Maybe I’m just easily amused, but I get such a kick out of observing and analyzing the behavior of all the animals that hang out at the remote Texas County high country outpost where my wife Wendy and I reside.

Because of a couple of inevitable visits by the Grim Reaper, our collection of hens had recently dwindled to six – five “big ones” and one little bantam. We wanted to get back to having six big ’uns, so we acquired a young girl last week from a family that lives in the neighborhood (which, of course, means not close enough to visit them without driving, but close enough that you can see smoke rising on the horizon if they’re burning a brush pile).

The new hen is a white-ish Ameraucana, the second representative of that breed in our group. We named her Becky, as our chickens are all meant to be egg-laying pets, not ingredients in Italian dishes or sandwich salad.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

The strategy we’ve employed the last few times we’ve introduced a newcomer is to wait until dark when everyone is already perched for the night and half asleep inside the chicken room and then calmly and quietly place the new arrival on an open perch area. Employing the surprise factor that way seems to always work in terms of avoiding any strife, and did again. When the sun shines through the east-facing window in the room and everyone wakes up the next morning, I’m sure the established residents are like, “oh, hello. Welcome to your new life.”

Of course, there’s always a bit of a breaking in period when a new lady joins the club. Becky made no exception to that rule, as for the first few days she took her time coming out of the room to free-range and then spent hours wandering around alone.

But she felt more at home with each passing day, and the rest of the club members simultaneously became more accepting of her presence. Now Miss Becky is just another beak in the crowd, and stays with the flow as the group ranges randomly around the property to search for bugs, take dirt baths, or pluck wayward horse feed of the ground in the corral, or when it’s time to congregate back at headquarters for a midday break in the shaded, fenced area outside the chicken room.

It’s kind of hard to pinpoint a consistent pecking order within the club, but there are sometimes signs that certain birds command (and demand) extra respect from others. If I was to guess, I’d say our Rhode Island Red, Elaine, and our jet-black Austrolorp, Pearl, are at or near the top of the order, and our Plymouth Rock (also called barred rock), Dolly, and our other Ameraucana, the fawn colored Rita, are next. Then comes a silly pale yellow-brown Buff Orpington, Hilda (who’s like someone’s half-crazy aunt, always fearful of noises and terrified by the idea of being left behind by the group), and little Slippie, an English Porcelain banty who has personality-plus and talks with the best of them.

I’m not sure where Becky will eventually rank; she doesn’t strike me as an aggressive leader like Pearl, but it’s likely she’ll be somewhere above the Hilda line.

Speaking of Slippy, she made a huge difference in Becky’s transition the other day by doing something that once again made me think animals could be more intelligent than they’re given credit for.

As she acclimated to her new surroundings, Becky had been hesitant to enter the comfort and safety of the chicken room at bedtime. In the past, we had seen another probee or two who wouldn’t go in without some help from human hands, but Miss Becky was taking the behavior to another level – or should I say, a higher level.

Instead of walking up the custom-made ramp, hopping through the custom-made trap door and taking a position a little over three feet off the ground on a perfectly-sized, well anchored tree branch in the custom-made chicken perch area, she would do that jump-fly thing onto the metal roof above the chicken room and proceed to turn in for the night right near the edge, almost straight above the trap door. Realizing that wasn’t at all acceptable, each night I would wait until her head was hanging in that telltale sleeping chicken way and go out and grab her and put her on a perch.

I kept thinking, “she’ll eventually go inside on her own,” because every other time a new bird was reluctant to enter the hen hotel, it in fact did eventually decide going in beat being grabbed and placed every night.

But the other night, Slippy literally talked Becky down. The rookie was up on her tin roof mattress, but the sky was turning very dark with clouds and the sound of thunder rumbled not far to the east. Perhaps concerned about Becky’s well being in the brewing storm, little Slippy was directly down below, blabbing something in Chickenese toward the avian fiddler on the roof.

Amazingly, Becky responded by jump-flying to the ground and making her first-ever unassisted entry into the room of rest. We’ll never know if Slippy was following orders or took it upon herself to strongly suggest that Becky quit being ridiculous, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that she communicated a message and Becky responded.

I thanked the itty-bitty banty the next morning, because she saw to it that I would no longer deal with nightly hen relocation duty on Becky’s behalf.

To sort of round out our collection, we plan to get Slippy a pint-sized companion soon – not as a reward, but because we’ve been thinking for a while now that she should have someone her own size to hang out with.

By the way, not that it matters, but I thought I’d bring up the fact that in the very near future there may well be another addition to the Davison Zoological Society. It’ll be of the furry, four-legged variety that likes to travel and has many unique and fascinating likes and dislikes, viewpoints and opinions.

Stay tuned – I’ll let you know if and when there’s more.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Becky – the new chick on the block.

Becky – the new chick on the block.

 

So now it’s chickens.

For some time now, my wife Wendy has been wanting to have access to farm fresh eggs as close as our own yard.

She’s been obtaining them from friends who have laying hens, but that’s not as reliable as having your own – and it’s just not the same. So as of a few weeks ago, our remote Texas County outpost is home to a rooster and four hens.

Since we’re people who thoroughly enjoy observing animal behavioral traits and general animal nature, it stands to reason that their presence would result in many smiles, many memories, and many minutes of viewing pleasure. It figures that having chickens would be as interesting as horses, donkeys, Corgis and all the other life forms that have graced our little Ozarks animal farm

That has definitely already been the case.

Doug Davison

Just for the record, be it known that Wendy and I are not total chicken novices. Our first experience with them was when we had “the odd couple” for a year or two while we lived in Georgia (a banty hen named Heidi and a huge Japanese rooster named Don King, who absolutely adored each other).

