When we retired to Hedley B..C., population about 300, I suggested to Linda we acquire a few chickens. She disagreed, saying a few chickens really didn’t warrant the expense of building a hen house. But when we visited a friend’s chicken farm, he let us look at his birds. Red in colour with white tail feathers, they were magnificent. Linda said, “They are pretty. I can understand that you would want them.”
With Linda’s full agreement, I bought 3 chickens, plus a pail of organic feed. During the 4 hour drive to our new home, they sat patiently in a box in the trunk.
I had not anticipated Linda’s change of heart so I had no lodging for them and no fenced off area to control their roaming. Fortunately, there is a perimeter fence. The birds were ecstatic when I released them into our back yard, where they could explore at will. For them it was a bonus to tread on grass, not wire. We were delighted with our new family and immediately began affectionately referring to them as “the girls.”
Their industriousness amazed us. With the zeal of men digging for gold, they scratched furiously anywhere they pleased. A healthy kale plant was unceremoniously uprooted. Wanting to be understanding of their need to grub for insects, I didn’t protest. When I installed tomato cages over the other kale plants, the girls eagerly poked their small heads
between the wires and nibbled until only flimsy skeleton stems remained. Our small potato patch soon had the appearance of a scorched earth war zone. When Linda went to the garden to collect basil, she was dismayed to see they had already harvested the entire crop. The next day I observed them contentedly munching on radish tops. The girls, like locusts in the “dirty thirties,” were consuming our garden at a feverish pace.
They did lay their golden brown, organic eggs faithfully, always under the sheltering leaves of the same rhubarb plant. While this contributed to our sense of having achieved a back to the land lifestyle, Linda and I realized we couldn’t indefinitely tolerate their pillaging of our garden. They had become the dominant force in our back yard and I was determined to assert authority over what I considered our domain.
By the end of that first week I had completed a 4 by 5ft. hen house and a 4 ft high fence. I gently deposited the girls one at a time in their new, more constricting quarters. Instantly aggrieved, they began patrolling along the inside of the confining fence, much like somber faced federal prisoners probing determinedly for a weak link. Their shrill clucking suggested intense inner turmoil. We glanced out the back window uneasily all afternoon, anxious that they adjust to their limited quarters.
When we awoke early the next morning, each had already laid an egg. We were pleased at this, to be sure, but disconcerted by the fact that they had not used the laying box I had placed in their new home. Instead, each had laid a lovely brown egg under the rhubarb plant as usual. The rhubarb plant, of course, was outside their fence! The girls were in the garden, munching peacefully, apparently quite unaware they were committing a
cardinal sin. I patiently carried them one at a time back to their designated space and repaired a weakness in the fence.
The next day we awoke at 6 am, and they were again in the garden, having flown over the fence. I affixed another layer of wire to increase the height of the fence to a full 5 feet. We also clipped the right wing of each girl. I held the bird and Linda clipped with scissors. There was no evidence of pain. When I had again returned them lovingly to their compound, they retreated to the hen house. I assumed it was to sulk, but that turned out to be a naïive assumption. Apparently it was to devise a new strategy. It was becoming evident that these girls had a surgeon’s capacity to focus intently, and they were not quitters.
To my dismay, the following morning they were back in the garden. One of the girls had put her head through a hole in the mesh and patiently worked at stretching the wire until she could squeeze through. The others had followed. I repaired the opening and applied a second layer of wire mesh over the original layer.
All this was to no avail. The following morning we were up early enough to observe them squeeze through a new hole they had made in the fence and run like Olympic sprinters to the rhubarb plant. “Maybe,” Linda suggested somewhat resignedly, “they are driven by an inner compulsion to lay. And they are programmed to lay under that rhubarb plant.”
Linda and I needed to be away for three days. Since the feed and water were in the hen house, the girls required access to it. If they escaped from their quarters while we were gone, would their mentality and skills enable them to get back in?
Reluctantly Linda and I agreed the girls had outfoxed and outlasted us. I created an opening so they could enter and leave their compound as they pleased. When we return, I decided, I will put up a high fence around the garden, and if necessary, we’ll do another clipping. They are good girls so they can have the yard. We will have the garden and the eggs.