Monday, 31 August 2015

Chase The Chicken

One of our hens is missing – she may have fallen prey to a fox, or just be off somewhere being broody. She does that every month or so, lays her eggs in some obscure spot that you can only find by following her, and even then she can apparently disappear at the last moment. She is the only hen that does this. The others are more than content to squabble over a nest box, but our missing hen is prone to unique behaviour.

The missing bird is called Cat Chaser – simple, direct and descriptive, the chicken who chases cats, a relatively unique trait. A broody hen with chicks will go psycho on a cat, but Cat Chaser learnt the behaviour from her mother and does it all the time. The point, here, is that it is supposed to be the other way around.

There is a game, of sorts, which we call Chase the Chicken. It sounds like one of those dubious rural practices undertaken since time immemorial, which it probably is. It's not an easy game for the newcomer, and made especially tricky by the variation of rules. Everyone plays, but none the same way.

Simple and obvious, is the cockerel – he plays chase the chicken with a basic aim in mind. Or not so much in mind as just towards the bottom of the sternum. Some hens just wait and hope the brakes work, but a significant proportion like to play hard-to-catch, and some of those birds can really run.

Lambs play chase the chicken – the aim appears to be to keep your nose touching the tail-feathers for as long as possible. Lambs play competitively, and with an inexhaustible enthusiasm – chickens treat it the same as anything else trying to grab a bite of tail, and run, head high, jinking and shouting to avoid that cold touch of lamb-spit. The passion for the game wanes in older sheep, but I have seen elderly ewes reliving their youth with a quick round or two, although sometimes it is just the chicken is occupying the grass they wanted to eat.
At sheep feeding time, there is an aggressive form of chase the chicken. To the uninitiated, it might look like the aim is to keep the nose touching the tail feathers until the chicken leaves the feed trough. In reality, it is there to make sure the thieving bird leaves the sheep feed alone.

In an unusual development, a few years back, we found hens walking over sleeping sheep, performing a sort of shiatsu massage. Perhaps this is part of chase the chicken... but neither side would comment.

Geese play, but they prefer the short round, full contact version – how many tail feathers can be removed from a passing chicken. They will chase, but only when in a bad enough mood.

People play, of course, but it is usually to avoid tripping over the chicken. The game lasts as long as the bird can anticipate which way the human will jink next and get there just ahead. Naturally, the chicken gets extra points if it succeeds in tripping the human, but generally loses on a knock-out if the falling human lands on the chicken.

Cats play, primarily a predator-prey type of game. It has a lot in common with the cockerel version, the high-speed chase, the sound of frantic squawking, the sudden silence when it's all over, because the hens are too busy catching their breath after all that yelling, and cats don't bother with the victory shout when they get that triumphant paw-to-tail-feather strike.

And foxes play. We try to discourage that.

And now we have the new variant – chase the cat. Cat Chaser is an ordinary-looking, average-sized white hen, trying to prove the current theory that chickens are the evolutionary descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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