This Tuesday, 24 April, our Rhode Island Red, imaginatively called Rhodie, will be two years old. I know this because 24 April 2010 will for ever be known at the Smallholdings as Hatching Day. I was at Country Living HQ, but James was back home, (small)holding the fort and spent much of the day watching the curious appliance on the kitchen worksurface that is the incubator – but at first glance, could easily be mistaken for a breadmaking machine or similar device. Inside were 16 fertile hen eggs – four Welsummers (not so sure these were fertile as none hatched), four Buff Orpingtons, four Rhode Island Reds and four Araucanas (all acquired at Francine Raymond‘s hen party that Easter). Throughout 24 and 25 April that year, cracks began to appear on the shells and if you looked closely you could detect the efforts of the chick inside to extricate itself, it’s tiny beak chipping away. In total, 11 emerged. Once out, the strange, damp little birds soon fluffed up and tottered about in the humid machine.
It was a joy to then install the chicks in a brooder with wood shavings and an infra-red lamp to keep them warm and watch them eat chick crumb (and hard-boiled egg. Yes, I know this sounds odd, but it’s what you do). They skipped about and tumbled over each other like toddlers. Soon their fluff turned into feathers and we could eventually sex each one. Sure enough – as every other hatcher will tell you – the majority were, disappointingly, cockerels but we’d three pullets. Two were named Audrey and Mabel (our white and brown/black Araucanas) and one was a beautiful copper-coloured Rhode Island Red. Audrey and Mabel were thick as thieves right from the start and Rhodie just didn’t seem to fit in to their exclusive club of two. So we decided to introduce her instead to the flock of hybrids down the end of the garden – after all, most of these cross-breeds are bred from the Rhode Island Red. It seemed her natural home. It’s never a particularly good idea to add just one bird to a large, existing flock, so we drafted in four more hybrids (reliable layers White Stars and Bovan’s Goldline) to accompany her. Once it was dark we popped the new recruits on the perches in the large hybrid chicken shed (nocturnal introductions seem to lessen the impact). And after a little bit of new-girl bullying, the pecking order was established and the five girls knew their place right at the bottom.
Since then though, there’s obviously been a little jostling and Rhodie has emerged to be top bird – quite a feat when you consider there are 14 other chickens to deal with, some almost five years old and pretty cantankerous. We hadn’t noticed much of this poultry power struggle until the other day when James was cleaning out the chicken shed. It’s clear that Rhodie considers herself chief bird – she hopped from the nesting box onto the top of the door (wide open for cleaning duties) and onto the roof even. Once she performed the magnificent flying trick, she pecked at all the other hens and clucked away, aubibly claiming her crown for all to hear. Respect for the Rhode Island Red! We will watch her reign with interest.