Monthly Archives: July 2011

Swallows in our garage

We have always had swallows nesting in the barns and outbuilding near us. For the last 14 summers we have delighted in their wheeling grace over our field. I watch for the first sign of them each spring, and am sad to see them congregate on our phone line before departing each September. But this year has been even better; a pair decided that our garage would be just the place to set up home! Our garage does not have any doors or windows other than the main door; I had been leaving it open most days during the spring, and they needed no further encouragement to build a perfect mud bowl attached to one of the cross beams. Each night, when I went out to close up the hens, Mr Swallow would be perched on the side of the cardboard box on the topmost shelf, opposite the nest snug on its beam. He didn’t seem to mind our presence in the garage at all, viewing us from his lofty perch as we built a new nestbox for the hens.

Once Mrs Swallow started to sit on the eggs, I left the garage door open until dark, to make sure they were both roosting. Each morning I got up early to open the door so that they could come and go as they wished. When I went out shopping, I left the door open again; and once the eggs had hatched it was even more important to ensure they had access, and the garage door stood open from dawn till dusk.

On 9 July, they finally fledged and we saw that we had four beautiful chicks! They used the cardboard box as their first perch after leaving the nest, then one by one flew out of the garage with their parents. They have been using the garage as a feeding station on rainy days, but when it has been fine they zoom out of the garage and perch on the wire of the chickens compound waiting to be fed.

It has been a joy and privilege to have them share our home, and we hope that next year they will return to us and make their nest in our garage again.


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Farewell to Ethel

Dearest sweetest Ethel,

I knew something was wrong with you on Thursday, when you didn’t want to come out of the hen house in the morning, and when I proffered sunflower seeds, your favourite breakfast snack, you looked under my hand not at the seeds. Then, instead of stepping demurely down the steps from the house, you executed an inelegant banister-slide, landing in a heap on the ground from which you picked yourself up and tottered off. I suspected blindness immediately, but was shocked at how quickly it had come on, because you had seemed fine the previous night. I brought you into the kitchen to be company for your friend Gracie, who was off her food and very lethargic. You ate Gracie’s unwanted food, and did not seem to have a problem with your appetite, but both you and Gracie sat or stood for lengthy periods with your eyes closed and heads bowed. I wondered if you had acquired a heavy worm burden, as I had read that there were worms which attacked the eyes. But you had no discharge from your eyes, they remained bright and well coloured, but you patently could not see. I scoured the internet, and checked various books for help, but could not find anything, although I did read something about blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency in its turn caused by a heavy worm load. Everything seemed to be pointing towards a worm infestation, and I wanted to start you on Flubenvet, but by this time you had lost your appetite. On Sunday, we put you outside to enjoy the warm sunshine, but you were having a hard time walking. You made it to the far side of the garden and hid under your favourite dust-bathing bush; you seemed to be content, and Ginger was keeping you company, but when I went to pick you up to bring you inside in the evening, you did not appear to be able to stand. It was shocking to see that you had gone from a seemingly healthy hen to blind and paralysed in 4 days.

On Monday morning I took you to the vet. We saw Cat, who had treated you successfully during your illness in February. Your comb was completely flopped over one eye, and when I lifted you out of the box onto the examination table, you could not stand at all. Cat carefully examined you and found a lump in your abdomen, and said that it was probably Marek’s disease, a form of cancer. Such devastating news, I could not help but weep. Cat gave you a couple of antibiotic shots and a multi-vitamin injection, and I took you home. I don’t know how I managed the drive back to the house. I sat you on a cushion with water and treats close by, and put you in the sun to enjoy the warmth and fresh air. Gracie and Ginger came over to sit with you or stand close by that afternoon.

We did this each day, putting you on your cushion in the sun or shade, where your feathers were ruffled by the breeze and the sun shone on your beautiful feather markings. Each day, when I got up and went down to the kitchen I expected to find that you had died during the night, but each day you were still breathing and responded to my voice when I came into the room saying “It’s OK Ethel, it’s just me!”. Each day, Gracie came to sit or stand next to you, keeping you company. I spent more and more time sitting with to you, talking to you, stroking your neck and tickling your wattles. I hope it gave you comfort. By Wednesday evening you were showing signs that your heart was affected, your flopped over comb had turned purple and your breathing was laboured. I could not put off the decision any longer. That Thursday was a lovely sunny cloudless day. I gently washed your bottom and put you onto a fresh towel on top of your cushion and carried you to the car for your last journey. I sat next to you stroking you and talking to you all the while Paul drove us to the vet. Cat was very gentle, and I was able to hold your head and stroke your neck as she injected the anaesthetic which put you to rest. I hope that those final moments were not painful but a blessed release.

We took you home and dug your grave next to Letty’s, under the hawthorn trees. One final cuddle, and then we placed you on a bed of straw and covered you with earth and a ring of stones. I planted a pot marigold amongst the stones. The other hens watched, a little subdued.

