dubiously true stories and cartoons

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The only contact I’d ever had with chickens (before my wife suggested that we buy some and keep them in the back garden) was whenever I popped one in the oven at 190° for about an hour and twenty minutes. Apparently she had always wanted to keep them ever since she was a little girl, a fact that she either deliberately kept from me throughout our married life or, more likely, one that she had just made up on the spot because they were cute.

I was sceptical about the idea, thinking they would be just something else I would have to feed before I went to work. In the end though, in order to maintain a quiet life, I did as I was instructed and one evening my wife came home with a cardboard box containing six chickens that she had just paid £2 each for from a friend of hers in a nearby village.

They were, I was informed, Isa Browns (the bog-standard little brown hen for the uninitiated – i.e. me) and therefore good egg layers. She didn’t get a cockerel – introducing six chickens into a quiet neighbourhood was bad enough without having a rooster waking everyone up a stupid o’clock in the morning. 

Roosters often crow at inconvenient times

I'd also been told that they could very unpredictable.

Roosters can sometimes be unpredictable

Besides, contrary to popular townie belief you don’t actually need a rooster for hens to lay eggs. 

“This may sound a stupid question,” said a friend of mine one Saturday morning, “but do cockerels lay eggs?”

A rooster is not needed for hens to lay eggs

“Haven’t you ever seen Chicken Run?” I asked.


I explained to him how how Rocky the Rhode Island Red tricked the two rats into thinking he laid eggs in order to hatch an escape plan. Little did I know that all the escape attempts in that film were most probably based on fact and if I’d only taken it seriously I would have known earlier that all chickens are born escape artists.

Chickens are born escape artists
Before the chickens arrived we sank posts into the ground on an area of grass towards the back of the garden, around which we stretched a barrier of chicken wire four feet high. It looked escape proof but as we later discovered if a chicken wants out it will get out. Someone suggested that we clipped their wings but this had no effect whatsoever and after a week or so all six chickens were happily hopping over the wire. Eventually we gave in and left the gate open so they could roam around the garden at leisure.

If someone had told me a year earlier that one day I would fall head over heels in love with chickens I would have told them to take their perverted ideas somewhere else. But odd as it may sound chickens do have a strange effect on you.

They are strangely therapeutic creatures. They each have a distinct personality. Some are very mischievous whilst others like to be picked up and cuddled.

Some chickens can develop mischievous personalities

The first thing my three year old son noticed about them was their feet. “Ooh,” he gasped. “They’ve got dinosaur feet.”

I started to explain to him how modern archaeological theory suggests that some birds were actually descendants of dinosaurs until my wife told me to shut up. “He’s three, for God’s sake,” she said. “He doesn’t understand.”

“Actually mummy,” said my three year old, “according to the fossilised bones of dinosaurs found in Utah, the legs of the Utah-raptor were discovered to be hollow, suggesting that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that dinosaurs did indeed evolve into birds.”

He didn’t really say  that, but when you watch the way chickens move and work together it’s easy to recall the coordinated attacks of the velociraptors in the film Jurassic Park.

The chickens were eleven weeks old when they arrived in our garden and after four weeks they started laying. We got three eggs a day at first, but soon after all six were laying – some were monster sized eggs – double yokers. One egg was so big that the chicken that had produced it may have required some form of hospitalisation – or at the very least stitches.

Hens can sometimes lay unusually large eggs

It’s a fact of life that whenever people find out that you keep chickens they will want to buy eggs from you. We sold so many that we ended up with fewer eggs after we got the chickens than when we had no chickens at all and so, in order to offset this, we decided to buy some more chickens.

I must point out here that throughout this piece, in relation to decisions involving the acquisition of more livestock, I have used the word we as as a substitute for the words my wife.

“I think we should get some Black Rocks,” my wife said.

I looked at her with a certain degree of confusion.

A Black Rock, I soon discovered, is a breed of chicken that is capable of laying an average of 300 eggs a year and not, what I at first assumed, an actual black rock – like a meteorite. 

Despite possessing a dense molecular structure a meteorite is of course lifeless and therefore incapable of laying any eggs at at any time at all.

We drove to a village in Norfolk called Diss and bought six Black Rock chickens. We were told that when we got them home we should keep them separate from the other chickens until nightfall. Then, when it was dark, we should introduce them into the chicken house while the Isa Browns were asleep. In the morning, when the Isa Browns woke up their little chicken brains would kick in action and they would think that the Black Rocks had always been there.

Established hens will assume that new hens have always been there

On the surface it appeared to be a sound, foolproof theory, but like all theories that on the surface appear to be sound and foolproof it proved to be nothing of the sort.

We placed the Black Rocks in a totally enclosed aviary in the chicken yard and moved the chicken house to the other side of the garden so that we could rest the ground that it had originally stood upon. That night three of the Isa Browns found their newly sited accommodation, but the other three got totally confused and disorientated. We found one of them under a bush below the kitchen window, one in a plant pot and one in a straw pile next to the old site.

Chickens, apparently, will sleep anywhere if they can’t find their usual sleeping quarters.

If they can't the hen house chickens will sleep anywhere
When we looked into the aviary we noticed, to our horror, that that were only four Black Rocks in the enclosed aviary. Astonishingly, two had escaped through a tiny hole at the top structure. We found one sitting on top of the greenhouse, but the other was nowhere to be found. In order to reach the Isa Brown on the straw pile I had to move a fence panel to get to her. As I lifted the panel up it transpired that the missing Black Rock was asleep on top of it and I catapulted it into a tree in our next door neighbour’s garden.

Attempting to extricate a black chicken from the darkness of a tree in the middle of a moonless night was not an easy task. My first thought was to leave it where it was until the following morning when, hopefully, it would hop down and join the others for breakfast.

Unfortunately this was not an option.

If our neighbour had come out of her house and found the chicken there she would have had a fit. She wasn’t difficult or anything like that – in fact we got on very well with her. Flapping wings and birds of any description terrified her to such an extent that she would become rooted to the spot, unable to move or speak. Her ornithophobia was so bad that I suspect that if I showed her a packet of a well-known brand of custard powder it would have a similar effect . 
Certain Christmas cards would also have been a problem.

For some bizarre reason my wife volunteered to climb the tree (even though she’s uncomfortable with heights) and rescue the bird, while I stood at the bottom with a torch trained on the general area. The chicken was not impressed, but after a lot of squawking and swearing (from my wife – not the chicken) it was captured and handed down to me.

All the chickens were safely put to bed by eleven thirty that evening and the next morning they were running merrily around the garden of their new home as if nothing had happened.

“Maybe we should call the one we got out of the tree Hilts,” I said.


“You know – from The Great Escape.”

“Great idea,” she said. “Which one do you suppose it was?”

I looked at them digging the grass up in search of worms and they all looked the same. 

I found out later that chickens really liked grass - it became apparent when I when I woke up one morning to find that there was not one blade left on the lawn at the back of the house.

Chickens do like a nice bit of grass

“What are we going to do with that?” I asked, as I scratched my head and looked at the now redundant aviary at the bottom of the garden.

“Do you know,” my wife said with a wry smile, “ever since I was a little girl I’ve always wanted to keep quails.” 

The most amount of chickens are eaten in China