I feel rather like the early bird who has caught the worm. Last month I had noticed that out chickens were behaving strangely. Or rather more strangely than usual. In early January, and still in deep winter in anybody’s book, they had started laying heavily. They were supplying eggs much faster than we could use them and clearly though that the spring had arrived. They had started to create clutches and shown signs of going broody. This was an easy mistake for them to make as we had very mild temperatures and nothing really wintry at all.
This posed a dilemma. I had to decide in January whether I should put some of these eggs into the incubator for hatching. However, although I knew the hens thought spring had sprung I did not know if the cockerels had been infused with the vernal spirit and had sprung into action. If not, if the cockerels had correctly thought “This is still winter”, then I might be trying to hatch a clutch of unfertilised eggs. Not anticipating any miracle I decided to put a batch on and see what happened.
I needn’t have worried. The chickens determine the mating it seems. Cockerels don’t give a fig what time of year it is and they’ll happily mate all year round as the progeny above confirm. This is another unsettling sign that our seasons and are changing. It is not without consequence as I now have chickens born while the ground outside is better suited to building snowmen than scratching for food. I’ll need to rear these chicks indoors under a lamp for a considerable period before I can let them out. Let us hope they prosper despite the inopportune timing of their entry to the smallholding
Today started dreadfully. It was cold, but sunny, as I started my rounds to feed and water the animals. When I opened the door to the first henhouse I was stunned with what I saw. A brown hen was in the middle of the floor dead, her head bitten off and near her body. The partial corpses of three small chicks were scattered around the base of the hut more or less eaten completely. The turkeys were cowering in the corner as were some chickens and one solitary chick. Something had got in during the night and taken four of our birds in one attack.
I took this badly as I was very fond of the old brown hen. In human terms she was clearly geriatric and would have been drawing her pension. But she battled on and this year, well after spring had ended, took it upon herself to go broody and hatch out two late chickens. She was an excellent mother to these two, she never left their side and she shepherded them through the day to make sure the turkeys didn’t bully them out of their share of the food. Her surviving chick has looked lonely and scared today as she hangs around the edge of the, now paltry, flock.
This type of attack is usually the result of a weasel and we were troubled by these last winter. Sometimes a fox will do the same pattern of removing the heads but there was no way for a fox to get access into the henhouse. I scoured round the area to find out how this had happened and found, once I moved some chicken droppings, that the wall of the henhouse had bowed. This had created a gap, just big enough to poke my little finger through, but big enough for weasels to gain access.
I spent today fixing this gap and checking all the other henhouses for similar problems. As I worked away I remembered the old phrase of locking stable doors after horses had bolted and felt bad that I had missed this and let it happen. We usually loose a proportion of our stock to predation by hawks, foxes and the like. I take it as a fact of life, they need to live also. Though I must say that I find the ways hawks eat their prey alive very cruel, and the way foxes and weasels will slaughter all in a hutch, but eat only a few, very wasteful. But what was making me feel bad about this was that I had missed the gap developing. I should have seen it and fixed it before the weasels found it, I am meant to be the more intelligent animal.
This evening I have merged this small flock with another. We had one very pretty cockerel I didn’t feel we could send to the pot and he had hardly any wives. He would occasionally make unsuccessful forays into the other cockerels’ areas to try and lure hens away. Here, at least, was a solution to his problem. This evening he is tucked up with the turkeys and some new wives. Over the next few days they will have to spend their day in the hen-run associated with this house (rather than roam free) until we know that they see themselves as a family; as members of a small new flock.
This old hen has also done something very useful. She reminded me of a valuable lesson. Halloween is meant to be the time that we think of death and the departed but this has largely gone to be replaced by a another secular fun day for adults and children alike. A month after Halloween this old hen reminded me, because I felt ashamed, to think about death. To think that once people have died it is too late to go back and fix things. We should look around and recognise that now is the time to do things, not later on or tomorrow. If I am not careful the regrets I could have in the future could make todays’ sadness seem very minor. There are lots of gaps that need fixing and things which need checking and I shouldn’t wait until a calamity makes me realise this. For this reminder I thank her.
