The Sex Lives of Laying Hens
Things I Never Wanted to Know Series
by Jo Leath
I came to farming late in life. I did not have the advantage of growing up with livestock; barnyards were places I visited briefly. I never even asked the questions about animal reproduction that a farm child of my own age could have answered. Now, as my fifth decade gets well established, I have had my very first opportunity to live in intimacy with animals of another species. My lack of experience has also been an advantage, for I have never taken animals for granted, I have never lost the feeling of wonder at their existence, and never felt blasé about the miracles of their reproduction.
They came into my life as year old laying chickens. They were to fulfill our household desire for eggs, and as my household does not consume animal flesh, we fully expected them to live long and happy lives, beyond the years of their unfortunate table-destined cousins. I think I had an image of contented, docile animals, pecking their feathers into place in grooming rituals such as I am used to in pet cats. On some level I thought that these creatures would simply create and deposit eggs for my use, consume the feed I provided, and we would all go on our separate paths. Nobody told me about their personalities.
Chickens are not mere egg factories, neither are they in any way like cats or dogs. The chickens that came into my life are a diverse group of individuals, each with it’s own traits, and an ability to entertain rivaled only by the vast corporations of Ted Turner. On the very first evening of their life with us, we were obliged to name one of the shiny black Wyandottes. Her nature, her actions, her very existence required the name of Obstacle.
Wherever we went, she was in our way; wherever we tried to step, there she was, and when the sun set and we tried to introduce this squawking flapping flock of disoriented poultry to the roost we had constructed for their comfort, it was Obstacle who perched at the main point of access, and denied the others a chance to reach it at all. Her name thus set, we came to realize that she was different from the other three black Wyandottes in her appearance. Small differences in the shape of her crest, and a tiny bald spot on her neck, were sufficient for us to distinguish Obstacle even when she wasn’t in the way.
And the very fact of learning that lesson, brought us to realize that the Rhode Island Reds were equally individual in appearance. One of the Reds was more individual that the others. She had a tail section that looked unkempt, ungroomed, and distinctly like an unmade bed. As though in a state of perpetual moult, she had feathers sticking out from her body at right angles. And her individuality did not stop with the physical appearance. If the flock was ranging on the lawn to the south of the house, this single hen would be exploring the compost heap to the north. When the flock convened under the mock orange bush, that same disheveled bird was chasing mourning doves away from the wild-bird feeder.
We named her Dudd. It was a pet-name given to my partner during childhood by a loving aunt. Wrapped up in our interpretation of the name Dudd, is an expectation of non-conformity, a hopelessness in any thought of good grooming or neatness, and an anticipation that the next action will be unexpected.
Within a couple of weeks, each hen had a suitable name. The one with the V-shaped crest was called Winston, after Churchill; the one with the worried-looking drooped comb was called Penny, for the hen of “sky is falling” fame. And we came to learn that chickens are more fun to watch than most American situation comedies.
Obstacle had been elected leader in some unseen vote, and daily she would lead the flock -- leaving Dudd on her own, -- into the gully which is our property line on one side. For a few days in the spring, a creek rushes down between the trees, most of the year is a soggy pathway among the birches. Hobble bushes bloom in the protective shade of the tall maples and aspens and poplars. It is cool even on the warmest days, and over the generations, the edge of it has been used as a household garbage dump by people less concerned about solid waste disposal than we might be.
It grew to be a nightly delight for the humans of the property to go and see the treasures unearthed from the rich soil of the gully: Ancient glass bottles, rubber dolls, undefinable metal shapes, lacy with age and rust, would be freshly harvested and left on yhe surface for us to collect. The chickens would have scratched and scrabbled, feet flying, spumes of wet sod hurtling behind them as they discarded the flotsam of human life in their search for the succulent bugs and worms which had been unable to process these artifacts to be a part of the natural earth.
It was these expeditions into the gully that brought about our next lesson in the nature of chickens. We had already noted that the word “chicken”, when applied to a coward, is a total misnomer. Our poultry was adventurous. They explored and examined every inch of the area around the house and barn with all the attention to detail that Conan Doyle ever ascribed to his great detective. But it still came as a surprise to us that they would explore the world of sound. We had grown used to them muttering and purring at us, and to each other. When we were outdoors they followed us like ducklings behind a mother, and often gave rumbling mumbling reviews about the shredded vegetable wastes we took outside to supplement their diet.
