Hatched to be free

Columnist Shannon McKinnon discusses Crooked Tail, her hen who likes to live an independent lifestyle.

Crooked Tail the hen has flown the coop. For three summers she was content to scratch about the ample sized chicken pen. A pen that is more massive than ample.

Chickens love to scratch and soon reduce most runs to barren parking lots. Our run is so big I have to mow it just so the chickens can see where they’re going. And yet, despite all this room to roam, a comfortable coop, fresh water and an all-you-can-eat-grain buffet, Crooked Tail has moved out.

It’s a bit insulting — and worrisome. She hasn’t moved away all together. She has just moved beyond the coop and run. The first time I noticed she was out, night was falling and I figured she would be grateful to get back in. I was wrong. I spent almost an hour chasing her about (herding chickens is about as easy as herding cats) before managing to corner her.

I carried her to the safety of the coop and set her on the roost. The next day she was out again. Concerned about coyotes and foxes I once again attempted to catch her but for a chicken she is surprisingly shrewd. Wily, from our first go round, she avoided corners at all costs, which left us with miles of open country side to zigzag about in. I gave up in frustration, thinking a night outside would soon have her eager enough to return to the comforts of home. Still, I tossed and turned uneasily and when I did finally sleep I dreamt of coyotes and chicken dinners.

The next day I opened the gate so she could get back in on her own. The good news is the rest of the flock eyed the open gate with much suspicion and voted to stay inside. The bad news is that Crooked Tail has embraced her newfound freedom and isn’t going home. Despite Rusty the Rooster crowing desperately for her return, she spends her days wandering through the gardens, visiting the sheep and strolling over to chat with the horses, ignoring her former roost mates. She even visits me as I work in the yard. And she sings. As I work my way up and down the rows pulling weeds, she follows me about chirping out her happy little clucking mantra. She is the very definition of content.

But as soon as I think of catching her she flees. It’s like she can read my mind. She will be happily doing her singsong chirping and I’ll think, “Maybe I could corner her over by the greenhouse.” I’ll just think it. I won’t even pause in my weed pulling. But it’s no good. No sooner has the thought formed in my mind than Crooked Tail abruptly stops her singing, gives me the stink eye and takes off at a run across the lawn. It’s unsettling.

The obvious explanation is she is “stealing a nest,” an old fashioned term for a chicken that starts laying her eggs in a secluded spot with the intention of setting. A hen will disappear and just when you think a hawk or a coyote has made off with her, she triumphantly returns with a dozen little chicks bringing up the rear.

The problem is Crooked Tail hasn’t produced a single egg for weeks. I know she hasn’t because she is our only Ameraucana and Ameraucanas lay blue eggs. All our other chickens lay brown eggs. Chickens will go through a molt period where they stop laying and shed some feathers, before rebuilding their reserves and taking up laying again; and that’s what she has been doing. On high-production chicken farms they are usually slaughtered when they reach this stage, as they never return to the same rate of egg making after they molt. On our farm, even if their only contribution is to the feed and electricity bill, they get to stay. Well, unless they run away.

Perhaps Crooked Tail’s moult brought on some meditative reflection. Maybe moulting counts as one of those life changing “Aha!” moments and she decided to embark on a grand adventure while the vestiges of youth were still upon her. All I know for sure is she is the happiest looking chicken I have ever seen. And who am I to deny her happiness? I’m glad she is enjoying her newfound freedom but at the same time I hope she tires of her adventure and returns to the coop — safe, sound and soon — to regale her roosting companions with enough tales to keep them entertained for years to come.

Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com.

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