You thought I was going to talk about my children, didn’t you? Good grief. No. If I waited for them all to be little rays of sunshine at once I’d be… No. I’m talking about my chickens.
When I was a child I went with my grandmother to buy some new hens for her henhouse from the local chicken battery. In those days they let you wander around inside because it hadn’t occurred to anybody yet that battery farming is like a concentration camp for chickens and they weren’t worried about us putting footage from a camera hidden under our raincoat on YouTube. So we saw the size of the cages they spent their lives in but until we got home the full effect wasn’t obvious.
We opened the carton inside the chicken run – a lovely spacious abode indeed – and lifted them out onto the ground. Where they promptly fell over and lay on their sides helplessly. Chickens are sold at point-of-lay, usually around 18 weeks of age, so these would have been at least that old – fully grown, for a chicken. But in their whole lives to date they had never once had the chance to extend either their wings or their legs to full length and so their muscles had atrophied. Let me say that again: in at least four months of life, they had not been physically able to stand up to their full height even once because the cages are packed in so tightly at a battery that they are not big enough. Chickens are not large animals. They stand about a foot high. So imagine a chicken, then imagine something considerably smaller than that, and you have the size of the cage they are kept in until the day they die.
After a few days of culture shock my grandmother’s chickens got the hang of legs and went on to live long and happy lives. But I did not forget. As I say, battery farming wasn’t a high-profile issue back then and I’d never heard anything about it. But watching adult chickens who did not know what their legs were for packed a powerful punch. As financially stretched as we have occasionally been over the years, this is something I have never compromised on. If we couldn’t afford free-range eggs we went without.
Eggs are a good thing to feed the children and free range ones are not cheap (and not even reliably free-range, which is a bit distressing) so when we moved to the country getting chickens of our own was high on the list. It took a while to organise accommodation but it’s been very very worth it. Free eggs, yes, whatever – the best part for me is that I just love the chickens themselves.
Chickens are among God’s dumbest creatures, although science refutes this. A recent article in Scientific American (only high-brow reading material crosses our threshold, naturally) describes a study which uncovered, to the researchers’ surprise, complex inter-chicken dynamics including long-range planning, complicated manipulative tactics and alliance-building strategies, and all kinds of deviousness previously unsuspected by anyone who’s ever owned a chicken. I forget what they were looking for in the first place but it wasn’t any of that. All I can say is, maybe those chickens were a different breed or something because mine usually don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.
You can chuck four crusts of bread to the four chickens and whichever is grabbed first is the one they all have to have. So you get one chicken running around unable to eat the food in its beak because it’s too busy keeping it away from the others who are all scrambling after it, ignoring three other perfectly good pieces of bread. Then the other chickens catch up and there’s squabbling and flying feathers. When that crust is gone they follow the same procedure three more times. You have to wonder whether whether this method of eating is counter-calorific: they must expend more energy than they gain. They’re like toddlers with toys – the only one worth having is the one someone else has got.
Then there’s the escaping. We used to let them free range around the lawn but then I water-blasted the deck and got all stingy about letting them mess it up again. There were times when I’d find a chicken on my bed. Or I’d be woken up by a tapping on the window and a little chicken face poking itself in looking for breakfast. So we made them an enclosure in the corner of the lawn featuring (a stroke of genius if I do say so myself) little ramps so they can get in and out of the paddock whenever they want. Their estate includes bushes to shelter under, dirt to have dirt baths in, grass to nibble on and a nifty water-hanger arrangement so they don’t confuse their drink supply with their toilet.
But. Despite having everything their little chicken hearts could desire right there, they seem to be hard-wired to escape even if they don’t want to. Sometimes after lots of rain a gap appears under their fence and they can get out. If all four make a break for it they happily waddle around visiting old haunts on the deck and in the vege garden, but usually it’s only one and then what does she do? She spends the rest of the day running up and down the fenceline in great agitation wanting nothing more than to be back in with her buddies. Here’s the thing though – they can only ever go one way. There have been dozens of escaped chicken incidents and not one single time has the chicken managed to reverse the procedure and get back home. God’s dumbest creatures.
One morning I went to feed them and, as often happens, ended up staying there for a good long while just watching. You know how you can lose entire hours gazing at a baby? I can do that with chickens. I know. Too much time on my hands. Anyhoo, eventually I realised that there were only three coming and going. I went to the other end of the paddock where they like to hang out and couldn’t see number four anywhere. We’d recently lost one to the neighbour’s dog (on the neighbour’s side of the fence, I should point out) so my heart sank a bit because it’s not straight-forward adding a new chicken to the flock. Then I heard a faint tapping. I thought I’d imagined it because there was no sign of sentient life anywhere. I heard it again coming from the upside-down sheep-nut tray on the ground and when I turned it over I found the bedraggled and crest-fallen chicken number four. It had been there since the previous day when it must have got too involved in the sheep-nut stampede. The sheep often stand on the edge and tip the tray over in their gluttony and on this occasion they caught themselves a chicken. It has to be said that sheep are also in the running for the title of God’s dumbest creature.
The first time I got the lawn mower out after getting the chickens I was worried that they’d be so terrified of the noise that they’d run away. The sheep hate it and so do the cats. I was not counting on their complete lack of survival instinct. Mowing the lawn disturbs a whole lot of insect life that you don’t notice until you have to push the mower around the whole lawn while stopping every metre to boot away small birds determined to become chicken nuggets. They literally just wanted to be as close as possible to those blades.
So it’s not for their razor-sharp wit that I like the chickens. Partly it’s because they’re good company. On days that Cassia’s at kindy and I’m in the garden they follow me around, helping by scratching up weeds and pecking away at insects and it’s nice to have them there. A few weeks ago when I was digging over the vege garden Cassia and some of the girls from next door spent happy hours poking around for worms and taking turns feeding them to the very willing chickens. When another bit of the boundary fence falls off (and this is why you use treated timber, thank you very much, person we bought the place from) I chuck it to the chickens who seek and destroy the five thousand slaters in 0.2 seconds and I think of all that nice protein working its way towards the growing bodies of my children.
But the bigger reason that I find such satisfaction in having the chickens is because the world, God knows, is full of misery and anguish and there’s nothing that I can do about most of that. Giving four chickens the best life a chicken could have represents the little things that I can do; a small oasis of perfection in an imperfect place. There are hundreds of thousands of battery hens who’ve never been able to stand up to their full height and I wish that wasn’t the case but I feel that providing a chicken’s paradise for these four, and the others that will replace them in the future, kind of balances out the karma in a tiny way. It says, there is hope. Happiness is out there. There are more than hundreds of thousands of people out there as well who’ve never been able to stand to their full height in some way and although I wish I could do more for them too I also feel that providing my own children with a life that’s beyond the wildest dreams of so many must count for something. It doesn’t help people in need now, although I sincerely hope that we’re raising children who will add, in time, to the balance of justice and mercy and good in the world. For the meantime, watching four of God’s dumbest creatures wander freely, engage in all their natural behaviours and generally live the lives they were designed to live gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve made a tiny part of the world as good as it can be, even if it is just my own back yard..