This is our third year keeping laying hens. Every year we select a different breed to add to our stock, partly because it’s fun to diversify, but also because it helps us to distinguish the new hens from the old. The original idea was that when it came time to cull the flock, we’d be able to easily identify the old girls. So far it’s year three, no-one has been culled, and we might as well get used to the fact that they never will be!
What started out as a purely production flock has become an unruly mob of 70 some feathered dames that rule the barn, the yard, the garden, the greenhouse, the veranda and my husband’s garage when he forgets to close the door. They appear to make decisions by majority vote. Why else would I all of a sudden find a series of floor nests crafted handily from straw and filled to overflowing with eggs when only a couple of days ago the nesting boxes I provided were doing the job just fine. They also plan mass “anointing” parties, choosing some hapless piece of equipment left carelessly in the open and encasing it in cement-like guano practically overnight.
By and large they’re a peaceful population comprised of several smaller cliques that band together during the day and roost beak by jowl at night. Of course there is the occasional squabble when some young upstart challenges the established pecking order, but normally these are pretty zen hens.
Last summer we disrupted the convent by introducing roosters. It was never our intention, but vegetarian friends who breed and raise novelty birds for their own laying flock found themselves with a few too many roosters for their hen quota. It was understood that as meat-eaters, we would probably dispatch them and add them to the pot, but we decided to observe them for a few days to see which rooster might prove worthy of our harem.
One Wellsummer, three Ameracaunas and a cross-bred mutt rooster called Falcor all got trounced in turn by the indignant and unwilling brides-to-be. Pandemonium ensued and the whole operation started to resemble some twisted version of “The Bachelor.” The boys preened and strutted, every once in a while gathering enough nerve to sidle up to a likely conquest, only to be driven back into the bushes until they worked up the nerve for another foray.
Integration began to seem unlikely, but a week passed and a clear leader emerged from the huddle of disenfranchised Romeos. Falcor, the smallest, least flamboyant rooster, called up some dominant gene from the depths of his murky lineage and began a dating schedule that would have killed a lesser bird. Eventually the remaining bachelors gained favour with the girls, but were granted only the occasional clandestine rendezvous when Falcor was otherwise engaged.
In the end, we kept them all, deciding that their hilarious antics more than compensated for the extra grain. Although, at 3 a.m. when the one demented Ameracauna begins another day of incessant crowing, coq au vin recipes start floating through my head.