The pecking order is the governing system of hens. I suppose it has parallels in our society: the general sits atop a pecking order, then the colonel, the captain… the private at the bottom. The five star general in our flock is Flannery, a black Australorp. She is a gentle, quiet hen with a dainty trot. In size Flannery is average, and several larger hens are below her in the pecking order. She lets people pet her, but she doesn’t seek attention like Penfold and Quigley. All in all, Flannery is peaceful and unassuming.
Because Flannery sits atop the pecking order, others hen leave her alone—at least most of the time. On one occasion Charlie, our grumpiest hen, mistakenly pecked Flannery on the roost as everyone settled in for night. Flannery unleashed a fury of drop kicks and pecks that sent poor Charlie reeling and squawking.
But only a handful of times have I ever seen Flannery even lightly peck anyone. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t abuse her power. When we introduced the little chickens to the flock, she was the first to befriend them. And I don’t think Flannery leads the flock that I can tell. Usually Penfold, who is rather low on the pecking order, takes the flock one direction or the other, scouting new patches of grass and weeds with her rambunctious nature. Flannery seems fine to follow.
So although Flannery is head hen, she isn’t a tyrant. She walks softly but carries a big stick.
The chicken pasture has been a lively place this summer. Since the Littles have moved in to the big coop each day has been full of squabbles, hilarity, and new traditions for the Pleasant Hill flock.
Penfold is still a little devil, I often call her my Captain of Badness. She is frequently found doing everything she shouldn’t – pulling feathers out of the Littles, getting out of the fence, and generally leading the other hen’s astray. I don’t care, I love her anyway – she could probably peck out one of my eyes and I’d still see no wrong in her.
Quigley, Zillah, and Danger – or the Littles as we call them – are still as tight as ever. Danger is the head of their little tribe and Quigley just wants to be everyone’s friend, while Zillah likes to spend time with Andy.
Two of our younger cousins like to come by to see the Littles on the weekends. Danger is Katie’s favorite, and I am absolutely perplexed at how a five year old can catch that chicken faster than I can!
All of the big girls are moulting and they look like a ratty band of box car children. Charlie is 500 times more grouchy than usual – which is really saying something since she is the ‘ take no prisoners ‘ type.
If you even look at her she growls in protest. A few nights back Andy was, apparently, sitting on the roosting spot that she wanted – so she just pecked him in the head and face until he finally gave up and moved away.
Poor Andy. He tries so hard to be a good protector for his little harem of biddy’s. Lately he’s started this new tradition of carving out some ‘personal time’ for himself each day.
So, what exactly does ‘personal time’ look like for a rooster? Well, in Andy’s case, he has his special corner of the hen house under the nesting boxes. He crawls in, makes a nest, faces the corner, and stays crammed in that tiny space for about 15 minutes…probably pretending that the rest of the world does not exist.
As the day draws to a close, everyone heads back the the hen house – ready to squabble and growl over who is going to sleep next to whom on the roost. Andy stands like a bastion on the hill, making sure that everyone gets inside – it’s time to shut the place down for the night.
As the sun sets, the hen house gets quiet. Occasionally you hear one of Penfold or Quigley’s long trills or Charlie growling over someone sleeping too close by….and Stephen and I trek back up to the house ready to call it a day ourselves.
With the weekends jam packed, we spend most afternoons working on various things around the farm. New plants, new chickens, new bees, new paint (which still needs to go on the old house)…..the list of chores is never ending, but we still find time to have a little bit of fun.
I love days where I get to spend a little extra time on the farm, before the other responsibilities of my day start knocking on my door. This morning was particularly nice, as the horrid wind had stopped, the sun had come out, and Mini was in one of his rare good moods. Since it was so nice….I decided to share.
This is what mornings on the farm are like – chickens, eggs, poop, hay, dirt. All the nice things that, despite being dusty and outside, make you feel real clean.
As a chicken keeper, I’ve learned chickens don’t handle change that well. It’s one of those things, like flock integration, that just takes time.
Recently we’ve had a lot of rain, resulting in a soppy chicken pasture and a soppy chicken run. In an effort to remedy this pile of muck, I thought a change in the run flooring was in order.
Well, over the weekend (while planting 3,000 trees ….with lots of family help….at Stephen’s grandmother’s home in the sandhills of SC) I came up with a genius idea that I knew would be perfect. We would simply take several boxes of sand back home with us!
“The chickens will be so excited!” I thought, “They love scratching around in Stephen’s compost pile…..sand has got to be way better than that.”
So in went the sand, in one big, happy pile…..just waiting for chickens to come scratch, wallow, and play. The chickens approached and stopped at the door. No one went any further. They backed away wary. Not even their favorite treat could bring them close to the pile of sand.
