Saturday 18 July 2009

The Cook Islands national bird

A 44-gallon drum of nearly-liquid chicken manure takes some emptying, especially when the only available tools are a spade and a brittle bucket, and there's an algae-slick ramp to negotiate and a soggy lawn to cross, and trenches to dig in sticky soil in a raised vegetable bed next to the rotary clothes line with washing on it that is always in the way. But the job is done.

The hens took a deep interest in the whole process, especially the digging part, when I was unable to resist treating them to a few worms, even though I know the garden needs the worms. I spoil my hens. I feel I owe it to them, in a kind of spiritual compensation for all their poor, poor sisters imprisoned in the living hell that is a battery farm.

>>> ...While other farm animals are generally accorded some – if not yet enough – respect and consideration throughout their lives, the humble chicken has never been anything other than an egg-producing machine, condemned to live her short and miserable life in conditions that should make every one of us ashamed.

I discovered the reality when we decided to abandon the bottom of our garden to half a dozen chooks.

It was a pleasant drive out to the chicken farm. We pictured ourselves wandering through a meadow of contentedly scratching chickens, choosing the prettiest. We were disconcerted when we arrived and all we could see were long windowless buildings. We thought it was the wrong place, until we turned a corner and met a man wheeling a heaped barrow load of dead hens, their necks lolling over the side.

He agreed to sell us six chickens and disappeared into one of the sheds. He was gone for a long time, and eventually I followed him inside.

It was hell in there.

Through the half dark, I could just make out long rows of stacked-up cages, each crammed with four or more birds whose ugly red, naked necks were sticking out through the wire as they squawked at horrendous volume. The stink of ammonia from the excrement heaped below the cages was eye-watering, and I had to back out within minutes, but even that brief glance was enough to explain the chicken man’s long absence.

Amongst the thousands of birds in that shed, it took more than fifteen minutes for him to locate just six that had intact beaks and most of their feathers. He brought them out, their legs taped together in pairs, and they blinked in the sunshine which they had probably never seen before in their miserable lives.

They lay mutely in the back of the car on the way home, no doubt wondering what new cruelty was in store. We carried them to their airy shed, with its perch, nesting boxes stuffed with hay, the feed and water, and sawdust on the floor, and peeled off the tape. The moment they were on their feet, they began scratching and pecking at the floor. Within minutes, they were dust-bathing, followed by vigorous wing-flapping. Not one of these natural behaviours would have been possible in their cages; quite probably, they had never been possible for these birds ever – yet the urge, far from being stifled, had remained irresistible.

It was not the same for perching: for ten days or so, we had to lift them onto their perch at dusk. A couple of months later, however, in the heat of the summer, their muscles and instincts had become so well developed that they dispensed with the henhouse altogether and were roosting on the edge of the compost bin all night, ready for an early start in the morning on the puha, buttercups, dock and dandelions, which they soon beat into submission.

They are happy hens. They spend their days busily scratching and foraging for a wide variety of foods, preening their glossy feathers, flapping and dust-bathing and abruptly collapsing onto the grass for a spot of sunbathing. They each lay an egg nearly every day. They know their place in their pecking order, they know us and they know that every day is a gift to seize the moment their door is opened each morning.

But their sisters are still in Auschwitz.

[Pub. Waikato Times 6/04/07]


the queen said...

Have you met Surprising Woman ( - she has new chickens she refers to as "the girls."

TravelSkite said...

But of course! How else would you address, or refer to, your chickens? I feel they're like a hive of bees, they must be apprised of family news.


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