Chicken Chronicles

Subtitle: My Life with Chickens.

Remember back to October when my friend the school nurse gave me three baby chicks and we subsequently discovered that two of them were male when they crowed? OK, at the end of January, I got a phone call from a neighbor around the corner near where Amelia went to live whose rooster had recently died, and he heard that I was looking to find a good home for the two I had. It seems he keeps two coops, and I was thrilled to think that each of the boys would have their own harem, so off they went that evening with William. Very convenient since the boys would soon experience the surge of testosterone which would make them even less willing to tolerate me handling them like I handle Fiona. And I don’t have to worry about getting scratched.

So, that evening, my mother feels sorry for poor Fiona all alone in her dog crate without her brothers and lets her out, whereupon Fiona immediately comes waddling through the rooms, finds me and jumps up onto my lap and settles herself down on the couch between me and the fuzzy pillow. After zoning out on the tv for awhile, I look down at Fiona who had fallen asleep with her head tipped to the side, eyes closed while wedged between the fuzzy pillow and my fuzzy bathrobe. It suddenly occurred to me that normal people might think this weird and liken us to that Stanley Steemer commercial where the guy is talking about cleaning up after “free-ranging house chickens” and I realized the gravity of the situation. Precipitously perched on the edge of land-of-no-return eccentricity, I resolved to call my friend in the morning and see about acquiring a new female friend for Fiona.

Saturday morning comes and my mother, the three dogs and I and one empty cat carrier head down to my friend’s house and admire for the first time her really well-constructed chicken coops. She points out several chickens she would like to find homes for since she can’t kill and eat any of them (sound familiar?) and natural increase makes for slightly crowded quarters. We selected two Japanese bantams, a black one and a white one, and Fiona’s aunt, who we thought Fiona might bond best with since she was the same size as Fi. The Beverly Hillbillies pile back in the car with the new recruits, and in an effort to introduce them gently to Fiona, put them outside in the rabbit hutch turned chicken coop in our garden and closed the gate. Then we brought out Fiona.

My sweet, cuddly, mild-mannered chicken turned into Fiona the Slasher. Evil Fiona proceeded to spend all day Saturday and most of Sunday patrolling the exterior of the fence trying to break in and attack the new chickens, her mouth running the entire time with what I can only guess were chicken obscenities and racial slurs. It was embarassing to watch. She even got up on top of the hutch/coop and tried to attack the girls through the fence that way from sticking her head through the wire fence and pecking whoever was conveniently nearby or by body slamming the walls and hurling non-stop smack talk. The first night, they were put in separate dog crates, lights out and covered with blankets, and I hoped that by morning, Fiona would have gotten over herself. Nada.

I just realized I must digress to explain something. The dog crates are in the mud room which is the side porch of our house. In December and January of this past winter, NC experienced far below average temperatures, and not only the days were at or below freezing, but the nights were down in the 20s. The original set-up for Fiona and the boys was because baby chicks need to be kept warm with their heat lamp and all.  So, at two months old, instead of going outside, it promptly got freezing out and there was no way I could put such young chickens outside on their own when we don’t have electric out in the garden to run a heat lamp out to the rabbit hutch/coop. So they stayed inside until they were four months old, with the exception of a few sunny afternoons in January that got to around 40 or 50 when we’d put them out to start experimenting with getting to know the terrain, but once the temperature dropped, my hot house flowers had to come back in for their own protection to their warm overnight dog crate. We purposely turned down the vents in the mud room so it stayed around 55 degrees in there. My intent was to acclimate them to outside weather and not simply throw them out into the elements unprepared. Anyway. I know, I hear it in the background, too: 1 800 Stanley Steeee-mer!

