I have a new bible by the bedside.
Chicken Coops for the Soul - A Henkeeper’s Story, by Julia Hollander, zealot and whittler.
She only went and rang her local council’s animal health department to see if she needed a licence. And planning permission. For her hen house!
As a mother hen, she puts me to shame, though. She gives her hens vitamin supplements and makes them hot porridge in the winter. I half expect that, by the time I reach the end of this book, she’ll have devised a knitting pattern for chicken cardies.
But I’ve ploughed on and gleaned all sorts of tips. For instance, I bake and grind the discarded egg shells (in one guise or other, we eat eggs every single day now) and add it to their food because it’s a good source of calcium.
We now have a hen play-pen, too. It was the rabbit’s but for the last eight years had been melding itself into the shrubbery. I sent Bloke in with a machete.
“Pretend you’re in Bridge Over the River Kwai,” I suggested and offered to tie a bandana around his head.
The rescued run looked what you might call rustic, but after a bit of repair-work it was sound. Leaving the other three with a bunch of dandelion and dock leaves so they didn’t feel neglected, we fished Marilyn Monroe and Zsa-Zsa from their enclosure and plonked them in the pen on the lawn. They looked dazed by the sea of green and scoured every inch of netting for a possible exit before accepting the picnic lunch.
We plan to use the play-pen every time we’re in the garden or the allotment. It’s a win-win; they get an outing and in return, they do the weeding. There will be a rota system and a shuttle service, obviously.
This weekend, I got to Chapter Nine of Julia’s book: Sick Chick lists a whole host of bugs, diseases, plagues and poxes that can bring a bird down in a matter of days. I’m now thinking the book should be sub-titled A Hypochondriac’s Story.
Honestly the things she worries about. The things she’s got ME worrying about.
“Julia says we should give your chickens a regular health inspection,” I announced on Sunday. Although they are my birds, the clue is surely in the name: hen husbandry must involve a man.
We caught our first chicken (no mean feat). It had clear eyes, a firm comb and no trace of mites under its feathers. Next up, its bum. Julia says if chickens get scared while an egg is descending, the passageway contracts, the egg gets stuck, or even broken, and a hen can get an internal infection and die.
We discovered a chicken’s bum, or vent to give it its proper name, is an amazing thing. It moves like a mouth, opening, closing, gurning and pursing. While I studied it, It made Bloke anxious; he kept glancing up at the neighbours’ windows to check no-one could see him.
And then, and then. The chicken projectile-shat itself. We dodged the stream of goop shooting two feet in the air.
“Julia never said anything about THAT,” I told the man with the dripping T-shirt.