Phyllis the pheasant

Phyllis the pheasant is three weeks old today and feathering up nicely. Of course that sentence makes two big assumptions: firstly, that our adopted chick is a girl and secondly, that she’s a pheasant. Being no game bird expert and having originally thought this incomer was a baby chicken (!), I’m open to correction. She does bear a striking resemblance to the female pheasant that’s been loitering in the chicken run and helping herself to the Araucana ladies’ pellets (more of this cheeky wild bird behaviour another time). She’s dull in colour: greys, browns, black and white and quite a slender little thing. Largely self-sufficient – which is just as well, as according to our rescue bird adviser we’re not meant to interact with her lest she becomes too human-friendly – the only time I’ve had to assist her is on discovering that she was ‘pasted up’ at the weekend. 

Our freshly hatched chicken brood suffered the same problem last year – effectively, they become a little bunged up with their own droppings so it’s up to their adoptive parents to sort out. If neglected, this condition can be fatal, so with a bowl of warm water and some cotton wool I opened up the brooder to assist the little bird. Naturally enough, as she’s bigger and flightier these days she swoops out of her digs before I can pick her up. This time a ten-minute Tom & Jerry style chase ensued around our dining room floor before I managed to pick her up and clean her bottom. After a bit of wriggling, she rested in my hand and let me perform the undignified task. It took a lot of warm water and patience to very carefully remove the queue of droppings attached to her bottom and surrounding fluff – if you’re not careful you can easily damage her vent, so it’s delicate work. After about half an hour (no joke), she was back in the brooder to warm up and dry off under the lamp. All I can say is I hope she doesn’t turn into an ungrateful teenager after we’ve carried out tasks like this.


The amorous Buff Orpington cockerel and lady friend, Audrey, the white Araucana


Elsewhere on the smallholding, we’ve had to separate our cockerel from his two Araucana ladies as he was proving a little too amorous for his own good. I noticed a bare patch showing on Brownie, the brown bird and the smallest of these two beauties, and decided enough was enough. The little and large nature of the huge Buff Orpington cockerel courting these diminutive birds never seemed quite right anyway. So he’s been banished to the spare chicken run to think it all over – which is a little problematic as this is where Phyllis the pheasant will be heading in a week or two – and those two co-existing in the same run would be a recipe for disaster. Hmm, a plan needs to be hatched.

A pheasant experience

So, we have a pheasant in our dining room! After a few days of our denial (I really wanted our chick to be a chicken), his identity was confirmed courtesy of the many images to be found on the internet. Then, a bit of a quandary presented itself: should we try and take him to the local farm where he may have come from originally or would a rescue centre be best? I couldn’t help feeling that having had him indoors under a brooding lamp and intense human scrutiny for ten days that we’d meddled with nature enough and that he ought to go back where he probably hatched. So on Sunday morning, James, the two Labs and I strolled down to the farm down the end of our lane, hoping to resolve the chick situation. Knocking on the door, we couldn’t help feeling a little silly – I’m sure they’ve loftier concerns than the welfare of one pheasant chick. It turned out they were in Norfolk, so we returned home.

The little fella


The orphan chick needed a change of bedding, so James caught and held him while I lay some straw in the brooder on top of fresh corrugated cardboard and constructed a climbing frame of twigs so the wild bird, in the absence of playful mates, has some form entertainment. He looked remarkably calm in James’s hand – it was probably a relief to be out of the brooder. Large and strong enough now, he no longer needs the warmth of the brooding lamp, so we switched that off and placed him back his freshly furnished digs to skip about at tremendous speed.

A chance to examine the pheasant to ensure he's healthy

Yesterday morning I rang a lady who rescues birds in the hope that she might take our fledgling pheasant on. ‘I don’t really deal with game birds,’ she explained, ‘more swans and other waterfowl.’ Hardcore, I thought to myself. Suddenly, our diminutive charge seemed pretty easy to look after. She confirmed we’d done pretty much the right things by it so far and we should pop him in the spare outdoor run in a fortnight or so and release him into some woodland, or in the willow land at the end of the garden, when he’s old enough to fly. So that’s our new course of action and we’ll be adoptive parents to a pheasant for the next few weeks – I’ll relish this particularly as we’ve lost a couple of members of our flock of hens lately, so it’s cheering to be rearing a bird at the same time.