By late Sunday afternoon, after watching with dismay Fiona’s tireless attempts to attack specifically her lookalike, Aunt Bea, I retrieved the chickens and put everyone in their respective cages, at which point I tried again to get Fiona to play nicely by standing there by the open cage doors and talking to everybody in baby-speak cooing that she normally responds well to. That didn’t work to calm her down, so I closed the doors again and walked away to eat supper. She proceeded to spend the evening hurling insults at the ladies (who by the way are a full year older than she is) until I turned out their light and covered them for the night. The next day I left my mother in charge of the chicken bonding and started my new full time job. Yes, that  means I gave up substitute teaching in the middle of all of this for a regular paycheque. I sold out. Miss my old peeps. 😦

The report I got when I returned home was not promising. Nor was the report on Tuesday night. In fact, Fiona’s hateful behavior toward Aunt Bea was becoming frenzied. I bit the bullet and called my friend. The next night, when I got home, we all piled back in the car, this time with Aunt Bea in the cat carrier, and returned her to the safety of my friend’s coop so the poor stressed-out hen could recuperate and share her horror story with her old pals. Since Fiona had focused all her attention on Aunt Bea, I was still hopeful that bonding between Fi and the mini-hens could occur ere long. It didn’t.

At the end of the week, I woke up Saturday morning and decided enough was enough. My mother had not been able to get them to bond and I was not going to let another week go by with Fiona calling the shots. I started with opening just her crate to see what she’d do. She promptly jumped atop their crate and continued with a fresh onslaught of her harrassment of the little hens. Sigh. I stuffed her back into her crate and closed the door and walked away. Operant conditioning here: you behave badly, you get stuffed back in crate. You want freedom, play nicely. Tried again a little while later after my second cup of tea. This time I opened both doors. She came out of her crate and marched straight into the other, pecking the poor little white chicken (Pearl) on the head. The poor simple little thing just stood there and took it with a chicken version of “ow.” She’s not the brightest bulb. Sigh. So, I re-stuffed Fiona back into her own crate and locked their doors.

Then it happened. I came back for another attempt at facilitated bonding, and this time when Fiona marched into the other cage, the little black hen (Ruby) decided she had had quite enough of this large whippersnapper’s bad behavior and pecked Fiona squarely between the eyes. Fiona pulled her head back sharply, eyes wide open, eyebrows up (yes, I know they don’t have eyebrows), and with a gasp of astonishment, turned and ran straight to me, her clucking suddenly at a high pitch of alarm and upset. It was hard not to laugh as she behaved like a little kid on the playground who goes running and tattling to mommy because of some perceived offense committed by another little kid against him. Reassurrance and cuddling ensued as we discussed the matter in low warbles and sympathetic coos. I left the cage doors open and went to get another cup of tea. Fiona followed me there and back, outraged and seeking sympathy the whole time for her offended pride. I finished my tea and decided it was now time for the girls to move on to the next step of social bonding and carried all three in my arms out to the garden and deposited them without anyone being confined to the coop. No trouble the rest of the day. Not that they were suddenly fast friends, but boundaries had been drawn by someone other than Fiona and she was respecting them. It was a miracle.

Some people think chickens do not have individual personalities or that they cannot be trained. Ruby, with one precisely placed peck effectively trained Fiona that Fiona is not the top dog, uh, top chicken, in this flock and she had better tow the line and leave little Pearl alone. Every once in awhile, Fiona still gets a little feisty and chases Pearl away from some corn scratch on the ground or just because, but rarely without Ruby seeing it. When Fiona returns to the gathering, Ruby stops what she is doing and chastises Fiona with a single peck, successfully reminding Fiona what behavior is and is not acceptable in this flock.

I truly think I learn more about social interaction and psychology from watching my pets interact than from any class I’ve ever taken. It’s only after I’ve read some book or other where I recognize things I’ve already learned that I nod my head in assent of whatever the author is trying to impart knowledge-wise. After last semester’s combination of my Child Guidance course with my research paper course resulting in my favourite term paper to date, “Educational and Developmental Parallels in Raising Small Children and Puppies,” I now need to begin writing this semester’s Psychology paper which is due next week.

Coincidentally, it’s on operant conditioning. Wonder what life experiences I’m going to draw on for that paper, eh?

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