The chickens were terrified. The floor was different. The poor chickens didn’t know what to do!
Eventually nighttime arrived, and none of the chickens could bring themselves to walk past the pile of sand to get in the coop. Stephen and I caved, and we walked down to the coop and helped each chicken past the sand and into the house where they sleepily went to roost.
My guess is that they’ll have to figure out what to do with the sand tomorrow. Like people, chickens apparently need time to adjust to big changes, sand being a “big change” in the eyes of chickens.
Since dispatching Twister, we are attempting round two of integrating the new girls, Pearla and Josephine, into the original flock. To say the first attempt was a disaster is a major understatement. Integration Round 1 ended with the so-called “earlobe incident.”
One bright, shiny day….with all of the chickens (old and new) in the coop….two roosters became hypnotized by the astounding wiles of one new Josephine. With her exotic plumage and lovely, Cleveland County Fair “ID tag”…..well….it was simply a combination that spelled disaster. At the end of the scuffle that ensued, poor Josephine was left with the majority of her earlobe torn off and two VERY guilty roosters still glaring death at one another.
My solution to this problem was to simply remove Josephine and Pearla from the flock, allow a little healing time from the trauma, and just try again later. We are now in that “trying again” phase.
Round two has resulted in a few hen scuffles…..mainly involving my sweet, little Penfold….and boy can that little girl FIGHT! She ninja drop kicks like a rooster – growling and all! I think she’s been taking “wax on, wax off” lessons from Mini on the sly.
Pen holds nothing back, determined she will NOT be at the bottom of the totem pole this time. Her Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moves have Pearla utterly terrified — now, all Pen has to do is glance in Pearla’s direction and off Pearla runs.
All in all, it has been easier the second time around. There has been no blood involved…. and we can all be thankful for that.
For years, Natalie’s Poppaw has kept horses, and occasionally he’ll rotate them into the chicken pasture. Chickens are entertaining creatures in their own right, but add horses to the mix and you’re guaranteed humorous antics.
Natalie’s Poppaw can tell the story of a stray hen that “took up” in the barn and made a habit of riding around on horseback, Napoleon style. Apparently, it was a win-win situation: the hen pecked free meals off the horse, and the horse got his back scratched and relief from flies.
So far, our chickens and the horses get on well together, too. The usually overprotective roosters don’t appear the least bit threatened by their much larger companions, even though the horses sometimes nudge the chickens around the pasture with their noses, as if dribbling soccer balls. Sometimes the chickens walk back and forth beneath the horses, or stand behind them and pull their tails. All in all, the chickens and horses seem to be good pals.
Perhaps the funniest episode between the chickens and horses occurred when Goldseeker got into the coop. At the time, it wasn’t funny at all, but looking back on it, Natalie and I laugh. Instead of wings and wattles, Goldseeker has hooves, a mane, and a very good sense of smell. One day, this sense of smell led him to the chicken coop.
The coop is rectangular, 6 feet wide by 10 feet long. A hen house is on one end of the coop and a door, 2 feet wide by six feet tall, is on the opposite end of the run. We often leave the door open so chickens can go in and out to get food and water when free-ranging in the pasture–never dreaming that any of the horses could actually FIT through the door itself. Evidently, Goldseeker smelling the chicken feed just squeezed right in and made himself at home.
Natalie and I had a horrible time getting him out of the coop. Since his rump was blocking the door, I had to squeeze between Goldseeker’s backside and the door frame to get into the run. Thankfully, he didn’t kick me. Once in there, I had little idea what to do. First, I tried turning him around, but he wasn’t cooperating and there wasn’t enough room anyway. Then, I tried removing the feeder. Goldseeker was batting the hanging feeder around like a piñata to spill the feed, which he then licked up off the ground. Natalie brought some hay to the coop to lure him out, but Goldseeker was determined to lick up every single pellet.
So, for what seemed like ages, three chickens, myself included, were trapped in a coop with a horse oblivious to anything but chicken feed. After he had eaten his fill, Goldseeker simply put himself in reverse and moonwalked out of the chicken coop.
In the end, I don’t know who was more thankful to get out of that coop–the chickens or myself! I know for a fact it wasn’t Goldseeker.
Over the years, our kitchen has produced great fried chicken, or so we’ve been told. We weren’t around to taste it, but our Poppow was. His job was to cull a poor-laying hen or extra rooster from the flock then deliver it to his mother. She scalded the chicken, plucked it, cleaned it, and cooked it. By all accounts, the fried chicken left a lasting impression on the memories and taste buds of those who ate it. Though this great taste was probably attributed to the cook’s skill, we shouldn’t neglect the chicken. According to American Livestock Breed Conservancy, many heritage breeds of chickens, like those formerly common around barnyards, are more flavorful, though slower-growing, than the broilers found in modern poultry houses.
