Squeak with sandwich

A wonderful update from our guest blogger Julie on ‘The Broiler Babies’ – a family of rescued ex-battery hens, all of whom have very distinctive characters!

“Some of our rescued chickens form close bonds with us to the same extent that you would expect of a pet dog or cat. They run up to greet you, even when you don’t have food, follow you round the garden, walking beside you as a pet dog would and even sit quietly with you. What makes this particularly surprising is that their previous experience of human contact has been limited and restricted to rough handling and refusal to respond to their distress.

The first hen to become a friend was called Squeak. Her character was the opposite of the aloof nature of her companion, known as Squawk. Squawk always maintained diffidence in her interactions with humans. She was happy to be a free hen, stretching her wings, living out in a garden and able to make simple choices about her life; what and when to eat, where to drink from, who to spend time with, indoors or outside. All basic freedoms denied to imprisoned birds.

Squeak was different, she was happy to sit on my lap, especially if cake was involved and always wanted to know what we were up to outside. This included chopping firewood for the wood burner, an activity that involved an axe and a chainsaw. Now axes, chainsaws and chickens are not normally a happy combination and we were worried that Squeak would get so close to the action that she would be hurt, so barriers had to be built around the wood chopping area and my sons stood with Squeak between them to enable her to watch safely and with great interest as the pile of logs was cut to size for the stove. Squeak was fascinated by the noise, the transformation of large lumps of wood into stove-sized pieces, everything about the activity was watched by the little hen with rapt attention. She was one of our flock and we would never do anything that could harm her, would we? Her trust towards us was humbling as, like Squawk, she was free to make choices for herself and her choice was to spend time in the company of humans.

Mary Hen was another special lady who had suffered tendon damage to her leg when she was grabbed from her cage. So many birds must be transported and sent to slaughter in great pain from wounds such as broken legs, ripped tendons and other injuries. They are worth so little and the sheds have to be cleared that no-one treats the “spent hens” with any care or respect.

Nothing could be done to improve Mary Hen’s bad leg and she limped severely to the end of her days but despite this she was a happy hen, neat, bright-eyed and smart in her plain brown plumage. Mary’s wings had not been damaged and she used wing assisted running as well as vertical take-off manoeuvring to great effect.

As a consequence of her limited walking capability she lived at night and in bad weather in a small run where everything was on the level and shared this home with whoever was frailest among our other birds. While some hens are bullies who throw their weight around to ensure their place high in the pecking order, Mary never tried to dominate the poorly, aged or fading hens who shared her run. Neither was she pushed around by them, and the new arrival always settled in with Mary in a companionable way. I often wondered if it was fair on her to make her live with so many birds who were not long for this world, but Mary remained bright, active and happy, always greeting me with chirps and chirrups as she fluttered down the garden to meet me whenever I opened the back door. Everything that her human did was fascinating and needed to be watched whether it was gardening, hanging the washing out or cleaning chicken houses. If I just sat and watched the world go by, then Mary sat and watched with me.

The brevity of a rescued chicken’s life even with the best care is heart-breaking and eventually Mary’s time was up when like so many hybrid commercial egg laying hens, she developed a tumour in the region of her reproductive organs. For a while pain relief worked and then even eating became difficult. She was fed treats and warm layers’ mash porridge but I knew that in the next few days I would have to face the decision to call it a day and take her on that last, one-way trip to the vet. The next morning I opened her house and found Mary still in the roosting, indoor part. She looked up at me; I stroked her feathers, talked to her and went off to make her breakfast. Ten minutes later I returned and she was dead. I can’t tell if she waited to say goodbye to me, or if she wanted to see the sunlight one last time as I opened up her house.

Currently three hens live with us as “dog chickens”, Strawberry and Chocolate are always with me if I’m in the garden, sometimes; they seem to teleport and arrive on the other sides of gates and doors without my seeing how they got there. They walk at my feet and are permanently in a state of wonder and curiosity about the world. Both are also quite content to be picked up and will even allow a cuddle. They have been out of their cages for a year now and I hope they will be with me for a lot longer too.

