The nests in my heart - a personal view of ex-battery hens
I have often been asked why I adopted ex-battery hens, after all they are worn out before I take them home, according to people who have never kept chickens.
What can I say about these little brown hens who have lived all of their lives standing on a wire floored cage with no human contact? I can say with absolute certainty that they are grateful for having been given a chance to live a life of freedom and that they gave me so much more than I ever gave them.
My first adoption
Although I already had a small family of Pekins, I was told I should take some of the better ones. Not knowing exactly what was meant by the term ‘better ones’ and having put six in a large ventilated box and sealed it securely, I had a look around at the other hens waiting to be re-homed. What I saw shook me rigid. My ‘better ones’ were fully feathered but of the other two holding pens one contained very scruffy looking birds and the other hens with barely enough feathers to have fully feathered much more than two chickens in total.
These would not even be the worst looking examples at a rehoming event
However, I left the collection site and headed for home. I could hear my six hens twittering amongst themselves all the way back but they went totally silent when I arrived home and stopped the car engine. I carried them to their new home and donning latex gloves gently lifted them out of the box one by one. Even through my gloves I could feel the coarseness and lack of thickness of their feathers and they weighed so little. They felt so very different to the soft, full feathered bodies of my Pekins. I could tell that one of these new hens didn’t even weigh as much as the Pekins who were only half their size.
I am a person who has to research information on subjects I know little or nothing about. I had done my homework before deciding I had to do something to help – but how little I knew even after all the research I had done. The truth of re-homing an ex-caged hen is very different from what I had read on the internet.
But back to the six new additions to my animal kingdom. Having placed them gently on the ground, I was surprised to see that within seconds of feeling the earth beneath their feet they were already scratching away and pecking at insects. I couldn’t believe it. How on earth did these hens who had never seen the light of day since being hatched know that the earth was for scratching at, for catching insects and, as I learnt the next day, for digging holes to dust bathe?
Outside of this instinctive behaviour they did have to be taught where their food and water was, as they had only ever been used to pecking at their feed through the bars of a cage.
They also had to be taught where they would sleep each night from now on. For a year they had only ever stood on wire caged floors with no space to stretch their wings nor lie down. One of the things I learnt about ex-battery hens was that they often initially prefer to sleep huddled together in a corner of their hen house. Later some would perch but they always slept in a particular order of what I call the 69 position, that is, one would face in one direction the next one would be facing the other way. By sleeping like this they could get closer together and particularly during the colder winter months it helped to keep them warm.
What amazed me most was how quickly these hens adapted to living life as free hens. Considering they had never had the opportunity to carry out any normal chicken behaviour, whilst living standing in a cage for twelve months, they acclimatized to outdoor living very quickly.
It gave me so much pleasure seeing these six hens change from the straggly, thin, coarse feathered chickens with large, floppy pink combs to being confident, heavier, well feathered hens with red combs which stood upright. I was now on a mission, a mission to help rescue more of these abused hens and give them the opportunity to live out their remaining days, however long that may have been, as happy and free hens.
My mind was made up. However many more hens I was able to adopt, they would be the ones in need of most help. And that is what I did.
Each group of hens I subsequently re-homed now needed a lot more care. They had to be housed in a sheltered area to prevent getting sunburn (when we did happen to get any sun) and to protect from the bitterly cold winds we get here in Lincolnshire. On hot, sunny days I smothered them in baby strength sun bloc – as it turned out not the greatest idea as they would then dust bathe and end up with soil stuck to their skin. However, as they did enjoy dustbathing so much, lice and mite repellent could be sprinkled into the hole saving me a lot of trouble having to check each hen for signs of any lodgers in their feathers.
The biggest problem any hen keeper fears is an infestation of red mite, especially if the hens live in wooden coops, but with careful planning and the appropriate treatment even this dreaded scourge could be thwarted.
Once each new group of hens had fully settled they were all prepared for a bath in lukewarm water with a drop or two of tea tree oil and lavender oil. Although each hen was treated with a proprietary lice and mite treatment before being handed over to their new owners, I liked to make doubly sure that no little critters had the opportunity to take up residence on one of my hens. This did not mean I never had a problem with lice or mites, every hen keeper has to keep on top of this and I have yet to meet a keeper who has never encountered this problem – but at least it is treatable.