This past weekend, Natalie and I processed our first chicken, testing this theory with one of our New Hampshire Reds (NHR), a popular heritage breed developed for both meat and egg production. Unfortunately, New Hampshire Red roosters have a reputation for aggression. Ours was no exception; we couldn’t turn our back on him without being attacked. Our other two roosters, a golden comet and a white Langshan, are peaceful enough toward us, yet protective of the hens, so they were spared for breeding. Alas, our NHR wasn’t.
Even though this rooster had been terrorizing us, killing him wasn’t pleasant. I’ve gained a new respect for farmers who raise their animals humanely, yet process them for food when the time comes. Killing an animal you’ve raised, whose coop door you’ve opened every morning and closed every night, to whom you’ve brought food and water daily, isn’t easy. But as hard as we knew it would be, we felt we should do it rather than some stranger from the sale barn.
We decided night would be the best time. Although it was drizzling, windy, and cold, we wanted it over with. We removed the sleeping chicken from the coop and proceeded as quickly as possible. We used a killing cone, in this case just an orange traffic cone turned upside down, in which the chicken was placed with his head sticking out the small end. The cone kept the chicken still and prevented him from flapping. I cut the jugular vein on the side of his neck. In about a minute, though it that seemed like ages, his eyes closed for good.
Thinking back about that night, I still feel a little repulsed. Although I believe it was the best thing to do for our flock, killing the chicken was an unpleasant experience.
Nevertheless, my wife and I went ahead and plucked and cleaned him. In our minds, to eat him was to honor him. This part took a while, but eventually we ended up with a roasting bird of 4.3 lbs. The next day, Natalie roasted him whole in the oven. Since the bird was about 6 months old, compared to 6 weeks old for modern broilers, his texture was slightly stringy, but his taste was superb. Natalie soaked the bird in a saltwater brine for about two hours, then buttered and seasoned it with salt and pepper. Then, into the oven, it went.
Two hours later, we were eating chicken, a free-range chicken, a chicken we had raised from a day-old chick. Of course, we tried not to think about this. We ate him, thankful to be rid of a mean rooster, yet thankful for him, as well. People who say chickens are, well, just chickens have never interacted much with them. Yes, they’re livestock, but they’re smart animals, whose personalities, for lack of better of word, become apparent as you raise them. Some, unfortunately, turn out meaner than others.
About a year ago, Stephen and I got the bug in our brains that we would probably like raising chickens. All I know is that somewhere along the road I went from “I’m not doing anything with them except handling the eggs” to “if anything happens to my Penfold I’m going to be furious!”
One thing that both Stephen and I have learned about chickens is that each one brings its own unique and colorful personality to the table (a figurative table, not the dinner table). We still marvel at all the different little habits, buddy systems, and intelligence floating around our flock.
Mini is our head rooster–his personality is definitely a cross between an angry Mr. Myagi and a grumpy Mr. Wilson. Mini hates mornings, nonsense, and loud noises. Despite his grumbles with life, he does a great job making sure his ladies are well fed, safe, and happy.
Flannery, Mini’s lady of choice, is our head hen. She is the epitome of daintiness and calmness, but she gets into her fair share of trouble when hanging out with Penfold.
Andy is our special little buddy. He and Mini are best friends and can almost always be found together. Andy has never progressed beyond the maturity of a 16-year-old boy–Girls, Girls, Food, Girls, Food, Food, Sleep, Girls – if you catch my drift. He’s our morning crower and afternoon stoner….at the end of the day, he’s a great rooster.
Penfold is my special little devil. Despite being the smallest of our bunch, she brings a whole new meaning to the term “hell on wheels.” She loves snuggling, and we spend quite a bit of time together……when she’s not playing in the woods, flogging the new girls, or leading the others in a quest to do something they really shouldn’t.
Charlie is our quiet girl. She’s dependable, consistent, and easy going–but she’s certainly not boring! Charlie possesses the unique ability to remain completely hidden in plain site–it’s like her father was chicken Houdini.
Pearla and Josephine are the newest additions to our flock. They are quite a unique pair. Jo is extremely smart, enjoys exploring almost as much as Penfold, and hates Andy. Pearla is an innocent baby–wildly curious about everything, she spends most of her time in a little dream-like Pearla cloud. Pearls and Jo are very attached and dependent on one another and hate being separated. They give Mini and Andy a run for their money in the Best Friends department.
For us, the chickens are great, and we look forward to the hilarity and drama of each new chicken day. Our tribe has good days and bad, but at the end of it all, they are a family…..and it’s sort of like having Sister Wives meets The Young and the Restless playing out in your backyard everyday….you have no idea how much fun it is.