Friday 14 July 2017

19 Days of Chicken Sitting

Back in May 2017, some good friends asked if I would be interested in house sitting for them - and looking after their hens. They live in a very old and delightful house, slightly remote and deep in the countryside of West Yorkshire. I have always enjoyed sitting in their gardens, drinking tea or beer and often thought how nice it would be to 'live in a place like this'. I therefore accepted their request and said I would take on the second two weeks while they were away, abroad. Another friend of theirs was allocated the first two weeks and their son stepped in to cover the weekend, in the middle, when the rest of us would also be away. By the time we all started our house sitting duties, there were, in addition to the main hens and cockerel, four new chicks to watch over.

Throughout this blog, comments in {brackets} are my silent thoughts. My general commentary is in green. Names of people have been changed to letters or Owners, to preserve privacy.

Sunday 25 June

The hens were in their hutch and the mother and chicks were in their barrel, fenced in. A simple matter of closing the hutch door.

Monday 26 June

All hens and chicks present and correct. Let out the cockerel and 2 hens.

Tuesday 27 June

Mr Owner: Hopefully the four chickens are still extant along with cockerel and a couple of hens? I forgot to empty the two dustbins of hen house clearings so asked AA to fetch another empty bin up [from the garden].

R: When I took over from AA, there were 2 orange hens and the cock and one white hen with 4 now quite big chicks.

AA excommunicated the cat! He said I shouldn't encourage it, so although it's been back, apart from stroking it, I've not fed it or let it back in the house. If you'd like to overturn that decision, I will look after it again.

Wednesday 28 June

Mr Owner: Please yourself about the cat. Mrs Owner likes it; AA complained that, like the cockerel, it woke him up!

R: I talk to the cat and stroke it. {I don't know its name*, and since it's another thing around the garden, I call it 'Cat feature'.} I've also been talking to the hens and the cockerel and they've been behaving quite well. {Apart from being in a seed trough!}

Thursday 29 June

I spent most of the day pruning shrubs, trees and hedges. I also ate and picked raspberries.

I cleaned out the hen house and chicken's barrel and gave the chicks new, soft hay bedding.

Friday 30 June

R: The hens are all okay, as of tonight. I cleaned out the hutch and the little barrel, yesterday and put fresh material in (the wood shavings for the hutch and some hay for the little ones). The cat's okay too. I've started giving it a bit of food outside the kitchen in the morning, but not letting it in because I don't want to lose it in the house if I pop out anywhere. {For goodness sake, Cat feature - leave me alone for 5 minutes!}

Saturday 1 July

Mr Owner: Glad to hear chickens still living. {You're not the only one!}

Sunday 2 July

R: How big do the chicks need to be, before they can go free range? - or is it better to keep them in their pen until you get back? - it's only another week and a bit, I suppose. I was wondering which plants I could poke through for them - without killing them with something poisonous. I know they like chick weed, but I've not seen any of that.

Monday 3 July

I let out the cockerel and hen, this morning - gave them corn. Fed the chickens. Made sure they all had water. The cockerel and hen proceeded to roam free around the gardens.

Mr Owner: The chickens were LEFT free range! Free to roam with the mother hen. she should be taking them into the hen house at night by now; that little wire enclosure must be a right mucky mess by now. Perhaps BB fastened them into it 'to keep them secure'? Are they still sleeping in the barrel? If so, after dark take them out and put them into the hen house, but leave the window and the exit whole open so the cockerel can accept them without annoyance at being put-upon; then the next night they may make their way into the house on their own. If you can catch the chicks and put them in, {yeah, right} the mother hen will follow on her own, but leave the exit open. {Not sure that's a good idea}  Also, window fully open for air. Wow! Have they still been confined to that little pen all this time? {Sorry, didn't realise... feel a bit bad, now} BB being extra careful re foxes? Will hopefully start new system re chicks in future.

R: Ah, right. I don't know who locked them in. When you first gave me the hen and chicken tour, you said that's where they were being kept. Mind you, over the last week, the chicks have started to become what all hens eventually become - great escape artists! A few days ago, one got out and this morning, 2 welcomed me on the wrong side of the wire.

R: I have been keeping the chicks barrel dry and refreshed, but I will let them out now. I was closing the cockerel and 2 hens' door at night and leaving their window half open. As per your new instructions, I will leave the window open fully and also leave the door open, from now on. {Still don't think the door open at night is a good idea.} I had thought they needed to be closed in at night, in case of the fox, but I suppose the fox doesn't have a clock or a watch, and could come at any time of day!

