How do you name a chicken? I don’t suppose this problem has impinged much on your consciousness. Or perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Why would you want to?’ However, this question has been one of the more peculiar features of my life for the past 15 years.
My wife and I keep hens, ducks and sometimes doves in our rural Kentish garden. The doves have remained anonymous, but since I’m a work-from-home writer and have rather more to do with the other birds than some owners might, I’ve got to know their oddities and peccadilloes, so names do usually suggest themselves.
Take Slasher, a compact, highly strung, high-speed animal, with a comb that flops to one side like a beret. We’d had her for several weeks, and she’d taken to avoiding roosting in the henhouse at night (making her an easy target for foxes), so I was forced to try to catch her. Since she can sprint like Jessica Ennis, this was a challenge.
Sometimes the name chooses the chicken
One evening, though, I sneaked up behind her and scooped her off the ground. She let out a terrible scream, which my wife heard in the house, so I tried to pacify the struggling creature by tickling her under the chin. Her response was to grab a beak-full of my palm and vigorously yank it about.
‘You little slasher,’ I hissed, and another chicken was named.
Slasher is also a bit of a hoarder, and lays her blue/green eggs in secret spots all over the garden. Should you discover a rotting pile of these, she will find another equally inaccessible bush under which to lay the next batch. I’ve taken to leaving the old eggs where they are, marked with pencil crosses, so I can liberate the freshly laid ones, but this only fools her for a short time.
The rest of our current flock comprises Squawks, a rotund Black Orpington, who looks like a feathery pom-pom and has the gait of a bouncing bomb; Svenson, an ageing male bimbo cockerel and his sister Ulrika (their dad, Sven, was allegedly Swedish); two well-built ladies, called Binge and Snatchit; and Slasher’s biological daughter, Stanley, and her step-brother Chuck, who isn’t a chicken at all, but thinks he is – we’ll return to him in a minute.
I nearly forgot Wonky, Sarkozy and Carla, three Crested Polish bantams with punk-rocker headgear, whom Squawks wants to hospitalise. As a result, they have their own run. Squawks likes to eyeball them through the mesh.
Finally, there are the Indian Runner ducks, Bombay the drake and his girls, Crispy, Pancake and Noodle; a hefty white Campbell duck called Soup; and Beluga, who’s a Cayuga.
Bombay and one of his ladies are Chuck’s biological parents. However, he was hatched out by Binge, and although he enjoys a swim, he has never woken up to the fact that he isn’t a chicken, so he sticks with his adopted flock, finding the other ducks positively alarming.
It’s 40 years since I first kept chickens in rural Lancashire, after parental illness saw me dispatched to a very patient aunt and uncle. They allowed me to keep a motley flock of ex-battery farm basket cases in an area behind a shed, from where they constantly escaped and trashed my aunt’s veg patch.
I financed them by spending my weekends earning 50p a day collecting eggs at the farm where my flock had previously been imprisoned. I was ten, but working like this didn’t seem odd in 1973, and I have strong memories of the dust, smell and the noise of hundreds of chickens as I went up and down the serried ranks of caged, pallid birds.
One day, I noticed a flash of colour as a rather beautiful cockerel vanished round the side of a battery. An itinerant, uninvited guest, the bird spent several weeks there before I caught it. He was semi-feral, slashed at me with his spurs and flapped his wings in my face. The idea of being removed from a warm environment with plenty of food and 2,000 girlfriends clearly didn’t appeal to him, but I held on and eventually moved him in with my pensioner flock.
A Junglefowl with shimmering, showy plumage, I called him Fred. Fred had perhaps once been someone’s breeding bird that had escaped. He was blind in one eye, presumably the result of an avian punch-up. To stop him absconding again I clipped his wings with kitchen scissors, not realising you should clip only one. Every morning after breakfast, he’d flap the resultant stumps very hard, rise slowly like a madly overladen helicopter, just clear the fence and head for a neighbour’s house, where he’d spend enjoyable days ravishing their prize bantams, before returning for supper and further bunk-ups with his official lady friends.
‘He’s ruining my breeding programme,’ complained the bantams’ owner.
Perhaps visual impairment meant that on one of his sex-pest trips Fred didn’t see the car coming, but when I found his mortal remains in the road he’d already sired a replacement called Fred 2 and, being a pragmatic child, my mourning was brief.