I have been feeling increasingly sorry for Emrys this last month or so. Emrys is our rather elderly Sussex cockerel and over recent times has started to look rather the worse for wear. He is the only cockerel we have who has a name as he was a gift from a neighbour and arrived named. My wife has continued to use the name since so he is quite unique amongst our poultry in having a name (Though I think secretly my wife has names for some of the ducks also. I sometimes call the stag turkey names, but these vary on how annoying he is and are not fit for printing). Emrys and his flock live at the front of the small holding and the other flocks of hens and their cockerel are spread as far apart as possible. This gives them space to roam and, initially at least, reduces the fighting.
As time passes, and as the birds get more adventurous and curious, the area around their base, that that they call home, gradually expands. A few months ago, Emrys’s flock’s area grew until it butted against the newest cockerel and his flock’s area. Cockerels do not mix and never make good neighbours. Most cockerels view any other cockerel as the spawn of the devil, even if it is their own offspring, and see their presence as a reason to fight. These fights are vicious, and can sometimes can be fatal to one of the birds, though usually they are short-lived, noisy, flashes of talons and beaks until one party retreats. Although often in these quick spats they can inflict serious damage on each other.
Emrys has been losing these fights. He has lost a
lot of his plumage and carries some scars on his comb. Sometimes he is bloodied and hides away in the bushes. His nemesis, the other cockerel, steals his ladies during the day luring them away with promises of treats and food. I know there are dangers with anthropomorphism and I am not sure how much Emrys understands of his situation, I hope not too much, but it is very hard to not feel sad when you spy him, on his own, obviously just having lost a spat and watching his wives playing with the other group. But is does bring home to you the many positive advantages that we, as a species, have experienced but failed to arrive for chickens. When one looks into the eyes of a chicken, or regards their scaly legs and talons, it is very easy to see their relationship to the dinosaurs. Looking at them is like peering down the tunnel of the years to primitive times.
Chickens and other fowl are different to other birds. The vast majority of birds, about 90%, are monogamous. Some may just be monogamous for one breeding season, some for a series of seasons, and some species mate for life (famously swans, albatrosses, owls and eagles). It is generally assumed that the development of monogamy, in bird and other animals (including ourselves), was very valuable in ensuring the development of vulnerable offspring. Having both parents actively involved in the rearing of children helps their survival, this is especially important when the young are born immature and very vulnerable as with birds, and especially so with humans.
This monogamy helps young develop more safely. It also results in closer bonds between family members and is possibly the evolutionary driver to our human experience of love. If we are to mate and stay with one individual we need an extremely strong feeling of attraction which can outweigh the pressures of sexual attraction of other potential mates. Love of one partner to another, of a parent to a child, of a family member to another is the primary glue that allows us to join people together and create families and society. Although there is a current tendency to decry monogamy as traditional, old-fashioned and out-of-date most research concludes that monogamy is a valuable and core element of stable societies. A paper by Heinrich et al summarised thus :-
In suppressing intrasexual competition and reducing the size of the pool of unmarried men, normative monogamy reduces crime rates, including rape, murder, assault, robbery and fraud, as well as decreasing personal abuses. By assuaging the competition for younger brides, normative monogamy decreases (i) the spousal age gap, (ii) fertility, and (iii) gender inequality. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity. By increasing the relatedness within households, normative monogamy reduces intra-household conflict, leading to lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death and homicide. These predictions are tested using converging lines of evidence from across the human sciences.
A recent review in The Economist explored the link between polygamy and war. Worrisomely it showed that in areas where polygyny was allowed, more than one woman per man, then violence and war were much more common. It also explored the reasons underpinning the breakdown of monogamy and the risks that this holds for society. Unfortunately as the Koran blesses polygyny there is considerable growth in the practice in Islamic areas. This does tend to act as a destabilising influence on society in these regions and, as the article discusses :–
Wherever it is widely practised, polygamy (specifically polygyny, the taking of multiple wives) destabilises society, largely because it is a form of inequality which creates an urgent distress in the hearts, and loins, of young men. If a rich man has a Lamborghini, that does not mean that a poor man has to walk, for the supply of cars is not fixed. By contrast, every time a rich man takes an extra wife, another poor man must remain single. If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have, say, four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this state.
This has lead to the finding that “Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are.” Although the research shows this I knew this already from watching Emrys. He is unable to cooperate with his neighbours, he can’t develop friendships with others, his whole life is fighting, preparing for fighting and trying to subdue his harem. It unfortunately seems that if as a society we start to abandon monogamy we might start to live a bit more like Emrys, and, had Emrys the ability to think, he’d tell us this is not a good idea.