Mr Owner: Sorry, my fault. I thought I had made it clear to AA and BB that the four with the mother hen had been wandering free for some time! Also I had ceased to lock up the big ones from well before we left! That one night I locked them in, because of the crowing annoying AA, was the time I was severely pecked! {I'd thought he had put the cockerel back into the hutch and shut the door.}The fox took the hens and the new little chicks that had taken to living in the front garden, which was a shame!  Leave them all free to roam, but if you see ANY of them out of the bottom garden and on the lane, or going into the field, usher them rapidly back up. {Ooops!}

It used to be people with dogs out of control who were more of a problem than were foxes, in the old days, otherwise enjoy the change. Hopefully the cockerel will not peck the new entrants to the house.

R: The hen and chickens have had a nice day, today. 

It always surprises me that the hens not only find their way back to the hutch, but actually start roosting on the perches while it's still daylight. Bedtime seems to be around 5 pm. I shut the hutch door at 6 pm - just in case they wanted to come out again for a while beforehand.

R: I've left the hutch door open, but not entirely sure about leaving it open overnight re the Fox potential... but I'll give it a go. When I used to keep hens [when I was around 15 years old] , I always closed their hutch at night. The funny thing is that your cockerel and hens have seemed quite content to be closed in until 8:30 each morning - and I haven't been pecked yet.

Tuesday 4 July

R: There seems to be one of the two golden hens missing today. The Cockerel is walking around with just one. The cat's vanished too!

R: I don't think he liked the other one much, as he kept chasing her off. No sign of any struggles or feathers anywhere, so she may have hidden somewhere. I'll let you know if she suddenly turns up. All the others, hen and 4 chicks, are fine.

Mr Owner: Funny for cock to be chasing one of them; have they plenty of access to water as well as food - do chicks now live in hen house? {No they don't - I'm still not sure how to get them in.}

R: They have plenty of food and water. I think I should close the hen house door tonight. Rounding up the chicks isn't the easiest thing... and we've had a bit of cheekiness going off with some of the livestock around here.

R: Do you think it will be okay to shut everyone in the hen house tonight, together? I don't suppose the cockerel will have a go at the chicks - they seem to mingle quite well when roaming free.

Mr Owner: Mrs Owner says hen house door should be shut at night. Leave window fully open. {That's what I thought. When I used to keep hens, I always locked them in at night and let them out in the morning.}

R: Yes, I've done that tonight. I am still trying to get the chicks and hen to be in a position to add them...

Mr Owner: You are the best judge as to what to do, being on the spot. My feeling is that, if the chicks are NOT staying in the hen house at night, then the big cockerel should be free to come and go to protect them at all times. {Oh dear, I've upset him now.}

R: I will do my best. Any time I cannot get them into the hen house, I will lock them into their barrel run. Either way, all of them are let out in the morning to roam free. {Still feel I've been told off, but this chicken lark isn't straight forward.}

Wednesday 5 July

I couldn't see the golden hen and the cockerel seemed to be on his own, every now and again, crowing. After an hour of typing, I heard rustling and scratching in the garden; looked out to see the cockerel, and then, a little way to his right, the previously missing hen.

R: Well, yesterday, not only did I lose a hen, but I lost the cat - didn't see either all day. Started writing the epitaph for the hen... However, on a brighter note, there were 2 eggs in the hen house, after nothing laid all week. (AA had told me they had stopped laying by the time he arrived).

R: Suddenly, the cat returned... and so did the hen, who I am now naming after a great women explorer, aptly named, Isabella Bird.

R: I am calling the other hen, Annie Peck.

R: Isabella Lucy Bird, married name Bishop FRGS, was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer, photographer, and naturalist. With Fanny Jane Butler she founded the John Bishop Memorial hospital in Srinagar.

R: Annie Smith Peck was an American mountaineer. She lectured extensively for many years throughout the United States, and wrote four books encouraging travel and exploration.

R: The Cockerel welcomed her back, by giving her a good ticking off.

R: Incidentally, I'm going to have to do a re-write of a well-known poem by Edward Lear. Already got the name, after dropping the whole Owl thing:

'The Hen and the Pussy Cat'.

The Hen and the Pussy Cat went to see
a beautiful pea green field
They took some seed, and plenty of bread
Wrapped up with a sword and a shield.
The Hen looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
'O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!

I might need help with the other verses.

Mr Owner: Glad to hear hen has returned. Cat is a nuisance.

