A childhood with chickens

 Samuel Rayfield reflects on the adventures of the invincible Mrs. Chicky.

Mrs. Chicky (foreground) and Mum (background).
Mrs. Chicky (foreground) and Mum (background).

“You must not panic, nor imagine that things are worse than they are. You must be sensible, you must be resourceful. You must manage on your own and make your own bread. Those were the lessons taught by hens.”

– Fiona Farrell, The Book Book (2003).

I’m sitting in the backyard with my Mum, who is holding our last chicken. It’s a grey day, save for the odd golden cast of the sun. I ask Mum who she’s holding.

“Mrs. Chicky.”

Not Ms. or Mrs. Chicken?

“Nope, Mrs. Chicky. I suppose all of them get called something or other over their life, don’t they?”

Indeed, or only perhaps? It seems they’ll happily potter about their lives without names applied to them. Then again, it’s recorded and accepted by avian specialists in Annie Potts’ book ‘Chickens’ that chickens demonstrate at least “30 distinct forms of vocalisation, including territorial, location, mating, laying and nesting, submission, distress, alarm and fear, food and contentment calls.” * What’s to say they don’t apply names to one another?

They’re fascinating creatures, certainly the most abundant domesticated animal worldwide; hence, it’s likely they’re the most studied by the scientific method. It’s unfortunate, however, that those studies have concentrated on chickens as a resource – meat and eggs – rather than chickens as pets. Much have we learned about them, but little from them.

Back to Mrs. Chicky. (That name was likely applied by my younger brother or sister at the time of Mrs. Chicky’s birth.) I’ve not known any entity, any manifestation, to exemplify the trueness of what is held to be Australian character more than her. She’s “inventive and determined … a conscious marker of working-class identity and (supposed) indifference to class.” * Here is her story.

The Story of Mrs. Chicky

Born a member of a humble brood of three on the late edge of 2011, her brother was a dickhead and her sister didn’t live long after birth. Being that her brother was a dickhead, he didn’t live much longer either. The fox or quoll that committed the first massacre he likely challenged, but we never quite found either body.

Her mother was a Pekin – short and plump, she waddled the way a person trying to hold their trouser-legs up from muddy puddles would – and a damn good mum she was. She raised many a good hen and rooster, of course with other hens she’d grown up alongside, who would enter motherhood all the same. Mrs. Chicky’s mother raised her with all the qualities mentioned above, but also catalysed her strong desire to raise chickens of her own.

And so it was. Hens and roosters as hens and roosters are, they tended to shag a lot. The roosters of the group were raising six; out of a domesticated flock of 15, that is too many. (If you know anything about chicken intimacy, you’ll know what I mean.)

Mrs. Chicky, likely due to her strong feminism, maintained an admirable conservatism in her relations with roosters. (It was only once that I witnessed her and her brother.) Imagining the kind of lady she’d be, my mother says this:

“She’d have lots of jewellery on. Have her hair done up to a tee, the best of clothes.”

Rarely has she failed to take care of herself. I use that word, ‘rarely’, as her motherly aspiration and devotion has sometimes got the better of her. The first time she believed she was sitting on fertile eggs, she set up in the old wood box in the shed. Nestled in the dark both day and night, we’d scarcely see her. She sat for weeks, approaching an entire month, on those eggs, all for no avail. Her red crest lost all its colour, she did not eat, she did not feel the sun, she did not dust-bathe; she grew sick and unhealthy. She desperately wanted babies to raise and call her own.

“She persistently sat on her eggs, like a good mother,” Mum says. This process repeated itself three times over the course of three years – weeks of isolation, white, sick and unhealthy – until we thought she’d never have them.

“And then, as it happens, she was down at the back chicken pen and she found a little spot under some wire, under an old tree. She laid all her eggs there, and they hatched.”

And what happened to those hatchlings?

“They grew up, she was happy. She had probably about eight. But the problem was, the bigger they grew, they more they’d be able to jump over the little hole in the fence and out through the slats. So, one by one, Henry [our second dog] would pick ‘em off. Eventually they grew to a size that they couldn’t jump over the fence anymore, but then we had the massacre.”

It’s odd that Mum would refer to this particular massacre as The Massacre, when it’s certainly not the only one Mrs. Chicky has lived through. In countless other mass killings – courtesy of foxes, quolls, our dogs and neighbours’ dogs, all of which have exposed the flaws in our defences – she’s lost her mother, brothers, sisters and friends, all of which have been bloody and tragic, all within which we’ve lost treasured pets.

