Some months ago I had one of my feather-brained ideas. I wanted chickens. In the garden. In my terraced house in Birmingham. Madness, and pretty much dismissed as such by The Bloke. Then we went to Gardeners’ World. And guess what, we saw the Eglu, suitable for gardens, even those attached to terraced houses in cities, and suddenly, it was The Bloke’s feather-brained idea!
I asked a few questions of my chicken-mad friend and soon decided that an Eglu wasn’t the way forward: I’d get more for my money looking for a wooden coop and buying the hens locally. So, the search for a coop began (cue hours of ebay-ing) and we purchased a cute little house for three girlies.
My chicken mad friend had already found me a local breeder, namely Ollie’s Chirpy Chickens near Solihull, so we got in touch and arranged to go over and have a look. I was so excited on Saturday morning that I could probably have laid an egg myself, and it didn’t take us long to choose three chooks. Our first choice was Emily, a tiny little white hen. Then we picked out Anne, a lovely little red ranger, reminiscent of the hen in the story who sensibly gathered the grains of wheat to make bread. Our third and final choice was Charlotte, a fabulous Cou Cou or Cuckoo Maran, who was already laying. The girls had their wings clipped and we bundled them into a cardboard box to bring them home.
It didn’t take long for the girls to explore their new home and to start tucking into pellets and treats, and I was delighted. It soon became apparent, however, that the fight to establish pecking order wasn’t going to be easy. Emily started to hide in corners and to dash into the coop whenever Charlotte was near her (or out of the coop if Charlotte followed her in there, which she did). We knew this would take some time (because I’d researched carefully before I got the girls) but this was worrying me a little, and I vowed to watch them carefully.
Anyway, we tucked them up for bed on Saturday night (checking and double checking to make sure they were safe from foxes) and left them to their business. I was a little surprised to be woken by loud crowing at dawn on Sunday, as I’d expected hens to be quieter (we’ve holidayed in places where there’s been hens, and we’d never heard the like of this.) When we went to check on them poor little Emily looked like she’d been sat on; she was bundled up against the side of the coop and wouldn’t come out. Little did we know she’d started to experience some very unpleasant bullying. Her way of dealing with this was to escape from the coop via the nesting box, leading to a 15 minute game of hide-and seek while The Bloke and I learned to employ what the mad chicken lady calls ‘stealth chicken catching tactics’. She (Emily, not my friend) seemed to enjoy her time in the garden, grubbing for titbits in the veg plot and scritching at the lawn, but we weren’t ready for her to be completely free-range yet so we eventually cornered her and got her back in the coop, where she immediately retreated to a corner to hide.
The perpetrator of the bullying was obviously Charlotte (whose egg-laying skills were now proven by the tiny little dark-brown speckled egg in the fridge and a second egg, larger than the first, which I had eaten for breakfast) but when she wasn’t nesting she was mercilessly pursuing Emily and pecking at her and pulling feathers. To cut a long story short by the end of our second full morning with the birds little Em had a couple of horrible bloody cuts on her head and was utterly terrified. We had to make some decisions, and fast. Once chickens draw blood it is not unusual for them to kill the injured bird, so (following advice from a chicken keeping forum) I disguised the cuts with Sudocrem, gave Emily some cuddles and some treats and put her back into the coop, separating her from Charlotte by locking the bully in the run. During the course of the afternoon we had some swap-overs so Emily could feed and Charlotte could nest.
By this point I had three options. I could let the fight for pecking order continue (and risk Emily’s life in the process); I could separate the birds (by taking out either Emily, so she had time to recover, or Charlotte, so she could be returned to the coop a few days later with her status as ‘top hen’ gone) or I could take Charlotte back to the breeder and bring home a milder-mannered hen. The third option didn’t appeal and I wanted to see this through without further injury to the little white hen, so I acquired a rabbit hutch to put Charlotte in until night fell. When the hutch arrived, however, it was too big to get into the garden or through the house, so I abandoned it on the drive and returned to supervise the birds until it got dark. Eventually, they quietly took themselves into the coop for the night and as I locked them in I peered inside to see little Emily snuggled up beside Anne, the ranger, and Big Bad Charlotte in a nesting box on her own.
I sat for a while in the garden just enjoying the quiet, but was perturbed to overhear a conversation from the garden behind ours. The voices from behind me revealed that they’d heard the chickens very early that morning and the previous morning. I couldn’t make up my mind if they were upset or just interested, but I suspect it was a little of both. I mentioned this to The Bloke when he returned from his evening shift at work, and I decided I’d set my alarm for 6am so I would be ready AS SOON as they started up to go and let them out and quieten them down.
I didn’t sleep well and woke several times through the night, but duly shot down the stairs when I heard them calling just after 6. I opened the coop to let the chickens into the run and Anne and Charlotte came out immediately, but no Emily. Heart racing, I opened up the coop, and the poor little thing was bundled into a corner, not wanting to move. I left her in peace for a while while Charlotte ate and drank, then supervised once again the changeover, moving the larger hen into the coop so she could nest while Emily fed. I left them like that while I went to discuss the situation with The Bloke, and we decided there was no other solution, Charlotte would have to go. She was a noisy bully and her aggravation of Emily had gone beyond the establishing of pecking order, and this didn’t look like it was going to improve.
It was with a heavy heart that I made the phone call to arrange this, and I felt I’d fallen at the first hurdle, but it was a relief to hand Charlotte over. She was put into a big pen with about 50 other chickens, and in her arrogance she decided she could take on the rooster. It wasn’t long before he’d given her a serious telling off and a big taste of her own medicine, and Simon, the breeder, assured me that she’d be rehomed and would probably settle perfectly well.
We then selected Charlotte II (who will from this point forward be known just as Charlotte); another ranger, slightly smaller and younger than Anne, and a little lighter in colour. She was perfectly happy to nestle in my arms whilst we chatted to Simon (although she did quite like the look of my jewellery and had a good peck at the diamonds in my engagement ring). Good byes were said, and Simon gave our new little hen some words of advice, and we brought her home to be reintroduced to her sisters.
We were delighted that almost immediately the three hens were scritching for treats, eating from the feeder and generally enjoying some girly chit-chat together. So far, not a sign of any pecking order fights, and Emily seems to regaining her confidence (although she does look a sorry sight with the feathers on her head all plastered down with Sudocrem). Charlotte is quietly and sweetly pottering round the run, and Anne, the unsung star of the last few days, is teaching the others, by excellent example, how to beg for treats.
What we’re hoping for now is continued peace and harmony, from the girls and from the neighbours. We don’t live in a quiet neighbourhood: it’s highly populated and there’s always music playing, a fight going on, a magpie squawking, a lawnmower going… but people are unused to the sound of chickens and I just hope the bribe of a few fresh eggs will win them round!
And before I finish, I would like to say massive thank-yous to Simon and Dawn at Ollie’s Chirpy Chickens, for their patience and advice, and to Caroline, the mad chicken lady (who just happens to make beautiful pretty things as well as being a brilliant pusher of chickens!)