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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.