And we also did the chicken thing here in the Jillikins a while back. We had three hens several years ago, and they did their share of laying, but they weren’t subject to a coop or fenced boundary. I constructed rudimentary shelters so they could have a place to lay eggs or get out of single-digit weather, but they eventually proved to be unable to avoid depositing waste on the front porch, and were subsequently dispersed to other homes.

This time, there’s more control over whose poos land where. Prior to the arrival of the present bunch, I got some great help from a friend, and we fashioned a nice indoor area out of a section of an outbuilding that hadn’t been being used for much other than storing some firewood and a few square bales, and created an effective, fairly sizeable (and I must say attractive) fenced-in area next to it.

With the help of my friend’s reciprocating saw, a chicken-sized doorway was cut between the room and what was to be the residents’ “yard,” and we were ready to bring in the birds.

First to arrive was Jerry, a year-old, black Jersey Giant rooster who must certainly have enlisted in the chicken version of the Marines, because he definitely is all he can be. Standing all of two feet tall, he’s an extremely regal looking bird, with shiny feathers, a big crown atop his head, huge wattles dangling from his chin, and absolutely monstrous talons and spurs. He struts around with the most self-assured air about him, but at the same time has proven to be incredibly humble around his women.

Basically, he’s a gentleman.

The females began arriving a few days after Jerry came. The first to meet him were Elaine (a classic Rhode Island Red), Miss Tilley (a black-and-white Silver Lace Polish with a stunningly chic hairdo), and little Martha, a young Plymouth Rock chick still in the peeping stage.

Another couple of days later, the new “family” was complete with the arrival of a Buff Orpington named Hilda.

We had our concerns about how members of the newly formed group would behave immediately after coming together, and there were indeed a few short-lived incidents. But for the most part, they acted like they had been together forever.

We attached four milk crates to a wall inside the chicken motel and filled them with hay for use as laying boxes. In not time at all, Miss Tilley began to utilize one of them. Now, all three of the older hens take turns laying in the same box, while the other three go unused, for reasons that I’m sure make sense to chickens. Meanwhile, Martha peeps around on her way to reaching laying age.

What’s particularly neat about all the laying going on is that each hen produces a very different egg. Miss Tilley’s are like classic white Grade A medium, while Elaine’s are large and sort of light brown, and Hilda’s are small and darker brown.

For the first 10 days or so, we made sure the whole platoon stayed within the boundaries of the fenced area. But we eventually began to leave their gate open so they could broaden their horizons, and the Corgis totally aced the “leave the chickens alone” test. Now a group of hens can often be seen rooting around in all corners of the property within about 80 yards from our house, as Jerry patiently stands guard nearby with complete and utter focus.

That’s really cool, because we know the bug population is decreasing every time we see them out there.

Still peeping, little Martha (who’s already not so little and now has a crown growing out of her noggin) has recently expanded her own horizons. She used to spend all of her time hanging out in the safety of the motel, but now tags along when the commanding officer takes the rest of the girls on a bug-seeking mission in the hot zone.

Like clockwork, the group turns in for the night every day at dusk. When the time is right, Jerry makes sure his women are all present and accounted for, and escorts them back inside the room. When Wendy or I go out to close up the doors, the family is inevitably huddled atop the woodpile in the room, with the women pretty much surrounding their man.

While observing these wonderful creatures, it’s become pretty obvious to us where the term “pecking order” came from. Jerry doesn’t really peck anybody, but the girls display a definite order of who gets to peck whom, usually having to do with morsels of food having been discovered on the ground.

Being the smallest member of the group, Martha is on the bottom of the order. I don’t think she has the type of personality that will make her focus on exacting revenge when she gets bigger, but she’s going to end up as one of the larger hens of the bunch and she’ll surely return a pecking favor or two before all is said and done.

In addition to our two dogs, our three outdoor cats also seem to have accepted the chicken situation without issue. I witnessed the birds’ initial encounter with a feline counterpart, which occurred when Miss Tilley and Hilda were on one of their first treks around the area outside their protective fence. As they rounded a corner of the garage, pecking at the grass for bugs and other organic snacks, they both did a major double-take as they came across Lulu (small and white, but a deadly killer of small game) chilling out in the warm June air on a large piece of river rock adjacent to the south wall of the out-building.

While initially startled, the birds quickly realized there was no threat, and continued going about their business. Lulu obviously noticed them, but didn’t even flinch and kept snoozing away. I figure she was full after wolfing down a rabbit or something, but likely also instinctively knew it wasn’t a good idea to risk having sharp talons tearing at her snow-white fur or beaks pecking at her eye sockets.

Gertie, the little female Corgi, has been particularly fascinated with the feathered newcomers and spends a lot of time hanging out with them as they walk about the property in their search for buggy tidbits to nibble on. We were a bit more concerned about Jamie’s reaction to the chickens, but the 35-pound Big Lug also seemed to have little trouble in forming an alliance with them. I suspect that has something to do with the fact that they’re about as omnivorous as he is. In their short time at their new home, the “Feathered Five” have already sampled all manner of food, including, Raisin Bran, corn tortillas, tomatoes and baked cod.

Jamie approves.

“Birds that eat anything. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Did I mention viewing pleasure? We put our little metal bistro-table-and-chair set right next to the chickens’ fenced area so we could have a place to sit and watch the “chicken show.”

Next it will probably be mini-donkeys, guinea hens or my favorite zoo animal: capybaras.

You never know.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:  ddavison@houstonherald.com.

Members of The Chicken Family search for bugs at their remote Texas County outpost. From left, Jerry, Elaine, Miss Tilley, Hilda and Martha.

The patriarch of The Chicken Family, Jerry, a Jersey Giant rooster.