Boarding school incarceration meant selling my flock. Later, living on a London houseboat precluded getting more, and I’d rather forgotten about them when, after moving to the country, my wife started saying, ‘You’d like to keep hens again, wouldn’t you?’ Which meant she was in favour of the idea as long as I mucked them out.
Our first four hens were called Bossy, Edith, Elvis (who looked butch, but laid eggs) and Wimpy Chicken, who was bullied by the others. Then Wimpy went broody, became boiling hot and furious, so we renamed her Psycho. With the help of some fertile eggs, Psycho begat Satan and Bald Bird.
There were dramas, break-outs, costly visits to the vet, the lawn was guanoed, scratched and pecked to death, and the flowerbeds trashed. Neighbours thought we were mad.
One house move and several generations of birds later, and not much has changed. So now when the sun shines and our current flock is pottering round, the garden looks tranquil and bucolic, which is a lie, because there’s usually a drama unfolding somewhere.
Take Bombay the drake’s passion for Bonny the chicken. Named after the Bonny Cravat, one of our village pubs, because a drinking buddy supplied her in egg form there, Bonny was then hatched out by Ann, a Welsummer hen. Bonny was a big, blousy, white bird, who could never be mistaken for a duck, but this didn’t deter Bombay. When spring arrived, his hormones thawed and he began the ardent pursuit of an avian love that dare not speak its name, and was certainly unrequited.
This resulted in Benny Hill-style chases, involving a chicken running away from a randy duck, with an angry cockerel in hot pursuit. This stopped being amusing when Bombay dragged Bonny into the pond for some damp love action, and I just happened to hear the commotion and pulled the deviant bird off his drowning conquest.
We’re doveless at the moment, thanks to carnivorous jackdaws moving into our dovecote, presumably so they could snack on the dove chicks – a bit like a drive-in restaurant. Wisely, the doves moved out.
The first time we bought some doves and released them after 21 days’ incarceration, they decamped almost at once. However, a second flock, supplied to us in a large paper potato sack by a local farmer who had a plague of them living in one of his barns, stayed for ages. For wild birds they were immensely stupid, and would sunbathe on the lawn where the chickens entertained themselves by beating them up. One pair would spend long summer nights on the ground waiting to be eaten by foxes, and we’d have to catch them in the dark with a torch and a cardboard box.
They were rotten parents, too. One couple would go out on the town, leaving their baby, which looked like the lovechild of Davros (the hideous Dalek leader in Dr Who) and a spiky stress ball, to freeze to death. I had to don rubber gloves, put the unblinking creature into a cardboard box, and place this under a greenhouse tube heater, reversing the process at 4am before its parents returned. Eventually I locked the errant pair up in the dovecote, until the baby was ready to fledge.
Caring for Wonky
If all this sounds a lot of hard work and hassle, the birds do give us immense pleasure, eggs and entertainment value, and sometimes something more personal.
A week after we hatched six Polish Crested bantams in an incubator, one of them developed a condition called wry neck, resulting in its head being completely inverted. My wife made an orthopaedic bed from a plastic fruit punnet and two loo rolls. Every hour, I’d visit the bird in its plastic box in our utility room, put a finger against its neck and turn its body. Sometimes it would make ‘happy’ cheeping noises and the head would remain the right way up long enough for it to eat. Attempts at drinking triggered the inversion, so I’d hold it with its legs in the air and head over a water bowl, into which it dipped its beak and drank, but I’d have to tip it back before it could swallow.
A chicken baby sling made from string and the crotch of some old pants was resisted, but otherwise we bonded, and the little bird would sit on my lap while I worked, mesmerised by the characters dancing on my laptop’s screen.
By now christened Wonky Chicken, it was clearly a fighter, but its recovery seemed uncertain until I introduced it to our lawn. Then Wonky discovered its inner chicken, and swivelled its head the right way round to peck and forage. Within days, Wonky appeared completely cured, and is now the picture of health.
There’s just one problem. Wonky has turned into a small, noisy, non-egg-laying potential love rival for Svenson. Yes, Wonky is a bloke.
Martin Gurdon’s new book, Doing Bird, about a year in the life of his garden and its feathery occupants, is published by Constable & Robinson, £8.99.