The curious case of the gluttonous hen

The terrible twins, AKA Audrey (foreground) and Mabel, the Araucanas

Weeks without my favourite hen’s eggs have turned into months and I’m missing their blue presence in the collecting basket. On consulting my new favourite poultry guide Haynes Chicken Manual by Laurence Beeken while travelling on the train to London Liverpool Street this morning, I found there are all manner of reasons why Audrey, our white Araucana, is off-lay – and that when she does rustle up the occasional egg, the shell collapses in the nesting box like a deflated balloon. After eliminating a few potential causes, there are two possible scenarios, however: 

a) Deficiency in calcium

b) Obesity

I must check the girls’ levels of oyster shell as if this has run out, topping it up would soon rectify reason A – it’s a good source of the mineral. Perhaps a lack of the supplement may also be the cause of abnormalities in Mabel’s shells – little clusters of shell-textured balls on the surface that can’t be removed. Just a little problem that needs to be cleared up.

Mabel's eggstraordinary offerings - are the spots a case of calcium deficiency?

However, reason B isn’t as crazy as it sounds – and seems the most plausible. She may have been christened after a certain elegant 1960s film star, but Audrey isn’t showing the restraint that her namesake was so famous for when it comes to food. I only noticed the other day that she gets far more than her own share – and her diminutive sidekick Mabel lets her get away with it. I’ve always known that she wears the trousers (or pantaloons in her case) in the relationship – it’s just her and little Mabel in that run who can get a bit of a rough deal.

Mabel, the Black Araucana, has to be quick if she's going to get a look in

Sometimes I will simply throw some leftover pasta or potato over the fence – along with their daily helping of greens – on my way through the garden. But on Sunday I took time to observe them snacking and realised Mabel doesn’t get a look in. I offered them individual pieces of fusilli, tossing them on the ground and watching the pair’s behaviour. Audrey managed to eat hers plus mug Mabel for whatever morsel she has taken for herself. No wonder Mabel’s so tiny in comparison – her larger friend probably eats the lion’s share of pellets, too. I always thought that keeping two hens in a large coop and run would mean plenty for everyone, but evidently Audrey’s no sharer. Perhaps it’s best to weigh out their food each morning – we’ve always simply topped up their endless supply in a standard hopper. Either way, it’s clear Audrey may need to go on a diet.

Phillip the Pheasant flies the Smallholdings nest

When James found Phillip the Pheasant repeatedly banging his beak against the metal food bin in his enclosure at the weekend, we knew the time had come to release him. It wasn’t as if he was hungry – his bowl of pellets was full to the brim – no, this kind of demented behaviour suggested boredom and frustration. And who can blame him?

Shortly after we took him in on 10 May (see blog ‘Chick Delivery’) when he was just a mystery chick that we hoped was a chicken, we’ve had mixed feelings about raising a game bird. But then who wouldn’t take in a tiny chick if their neighbours brought it over in a washing-up bowl one spring evening, if they have all the equipment to keep him alive?

It was wonderful to see him grow into a handsome pheasant, despite my initial disappointment that we didn’t have another hen on our hands. But then we had to keep him safe from Darcy the German Shepherd and other predators, so we raised him in an enclosed brick-built house and run once he was big and strong enough to leave the brooder we’d set up in our dining room. As he grew, this felt increasingly wrong and yet until he was three months old we feared he wouldn’t be able to fend for himself in the wild.

There was a great sense of relief, therefore, on Saturday afternoon as James and I fetched a cardboard box in which to transport him down to the willow beds at the end of the Smallholdings garden. However, it was with some satisfaction that our hands-off approach had worked: Phillip proved so untamed and so quick that it took us some time – and extra resources – to catch him in his small run. First I went into his house where he had retreated, equipped with a pair of gardening gloves. Phillip was so frantic however that he flew about between the walls at great speed and somewhat alarmed after he’d flown at my face and landed on my back as I crouched over to catch him, I retreated totally beaten – not to mention, a little scratched. Next in went James shrewdly wearing the visor he usually reserves for chainsawing and strimming.

With this extra protection, he finally captured Phillip and put him in the box. Taking a dish of water and plenty of food, we walked down the garden and over the fence to find a suitable spot to release him. Wanting to encourage him to roost in trees like his fellow pheasants, we put his cardboard box down by a low-branched hawthorn that edges our plot. Scattering the surrounding ground with pellets and putting his water down, we lay the box on its side and slowly opened up the flaps.

Phillip assesses the situation from his cardboard box

Much to our surprise, there was no rapid escape: Phillip remained inside, no doubt shell-shocked by his journey. We left him to emerge in his own time and returned later to find an empty box and a little tunnel through the undergrowth nearby. There was little else we could do now and even several days later, it still feels very peculiar to have raised a creature for three months and just to release it into the wild. But if the fight he put up with us is anything to go by, he’ll be able to fend for himself.