I don’t want to remember you as you were that last week of your life, but as the gentle happy hen you had been before. I miss your voice, a soft trill almost like a cat purring; I miss you coming over to me and cocking your head to one side in the hope of getting a treat. I miss your gentleness, the way you and Gracie walked around the garden together, dustbathed together, shared a nestbox at night together. She misses you too; she comes to find you each afternoon, and searches the garage and the hall looking for you. Ginger now keeps her company at night.

I am sorry that you didn’t live to celebrate your heniversary, a year’s freedom from being a barn-hen. The first 72 weeks of your life were hellish; I hope that the 40 weeks you spent with us – eating grass, dustbathing, and feeling the sun on your back – more than made up for it.

Goodbye Ethel, sweetest of sweet hens.



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A Hen’s Beak

When chickens are bred in bulk for commercial egg-laying, their beaks are humanely “trimmed” to prevent them from pecking others. This is such a euphamism; it should be called beak disfiguration instead! Sometimes it involved the chick being clamped into a machine and a hot knife slicing off the end of the beak. Humane, eh? Nowadays, lasers are more commonly used; great, that’s a real improvement! This is done without anaesthetic. The result of this is that a laying hen has to live the rest of her short and painful life without being able to pick up food easily, preen what is left of their feathers (but then they don’t have the space in battery cages to do much preening, anyway), or scratch in the dirt for worms (oh, forgot again, they don’t know what dirt is, nor worms).

Most rescued hens will have a problem with their beak, but after a few months of normal chicken life the beak is naturally worn into a more normal shape. Chooks do this quite naturally by scraping their beaks on a hard surface – garden paving, steps, anything that will help clean their beaks. Sometimes it seems to be a ritual; many of my chooks wipe their beaks on the steps going up to their coop at night, a couple of times on each step. Sometimes they do it because they have something a bit sticky on their beak and it is irritating! They have even done it on my arm when I have been giving them a cuddle!

One of our rescue hens, Doris, has a prominant lower beak mandible. The upper mandible was trimmed at some point, and the lower was not. Most of the time this does not bother her at all; she can eat from my hand, or scoop food from the pellet hopper quite easily, and she obviously finds it useful for her favourite pastime, foraging in the mud of our bog garden! But it is a problem when she tries to peck something on a hard surface, such as the drive, because her protruding lower beak prevents her from getting a grip on it. When I had to take her to the vets for an unrelated problem recently, I asked whether it would be possible to do something about the beak, to make it easier for her to eat, but the vet said it was too late to do anything about it. I’m hoping that it will naturally grind down in time.

Disturbing undercover footage of what really happens in a commercial hatchery–faib7to



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Worrisome Chooks

I was already in a frazzled state of mind because Gracie is ill (not eating, very lethargic) and has taken up residence in a cardboard box under the kitchen table. Then last night Ethel went missing. Ethel is one of our rescue hens (See Ethel was Poorly for an account of her illness), she is fairly slow and stolid, quiet and unassuming, a very sweet hen. I caught sight of her several times yesterday afternoon, out in the garden foraging, and once she came into the kitchen to check on Gracie and hoover up Gracie’s unwanted food. I was not concerned about Ethel’s appetite or health.

Shortly after sunset last night, I went out to shut them up. The original hens (the big girls as I like to call them) were in their half of the house – all but Lily who was roosting in the rescue hens’ half of the house – and rescue hens Ginger and Doris were in their nestbox snuggled together. But no sign of Ethel. Ethel usually goes to bed early, and although she may end up in the wrong half of the house and get pecked for her pains, she does at least go indoors. I re-counted, shone my torch into every nook and cranny, called her name – nothing. I walked up our drive shining my torch into the raspberry and current bushes, the large shrubs and clumps of herbaceous plants that line the drive – no sign or sound of her. I was very worried, and called Paul. Together we searched our land – under bushes, in the boggy area – and our neighbour’s field shelter and garden, calling her name with increasing urgency. At one point Paul went back into the compound where the hen house sits, and whilst fumbling around in the dark slipped over and landed amongst the tall crimson clover – I felt certain if Ethel had been there she would at least have chuckled!

After 90 minutes of searching, I was about to call it a day; the sky was darkening, our torch batteries were about to give out, and we had dwindling hope that she would appear. I walked back into the compound to give it one last sweep and walked into the tall clover. I nearly trod on what looked like a small pile of brown leaves, and thank goodness I didn’t because it was Ethel, flattened against the ground, very well hidden amongst the clover! Paul had fallen only inches away from her and she had not moved or made a sound! Indeed she did not make much of a sound when I picked her up and cuddled her. She did not seem to have any injuries, and appeared oblivious to the emotional wringer she had subjected us to!

We suspected that, when she had tried to enter the hen house, Ethel had been bullied by Lily and was turned away from the door, so she had gone to find a safe place away from the sharp beaks. We evicted Lily from the rescue hens’ house (to prevent a recurrence of the attack) and installed Ethel in her own nestbox. It was time for us to seek our bed also, as it was nearly 11pm!

This morning, I let the hens out, and Ethel hopped down the steps as though nothing had happened, tucked into her breakfast and then pottered around as normal. Hens are very resilient creatures; I on the other hand am a nervous wreck!





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