Phyllis the pheasant is six weeks old

Finally, the camera-shy Phyllis agreed to stay still for five seconds so I could capture her in a photo, albeit from a distance and in the semi-darkness of her henhouse home. It’s rather pleasing that the bird that came to us via our neighbours as a day-old chick all those weeks ago is growing into such a fine-looking game bird.  The fact she’s so reluctant to have her picture taken is actually a comfort, as it means she’s still decidedly feral and we haven’t turned her into a pet…yet. My fear has been that when we release her she won’t have the wherewithal to behave like a normal game bird and she’ll soon come a cropper. For this reason, we’ve piled her chick-crumb bowl high and left numerous drinkers full to the brim so we don’t go into her run too often and inadvertently tame her.
 
Phyllis the pheasant

 

I’m confidently saying ‘her’ and ‘Phyllis’, but after speaking to a gamekeeper’s artist wife the other day I’m a little foxed as to her sex. She could well be a male as, though she has the colours – and prettiness I like to think – of a hen bird, she could turn out to be a cock because pheasants don’t take on their colours till they’re older. Nothing seems to be straightforward in the bird world, particularly when it comes to gender. I could swear our Buff Orpington cockerel turned into a boy but started out promisingly as a pullet who we hoped would eventually lay us the occasional egg and decorate the garden with her fine feminine form. Still, I wouldn’t change the old boy for all the world, it’s always a delight to hear his somewhat croaky crow resounding across the garden in the mornings – and rather amusing to witness his fumbled attempts to court the ladies.  

Hen home improvement

Sometimes the list of DIY jobs on the house we’ve been renovating for five years can feel endless, so there’s nothing more appealing than a mini project outdoors that we can finish in a day. James has been particularly keen on creating a dust bath for the large flock of hybrids down the end of the garden, though I’m afraid I wouldn’t even entertain the idea till we’d at least bought a tap for my own much- anticipated freestanding bath that’s been sitting like a rather large ornament in the bathroom – unplumbed – since 2007. Tap received and installation in motion, I give the poultry facility the green light. The girls will love a place to clean their feathers and cool down and it’s the least we can do when they lay all those beautiful orange- yolked eggs for us, our friends and colleagues. A dust bath is also an opportunity for hens to rid their feathers of pesky insects – a handy poultry book we’ve been consulting sagely advised adding some louse powder so the girls shaking this into their plumage along with loose soil and ash from the woodburning stove so they’d medicate themselves. Tidy. We set to work gathering necessary tools and materials – all odd bits that we have knocking around – and wheelbarrow them down to the chicken run.

One of the new brown hens offers to help

Materials:

– 2 x vertical posts (for the legs)

– 1 x piece of wood (to run horizontally along the side of the existing undercover run and fix the dust bath roof to)

– 1 x thin plank (to place in front of the dust bath to prevent the girls’ shaking and kicking out the contents) 1x sheet of corrugated iron (for roof to keep the dust bath dry in wet weather)

– Selection of old terracotta roof tiles (we used these to prevent the hens catching themselves in the chicken wire that lined the outside of the undercover run)

– Screws

Step 1: Rotavating loosens the soil to help the bird dust themselves
Step 2: Digging holes for the vertical roof-supporting posts
Step 3: Terracotta tiles line the chicken wire to prevent any wing injuries
Step 4: Levelling and screwing on the horizontal roof support
Step 5: Screwing on the corrugated-iron roof
The finished poultry spa area

In just an afternoon, the poultry spa area was declared open and one of our youngest hens was keen be the first to try it out (below).

New birds in the flock

The hot dry weather has taken its toll on the most elderly of our chickens. We’ve had them for almost four years now and, being hardworking hybrids, many of them have come to the end of their egg-laying lives. They’ve served us well during that time, offering up beautiful orange-yoaked eggs most days so the very least we can do is provide them with a comfortable retirement with all the space, lettuce and corn they could hope for. At the same time, we have to keep up with production. Customers include family, friends and colleagues who’ll be missing out on their cooked breakfasts if we don’t make up the egg shortfall.

Thankfully, due to a loyal following, our henkeeping hobby is paying for itself these days, so we can take some notes out of the money tin and head over to nearby Ardleigh in Suffolk to pick up some new recruits when needs must. Jenny and Chris of Landbase Poultry are always a pleasure to visit. I rang and reserved three brown hens (Bovan’s Goldline) and two White Stars (who lay snow-white beauties) last week, and picked the new recruits up on Saturday afternoon. Jenny sells them at point-of-lay which means they’re practically up and running in the egg department – thank goodness.  

A Bovan's Goldline fresh out of the box

We unloaded the car and released the new girls out of their boxes and into the spare run on Saturday afternoon. After a few slightly undignified skirmishes around chicken runs in pursuit of young birds, we’ve discovered that it’s best to clip wings (to stop escapees flying out of their enclosures) at night when they’re considerably more docile. So we waited till dark (around 10pm these summer evenings) which is also an ideal time to introduce new additions to the flock (less disruption to the older members already peacefully perching in the coop, too). Then the answer to our dilemma of what to do with the Buff Orpington cockerel magically presented itself – if he goes to live with 16 hens (rather than the two tiny Araucanas) at least his amorous advances will be evenly shared out, with no one bird suffering all his attentions.

The Buff Orpington can't believe his luck - 16 birds all to himself

Phew – we just about had the dozen eggs James’ parents had ordered for Sunday morning, with the help of a tiny pullet egg delivered in the nick if time by one of our emergency brown hens. The reputation of the smallholdings goes unharmed.

The trusty flock of hybrids and the Buff Orpington cockerel (far right)
Once the Buff Orpington cockerel had vacated the spare run, I cleaned it and strew the floor with straw and in went Phyllis the pheasant. She was out-growing the brooder in our dining room at a rapid pace and needed some space in which to stretch her wings. It’s all undercover, too, so she should be safe to grow and develop into the fine game bird she’s destined to become over the next couple of months. Due to her flighty, rapid nature, I’ve not been able to photograph her – all she leaves is a blur in her wake. The trick will be to leave her alone now, save for topping up her food and water, so we don’t domesticate this feral creature and she’s fit to be released into the wild. All our bird problems resolved – the Araucana girls free of the Buff Orpington’s attentions, the Buff happily out of his batchelor pad and in the company of a bevy of beauties, new layers plugging the egg gap, and Phyllis the pheasant well on her way to flying the Smallholdings nest. 
The Araucana hens happily roam their run minus the cockerel