The dogs and principal chicken-killers, Annie (left) and Henry (right).
The dogs and principal chicken-killers, Annie (left) and Henry (right).

But this massacre, The Massacre, was the one in which every single chicken, bar Mrs. Chicken and her frizzle friend, would die. Every single one of the eight within her brood she would not raise to become like her, “a devoted mum who wanted her babies”. Her last friend, a little frizzle with a similarly challenged existence, did not last long after. She was the victim of a separate attack by the neighbour’s dogs.

Their temporary cage dismantled, we arrived home in mid-April this year to discover brown feathers about the place, soon the ransacked carcass of the frizzle was found dangling and tossed between snapping jaws. Curiously, we weren’t able to find any white feathers, spurring a frantic search about the backyard.

“She’s a survivor”, Mum said, as we dug her out from underneath the roots of an upturned spotted gum. She’d buried herself deep amongst dead wood and earth, all for the sake of survival.

“Can you remember when we got Annie [our first dog]?”, Mum asked. “Annie always used to go after them and Mrs. Chicky always seemed to get away. She was smart. She’d jump up high where she couldn’t get taken. The littler, more feeble, weakest ones were caught, but she got away many, many times.”

JD’s Backyard Hens, Medowie, NSW

JD's Backyard Hens.
JD’s Backyard Hens.

“Social stress is, even to us, hard. You’ve got teenagers that are suicidal, simply through social stress. It’s amazing how simply being socially ostracised, a chook can be that way too. Same with a teenager – it is so stressful to them. You don’t feel loved, you don’t blossom.”

Those are the words of local chicken breeder Julia Davies, whose hobby has grown to occupy a considerable portion of their semi-rural property. Her childhood was spent on her mother’s farm in Tasmania, where she helped raised 27 different breeds of chicken. Her mother, Judith, now retired and living in a humble flat down the back, hails from Washington state.

“By golly, it’s God’s country”, she said. “Mt. Rainier, the Cascade Mill… while I was back there for 13 years, I could see the mountains, and there was always snow on them.”

We discussed Mongolian nomads – “Those ponies that they use, holy cow!” – horse-riding – “Nothing like feeling the wind in your hair on a dead gallop” – people – “Humans are an impossible breed of animal” – and much more, including chickens:

“Every one of them is different. Some of them are total bi-atches, some just want to sidle up against you – like, ‘Oh, do you love me?’”

Julie’s operation began as a hobby, but to combat the numerous hurdles facing the contemporary chicken breeder, is now also a means to educate buyers on how to properly take care of the chickens she sells, like Pekins, Orpingtons and Andalusians.

She believes that the education, especially of children, is an important means to reconceptualise the chicken in the eyes of the many who seem to regard it as an endlessly consumable and abundant resource. In ages passed, the hen once symbolised motherly care and devotion, and roosters were “strong, brave and vigilant leaders”. * Now, they represent little more than protein and stupidity.

“It’s just the way life has gone”, she said. “People are trying to get more and more and more and more, and they’ve lost the magic of what life is.”

“I’ve got a girlfriend who won’t touch my chicken eggs. I asked her why, and she said because it came from a chicken’s bum, so I go, ‘Where do yours come from?’ ‘Coles’ shelf,’ she says.”

She suggests that this ignorance is a generational one; one that, she hopes, she can help change. Her childhood experienced alongside chickens is the foundation of her backyard operation, and it is her hope to extend the wonder of her childhood experience to children of the current generation.

“The kids will fall in love with them. There’s so many kids that I’ve known who have come back as young adults to get their birds from us, and I go bingo – that’s what I’m after.”

“When the kids leave home, [if they’ve grown up alongside chickens], they’re always going to have that little passion – ‘I want my chicken. I enjoyed that part of my childhood.’ Then, when they have kids, they’ll want their kids to experience that.”

“We want to make sure they get the right birds and fall in love with them, so hopefully by the time I’m in my 80s, there won’t be the generational neglect that I’ve experienced, because they’ve had their birds in the backyard. They’ve got their dog, cat and chicken.”

“Our door’s open to anyone who wants to know, who wants to learn”, she said. In the long time she’s spent with chickens, she’s learned that there’s little between us and them, and that “they’re enjoyable to keep”.

 

* Potts, A. (2012). Chicken. Reaktion Books, London, United Kingdom.

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