“Let’s get down to some serious scratching”
What surprised me when bathing a chicken was that, although a feisty hen might put up a fight when taken towards the washing up bowl, once she realised the water was warm and that I obviously had no intention of drowning her, she would lower herself into the water and was completely relaxed, enjoying every minute of her bath. Even better, was how much she enjoyed a blow dry with a hair dryer set on warm. Some hens would even chunter away to themselves at the bliss of warm air through their feathers. A great deal of care was called for when it came to bathing the ‘oven ready’ ladies though. I had to ensure the dryer was not on any part of her skin for too long for fear of scalding her but they too greatly enjoyed their bath time.
In sickness and in health
There were occasions when a hen was unwell or really poorly. It was a case of back to the computer and checking up on all the symptoms to try and resolve the issue. I think I was lucky when it came to veterinary help in that there were three vets at my local practice who had a good knowledge of hen problems. One of them was a hen keeper himself and was always prepared to offer advice over the telephone and never once charged me for his time. Only on three occasions did I ever take a chicken into the surgery and that was because I could find no answer to my questions online. To be honest, this particular vet was interested in learning about ex-battery hens and the knowledge I had gained was exchanged for a minimal consultation fee.
Much as I disliked having a sick hen it gave me a new challenge. My job was to try all in my power to make her better. I didn’t win all the battles and it wasn’t only me who grieved at the loss of one of my chickens. It was blatantly obvious that chickens also feel grief. If one of the flock was missing they would call for her and they searched for her. I learned that by letting them see that their friend was no longer alive they accepted that she would no longer roam my garden with them. Every hen would come up to her, walk around her, some would gently peck at her as if to see if she really was gone but in the end they accepted that she had passed on to Rainbow Bridge. It was as though they had all come to pay their respects to her in their own way. Once satisfied that she was no longer alive they would trundle off all muttering to one another; were they talking about her, about the fun times and the bad times, about their communal dust baths etc.? Makes you wonder.
Two of the more unpleasant sides of chicken keeping was having to watch them sort out the pecking order – their way of deciding who will be head hen. There could be some terrible squabbling but it was not always the most dominant hen that came out on top. I have witnessed one of the weaker hens used to being at the bottom of their hierarchy – and presumably fed up with being so – summon up the courage to fight her corner and end up as top hen. The other less pleasant side of ex-battery hen keeping is the very real possibility of losing one of your hens to illness. Some hens do not find it easy to make the transition from cage to coop and may only live a few days after being re-homed but my philosophy now is that at least she died as a free hen who unfortunately did not live long enough to enjoy that freedom.
So, what did I enjoy the most about keeping ex-battery hens? The answer is absolutely everything.
I loved their zest for life, the way they lived each day in the moment. They didn’t worry about what was going to happen tomorrow, they couldn’t have cared less about the price of eggs! My hens gave me dozens of eggs so tasty that people who bought them wouldn’t buy free range eggs from anywhere else. Yes, my chickens were all free ranging. After an initial period of settling in and getting used to being allowed to eat and drink as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted and learning they had a warm bed and a private place to nest and lay their eggs, they were let out of the runs to free range in my garden.
“What have you got for us?”
I loved their curiosity, their cheeky attitude, how comical they were, up to all sorts of tricks and the fact that if I was late taking out their treats in the afternoon they would congregate at the back door and tap on it with their beaks. It sounded like a round of applause but they didn’t stop until I had taken out what they had come for. They showed great intelligence. After all they had been through they trusted me implicitly, talked to me, untied my trainer shoe laces, picked buttons off a jumper or cardigan, pecked me if I had done something they didn’t like and would even jump up on my shoulder and twitter in my ear or pull my hair!
The day the tigers came…
I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience with ex-battery hens except the day, to quote a line in a song from a well known musical,”the tigers came at night”. Except in my case the tiger was an official letter that came on a Saturday morning telling me that I was no longer allowed to keep them and to re-home them forthwith.
It was one of the saddest days of my life. Although all my ex-battery hens were taken in to a very good home and my Pekins went back to the breeder from whom I bought them there is still a huge void in my life but, thankfully, they are all still with me in the nests they built in my heart.
Eirlys Goode is the author of Starting From Scratch which is a collection of experiences from keepers that makes invaluable reading for anyone thinking of rescuing ex-commercial hens. A new and updated version of the book will be available soon.
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