Tho’ I’m ready to be as free as all of the children newly-sprung from their halls of learning, my day-after-days of staying very close to home to care for the chicks have their rewards…mostly the usual delights and connections made by watching creatures going about their lives. But I’ve also made some tender discoveries…
When Audrey, our one grown hen was transitioning from her roost in our house to her new flat in the garden, she also gave up her usual laying spot in the forsythia hedge. For a few days I noticed that she made a special, anxious, persistent sound as she wandered around the house and garden. On the second day, she eventually came to the front door and made it clear she wanted to come inside. I let her into her old roosting space, but that didn’t satisfy and we soon were playing out Goldilocks as I offered various hastily fashioned nesting spots near the desk where I was working and she tried and rejected them.
An old basket turned on its side, with some hay in the bottom and a sheltering cloth draped over the top was finally “just right” and she quietly settled in….all her worrying sounds gone. Soon, tho’, a new sound met my ears…a small straining sound. It went on and on, until I was the worried one, wondering if Audrey was ill in some way. And I realized that in our twenty years of hen-keeping, I had never been witness (if only with my ears), to the laying of an egg.
Five minutes in, the small straining sound continuing, I turned to Google and found out that it is quite common for hens to make noise while they lay an egg. My worry gone, I sat at my desk, with a growing sense of…wonder…respect. I was abashed and humbled. All these years, not really giving a thought to the laying of an egg! Perhaps imagining that an egg almost fell out a hen like clockwork, like in the cartoons?
Goodness. I didn’t time her, but I think it took Audrey at least a half an hour to lay her lovely, olive-green egg. When she finished, she emerged from her woven cave with no great fanfare, just her usual soft, questioning sounds. I let her have a walk through the house, for old time’s sake, and gave her a morsel of food outside the back door.
Since then, she’s laid her eggs in her garden-house, in peaceful solitude. But I will never forget what she taught me. Of course, I couldn’t help comparing her freedom and the understanding I could give to support her with the experiences so many hens endure…and feel more heartache about it than ever.
The chicks have their own sweet lessons to teach…as I watch them at first huddle in fear at every new experience, then quickly acclimate and enjoy their surroundings to the full. How quickly they fly into a tizzy each time I come too near (me! their provider of all sustenance and care!) and yet they are the picture of quiet docility when Audrey strolls by to peer at them.
They make the most of everything given to them…scratching for food from the first day, as soon as they had something to scratch. At a week old, a branch placed in their house had them roosting like old pros within moments. Oh, and the dust baths! First in the sawdust on their floor, but when they encountered their first patch of bare earth…oh my…they plopped right down and gave a most wonderful impression of having fainted or suddenly collapsed. I was reminded of our early years with hens, when their dust-bathing sometimes had me tiptoeing up to them in the same way I did with my babies when I wasn’t sure if they were still breathing.
“Esmeralda, my Buff Orpington hen, lay stretched out stiffly on the floor in a beam of sunlight, her neck and both legs fully extended, one wing unfurled as if she had been reaching for help. Sweep marks in the dust showed all too clearly her recent frantic floundering.
I dashed to her side.
Her only visible eye was staring at me blankly.
The eye blinked.
Esmeralda got dreamily to her feet and gave herself a good shaking, like a fat feather duster.
I cradled her in my arms, buried my face in the softness of her breast, and burst into tears.
“You goose!” I said into her feathers. “You silly goose! You frightened me half to death.”
Esmeralda pecked at my mouth, as she sometimes did when I put millet seeds between my lips for her to discover.
“How did you manage to get in here?” I asked, even though I thought I already knew the answer.
Dogger must have brought her up to my laboratory, as he did when she was being a nuisance in the greenhouse. And now that Dogger came to mind, I remembered he once told me that some chickens were given to treating themselves to dust baths during which they behaved as if hypnotized. And the floor was certainly dusty.
The truth of the matter is, I wanted to throw myself down on the floorboards and have a jolly good wallow in the dirt myself.”
-The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
A Flavia de Luce Novel
by Alan Bradley
P.S. I think we could learn a thing or two about relaxing from dust-bathing hens.