The Wyandotte flock free ranges every morning. Once their pen door swings open, they quickly inspect the other birds’ feeders, sampling a beak-full or two. Then they beeline to the barn to assist George with his breakfast. George is a messy eater, and the Wyandottes make a great clean up crew. It’s one of those symbiotic barnyard relationships, limiting waste plus helping to keep the rodent population down. George very much enjoys the company of his daily breakfast companions. He takes care to avoid stepping on them.
The lucky birds spend the rest of their morning sampling the tender new grass, scratching through the manure pile seeking juicy bugs and patrolling the verges of K’s garden to scout weak spots in her defences.
At lunchtime, I head outside to hand out flakes of hay to the again-peckish equines and to put the Wyandottes away. It’s time for a different rooster and his girls to enjoy the freedom of the barnyard.
Their cooperative nature has won the Wyandottes this daily constitutional. The other flocks don’t listen as well, but the Wyandottes have learned. Well behaved birds who go docilely into their pen receive a delightful bonus, a snack of cracked corn, wheat and oats, aka “chicken crack”.
And so every day, right after the hay flakes hit the ground, a Wyandotte tide ebbs and flows around my feet as I walk from the barn to the coops. They jog excitedly along, keeping as close as chickenly possible to their walking treat dispenser. I have to pay close attention to avoid stepping on them, not always successfully (SQUAWK!).
When I reach the coops, I scoop up a can of grain, step inside their pen and lay out a line as they tumble around me, each vying to swallow the largest amount of grain in the smallest amount of time.
Mr. Rooster generally enters the pen last. My trusty lieutenant, he supervises regally, murmuring gently at his ladies, keeping squabbles to a minimum and perhaps deigning to sample one or two grains himself. Then I step backwards out the pen door, count to twelve to make sure I have them all, and gently clip the door closed. Voila.
Except. Too many times last summer I counted only eleven Wyandottes. There is this one hen you see, an exotic splash laced gal, who prefers to spend her entire day in freedom, thankyouverymuch.
I first noticed Miss Splash’s recalcitrance in July, soon after she, along with a few of my more comely early 2018 hatch got promoted from the grow out pen to the breeding pen. After making introductions, I had kept the whole group locked up for a few days, so the new girls could find their place in the pecking order. That accomplished, I gave them back their morning freedom. At first Miss Splash consented to be penned at noon like the rest, but it wasn’t long before her rebellious streak surfaced. At lock up time, she balked. Either vanishing entirely or staying on the periphery eyeing up the grain, she would not put even one scaly yellow toe across the threshold. She refused entirely to cooperate.
At first I made some effort to chase her in, as did her rooster, but she wasn’t having any of that. It was freedom over food for our little orange birdbrain.
So I gave up, and put her in with the laying flock, where she spent the rest of the summer and all of the fall. She free ranged less, only making it out every other day, but when she finally got her freedom she kept it until dusk, going inside at a moment of her own choosing, not mine. This arrangement suited Miss Splash very well and she was content.
But with the advent of breeding season, our arrangement didn’t suit me very well any more. Chicks from her unique bloodline were a goal, they would be silver laced blue, and, bred appropriately, their chicks would be silver laced lavender, a colour I badly want to achieve. There was nothing for it but I must put her back in the Wyandotte coop, in with her man and away from the other roosters. But I was NOT willing to compromise the Wyandottes’ well-earned freedom. I want lavender chicks badly, but not that badly.
So Miss Splash rejoined her own kind one day about ten days ago. The very next day when it was time for the Wyandottes to get penned, she played her old trick of months before, keeping her distance, refusing to go in the pen and generally being a giant pain in the butt. Have you ever tried to herd a chicken? Try it sometime, I dare you. Even my eight foot long pvc ‘chicken herder’ didn’t help. I was forced to pen everyone else, and then, resorting to guerrilla warfare, surveille her until she wandered into a random pen or tight spot, so I could corner, catch and put her away. My only other option was waiting till nightfall, when I could grab her as she perched mournfully outside the Wyandotte coop, yearning, now that was dark, for the company of her own kind. That wasn’t a good option though, since it allowed the afternoon roosters free access to her, sullying the purity of her eggs’ bloodlines.
Enough of this, I thought. Time for Miss Splash to learn a lesson. So, for about a week, every morning before I let the Wyandotte flock out, I grabbed her and tucked her under my arm. Once everyone was free, I popped her inside a roomy yet secure cage inside the pen, where she spent each morning while the rest of the flock gaily free ranged. She was not happy. There was much pacing and lunging at the door in repeated bids for freedom. The first day, she actually did manage to get the cage door open and flee, but judicious application of a steel clip put an end to that escape route. Each noontime, after I had spread the grain line, counted to eleven and closed the pen door, I popped the clip and she burst out of her cage, rushing to snag what she could of the few remaining grains.
After Miss Splash’s week of spending her mornings locked up and her afternoons with the flock inside the pen, I thought I would see if she had learned her lesson. So yesterday, there was no snaring and stowing of reluctant chicken. I simply stepped inside the pen and had a word with her instead. Then, keeping my eyes on her as I admonished her sternly to be good, I opened the pen door and gave her her freedom. She stepped slowly outside, lifted her wings high and then dashed, a joyful blur of squawking orange feathers, across the barnyard.
The test came at noon, when it was time to put the Wyandottes away. They crowded my feet as usual as I walked towards the coops from the barn. Miss Splash was not among them, but rather hanging around casually near the grain bin. She stayed well on the periphery as me and my chicken train grabbed a scoop of grain and headed for the pen. As I stepped inside and moved to the back of the pen to lay out my grain line among a fluster of excited chickens, she advanced to stand in the doorway, clearly uncertain, weighing her options. I finished, keeping a bit of grain in reserve, and peeked at her out of the corner of my eye. A direct look would have sent her running I knew. She stood there, teetering on the door sill, undecided. So I trickled a few more grains, enticingly rattling them against the feeder to sweeten the bait audibly while standing perfectly still, as minimally threatening as humanly possible.
After a long pause, she finally, carefully, stepped inside and tiptoed over to the grain line. What a smart girl.
Today, much to my pleased surprise, she was right in the thick of it, weaving around my feet with the other birds as I travelled from the barn to the coops. And there was zero hesitation at the door, she enthusiastically ran to the grain line along with the others. As if our battle of wills had never happened!
So that’s where we are. I am hopeful that we are beginning a good working relationship. I will keep my side of the bargain, giving her her freedom every day that she cooperates, declining it when she does not. I think we both clearly understand the rules now. The parameters of our truce.
Time and time again my chickens remind me that they are intelligent creatures, each with their own unique personalities. Is Miss Splash a prudent sort? A practical gal who is open to compromise, like Angela Merkel or Ruth Bader Ginsberg? Or is she more impulsive and bull-headed, like Indira Ghandi or, god forbid, Mr. Headstrong Trump? A bright orange colour laced with grey, she sports a sulky mien, but I have my fingers crossed that her resemblance to the Donald is purely physical. She certainly appears to possess superior intellect.
I’m hoping for more of an Angela Merkel / RBG type. I do admire those women.