Wild thing

It’s a game bird. We’re almost sure the little fluffy orpan that arrived a week ago today demanding food, water and shelter and threatening to not last the night, is indeed either a pheasant or partridge or something of that ilk. He’s developing some beautiful black and white polka-dot feathers and a growth spurt over the weekend confirmed that the rescue chick ain’t no hen – way too flighty and long-legged. Our little charge is on the move all day – unlike his chicken chick predecessors who simply played and collided like toddlers, falling asleep at regular intervals. The little chap is desperate to fly away and keeps on crashing into the mesh walls and ceiling of his brooder. Now growing into an adolescent and perfectly fit and healthy, this enclosure seems a little redundant.

I rang the RSPB who referred me to the RSPCA who referred me to the vet’s. Not sure what they’d do with it and pretty certain they wouldn’t thank me for the delivery either. A Country Living colleague suggested contacting a network of rescue centres so will try that tack today or perhaps we should just take the bird to our local farmer who could release it to join his own game. Oh boy, how these things can fly.

Is it a bird? Is it a…?

The little abandoned chick we took in earlier in the week (see ‘Chick Delivery’, below) has now been warm and safe in the brooder for two and a half days. Life’s so fragile at this stage in the young bird’s life that we can’t assume he’ll survive what must have been a pretty traumatic entry into the world (was he dropped by an owl on a fly-past?), but he’s showing all the signs of a born survivor – and despite his best attempts even James has become rather attached to the little fluffy fella.

A rare still moment

Every time we open the dining room door (which displays an assortment of neon-coloured Post It notes bearing warnings such as KEEP DOOR SHUT and CHICK ALERT lest Beau the Bengal should sneak in and help himself to a tiny poultry morsel), it’s a relief to hear our minuscule charge scratching about on the corrugated cardboard floor and cheeping quite happily to himself. He seems to be enjoying his spacious new home which is built to accommodate up to 20 chicks – in fact, he’s whizzing about at such a speed that I’m beginning to wonder if he’s 100% chicken. And my, what long legs he has. I don’t remember any of the chicks from the 2010 batch being quite so speedy or having a fine, lengthy pair of pins. He travels at such an astonishing speed that when I tried to video him this morning, all I was left with was a blur on screen and a load of chick crumb dust in his wake. So to confirm his poultry features: he has a short beak (tick), tiny stubby wings (tick), a stripey fluffy covering like the Araucana chicks (tick). But on the other hand, lankiness and blinding speed.

Enjoying some more boiled egg in his deluxe pad

Hmm. I need some help identifying him – can any of those henkeepers/ornithologists out there help? Check out the chick flick at

Chick delivery

The Smallholdings was a-flutter with excitement last night. Returned home from the station, picking handfuls of goosegrass on the way, and cut through the garden to give it to the few stragglers who were still out pecking around when most of the hens had turned in for the night. Walking across the lawn I spotted James in the spare chicken coop setting up the brooding lamp with a washing up bowl beneath it. Inside was a stripey little chick, so tiny it could only have been a couple of days old. Our neighbours had just brought it round wondering if it belonged to us – they’d found it wandering in front of their gate on the drive.
We haven’t raised any chicks this year wanting to concentrate on finishing renovating our house in any spare time, though last Easter we thoroughly enjoyed incubating and hatching out several fluffy of which the Araucanas (one pictured below), Rhode Island Red and Buff Orpington cockerel are the result. Naturally, we were the first place our neighbours thought of, but where this little fella came from – and how it survived the countless cats (including Beau, our voracious Bengal), I’ll never know.