Meanwhile, all’s well with our other birds, though I’m still waiting for Audrey, our white Araucana, to resume production. Thankfully, her sister Mabel is laying regularly again now and I’m prizing her pale-blue eggs like never before. Between her and the hybrids, I’ve a dozen and a half to take to the office today and ensure my Country Living colleagues are in cooked breakfasts this weekend.

Chickens covered in yolk and plastered with straw

Audrey and Mabel take the opportunity to drink from the dogs' bowl while taking a turn about the garden

Thankfully, after several egg-less weeks, due to the moult (from which I’ve gathered some pretty feathers), the Araucanas (AKA Terrible Twins) and Rhodie, the Rhode Island Red, seem to be finally swinging back into production. Mabel laid much to her and our delight on Sunday morning when I discovered her tiny blue delivery in the nesting box (I’m sure she must be a bantam, she and her lovely eggs are minuscule). She promptly performed her own unique announcement, clucking wildly – at a volume that more than compensates for her diminutive size – and dashing skittishly about the run. Then she spent the next few minutes protesting at the gate to be let out, as if she knew that laying meant she was entitled to range freely around the garden.

Rhodie, looking a bit bare but beginning to feather up nicely after the moult

And it would seem Audrey is trying her best, too. On Saturday, I let them both out, quite a bit later than on a week day due to indulging in a lie-in. Evidently, they’d been waiting right by the door as they burst out of the pophole and practically ran down the walkway. I noticed something rather unusual about Audrey’s left leg: it was covered in a yellowy-orange substance and plastered with straw sticking out at all angles. I looked closer and realised what this liquid was: yolk. I nipped round to run to the nesting box and sure enough there was Audrey’s soggy attempt. I’ve discovered that the first eggs that hens produce on coming back into lay after a sabbatical look like collapsed baloons and have a strange translucent, soft quality. It must have been quite a surprise for the girl.

Audrey's attempt at an egg for breakfast on Sunday. I didn't fancy this one much.

 Thank goodness the flock of trusty hybrids continue to make up for the shortfall – while pure-breeds such as the Araucana make very pretty pets and produce some stunning pale-blue eggs, you can’t always rely on them to come up with the goods for a cooked breakfast.   

White and black feathers shed by Audrey; auburn and black from Rhodie, our Rhode Island Red

CL chick goes on tour: cockerels in Edinburgh, Welsummer pullets in Sussex

Travelling has been the theme of the week and more specifically, visiting poultry-keeping friends. Last Friday I took the train up to Edinburgh for a long overdue weekend with my university pal and old flatmate Katherine. She lives in a pretty cottage just half an hour’s walk from the city centre, but I’ve rarely experienced such a tranquil setting, in town or country.

The weekend was utterly perfect and whenever we relaxed, read or ate in the garden, Katherine’s chicken would provide us – and neighbouring residents – with plenty of entertainment. She had bought the bird a few weeks ago as company for her old hen Speckle who sadly died a fortnight or so after. However, by the time I arrived on Friday evening, Katherine had discovered why her new recruit wasn’t laying. ‘I’ve been sold a cockerel, haven’t I?’ she said as I peered in through the netting. 

Roger the rooster

There was no denying his large comb and wattles, impressive stature and upright tail. She named him Roger the Rooster and he spent the rest of the weekend endeavouring to earn his keep if nor in eggs, with crowing. He made that rather touching tentative sound young cockerels do and, thankfully, not starting too early in the morning or too loudly either. Despite her affection for the handsome fellow, she wasn’t keen on keeping a non-laying bird, so rang the breeder who’d mistakenly sold her Roger, exchanging him for two pullets (young hens) who are already producing eggs.

Katherine's city plot

Meanwhile Country Living Features Editor Lisa (AKA Twitter’s @countrycommuter, http://twitter.com/#!/countrycommuter), has taken delivery of three Welsummer ladies, which I met yesterday, having driven down to Sussex for the day to work on Country Living’s plans for 2012. They’re a pretty flock, just 14 weeks old with tiny combs that only started to appear this week. Lisa fears they may not lay till next spring 2012. Having experienced this same phonomenen last year I sympathise. Hatching out pure-breed chicks in April (including our Rhode Island Red and the twin Araucanas), meant they reached point of lay just as the nights drew in and it turned chilly (often, pure breeds won’t lay at all over winter), so no eggs were forthcoming from this trio till February this year, when they were discovered with overexcitment and poached immediately. 

Lisa's trio of Welsummer pullets

However, I’m sure once they swing into production Lisa’s won’t disappoint – Welsummers are both pretty and hardy, plus they lay beautiful speckled mahogany-brown eggs that will be well worth the waiting for over winter.

Lisa dreaming of freshly laid eggs