In the past I’d always interacted briefly with other people’s chickens. I’d never lived with chickens nor had ever known any personally or up close for any length of time. I’d always thrived on other people’s stories of how individual and amazing chickens are.
In January 2013, I was given the opportunity to raise nine rescued one day old broiler (meat) chickens. They lived in my bedroom with me for the first four weeks, to be kept cool in the hot weather and warm at night under a heat lamp.
They were adorable little balls of fluff who from that very young age, had a vested interest in being alive.
They explored their pen, pecked the eyes out of the toy bears I gave them to cuddle up against, huddled together under a rope mophead, as though it was their mum’s wings and coveted the food dish. They loved sleeping together on heat pads and under their heat lamp.
Four of them were easily identifiable by distinct markings, so they were named first. Blackie, Spot, Trouble and Tiny
Eventually I named the rest Big Wing, Gusto, Heckyl, Jeckyl and Gigi.
They were such happy and inquisitive little beings, always interested in everything going on around them.
One day I caught Gigi looking at herself in one of the dog’s upturned toys, which had a mirror on the base. She sat there for some time, no doubt thinking how pretty she was.
On warm days I’d load them all into a cat carrier and take them to the outside run that was set up for them. They explored their surroundings extensively, looking at sticks and bugs, and sometimes just all sitting together looking out at the garden, watching life around them.
Oh no, not the vet!
At about one week, Tiny, named because he wasn’t growing like the others, had a trip to the vet to get checked out. The vet, who said she’d never treated a chicken as young as Tiny, and didn’t really know all that much about them, suggested putting him to sleep, as he seemed to have a congenital disorder in his stomach. We took no notice of her and administered some antibiotics and lots of TLC and Tiny started to flourish and grow. He is now a feisty, happy boy.
To this day though, he doesn’t like human contact and I wonder if it was because he remembers being poked and prodded at a young age, and also having medicine syringed down his throat for five days.
Gigi is a special needs girl, as she doesn’t have strong enough bones to allow her to walk and run properly. She also had a trip to the vet at about 3 weeks old and had to be given medicine for 10 days, and isn’t so keen on being picked up or touched either, whereas Spot and Jekyl love a good scratch under the chin and a cuddle.
They say that dog’s neuroses and fears stem from the first three to four weeks of their lives, I wonder if chickens are just the same?
Now, where did I put that stick?
One day, when they were about 2 ½ weeks old, they were in the outside pen, and I had to pick up one of the girls to check her weight. She had a bit of a stick in her beak that she’d been squabbling over with another chicken, and when I picked her up, she dropped it down between my feet. I quickly weighed her and put her back down on the floor, and she ran off, then stopped suddenly, as though she remembered something and dashed back and picked up the piece of stick she’d dropped and took off again. This really displays an intelligent thought process and memory.
Just like the Waltons
I’d get home from work each night about 11 o’clock and the chicks would all cheep and chirp as I’d get into bed. Some of them would climb up on a box and peer at me sitting up in bed, wondering what I was up to. They would reach a crescendo before finally all settling down for the night. Sometimes one would then start again and I would often have to ask them all to please keep it down so I could get to sleep.
I didn’t want to plunge them into darkness, so I slept with a string of lantern lights on every night. Plus it meant that I could sit up and just look at them whenever I wanted to. I loved hearing them all make contented little sounds as we all nodded off for the night, me, our two dogs, the cat and the nine chicks.
A big step
They graduated to a permanent outside pen at four weeks old, when they were almost fully feathered. The first night they stayed out there on their own, I was so worried about them, I got up and checked on them about three times. I spent a lot of time just watching them grow, as being bred for meat, they have been bred to grow quickly. They almost grew feathers before my eyes.
At five weeks old, four girls Gusto, Blackie, Big Wing and Hekyl went to live at their new “forever” home. The next week, one of the boys, Trouble (now called Fabio), went to his wonderful new home too. While it was lovely having all nine here to watch and interact with, having Gigi and the three boys, Tiny, Jekyl and Spot left, meant I could really concentrate on getting to know them well.
