This is a piece written so long ago that the original was an Open Office document, so probably from the late 1990s – was first published in The Irish Times’s long-defunct computer page. I’ve rewritten it a little bit to clarify it, but here it is, the hen wisdom I once had:
WHEN someone gives you three beautiful bantam pullets at point of lay, and a couple of weeks later one of them starts swaggering around crowing, and they keep growing and growing, the time has come to look for independent advice.
And where better to look than the Internet?
Not an egg from any of the chicks – Maeve, Grainne and Wilhelmina - and they don’t seem to be interested in nookie either. Could I have three cocks? Could even the gods be so unkind? Who can tell me?
Luckily the Internet is, well, flocking with hen sites, which I hoped could help me with my chicken-sexing dilemma.
I put one eye on Maeve (macho, hoarse-voiced, red of comb and suspicious of eye, crowing hopefully every morning).
I put the second eye on Grainne (suspiciously Kellogg’s-logo-looking - by the same token, by the way, the Gaelic-L maillist for Irish-speakers had a vigorous debate some months back about whether Kellogg’s rooster logo came from the fact that the company founder’s researchers had discovered that the family name originated from the Scots Gaedhlig word “coileach”).
I put the third eye on Wilhelmina - “That one’s definitely a woman,” said my son’s Dutch girlfriend. But no eggs, and no cries of “an-egg-an-egg-an-egg-and-I’m-baaaarefoot”, or the Irish equivalent which I have long since forgotten and would love to know again. (This an-egg-an-egg-an-egg-and-I’m-baaaarefoot” is one of the translations of chick-talk. Another, “Mac a h-Óighe slán” for what English-speakers call “cock-a-doodle-doo” means “the Son of the Virgin is saved” and supposedly comes from an old story about two guys gossiping around AD33 as they cooked a chicken in a pot over the fire. “Did you hear about that fellow in Palestine that the Romans executed,” one said. “Apparently after three days dead he rose up alive.” The other man gave him a look. “I’ll believe that when this chicken gets up out of the pot and crows,” he said, whereupon the chicken leaped out of the pot, flapped its wings and shouted “Mac a h-Óighe slán!” Which is why many of the illuminated manuscripts have images of a cockerel above a cooking pot, flapping its wings and crowing.)
So to the Internet.
Where there was plenty to be found. First port of call was the Poultry maillist, a silent place with scarcely a posting, unless my mail software is doing something funny. So I defaulted to Dom_Bird, another maillist, this one strangely sited in Poland.
Here were lots of people keeping hens. The posters ranged from the “what age is best for meat and grows up fastest?” type of farmer to the anthropomorphising Silkie-keeper who noticed that her cock wasn’t the usual competitive type. No! He saved titbits not only for his mates but even for the baby cockerels. She wrote that this romantic soul was always waiting to give his favourites the choicest worms and snail-eggs. “Every day is Valentine's Day with him for a mate,” confided his owner.
Then there was the unfortunate guinea-fowl keeper who discovered that her birds were smarter than she was. Guinea-fowl are hen-like, but have tiny heads and big bodies, with a graceful, swelling look, and have adorable personalities, unless they don’t like you, in which case they beat the tripes out of you.
This poor poulterer’s fowl had been outsmarting her for nearly a year. “Every night, after the chicks all go in, I would shoo the guineas in. We'd go in circles around the henhouse, with them missing the door every time. I assumed this had something to do with the fabled guinea brainlessness. They'd never veer off track, always stayed in a path around the henhouse. Occasionally, one would peel off and make it inside, but we had to do a good ten or twelve circuits before they were all in.
“The other day, I had yenched my back and was in no mood to run in circles around the henhouse, so I just stood there near the door. The guineas ran to the front and around the corner. A minute later, one peeked back around the corner to look for me. Then they all came around, ran to within a few feet of me and back around the corner. They repeated this action several times. The little goobers were trying to get me to chase them again! The whole thing was one big game to them and bought them a little extra outdoor time and some entertainment at my expense. Eventually, they realised I wasn't up for the game and just trooped in. I swear they shrugged their shoulders as they walked past me.
“I hope none of the neighbours noticed!”
Apart from the maillists, there’s the Web. It’s full of chicken sites. The kids' favourite is the ooh-ah Feathersite
with its adorable pictures of our feather-footed friends, as well as ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants etc. Good information, too, and links to addresses for fanciers' clubs.
There are bulletin boards, like the active Poultry Info Exchange message board (http://www.ameraserve.com/chicken/) and the Rare Poultry Breeders version, at http://www.insidetheweb.com/messageboard/mbs.cgi/mb54420. There's at least one newsgroup, at sci.agriculture.poultry.
There are several useful maillists. Apart from Dom_Bird (LISTSERV@plearn.edu.pl to subscribe), the wild gardening list (Wildgarden at Majordomo@UserHome.com) has lots of poultry-keepers on it. Many of the biodynamic gardeners of the BD-Now list are hen-keepers too (write to email@example.com and ask to subscribe).
All of these are great sources of information. Mind you, I still have no idea if Maeve, Grainne and Willy are boys or girls. They all have hackle feathers, but none has spurs; nary an egg to be seen. They are as pure as St Enda, without a thought of any high jinks with the opposite sex (whichever that sex may be). And every morning I go out to the music of Maeve crowing happily to greet the nine-o’clock bell.
Some hen sites:
The Poultry Place: http://home.att.net/~m.swafford/
The Chicken Page - University of Texas's poultry site: http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~ifza664/index.html#main
Page O' Chickens: http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/~rgill/Chicken.html
Little Farm: http://ameraserve.net/little-farm/
Nubin's Chicken Coop: http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Meadows/1915/
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