Sunday, 31 August 2014

Bite-Sized Chicken Pieces

You can't beat a nice piece of rabbit – the nice pieces are pretty much everything except the intestines and the back legs. For the gourmet cat.

Ginge likes her meat fresh. Preferably barely stopped breathing. And rabbits are in season at present, along with a whole delicatessen bar of small rodents. Oatmeal also likes rabbit and eats any bits that Ginge leaves, apart from the guts. No-one likes rabbit guts. (Or mouse guts – they get left as well, usually in the most startling places. As horrible experiences go, high on the list is the sensation of mouse guts popping between the toes, in the dark, on the way to the bathroom at two in the morning.)

Now we are on to bite-sized chicken pieces. Earlier in the year, the hatching rate from the hens was very poor, so every time a hen has gone broody we have stuck a clutch of eggs underneath. Whatever our brooding problem has been, it stopped about seven weeks ago and, one after another, four hens produced chicks. We now have a total of eighteen bite-sized chicken pieces, who have spent their first week or two in the greenhouse, but four mother hens (translation= ruthless, psychotic monsters) in a confined space does not work, so one brood at a time, we are moving them out to face the world. And Ginge. And Oatmeal.

I am literally chick-watching as I type this. The hens are doing a good job of watching over their chicks, but as we bring each brood out, we spend the day with them, just to make sure. The first one out, Crème Brûlée, launches herself at any cat who comes too close – wings out, claws out, feathers out, attitude out. Today, we have brought out Chicky and Dark Penguin, and are waiting to make sure they are up to the challenge.

The problem is the pecking order. Amongst the hens it is easy. Amber (still in the greenhouse, the newest brood to hatch) is number one and kicks the proverbial out of any other hen. Crème Brûlée is next, then Chicky and finally Dark Penguin. The trouble is, that only counts amongst the hens, and the only way to find out where cats sit in the pecking order is to watch and wait. Crème Brûlée is high above cats, no doubt about that, but what of the others? And how well are their chicks trained, because the other half of the defensive package is for offspring to run for Mum at the first sign of trouble.

Even that might not be enough. Last year, we lost a number of chicks to a fox who came through the yard a few days in a row – and then never seen again. Since the food (hen and chick) supply was far from exhausted, we assume that something killed the fox. There were only two broody hens at that point, Silver, an uncompromising drill-sergeant of a mother, and Barn Growler who would be high on the Social Services watch list as an incompetent mother. Silver lost all of her chicks to the fox; Barn Growler lost none, because they were so accustomed to fending for themselves in even the tiniest crisis that they took cover at the first sign of trouble. Silver did what all our chickens do when faced with a fox – flew up to the nearest high-point. Another few weeks and her chicks would probably have followed her up, but... they hadn't learned that one yet, and didn't have the run for cover reflex.

In watching over chicks, we have added a new phrase to our lexicon – chicken-on-chicken violence. Every time we hear the sound of frantic chicks, we rush around to do a head-count, check the location of cats, check for suspicious feathers between the teeth, but it's just another chicken. Ninety-nine percent plus of violence is chicken-on-chicken, and nothing to do with the cats at all.

So, here I am, sitting guard, waiting for hens and chicks to establish their dominance over the cats. As it turns out, Ginge is not the problem: she likes rabbit and they don't peck back. Oatmeal, on the other hand, is a persistent little ****, and catching one of those bite-sized chicken pieces is a challenge he simply won't give up on. He's a bright cat – he has worked out that we don't want him killing chicks; Crème Brûlée has explained very robustly that she doesn't want him killing chicks.

Oatmeal understands. He will wait until no-one is watching...


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