A hot summer!
On hot days I spread out wet towels on the concrete to keep them cool and they would go mad “dust-bathing” on the towel until they were in just the right spot.
Tiny loves water running over his feet or standing in the water tray to cool off. They all love watching water run down the path, and love to pick things out as they float by.
Come and get it!
Watermelon is their favourite food, and I just have to yell out “’Watermelonnnnnn” from the shed door, and they’ll come running. Our youngest dog Ivy, has suddenly decided she likes watermelon too, as she is jealous of the chickens I think. The only fruit she’ll ever eat normally is apples. Jekyl has been known to jump up and pluck the chunk of watermelon from my hand if he thinks I’m too slow at putting it down for them. They hang around the shed door, as they know that their food comes out of there. If they think they should be fed outside of their meal time, they will venture into the shed and sit there until I come out, then they’ll make a racket and follow me until I give in and give them a snack. Jekyl likes to talk a lot in a little chuckling voice.
Meal time is funny to watch. When I let them out of their hutch in the morning, they chase me to the shed and storm in surrounding me while I get their breakfast ready. Tiny then stands in the food tray and scratches it up, Spot lays down and hangs his head over the side to eat. Gigi is a lady and has very good table manners.
Jekyl will eat seed for a while, then a bit of watermelon, then he’ll walk away and sit down with his back to everyone. Then he will suddenly get up like he’s remembered he was doing something important and go back and repeat the whole thing over about four times until he’s finished eating.
My partner, Chris, is their evening carer and builder of great chook sheds. He has built them a little palace that they sleep in at night. They are free to roam around the garden until bedtime. When Chris gets home from work, his initial routine was to walk the dogs, then feed the dogs, cat and chooks in that order. Well the chooks weren’t having any of that and after about one week of this, they’d storm the back step demanding he feed them first. He of course gave in and they now are top of the list.
Video: Dinner time for the chooks
They are not afraid of our dogs and cat, and often I go out and the cat is lying in the middle with the four chooks laying around him. Tiny likes to walk under Ivy’s belly. They all seem to have worked out a mutual respect for each other.
The other day I went out into the garden and I could only see Gigi, Jekyl and Tiny. Our yard is extremely secure and there is no way that they could get out. But I couldn’t see Spot anywhere and my heart started to race. I ran down the back calling Spot, Spot, where are you? And he came running up to me as if to say, I’m here silly!! He was sleeping under the cool of a fern. Phew! I’m glad he knows his name!
When it gets near bedtime, Tiny is usually first to go in the hutch. When no one follows him, he’ll go back to the group and try and get them interested in following him. When he realises no one is taking any notice of him, after about 3 attempts he gives up and sits out with the others. When he does this, one of them decides it IS time to go to bed and they all toddle off. I’m sure they do it to annoy Tiny and have a laugh at his expense.
Some days they like to come back up near the house and try and get into the hutch they spent a couple of weeks in, before they were big enough to roam free. They hang out at the door until I open it and then hop in and sit for a while, to reminisce I guess! Back to their old stomping ground. Then they’ll all hop out and go back to the garden.
If Chris is working in the shed, the chickens will usually follow him and sit around watching whatever he’s doing. When he was out there playing his guitar last week, Jekyl was making howling motions like a dog!! Chris couldn’t hear if he was making any noise though, as Jekyl stopped every time Chris stopped playing.
We will miss the boys
The chickens give us so much pleasure and are a joy to have living with us. As three of them are boys who will soon be roosters, they will have to go to their new homes, as roosters are not permitted in the suburbs. That is going to be a very sad day and I’m going to miss them terribly. I guess it just means we’ll have to get some more girls to keep Gigi (and me) company!
Having now lived with and experienced life with chickens, I can’t imagine not having them as companions.
Do you have any thoughts? We’d love your feedback or some news of your own experiences in the comments section below.
This post first appeared on terrastendo.net on 29th March, 2013.