One of the Araucana chicks from last year - spookily similar to our new charge

Delighted with our new charge (who somewhat spookily resembles our Araucanas when they were his age), we dredged up the tips on chick-care we’d picked up last year. First, he needed a secure, warm place to be, so we decided against the empty chicken house and left him behind the locked gate there while we got another brooding lamp from the loft (very rare we can lay our hands on anything we need up there), boiled an egg to feed him (sounds odd, I know, but this is what chicks eat while still inside their shell, giving them the strength to break out), arranged two chairs in top of the dining room table from which the lamp could suspending a length of wood (assisted by Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Sarah Raven and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the form of cookbooks) so it hovered just at the right height.
I returned to the spare coop ready to scoop up the little chap and take him to his new quarters. As I unbolted the gate, I saw his makeshift bed was empty. I couldn’t believe it. Just minutes before he looked barely strong enough to stand and now he’d vanished from his fleece-lined washing bowl and was nowhere to be seen. To add to my distress, Beau the Bengal was scaling the chickenwire desperate to claim the little bird for his own. Had the chick miraculously found a tiny hole in the wall and escaped into our cat’s clawed clutches? No – at exactly that moment I heard cheeping from behind the stainless steel pellet bin and a tiny winged stripey chick fluttering about. Phew-y. How on earth ?
Suffice to say, we installed him in a very tall-sided plastic crate-cum-brooder lest the rascal escaped once more.

The little chap taking chopped-up boiled egg

After a little encouragement he ate tiny pieces of boiled egg from my finger and took sips of water, making a little clicking noise with his minuscule beak. Leaving him at around 11.30pm I went to bed fully prepared for the fact that he might not make the night. After all, as James said, we didn’t know what kind of journey he’d had or how far he’d travelled. Had he been dropped out of the mouth of a predator? And how long had he been outside without the warmth of a mother hen or brooding lamp?

Warming under the brooding lamp (which casts a purply-red light over everything)

Anyway, I woke up around 5.15am, went down to see him straightaway and was delighted to find him looking up at me seeming even stronger than he did last night. After a breakfast of more egg and water, he started to totter about his new home occasionally falling asleep on the spot the way chicks do. James is home today, so that took the edge off leaving the little guy and heading to London for work. Fingers crossed he’s coming on leaps and bounds tonight.

Animal attraction

With three dogs, a highly strung feline and two flocks of chickens, I’ve come to realise a bit of cat and mouse at the Smallholdings is inevitable. As we’ve acquired different pets over time, the dynamics of our own mini animal kingdom have shifted. First there were the two chocolate Labradors – adorable, laid-back creatures who happily travel back and forth to work with James and have been a big part of our lives for the past eight years.

Megan, the most generously coated of the two chocolate Labradors

Then came a pair of chickens – elderly, third-hand birds we inherited from a friend. After the odd chase here and there, the Labs learned to respect them and now barely take notice of their feathery companions as they range freely around the garden. More members of the flock followed and all was harmonious.

The hybrid flock enjoying a bit of 'bread porridge'

Two years ago Beau, the Bengal arrived. A beautiful but feisty (and, some say, disturbed) rescue cat that couldn’t resist running at both the birds and dogs, ambushing them at every opportunity. The Labs soon grew weary of the surprise attacks from this insane interloper and the hens were equally indifferent to his empty threats, so when Darcy, our German Shepherd puppy, arrived last year, Beau was rubbing his paws with Cheshire cat glee. Since December 2009 when the unwitting young canine arrived, Beau has kindled a passion in Darcy that would surely be a match for his literary namesake. Obsession barely begins to describe Darcy’s love for Beau who teases him relentlessly in the garden, begs him to chase him then meows ear-shatteringly in his face and swipes at his head. Darcy’s puppy eyes follow wherever the cat chooses to go – I can’t help admire Beau’s masterful manipulations.

That's one loved-up dog (and a very smug cat)

While the cat pursues the dog and vice versa, Darcy is also a little too interested in the two Araucana hens and Buff Orpington cockerel that live near the house. He’s already tried to break into their run by chewing a hen-shaped hole in the chicken wire (can you imagine?), which we discovered only when the three birds were out pecking about on the lawn one morning. So these days we put Darcy into his kennel before letting the chickens loose out into the garden – but even this isn’t fool-proof. Last Sunday, the German Shepherd’s penchant for poultry inspired him to scale the brick wall of his enclosure (5 foot tall!) and break free. Thankfully, the feathered trio somehow managed to run round to their coop and squeeze back through their pop-hole before Darcy could have his wicked way with them. So while all seems peaceful at the Smallholdings, there are undercurrents of predation everywhere – and that’s not to mention the cockerel’s relentless courtship of his women folk and Beau’s taste for rabbits and mice.