R: The white hen and her chicks are being a bit annoying and keep going into the field by the double gate where you drive in to park your car. I had to pop out this morning, only to discover them, this side of the field hedge, on the other side of the track - but I couldn't stop to try chasing them. When I returned, they were still there, so I herded them back under gates. I have had words with them all, and for a while they behaved. But later, they returned to the field by the gates - what seems to be their favourite spot, in long grass beneath a shady tree.

Thursday 6 July

Mr Owner: The hens/chicks are not going to last long if they are consistently on the lane! Too many dogs come along. Ah well. {I'm being told off again, but what does he expect, when the hens are free range with no barriers!}

R: I will keep chasing them back.

R: After turning up the other day, the missing hen went missing again. This morning there were feathers all over the lawn. I guess Isabella met her Waterloo this time. {Bit of a disaster, really - but no real surprise. I looked everywhere for her and never found where she had been hiding out.}

Friday 7 July

Mr Owner: Do your best to see that the four chickens stay round the back R, or they will be gone as well - especially at night, obviously, and early in the morning; that is why they should now be living in the hen house with the cockerel and being fastened in. If they survive I will have to wire off the back garden from where the dog kennel is I think. {I'm still trying to work out how to get the chicks and mother into the main hen house. Mr Owner is starting to get impatient with me.}

R: {Feeling a bit on the defensive.} I think this is what you have to accept when everyone is free range. Hens don't understand boundaries, unless you put them in their way. The chicks stayed in the garden yesterday, partly because I gave them a bit of my old brown bread. Every time they were edging to the drive, and saw me, they followed me back for a bit more bread. (I don't give them much bread, as I'm not sure if it's good for them to have too much). It became a bit Hitchcock's, 'The Birds', as they started to perch on the garden seat outside the cottage and heads appeared at the window.

R: Can you tell me how you normally get the new ones into the hen house? I'm really not sure of the method. If I try to catch the mother hen and push her through the door, she will just come out again. I don't want to upset them by chasing them.

Mr Owner: I thought we had covered everything re the hens and chickens! {Oh dear - he's really annoyed with me now!} The young ones are still at an age where they need a proper meal in the mornings. When you buy your bread, buy a loaf for them and some milk. Make them a meal of bread and milk and mix some of the small bird seed in it. Feed them that in the mornings, fresh. Any not eaten, scrape into compost feed outside kitchen window, in front of garage, or if they stay up there, outside observatory. {I remember him telling me about the bread and milk, now. Ooops!}I thought you had put them into hen house a while ago - are they still living in the barrel? {Yes, they are still in the f**king barrel!} When cock and hen(s) have retired to perches, lift up barrel and pick up the chicks and put them into the house through the door, {yeah, right - that sounds easy - not!} with the bolt having first shut the little door. Forget the mother hen; she will make her own way in. {You really think so? And the chicks by that time will have run back out!} You may have to repeat the manoeuvre and it is best well after they have all settled for the night. If chicks are following you for bread, they are OBVIOUSLY hungry. {Another telling off.}BB was feeding them all day on and off. {Bugger. BB's better at this job than I am.} Also, the cock and hens. I would take a cup of corn about with me and the cock would ask for it if not enough food where they were. {Slave to the chickens.} I have obviously been remiss, but I thought you had experience with fowl. {Yes, I kept 14 hens between my ages of 14 and 16. It was a long time ago, and unlike yours, I fenced mine into a big run.} Please see there is water in all places they frequent. {Yes, there is.}They will all tend to stay where they are fed most, but if those four chickens have survived up to now, despite wandering into the lane... If you feel up to it, use the wire netting that comprised their little coup enclosure  to cover the little wooden gate and brown painted antique metal fence that crosses to the garage from the dog kennel. The cockerel will not be pleased and they have all got used to eating opposite the kitchen window, but explain to them, that into all lives, some rain must fall.  Pick up chicks, two at a time, to move all food/water tins up to outside kennel? {I might be able to do some fencing, but I won't be picking anyone up.}

R: {Trying to calm the situation and act nonchalantly and in control.} Okay, that's all fine. I do feed the hens and the chicks throughout the day, {on the defensive, again} mainly near the kitchen area, as you originally mentioned, and I have placed water all around the gardens, and by the garage, and AA (I think) created a big drinking trough for them to the left of the big shed, fed by a hose from the barrel, so I keep checking it is topped up. I also make sure there is corn in the tin tray at the big shed, which they mostly eat in the mornings. {That should have sufficiently validated my competence!}