Nonetheless, on the first day of the Klingon Opera we were stopped motionless in our tracks.
Under the watchful eye of Obstacle, a full half dozen hens had descended to the bottom of the gully, and were now singing, letting the creek banks and trees bounce the sounds along the full length of our front field. And the song being less tuneful than that of songbirds, and the harmonies being somewhat unrehearsed, the result was not unlike the discordant cacophony of a mass slaughter, or, with all due respect to the writers of the Star Trek series, a Klingon Opera. The performance is still held, irregularly, at times designed to take us off guard, it never fails to make us laugh.
It was a very few weeks into the sharing of living space with these magical animals, that we realized a flock of less than a dozen will not meet the egg requirements of the many people in our lives who would prefer to purchase free range from us than factory induced eggs from the supermarket. Unwilling to make a large investment in purchasing more adult hens, and realizing now that we needed to have an accurate assessment of the age of any new hens coming into the flock, we considered that the acquisition of a rooster, and the creation of our own new generation would answer our needs. And so it was that there came Canterbury.
Canterbury has been moved here from Guysborough County, both in the interests of genetic diversity and the needs of a friend who was disposing of an unwanted extra. He is almost twice the size of our Reds, and bigger than the plump healthy Wyandottes. His exact pedigree is a mystery, but he has the raspberry crest of a Dorking, the green black sheen of the Wyandotte, and an undercoat of scarlet, prominent in his ruff. Over all he is as mystical and varicoloured as a stained glass window. And he is no fool; he knows what he has been brought here for.
Within a few short hours of his arrival he was doing his best to perform his job, and our chickens were unimpressed by his interloping. His execution of the act, being the first I have ever witnessed, is a natural wonder to me. It is something of an inconvenience to the hens, if their reactions are to be believed. He has sturdy sharp spurs on his legs, in the place we would call the inner ankle on ourselves, and these he uses to hold down a hen when he has climbed on her back. We have heard horror stories of hens being cut and injured when unwilling to participate in a rooster’s frenzy of fertilization.
For the most part, our girls tolerate the
indignity. When he dismounts, they fluff out
We used to say that Dudd marched to a different drummer, but as time passes, we realize that Dudd hears no drummer; Dudd is listening to castanets. Dudd has no desire to procreate. She provides us with large eggs, regularly, and seems happy enough to do so, being willing to deposit them in the nesting box. Never yet has she stolen a nest in the hayfield or other spot where we might not find it. But Dudd does not wish for Duddlets. Dudd has no desire to find out what new sensations an encounter with Canterbury might bring her. And Dudd does not tolerate his advances. It is Dudd who has taught me, and indeed taught Canterbury, the meaning of the word henpecked. For the poor dutiful rooster has been well and truly pecked after each of his attempts to create a liaison with Dudd.
Since the advent of Canterbury we have learned much about raising poultry. We have been told about dubbing; an act of trimming a rooster’s comb. Many farmers deem this necessary to avoid the comb being caught in a fence, and the animal injured. We listened and read about choosing a cool day for dubbing, to reduce the chance of profuse bleeding; we looked at Canterbury’s magnificent headpiece; and we promptly removed the fence.
We have listened and read also about the care and clipping of spurs, which, like human toe nails and rabbit’s teeth, never stop growing, and must therefore be controlled for the safety of the hens. One suggestion was about confining the rooster and using a hacksaw. We are considering amour-plated capes for the hens.
When we were reasonably sure that many of the eggs being laid were fertile, we grew anxious for chicks, although the lateness of the season meant we would have to do some foster-mothering ourselves. Two of the Wyandottes decided not to wait for our decision, and stole nests at their own convenience. Stonewall created herself a space in the open-looking hayfield, concealed under a mound of bent grass. By the time we found her hiding place, she was sitting on 18 eggs.
Obstacle, as only Obstacle could, managed to carve a shelf out of the gully bank, and establish herself as totally invisible in plain sight. Under her, when we tracked her down, are 14 eggs. At this time of writing, we are still awaiting the miracle of hatching. We are constructing a nursery area, and improving the desirability of the nesting boxes in hopes of discouraging the undiscriminating stealing of nests.
We are speaking with egg farmers, and chicken breeders, and wandering the coops in cyberspace, forever learning more about the feathered lives we have chosen to share. And as time goes by, no doubt we will detour back to this keyboard to record more of our adventures, and add to the files of the Things I Never Wanted to Know series.
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