Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Brooding Look

One of our chickens went missing – it happens, for a number of reasons. So, they wander next door, decide the food, service or both is better and stay the night, and the following day the neighbour asks is this your chicken? Or, they wander too far, something with teeth and claws decides that the food looks good, the chicken stays for more than just the night, and the following day, the pile of feathers says that was tasty.
And then there is the third option – unbeknownst to us, a hen has been laying her eggs somewhere other than the nest boxes we provide. Then, having laid a good number, she disappears to go broody. This time, her name is Carnival.
Our missing bird taking a (dust) bath.
She disappeared two nights back, so cue the late-night walk around the field checking for sad heaps of feathers. I found nothing, and these days the neighbours send our occasional marauding hens home, so that left broody, or killed further away. Finding a white hen in the dark by lamplight sometimes works... Carnival is brown with stripes, and yellow patches - I gave up looking once the daylight went.
The following morning, I took a more extensive look, but still no sad pile of feathers, no she wasn’t at the neighbours, but she didn’t turn up for breakfast either, and in the past broody hens turn up for the morning grain.
At this point, we wrote Carnival off as a probable distant fatality but, around lunchtime, when we were talking through exactly which brown hen was missing, making sure that it really was Carnival (because she’s not the only one in brown and stripes) I pointed to a particular hen and said... isn’t that the missing one?
Yes. Carnival was back. Not broody at all, right? Wait, what’s that smell? What did I just tread in? We call it the broody turd. After twenty-four hours (approximately) of sitting on the eggs, a hen has a lot of well-fermented faeces stored up and looking for somewhere to go. Not only is the broody turd big, but it has reach and presence, a foul miasma that spreads and lingers. Maybe she is broody then.
So, decision time. Shut her in somewhere until she gets bored of being broody, or track her back to the nest. We’ve lost a few hens this year, and the lock her in routine is not easy to get right, so we opted to track Carnival.
Now, about this lunchtime business – it was a nice day, so we were going to eat out, lunch was already on the plates and ready to go when I spotted our missing hen. I took the first watch, whilst my partner ate, and then we swapped. Yes, we could both eat and watch, but a hen on the way back to her nest can be a nippy little devil. In the time you take to put lunch somewhere safe from all the other hens, she could be gone... And then it’s another twenty-four hours or so before the next opportunity.
So, what does a young bird do when she comes off the eggs? A dust-bath, obviously, a quick freshen up just after dropping that broody turd, and then a bite to eat. Hey, there’s an idiot human following me, how about some grain, mate? Then perhaps another dust bath, a leisurely stroll to fool anything trying to follow her back to the nest, maybe a bit of sun-bathing. Then another stroll... are we paying attention... how about a stroll around the corner box of the stables where the hens normally live. Still paying attention, are we?
She vanished. How hard can it be to watch a chicken? There one moment, gone the next. Somewhere in the vicinity of the stables...
By a process of elimination, we worked out where she is. Probably. There’s a whole run of out-buildings... those either side of the one the chickens use are piled high with stuff in storage. So, if she’s in one of those, we just have to take everything out...
So, we had a plan – watch and wait, and then follow our elusive broody once she comes out for lunch. We will watch carefully – we know where she vanishes, so those decoy strolls can be ignored... and then we will know which box.
The following day, with another round of really nice weather, I set an alarm on my phone to patrol the yard every twenty minutes. Carnival was a no-show at mid-day and eventually, we had lunch in one of those twenty minute gaps, certain that the moment we sat down she would appear, but not this time. In due course, on account of the weather, we had a decent serving of some home-made ice-cream, and as I stepped out of the house with that, there was Carnival.
She strung us along for nearly an hour and even then, we almost missed it. One moment she was pecking around and then, like something out of a Bond movie, she slipped into the shadows, and made a run for it, up on to the perch, up again onto a stack of boxes, and through a ridiculously tiny gap into the store next door.
This is where human guile outwits hen speed. I had all the doors with their bolts barely hanging on. We knew which way she went and got the adjacent door open just a crack to watch her go over all the stacked junk and narrow down the approximate nesting site.
And on the third day... as per the forecast, the weather turned grey and we spent a few hours carefully emptying the store, working back until a certain box that felt too heavy for its size...
In the egg-box

Carnival is now with her eggs in a nice, solid nest box, safe from the rats and other predators. The hole to next door is blocked. She will try to go back. They always do. It will take a few days before her head is re-programmed to recognise the nest box as hers.
The new home - are you sure those are mine?


In the meanwhile, we check on her from time to time. All is going well. She has that grim and brooding look... put those fingers in here and you won’t be getting them back. That’s how a broody hen is supposed to be.

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