. While I wish it had been longer, in the end she slipped away peacefully in her sleep after we’d said goodbye, leaving us with an overriding feeling of happiness.
She was a sun worshipper who didn’t think much of snow. She would do pretty much anything for tomatoes or watermelon, but would pass over cauliflower as suspicious looking. She started life in a cage but flourished when she found freedom.
On that note, if you’ve made it to the end – please think about where your food comes from, and encourage others to do the same. #doitfordebs
Because yes, it turns out you can get very attached to a chicken.
If you’re interested in finding out more or rescuing some hens, check out The British Hen Welfare Trust: https://www.bhwt.org.uk/