Photograph courtesy of istock
THERE ARE MANY, I’m sure you’re aware, twee little books and blogs out there riffing on the theme of ‘everything I know in life I learned from my cat/axolotl’. Gosh, they’re charming, even though the skills you learn from an axolotl aren’t strictly transferable: for example, don’t allow yourself to be kept in a glass tank by an eight-year-old. You will be dead within days.
Well, gagging as I am to get on board the train to ker-ching town, I thought I’d better pony up the life lessons I’ve learned from my chickens. Disclaimer – look, it’s just not possible to learn everything you need to know from chickens. They are useless vis-a-vis financing a house in today’s inflated market, or sending back the boats. But this is what I’ve observed:
Size Really Doesn’t Matter
Top chook in our flock is Missus, a teensy bantam who consists entirely of feathers and attitude. She is one bossy little bitch. It astounds me how the other three girls, who could each take her one-on-one by sitting on her adorable pointy little head, are cowed by her pecking, hectoring ways. Think Bea from Prisoner, but in Lizzie’s body. When the coop door opens, it’s Missus who decides which bit of the garden they head to. When food or treats appear it’s Missus who is beak-down first, and she grabs the choice cuts while impressively body-blocking anything even vaguely chicken-like in her vicinity. She would, frankly, make a top-notch goal-defence netballer or pig dog. Her confidence is dazzling, and she illustrates daily that it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you chuck it around.
You Can’t Help Chickens Who Won’t Help Themselves
And then there are the gingers. Laverne and Shirley. Big, boofy and, metaphorically, chicken-shit. They were jumping at shadows when I bought them, and have remained hysterical. Missus rules them with one wing behind her back, and they remain wary no matter how many delicious treats I deliver, or how many times I neglect to hunt them down and kill them.
They are terminally frustrating, because the more I try to help, the more they back away squawking. Missus and her right-hand chook, Black Betty, dominate the food, so I try to give the gingers their own treats, or shove Betty and Missus away. But Laverne and Shirley always react as though I’ve shown them a knife and done a throat-slitting mime, and then shelter in the furthest corner of the coop like Victorian ladies spotting a mouse. They are, to be honest, idiots.
Doing Something Impressive? Make a Noise About it
Before I had chickens, I had no concept of what a hen laying an egg sounded like. Holy hell. They make exactly as much noise as you’d expect, actually, if you were pushing something hard and enormous out of your vent. I now have a deep and abiding appreciation for every egg they deliver because I know, to the decibel, how much effort went into it.
Owning Chickens Is Exactly Like Having a Baby
Okay, not exactly. If something goes wrong with a chicken, they’re easily replaceable. But there are startling similarities. For example, it is deeply distressing when you hear of other chickens with the same names as your own. I now know of at least three other Black Bettys, and it’s a punch to my creative solar plexus every time. They also poop all the time, go rapidly downhill in hot weather and, Lord have mercy, people have very strong opinions on how to raise them and are unafraid to tell you that You’re Doing It Wrong. During a recent heatwave, when I dunked BettyTM in a bucket of water to stop her expiring from heat exhaustion, I had a fellow hen fancier assure me that if you get chickens wet, they can “boil in their own feathers”. Oh eff off, Sunshine…
Factory Farming Is Bullshit
’Fraid so. Turns out that chooks are smart, curious and individual. Given the opportunity to self-express, chickens are hilarious little clowns, with quirks, identifiable voices and character. They are alive; not ‘things’, regardless of how we treat them in our determination to have cheap eggs or meat.
I never gave the chicken a thought before, as I tucked into a parmigiana. Now I’m one of those waiter-aggravating, eyebrow raising, is-this-free-range-or-organic? people. Chickens have raised my consciousness just by being adorable. I’m sorry, but you don’t get that kind of pay-off from an axolotl.
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This article first appeared in Ed#451 of The Big Issue