R: All the hens and chicks have been having a lovely time and finding all sorts of exciting grubs in different parts of the garden and if I'm outside they come and sit under my feet. {Trying in vein to show that they probably don't need too much extra food.} I will give them additional bread and milk. None of them wandered into the track today. I can put some wire on the gates, as you suggested, as you may get more chicks in the future, so it will be good for them, too. {Later had a look at the fencing situation, but haven't needed to do anything, as chicks behaving better.}

Saturday 8 July

I prepared some bread and milk for the chickens and went up to let everyone out. The cockerel immediately went for the chicken's food, instead of doing his usual, and running in the opposite direction to get his grain. Despite an attempt to fend him off, he was determined to get his way, so I cursed and left. I'm really going to have to move the chickens tonight.

Mr Owner: Thank you. {Oh, good. I'm back in favour.} The doves and big hens like the sunflower seeds and you may feed the chicks from the cereal packets if there is any cereal left. When they wander afar, they are searching for food. {Okay - point taken. I've learnt something.}

Everyone seemed settled and quiet by about 8 pm. I walked towards the chickens, only to see that a pigeon had got into their wire encased enclosure. As I approached, it started flapping. Without thinking, I went to rescue it. This woke up the hen and all the chickens started coming out. The cockerel, hearing the commotion, suddenly appeared at his door and walked down the ramp. For f**ks sake! Mission aborted. I returned 30 minutes later, after normality had resumed, and shut the hen house door. The term 'crest fallen' doesn't apply only to hens. 

Sunday 9 July

I have decided, that today is definitely going to be chicken moving day.

I let the cockerel and hen out and then fed the chicks some bread and milk mixture, in their pen - so that the cockerel wouldn't try getting it - like the morning before.

Around 10 am I went to buy more bread and milk. I returned to my house and put the milk in the fridge and a note to remind me, on the table. At about 12:30 pm I put everything I needed in the van and drove back to check on the hens. Having arrived, I suddenly realised, I'd got the bread, but had left the milk in the fridge at home! At least I have a bit of my own milk left I can give them.

I went up to the chicken pen and cleared anything that would stop me covering the barrel's entrance and lifting it from its position. 

I then had to come up with an idea for opening the big hutch door, without the cockerel and hen, who perch right in front of it, flying out, over the top of the barrel whilst I'm holding it in position. I thought about trying to raise the wire mesh upwards from the front of the barrel, but in the end, decided to cover the doorway with chicken wire - allowing it to be clipped on and off, as I don't suppose Mr Owner wants me to leave it there as a permanent fixture.

First, I needed a bit of wire. Mr Owner had some spare wire curled around inside the main chicken enclosure. I worked out that I could reach in with some cutters and then pull out a piece of the right size, without dismantling the run. In the process, I noticed some red appearing on the back of my right hand. I had managed to catch my skin on a bit of the sharp cut wire. I dabbed some kitchen roll on my hand and carried on.

I managed to produce a nicely fitting wire door, within the limits of the big closing door. I cut a hole for the barrel entrance area and folded in any sharp bits of wire, so no chickens would get caught on anything. Everything was now ready for the evening.

I crept towards the hen house and chicken run, carefully lifted the mesh gate and dropped it in front of the barrel. I then returned to the hen house and closed the little door. Everything was now in place. I lifted the barrel and mesh and carried everything to the hen house. I opened the big door and thrust the barrel towards the wire, removing the barrel mesh at the same time. The cockerel and hen looked a bit put out and no one would come out of the drum. I gave it a little shake and one chick walked out, eventually followed by mother and one more chick. The last two chicks were determined to stay put. Another few gentle shakes and they were all in. The cockerel had dismounted from his perch and was now scratching up the extra bedding I'd put in a far corner for the chicks. I withdrew the barrel and shut the big door. After quite a kerfuffle and much wing flapping, the hens began to accept their new group situation. I returned a few minutes later, when all was quiet, and some of the chicks were actually on the perch with the cockerel.

Monday 10 July

Today's big question is: 'Will the chicks go back into the hen house tonight?'

It was raining when I got up. I let out the hens and fed them. Today was going to be lawn cutting day, but it was looking unlikely, with the weather. However, there was a possibility of it drying up later. 

The hens were all over the place again! I've given up trying to be in control - it's impossible.

Fortunately, the rain stopped and the ground dried a bit. I went to check on the hen house. They were all inside, on the perch. What a relief. I shut the door. I could now mow the lawns.

