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February 15th, 2011

The Chickens’ Return

An amusing story from Atlantic magazine, titled “Rebirth of the Guinea Hens” describing the writer’s attempts to get his guinea hens home to roost, reminded me of my early experience with fancy chickens and white fantail doves. The Girls arrived in pairs at our place, Sycamore Barn, on a spring day. I’d never had chickens before, so this was a steep learning curve. We let them out of the their cardboard boxes and stood admiring their feathered loveliness while they stood in stunned silence. And then took off like the sky was falling.

Our village was small, so we had regular reports of their whereabouts: the favorite spot being a neighbor’s old apple orchard. My mother, a former farmgirl from rural Ireland, urged my Midwest-born husband to go after them, implying that by not doing so he was failing in his marital duties (but even the things that he did do were signal of that).  So, off he went with a cardboard box, a forked twig and a length of string. All very Huck Finn, and the thought being that when the errant hen would wander into the box, he’d yank the string, the twig would collapse and the bird would be trapped. He got very cold, and ate too many apples while waiting for this scenario to unfold. I don’t have to describe what the result of that exploit was.

It took about a week to round The Girls up, by which point I had learned what I should have done (so much of learning is dependant on hindsight), which was to keep them penned up for a week, THEN let them loose.  If they’re given a chance to bond with their roost, they’ll always come home.

Same with the doves. When I finally removed the netting that swaddled the dovecote, they emerged from their nests, blinked at the light, and stood there. Until one took off. It was stunning to watch her circle the fields on either side of our property in turn, and then do a few loops above our garden acre before alighting on the ridgebeam of the barn. Then the other eleven doves took off in groups — it was like the planes taking off on D-Day. They followed the same pattern as the solo flyer, setting their internal birdy compasses, before joining the leader on the roof. And there they stayed for three days. Scoping out the scene, making recce flights before returning to base. Eventually, when the urge to lay an egg was too great to resist they returned to the dovecote and got down to business.

In the meantime, The Girls had got into their groove, eggs were being laid, and the compost heap was nearly ablaze with the collected quano. So, all came right in the fullness of time, and ever since then I’ve learned to at least try to get my bearings and get settled before charging off on the next mission.

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