The unbearable cruelty of hens

Ruby, my sick hen had been confined to a smaller cage to get better. She was joined by Clucky.

Clucky was furious at me whenever I came near the cage, telling me off with a ferocity I'd not seen from her before. She’d gone broody, or 'clucky' as my mum called it when I was a kid and used to spend hours stroking my pair of bantams, Jasper and Janine. It's a natural phenomenon that occurs when hen’s eggs are left in the nest too long and they decide to incubate them (Nature).

But let me take you back to how Clucky came to join sickly Ruby in the smaller cage.

Clucky had escaped the chook pen. It didn't worry me much except for the fact that I knew she was laying eggs under the house where I couldn't reach them.

Normally not minding a bit of a cuddle from me, now that she was clucky she decided that she didn't really like me. The issue was, she didn't want anyone approaching her or her clutch of eggs. It seemed like she knew that I was on the verge of deciding that she needed to go back into the chookyard. If I didn't wrest her away from her eggs soon, she could conceivably stay on them til kingdom come. They were not even fertilised. Furthermore, there was a big carpet snake under there ...

Every couple of days though, she'd embark upon a quest for food and water and her best source happened to be the cat food on the back deck. So it was decided that the veranda would be the arena upon which to have our showdown.

The day arrived and Clucky was ready for a Mexican standoff. Her feathers were all puffed out and she pranced about with her feet splayed out like a rooster with deadly spurs. She unfurled her wings and twirled in some chookish version of the tarantella, squawking and pecking when I came near.

I won, of course. I’m not afraid of a silly old hen.

But here's the unanswered question: Why did she escape all the time?

Sadly, her chances are better outside the chookyard than inside. She's the classic outsider, the one who doesn't fit in, the victim in the playground. I knew I would have to find a solution once she was off the cluck.

That’s because there's this gang of four in the henhouse who rule the roost. They’re the mean old birds who dominate the food and bullypeck Clucky whenever she's nearby. Yes, there's a pecking order alright.

'Henpecked’ and ‘knocked off your perch’ are metaphors well-earned by chookyard dwellers. Hens have a brutal hierarchical system. In fact, their wholesome, fluffy, egg-laying reputation completely belies their mean dominance mentality.

They use their beaks as weapons to destroy the comb and head of hens they do not like, often a younger hen or one that is weak and sickly (like Ruby). This happens to the point of social isolation and even death.

Chooks actually love the taste of chicken. They’ll flock to peck at anything red, including blood and raw flesh.

In fact, the love game between our feathered friends can be particularly fraught with danger. Mating can lead to cannibalisation if a rooster mounts a hen too vigorously and leaves bald spots on her head and claw marks on her back. These 'rooster tracks' attract the pecking of other hens. (To avoid this, chook farmers cut beaks and sometimes even strap little aprons called 'hen saddles' onto their backs, which allows the chooks to have 'protected sex'. Lol!)

But because she’d always been an escape artist, Clucky was in pretty good shape. To bring her off the cluck, I knew that I needed to keep her away from her nest for a few days. And this is how she ended up in the smaller pen with Ruby, who couldn’t walk properly. The two hens had previously been outsiders together and had gotten along really well.

However, it wasn’t long before I noticed Ruby getting much worse. I wondered if the purple discolouration she was developing around her head was part of her disease, but when I really watched, I caught Clucky henpecking her.

On closer inspection, I realised that Ruby had been herded into a corner away from the food and water, which meant that she was dreadfully dehydrated and this is why her head was purple instead of red. In actual fact, she was beaten up like Rocky Balboa after Lang brutalized him in the second round!

I was horrified. How could one henpecked hen do this to a weaker sister? Then, despite how much I love my chooks, I realised this:

Hens are trapped in a mindless cycle of cruelty.

Sad but true. Knowing this actually depresses me a bit. I love my hens as you may well have guessed by now. But my response against cruelty can't be to answer it with more cruelty, meanness and small-mindedness. Instead, I choose generosity, kindness and graciousness.

In a whole world that doesn't make much sense sometimes, that is my choice.

PHOTO: Ruby is enjoying some freedom outside in the sun. She can’t walk and soon after I take this pic she sits down, but her whole demeanor has changed. In a world that I can't control, I chose kindness as my response. [Update: Ruby died on December 15 last year. She had a pretty good life in the end.]

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