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Farm Notes – In Defence of chickens

The center of our home economy is our flock of chickens. We have eight hens and a rooster. They include black Minorcas, Salmon Favoerolles and Buff Orpingtons. When free-ranging, they look like a bed of flowers on the move—reds and ochres and hues of blonde.
In summer, each of our hens produces one egg per day, no matter what the circumstances. This is remarkable, because circumstances around here are rarely conducive to egg-laying. Too many hawks and dogs. Soon after we got the flock a hawk tried taking one of the hens. I came down the drive and heard a terrified Bock! Bock! Bock!—that being the sound a chicken makes when being torn apart. The hawk, a Cooper’s, was atop the hen, as if mating. I hollered and the hawk flew off with a defiant squawk. The hen, minus a pillowfull of feathers, stumbled under the coop. I figured: “So much for that hen, we’ll be down to seven eggs a day.”
Next day, eight eggs.
The same thing happened when the neighbour’s black lab slipped off its chain and got at the chickens. I was on the phone when I heard Bock! Bock! Bock! I zoomed out in time to see a hen struggle from the dog’s mouth and flop under a car. I gave the chicken up for soup stock.
Next day, eight eggs.
I like chickens. I like them so much I feel compelled to formally come to their defence, and dispel a few mistaken notions.
First, chickens are not stupid. A chicken is a social animal that, given the chance, would live with people inside the home, snoozing by the woodstove and watching TV. This is exactly what our chickens did when we first got them. At that time I had some hippie-type idea about letting the flock scratch freely in our yard, picking slugs and worms. And they did—for three days. Then they discovered the windows to the house and took to perching on the ledges, watching us eat dinner, tapping inquisitively at the glass. Next, they took to dashing into the house whenever we opened doors. Within two weeks of getting our flock, we were reluctant to open a door or window, and it occurred to me that the wrong species was cooped up.
Friends from the city were visiting one day and we decided to go for a walk. In the confusion of leaving, the back door was left ajar. The chickens toured the house, clockwise. They stopped in front of the TV, scratched the carpet, paused by the woodstove, and left. I was able to reconstruct their trespass from the evidence, which took a roll of paper towel to remove.
After this, I decided to confine the chickens. So much for the live-and-let-live hippie lifestyle.
This brings me to another point about chickens. They are not stupid. Especially in a flock. The more chickens you have, the greater their collective intelligence. It’s as if they hook up in series, like batteries in a logging truck, to achieve a voltage greater than any individual. This is the absolute opposite of humans, who get stupider and stupider as they gather, the ultimate proof being organizations, unions, parliamentary committees, etc.
I took the opportunity of my friends’ visit to erect a fence around the coop. Four feet high, spiked the cedar posts. It took three of us a morning. We put the chickens in at quarter to twelve. Half an hour later, over lunch, one of my guests pointed at the window. There were two chickens perched on the ledge, bobbing their heads at us, gently ting-tinging at the pane.
To abbreviate what took place over the next 18 hours, suffice it to say our collective brains weren’t functioning well. If the chickens were getting over a four foot fence, we thought, then we’d make the fence five feet high. So we strung wire at five feet, then six, six and a half then seven. Each time, the chickens flew over.
How long this would have gone on had a neighbour not shown up I do not know. He took one look at our soaring fence, then at the chickens milling oround our yard, and said, “Why don’t you clip their wings?”
It was a painfully clear thought, and it sunk in like a dog’s tooth. Just a few inches of feather off one of their wings and they can’t get airborne.
Our neighbour was aghast. “You mean, you didn’t think about clipping their wings?” he said.
“Well, no,” I said, graspng for any excuse. “It never occurred to me. There were. . . three of us. You know how people are when they get together.”
We clipped the chicken’s wings that afternoon; they have not been off the ground since. Now our doors are open, our carpets are unsoiled and—behold—we get eight eggs, day after day.
[Ed. note: This story is adapted from a chapter in my book, Dogless in Metchosin. Harbour Publishing.
www.harbourpublishing.com]