Our third “dog chicken” might not even regard herself as being a hen like the other birds; in fact she seems not to like other birds and prefers human company.

At the far side of the small country town where we live is a free range chicken farm stocked with egg laying hybrid hens. You can see the huge field and the barns as you drive up onto the Cotswold escarpment. The hens are small brown dots in the landscape, it’s hard to imagine them as individuals, but each one has a personality that is unique and special.

On the 1st of May this year one hen decided to leave. She flew over the fence and hedge around the farm and set off for a nearby housing estate where she was found by a kind human who picked her up and took her to the local Animal Hospital – our vets. This was the day when a bird who had become a close companion to my son, died of a heart attack. A few days later the vet asked if we could provide a home for the fugitive hen as two calls to the farm had gone unanswered and so Lady May, as she had been named by the staff at the hospital, came home with us.

The staff at the animal hospital grew quite attached to Lady May in the few days she was there. She was friendly and seemed happy living in a pen designed for recuperating patients but she needed to live a proper chicken life.

For a few days after coming to us Lady May carried on living indoors in our “hospital wing” upstairs in what had once been my home office and is now my son’s computer room. The hen needed to be wormed before she was introduced to the rest of our flock and the vets had also spotted that she had feather mites. Free range hens will pick up worms from the soil in their fields most of which can end up looking pretty barren after flocks of thousands of birds have scratched over them. One of the challenges of keeping chickens on the same ground for years is keeping down the loading of parasites and pathogens to prevent the ground becoming “fowl sick”. The garden is ”poo-picked” daily and the birds’ runs and houses are regularly cleaned out, sanitised and sprayed with products to kill red mite. None of this happens on a large commercial farm and indeed chicken sheds are only sprayed to kill red mites when a batch of hens has been removed for slaughter and before the next batch are moved in.

Red mites are a horrible blood-sucking parasite which multiplies dramatically over the summer months and is the bane of the backyard chicken keeper. One day you check under perches and in nooks and crannies – no mites. The next day you spot a few tiny grey specks – juveniles, but they haven’t fed yet, so you spray a chemical (in my case one that physically damages the waxy outer surface of the mite but contains no toxins). “Got them!”, you think, but you must have missed a few and a couple of days later you find the pulsating red/grey masses under the perches which show the mites have fed on the blood of the sleeping hens. I can feel even one mite crawling on my skin so how much worse is it for a bird to be covered by maybe hundreds of them? Chickens can die of the anaemia caused by a serious red mite infestation and will often be reluctant to roost in a house where the parasites are present in any quantity, but the financial margins on egg production are so small that it’s not worth the commercial producer cleaning and spraying the house even if it means the death of some of the birds.

During her time living in the computer room Lady May enjoyed coming out of her pen and sitting on a chair next to my son Rory, while he played games, read social media pages etc. He also gave her a last name of “Ginger” after the hen heroine of the film “Chicken Run” who masterminds the escape from the farm. Little did he realise how appropriate this name would be….

We tried to introduce Lady May Ginger into the flock starting with a quiet group of six hens. She was placed in their house at night and in the morning all seemed well and peaceful, however I like to give new arrivals plenty of space while positions in the pecking order are established, so in the afternoon everyone was let out into the garden. It was here that Lady May first met some of the more aggressive hens, probably also Mr Mushroom, our cockerel and with disastrous results, the pond. My son checked on the birds after an hour or so and found a battered and soaked Lady May cowering under shelter in the garden. She had been beaten up and the lost feathers and scratches on her back told of an unfortunate meeting with Mr Mushroom before she must have run into the pond. She would never have encountered a pond before and probably didn’t realise the weed covered surface would not hold her weight. It’s easy to be wise with hindsight and we shouldn’t have let her meet the more boisterous members of the flock so soon, but with all the birds deserving of space and freedom it’s hard to keep them in the runs in fair weather.

