The hen house was in a sorry looking state when Mr. Fairweather rescued it from the overgrown grass. It had lain undisturbed since before the cock, Charlie Bird had gone on his dinner date with Mr. Fox. There was a green hue building up on the timberwork. I feared to look inside. Neither of us could remember when it had last been cleaned. We were right to fear. A makeover was definitely needed.
The hen house had been built for three hens but I always felt that the roosting space was a bit cramped. It didn’t help that the original residents didn’t seem to want to or know how to roost. They slept in the two nest boxes and defecated profusely in them. It wasn’t pretty.
We had got our first lot of hens from an overcrowded, concrete backyard in the local town. The poor dears kept looking up as if they had never seen trees before. They were a sorry looking state with missing feathers, pale combs and no personalities. One hen in particular was missing all the feathers on her rear end. We christened her Red Arse. When little people came visiting we told them she was called Redhead. Cue confused looks when all their feathers grew in and we had three gorgeous red feathered ladies. The other two, we eventually called Fajita and Gravy. The ladies really blossomed over time. They would come down the ramp in the mornings waiting to be let out of their run and range far and wide for food. They developed real personalities. Red Arse was quite aloof and did her own thing. Gravy followed meekly wherever the other two went. And then there was Fajita. She was my favourite. She would hear you calling and come running in that funny, butt up, elbows out and head down way that hens have. If you were digging at all, she would be over to inspect for worms and grubs. She’d eat out of your hand if you offered a particularly tempting specimen. She’d even climb into the bucket of the digger when work was being done. I thought it endearing. The workmen thought otherwise.
The eggs when they came were delicious. But after a while, the shells started to go soft. Some even came out without a shell at all. If I was lucky, they would lay in the dirty nest boxes on the previous nights droppings. Sometimes, they would lay in the roosting tray. Those eggs often broke. There was a lot of cleaning. Try as we might, we just could not get them to roost. Things weren’t helped when Charlie Bird arrived. He was a beautiful half American Buckeye cockerel that was donated to us in order to save his neck from the cooking pot. But four birds definitely weren’t going to fit in there comfortably. Especially as he and Red Arse didn’t see eye to eye. We had now become slumlords.
I think now that part of the problem was also that the roost was too low in comparison to the nest box. Chickens like to roost high and lay their eggs low I am reliably informed. This time around we would get things right. Mr. Fairweather went to work on renovations. He took out one nest box altogether. The new residents would be fine with one.
He also built a new roosting tray that could be easily removed for cleaning and placed the bar that bit higher to try and accentuate the difference between sleeping accommodation and laying facilities. This new tray was the full length of the house and would fit four birds comfortably but was practically palatial for the three we were planning on. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.
A lick of paint was all that was needed. I took a chance on Cuprinol’s Garden Shades Lavender. The assistant in the hardware asked me what I was painting and then looked at me as if I had two heads when I said I was painting the hen house purple. What did they know? The house almost looked posh. What bird would be able to resist it?
We consulted various books about breeds and caring for them. What was their role in the plan for this smallholding adventure? Meat? Eggs? Both? In the end we opted for Light Sussex. Sussex are a good, heavy, dual purpose bird that lays an average of 100-150 eggs per year. They are quite social so the Little Paddler should get lots of entertainment. The hope is that for now, the hens and the ducks we currently have should keep us in eggs most of the year. If we do well with three hens, we might expand the project and get a cock and a few more hens in. That way we might be able to kill a few for the table and have more coming on behind them. Maybe we’ll sell eggs. Maybe we’ll sell chicks or point-of-lay pullets. That’s all down the line. We’d need a flock number for that for starters. For now, it’s just the three of us and the three of them. And hopefully some eggs for breakfast.