Itchy and Scratchy have been living in my garden for over a year now, providing us with about 12 large eggs a week, with dark orange yolks from all the greens they eat. Unfortunately, over the last two months, egg production has dwindled. Itchy has got it into her hen bird brain that she wants chicks.
Although there is no rooster around, she spends her days sitting on a nest – despite me removing the occasional egg that appears. Scratchy seems to have gone on strike in sympathy for her broody friend, and makes a show of going into the nest box, but has stopped laying altogether. Now this is not part of the deal. I feed them – they lay eggs and produce nutritious manure for the garden. That’s the deal.
A duck farmer, who sells her products at the local farmer’s market, suggested I dunk her – head and all – in icy water. I had read that chilling the nest box down might break a broody hen and had tried putting frozen cooler box blocks in her nest. She just sat on them until they warmed up. So this ice water dunking idea sounded like it might work. However I couldn’t do it. It just seemed so mean. I mentioned it to my gardener, Hloniphani, hoping he might be able to do the deed but his response of “Oh, the poor hen” suggested otherwise.
So I followed other advice, kicking her off her nest as often as possible and closing off access to it. This meant having the hens running loose in the garden – not a great idea as they can be destructive blighters, eating young seedlings and uprooting plants in their scratchings. The other animals weren’t happy with this arrangement either. A broody hen can be a terrifying creature. The dogs quickly learned to give way after a few sharp pecks on their noses.
One morning I saw white cat Mao tearing across the garden with Itchy, puffed double her size with rage, in hot pursuit. Having eyes only for Mao she tripped and tumbled head first down a bank, a feathery ball of anger.
One morning after I chased her off the nest, she fluffed herself up and made a cluck clucking beeline for the swimming pool – now a pond, with reeds and fish. She squatted down next to it and drank deeply. She had never done this before. I discovered that Hloniphani had attempted the water bath treatment using the pool. But he just couldn’t dunk her entire body and had only dipped her feet in – hence her new found drinking knowledge. We all thought this was quite cute and realised that hens do not learn by observation. Scratchy just followed Itchy to the pool each morning and watched as her friend drank her fill.
A few mornings later I was in the bedroom when both dogs suddenly looked up at the window. I stuck my head out and saw water splashed out onto the side of the pool that I could see. Something had gone in – either a cat or a hen. Dashing out I saw it was Itchy – floating on the pool looking just like a duck. Except she couldn’t paddle or get herself out as her wings were just not strong enough to lift her fat body up the side. Keith fished her out with much splashing and squawking and that was the last time we ever saw her drink from the pool. And despite the full body dunking, she is still broody.