Poor Lady May Ginger, the shock caused her to become egg bound with an egg stuck part way own her oviduct. And so another overnight visit to the animal hospital with successful treatment for her wounds and a return to life in the hospital wing afterwards. We couldn’t keep her inside indefinitely so decided to let her out in the front garden when we were at home to keep an eye on her but away from the back and the other chickens. For a while this arrangement worked and Lady May would even come over to you when you called her and follow you back into the house walking just behind her human. One sunny day Rory was home from college and decided to let Lady May out in her front garden, she had always seemed content to explore the bushes and hedge here but we knew that if she was determined no hedge or fence would hold her in. As we had done before, Rory left her for a while. About half an hour later he checked on her and couldn’t find her. By the time I returned from work he was frantic, having searched neighbouring gardens and looked up and down the road. Guiltily he rang the animal hospital in case anyone should find her and hand her in again, but with no luck.

Later that evening we sorrowfully made “Missing” posters with our favourite photo of Lady May and the offer of a reward even for information about her fate. We posted them around the area and tried not to give up hope.

The next day there was still no news. I had asked local dog walkers to look out for our lost hen but the only news I received made my heart sink; on the same afternoon a nearby resident had lost her small terrier from her front garden as well. With the publicity given to the growth in dog fighting and knowing how pets are taken to train fighting dogs, things looked bleak. By evening sadness was settling over us, so many “what ifs”, and always the thought of how uncaring the world can be to the small and defenceless. In this state I was on my way to the hospital to collect a regular prescription for some of our birds and by force of habit I took the car. As I passed one of our posters I saw a man stop, take out his phone and appear to note down the information. I abandoned the car and dashed over to him. Yes, he had seen the hen and he could take me to her if she hadn’t wandered off. I felt elation and anticipation tinged with trepidation, could she still be alive and well?

The kind human was one of a pair of builders working on a house about 500m away from ours. I followed him down the road, a turning off ours and down the line of houses on the side of the valley. As we approached I could see her, luxuriating in the pile of builders’ sand, the biggest chicken dust bath you ever saw. I called to her, “Lady May!” and she looked up completely unperturbed. As I cuddled the runaway I was told how she had arrived the previous afternoon, settled herself down and been given water and sandwich crusts by the men. They had been concerned for her safety when she made no effort to return home at the end of the day as they concluded she was so friendly that she must be a pet hen. One of them kept bantams and decided that if the little brown hen was still there the next day he would take her home to keep her safe with his birds. Lady May would have landed on her feet again, but we would never have known that the fates had once again smiled on her.

I thanked the hen rescuers profusely and offered them the reward, which they refused. Some humans you see, are kind, and Lady May has the knack of finding the right ones.

The return of the prodigal hen was greeting with as much rejoicing as the Biblical original. Never mind that when I placed her on the front seat of the car Lady May covered it with sand from her enormous dust bath; she was cuddled and crooned over and plied with grapes on her return. Now of course, we realise she gets bored left on her own in the garden. She lives in Mary Hen’s old run in the front garden and comes out to enjoy freedom while someone is there to talk to her. If you take your lunch out and sit on the chicken house Lady May will hop up to join you and probably sample the food too. If you go back into the house, leave the door open as Lady May will be right behind you and want to spend time in the humans’ roost space and if you sit on a sofa and pat the space beside you expect a hen to hop up and even sit on your lap.

Lay May Ginger lived the first part of her life as one of up to 10,000 hens in a free range flock. She has a quirky, intelligent personality, but then every one of those hens was an individual too. Our “Missing hen” posters referred to a “pet hen” because it’s only pet hens that have value in our society. The kind builders noticed Lady May’s friendly nature and concluded she was a pet hen too, and so she became a “somebody” not a “something”. Every one of the hens in that huge flock was a “somebody” too; the difference is that humans never noticed them.”

If you would like to find out more about rescuing hens destined for slaughter, please go to www.bhwt.org.uk