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
It is now a week since the clocks went back an hour and I am gradually getting used to the new routines. The initial pleasure of that extra light in the morning has largely worn off to be replaced by the annoyance of the earlier darkness. Not only does night start an hour earlier it comes on much more quickly. No sooner have you noticed the gathering twilight than it is pitch black.
This alters the afternoon and evening routines as, regardless of what time it shows on the clock, it is still vital to get the birds into their coups before darkness falls. If we miss this deadline then we can be pretty much assured we will lose some of the birds to foxes. We lose enough to the hawks, who are brazen and steal during the day, and we can’t afford to supply the fox population also. Having said this, if the birds had a choice they might prefer the fox to the hawk as their ultimate nemesis as the fox kills much more quickly and humanely.
Now, instead of a leisurely task in the early evening, strolling coup to coup and checking everybody is tucked in for the night, there is a hurried dash rushing everyone indoors before the darkness falls. We have our poultry scattered about the farm in half a dozen or so small coups. It would be less work to keep them all together in one larger shed and take a lot less time at night. However, this way seems a lot more natural for the birds and we are able to keep more cockerels. Each cockerel lives with his 8 to 10 wives on his patch. They rarely stray into enemy territory and there are relatively few fights. The hens like this more natural family set up and it is clear that the cockerel sees his role as the guard of his harem. He wards of intruders and guards the doors at night. The hens seem happier when he is about.
We prefer it not only because it is more natural but also because, this way, we can keep more cockerels on the farm. If we are honest, cockerels are much prettier than chickens and exhibit a great deal more character. There is a surprising amount of pleasure that can be obtained from sitting, on a warm and dry afternoon, and watching the cockerels strut try and rule their roost. This system necessitates a bit more work for me in the daily opening and closing of the coups, but , it does repay itself in the pleasure I get from watching the small flocks of birds having their adventures all over the farm yard rather than just in one field or barn. Anyway, with the birds seem to have adjusted to the changed clocks and, after a fashion, so have I.
A further adaptation, that I didn’t expect, was that I have had to reschedule my daily exercise routine. Previously I would cycle in the afternoon. Before the nights started to draw in, it was a time when roads were quiet and there was a lull in the working day; it was an ideal time to go. With the shortened hours there is no afternoon lull and I don’t get my chance to cycle before the evening has started. Therefore, today I decided to try cycling at night. After I had scoured the garage for an old bicycle lamp I powered up the lamp and my podcast player and headed out. This did not work out as successfully as I had anticipated. As you will see from the video below this lamp was not really up to the job. I pedaled in the gloom only avoiding accident because I knew the road. My fear for my safety was augmented by the scariness of the dark forest so I did at least manage a good workout as my heart-rate certainly went up. My attempt to calm my fears by listening to the BBC’s “Moral Maze” debate on climate change did not entirely work. I think I’ll have to invest in a better lamp before I try this again. But, at least I now know what I want Santa to bring me for Christmas.
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.