Thursday, 22 September 2011

Life in the chicken run

She’s no spring chicken • he’s a cocky as a rooster • maintaining the pecking order • he’s hen-pecked • it’s chicken feed • she’s like a mother hen • don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched • there can be only one rooster in a henhouse • her feathers have been ruffled • he’s preening • she’s broody…

Chicken metaphors for human behaviour are legion, and for anyone who’s spent an afternoon on my verandah, watching the chickens go busily about their business, there’s no doubt why. Even ‘melded’ flocks like the one that quarters my garden all day (only Goldie and the Things – about which more shortly – are mine; the others are loyal daily visitors from an adjoining property) do establish and maintain a pecking order; the roosters are indeed cocky and, with the current three (ie, two too many), there are often spats; the hens who hatch out chicks are almost always amazingly good mothers; and when a hen gets upset, you can literally see her feathers ruffling.

Johann (who also has chickens) describes my affinity with my flock as ‘unnatural’ and perhaps it is. (Okay, it definitely is. Sit down in the back there.) So there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from me on Sunday when my dogs, inexplicably, killed one of the Things (recently renamed Beatrice), who’d hatched out a tiny baby just four days before.

Once I’d got over my initial shock, I had to go through the tedious process of the five stages of grief (somewhat modified for this occurrence).

1. Denial was immediate: on finding Beatrice’s corpse, I wandered about muttering, ‘I can’t believe it.’

2. Utter and complete emotional collapse followed. On realising that Beatrice was indeed dead, and that my dogs had indeed committed the murder, I stood in the garden, my head on my daughter’s shoulder, and sobbed like toddler.

3. Anger swiftly brought up the rear: ‘I’ll kill those fucking dogs!’ (The fucking dogs fled to the relative safety of the daybed on the verandah, where they lay in uncharacteristic silence, looking suitably forlorn and guilty, all day.)

4. Bargaining came next: ‘If the chick has survived, Beatrice won’t have died for nothing. Please let the chick have survived. Please. If it has, I promise to…’ (Oh, come on, I’m not going to tell you what I promised. Especially since the chick did survive.)

5. Depression set in at about 2 the next morning, when I was changing the chick’s hotwater bottle for the third time that night (it was billeted in a large box in the bathroom, on a hotwater bottle and a bed of straw, under a teddy-bear); it deepened around 4am, when I realised I’d have to get through a busy working Monday on about four hours of sleep.

(I’ve left out Acceptance until it happens. It hasn’t yet.)

Coming home on a chilly, windy Monday evening to a four-day-old chick with freezing feet and a lot of complaints (where was its mother? why was it being expected to eat grownup seed at its tender age? why had it been in this box all day? did I really think it was going to go through another night of straw/waterbottle/teddy?), which it expressed in a neverending series of ear-splitting PEEP-PEEPs, I realised I was ill-equipped to hand-rear a newly hatched chicken. Johann came to the rescue when an emergency neighbourhood poll revealed that a nearby hen had a six-week-old chick – maybe, just maybe, she’d foster the orphan.

I drove to Riebeek West with the baby in my shirt. It wriggled without cease, mercilessly scratching my chest with its little claws, and it wasn’t happy until its tiny head was peeping out of my cleavage and surveying all in a preternaturally bossy, mother-hen way (so it’s probably a female), which made wearing a seatbelt impossible (I kept a sharp eye out for Officer Erasmus).

The gardener at Warrick’s place, the site of the possible foster mom, told us unequivocally that the hen would peck the chicken to death, and who were we to disbelieve him? But the option (hand-rearing) wasn’t really a possibility, so we thought we’d give it a try.

And ag shame!! That mother hen – a lovely little creature with pristine white plumage and a complicated hairstyle – examined the baby with typical mother-hen curiosity, then, seeing a need and realising she could fill it, scooted that unhappy little chick under her matronly breast. Her six-week-old natural baby (a carbon copy of its mom) gave up its prime spot and instead crept graciously under a wing.

Shedding a discreet tear of gratitude, I turned to Johann: ‘See? A mother hen! She just knows!’ Johann scoffed, ‘Oh please! She’s a chicken! She’s so brainless that she just thinks she had twins but didn’t notice until now!’

I’ve since had reports that the chicken and mother have both adapted beautifully and are very happy together. (Beatrice would be glad.) I have, of course, claimed visitation rights, and am looking forward to seeing how the koekoek chick, who’s going to grow into a black-and-gold-flecked giant, will relate to its tiny snowy bantam mom as time goes by.

* There’s one other chicken metaphor that I love: ‘roosters crow, hens deliver’. It’s so true! (Although I’m passing no comment on what this says as a metaphor for the human condition.) And roosters don’t only crow at daybreak – they often start their noisiness long before sunrise, at 3am or so (ask any city person who’s visited me in the country ‘for some peace and quiet’).

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