I started mowing at about 7 pm. The petrol driven rotary mower was excellent and quite a recent purchase. I even had an optional power drive assist to the rear wheels - very useful when going up inclines. It was still quite demanding work and certainly got me sweating. By the time I had cut 6 of the 7 lawn areas, most of my clothes were wet with perspiration. However, the results looked good and I was glad I'd managed it. I gave the mower a clean all around and underneath and returned it to the garage.

Tuesday 11 July

I'm so glad I cut the lawns the night before. It's raining again today. In fact, it was still raining beyond 8:45 pm. I let the hens out and after eating, they began their daily foraging. I fed the cat and returned to my bit of the house.

Later, feeling a bit sorry for the cat, I decided to try and improve its sleeping area. Currently, it was just an open shelf area in an old kitchen unit, outside, below the main house kitchen window. I looked around for a cardboard box and eventually found a suitable one in the garage - not being used for storage. I shook out the cat's blanket and discovered it was on top of an old canvas bag for extra padding. The bag fitted perfectly (no pun intended) and once the blanket was on top, I placed the box in the open cabinet. It was an exact fit to the sides, and left about 5 inches of space at the open end. This would keep the cat warmer at night and also protect it from any further rain.

At about 6:30 pm, I went to shut the hen house. The cockerel was perching on his own!

'Where are your hens and the chicks?' I asked. 'I thought you were looking after them.' He looked at me with a nonchalance that was like a person shrugging their shoulders. I went off to look for them and discovered the chicks at the other side of the house, now huddled by a bush near the front door. 

'What are you all doing here?' I asked. 
I went and got some corn in a plastic tub and started to shake it, whilst calling to them to follow me. It was quite a distance to the hen house and normally, they start following me, but after about 20 feet, they lose interest. To my relief, I managed to get them all the way to the front of the hen house, by which time, the cockerel had come out to see what was happening. He initially looked at me accusingly, as if I was doing something to his hens. But I quickly put him right.

'Here you are Mr Cockerel. It's up to you to get them inside, now.' And I walked away.

I returned 30 minutes later, and everyone was inside. I shut the little door and left.

Wednesday 12 July

As per usual, I spent a few times, throughout the day, trying to herd the chicks back into the garden. This time they were in another part of the farmer's field, in long grass, scratching about and sunbathing. I made several attempts to encourage them to follow me and after about half an hour, managed to get a couple of them all the way to the garden side gate, adjoining the field. However, getting them through the gate wasn't going to happen. I gave up and closed the gate. A few hours later, they were all back in the garden again - pestering me for food and pecking at my shoes. I made them bread and milk with some grain.

At about 6:30 pm, I went to see if everyone was in the hen house. What a relief to find them all inside. I tried to count them, but it was hard to see through the air vent mesh. I went to the egg box door and tried counting from there. Not an easy task, as you'll see. I have no idea how they manage to perch in a bunch like that! It's like being given a mansion-sized bedroom and choosing to sleep in a closet.

Thursday 13 July

My last day of hen and chicken sitting. In the morning, I had to go to an exhaust centre for a new rear silencer. The job took them longer than anticipated, but it didn't matter, as I had taken a portable seat and read my book, across the road under some trees, as I had done on a previous occasion.

By the time I returned to the hens, at about 12:20 pm, I was pleased to discover they weren't on the track or in the farmer's field. However, they didn't appear to be anywhere else, either. This was the day of the owners' return and I wanted everyone to behave. After a brief search, I came across the cockerel and his hen, but no sign of the mother and chicks, so I talked to the cat for a while. He was asleep in his new cardboard box bed, but meowed at my arrival. Normally, he follows me around wherever I go, but the box was certainly keeping him in check. (As any cat lover knows, cardboard boxes make excellent cat traps - wish I'd thought of this a few days ago). 

I started doing a bit more garden trimming and pruning. Everything done in the previous week was rapidly growing again, having had sun followed by 2 days of rain and now sun, again. After a while, the chickens turned up and began following me around as I pruned. I gave them a bit more food throughout the rest of the afternoon, and I was hoping they would behave and stay in the house garden areas. Fortunately, they all behaved perfectly and didn't stray onto the track or into any fields. By the time the owners returned, the chickens and hens were happily scratching around the gardens, the cat was lying neatly on the garden bench, and all vestiges of the week's earlier chaos and feeding in all the wrong places, had disappeared. The owners arrived back to a hot and sunny scene of perfect tranquility.

*The cat turned out to be called Boo

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