We hatched six chicks earlier this year, two hens raised three each, about three weeks apart, which led to some logistical challenges. We like to keep the chicks in for a few weeks until they’ve got some decent, weather-proofing hard feathers and understand the idea of keeping up with mum – it makes them more cat-resistant. We only have one area for keeping the chicks and it turned out that the second hen, now renamed Psycho, is not inclined to share… but that’s another story.
A few months later…
The first three chicks have moved out of the kindergarten to sleep in the stables with the adult hens. Yes, I know it’s more common to keep horses in a stable, but we don’t have horses.
What we do have is the second set of chicks deciding that it’s time to join the flock.
The older trio did it in stages, hanging around the stables like a trio of juvenile delinquents, waiting for the older birds to go to bed. So far as we can tell, night-sight in chickens worsens quite rapidly as they get older, so the youngsters wait for the darkness-advantage before venturing in.
It’s important to remember (and I’ve mentioned this before in Second Best and Chickens In The Dark) that the main cause of screaming chickens is chicken-on-chicken violence. The whole pecking order thing is not a metaphor for chickens, it’s establishing superiority through force of impact.
The older youngsters took a week or more to move in, testing the violence quotient, working out where they might be allowed to hang out. As it happens, there is a pair of pillars made of stacked concrete blocks, previously the supports for a perch that needs repairing. The older three got themselves on the stack nearest the door and, over the space of a week, migrated to the one further in, almost but not quite members of the flock.
I thought that this was a perfect arrangement, leaving a whole pillar for the younger three. My perfect plan.
The next set of youngsters did the “hanging around” routine for a few days, retreating to the kindergarten (or greenhouse, as it’s known) by nightfall. Finally, they made that tiny leap towards flockhood, but rather than perch on top of the pillar, they hunkered down on the floor.
There are rats around, you know?
Fortunately, my night-sight is good enough to stalk young chickens in the semi-dark. I picked up the first one (cue desperate screaming, the monster got me, the monster got me, help, help, help …) and put it on top the pillar. Then I caught the next one, but as I placed it beside the first, the movement in the gloom and terrified shrieking (I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying…) panicked the first who jumped back down.
I repeated the cycle – catch a chicken, put on the pillar, catch another, lose the first. And again… until I got wise. I got one on the pillar and caught the other two together. Perfect. Except they screamed when I caught them (help, help, it’s the monster, save us, save us…) and the one on the pillar jumped down to find out what all the noise was about.
Idiot. The chicken, I mean, not me. After all that frantic business of run away, why on earth did it suddenly chose run towards?
So, I put the two birds on the perch and went to catch the third. By the time I returned to the pillar, one of the first two had jumped down.
Somehow, those undergraduate lectures on quantum mechanics suddenly make sense. Two electrons in the same orbit can be stable, but not a third, or something like that. It makes nearly as much sense as chickens.
However, forget the physics analogies – this time I practised a controlled placing of the bird I had, waiting for the screams (the big monster has caught me, I’m dying, I’m dying, run way, run away, run towards, oh, no no no no not that way…) to go silent and then advancing very slowly so as not to spook the chick already in place. There was a bad moment when the bird on the pillar thought about moving, but then the one I had just delivered made happy chirps (the monster didn’t kill me, didn’t kill me, didn’t… ooh… don’t I know you?)
Now that I had a system, I went and caught the third bird again and repeated the slow approach. The trouble is, chickens shuffle, trying to find a better position (ooh, hello again, can I cuddle up, if I just put one wing here…) but there’s only room for about four chicks that size on top of the pillar, so not a lot of shuffle space (Hello? Hello? Which way did you go?). Before I could ease number three into place, number one got nudged off. OK, maybe it was number two who fell. It’s hard to tell in the dark.
It’s like one of those puzzles with three holes and three small balls. With a lot of care and patience, you can get all three in at once. I didn’t have time for care and patience. I was racing the light, because at some point it would be so dark that my night-sight wouldn’t be up to it and if I turned the stable lights on, the little devils would see me coming – game-over.
Finally, I had all three, on a perch, shuffling done, cuddling up complete, quiet little chicks in a vaguely stable configuration. Perfect. Until the next night.
If you dispense feed from a weird container that a chicken has never seen before, it will instantly associate said weird container with food forever. Show three chicks a nice, safe perch and the amnesia sets in.
The second night, I left it a bit later and darker, just so they didn’t see it coming.
Four nights in, and it’s all fine. They’ve decided they hate the pillar and perch on the roof of one of the nest boxes.
I don’t care. The situation is stable enough.