Giving caged hens get a new home
In the Spring of 2021 new residents appeared in our garden. Four chickens.
Each was a different breed making identification quite easy. There was Raisin with her elegant black and emerald green feathers. Bluebell, large and dominating, with her grey and black body. Bronzey, your classic brown hen. And Snowy, all white. Yes, the children named them. And Bluebell is a Bluebell breed in case you’re wondering.
Chickens are very hierarchical, and everyone in a flock has to have their rank. It’s called the Pecking Order. Yes it is. And it really does involve pecking. When a flock comes together, they’ll peck each other to establish dominance. The other bird will either fight back and challenge the peck, or will submit to it. Eventually everything calms down but it can get a little fraught.
Raisin, being a bit of a grumpy and aggressive hen, took the highest spot. Bluebell, a rather gentle giant, took number two pretty much (as far as we can tell) on her size. She towered over all of them, and Raisin was the only one to try to take her on. Snowy was a bit timid so ended up at the bottom, leaving Bronzey in number 3.
Snowy always seemed to be a bit of a sickly bird. She’d rest a lot more than the others, and seem to get more ill. In hindsight she may have had some underlying health conditions we didn’t know about. Although we took her to the vets, it’s difficult to diagnose chicken illnesses. The vets have to try things and see what works. Sadly Snowy started in a downward spiral, and died almost two years after she’d arrived with us.
Three months later, Raisin came down with something – possibly a virus. There’s a lot of weird chicken viruses. Unlike Snowy’s slower descent, Raisin’s went rapidly downhill. Despite our best efforts to help her, she died, resting in our garden.
And then there were too. You can imagine how things felt when – a month or so later – Bronzey fell ill. Thankfully she pulled through, although I wouldn’t say she made a full recovery. She’s been a bit less energetic since.
Thankfully Bronzey and Bluebell have always been very close friends, spending a lot of time with each other. But with just two chickens left happily pottering around our garden, we decided to look into bringing in some new hens. The idea was to adopt some rescue hens. These are hens from farms that lay eggs we buy and eat. Hens are most prolific layers in their first 18-24 months of age, and farms will regularly refresh their flocks. Which leaves a lot of hens suddenly homeless.
Many go to slaughter. But there are also several organisations that take the hens and seek to re-home them. It seemed the least we could do to give a nice retirement to some hens. We got ours from the British Hen Welfare Trust, and as it turned out, the next re-homing day was for a batch of birds who had lived all their lives in cages.
Yes, cages still exist in egg farming in Britain. Not battery cages. They were banned. These are “enriched cages”. But they’re still cages, the hens still live their lives densely packed into barns, and have very little space. They never see soil and grass. They never see sun. And then when they’ve outlived their productive working lives, they head to the chop. Unless they’re lucky enough to be re-homed in a nice garden. I didn’t know cages were still used in egg farming in Britain, but it made me want to re-home these hens even more.
Now you can’t just plonk three new chickens in with two existing chickens and expect everything to be fine. Well, imagine if three strangers suddenly moved into your house without warning. There’s various ways of integrating everyone, but as we had space, we decided to initially keep the new hens apart from the originals so they could get to each other. For the first day, Bronzey and Bluebell seemed very stressed, cawking and crowing a lot. The new ones were a bit stressed by their lives being upended. By having space. A new home. By seeing the sky. But they quickly settled in, established their own pecking order. As I type, they still haven’t been formally named, so the names are provisional. They’re all brown which makes life harder. But Big Wattles (for she has big wattles) quickly took dominance. Number 2 took the number 2 position. And Tiny came in at the bottom. Tiny’s a little smaller than the others, funnily enough.
Over the course of the week, there were a few battles and attempted pecks from Bronzey through the fencing. But the fencing kept the hens far enough apart that nothing could be achieved. Bluebell, in contrast, did her giant act. Casually wandering around, staring at the new hens, making herself look big, but doing nothing in particular. She’d never been particularly aggressive. During one of Snowy’s sick phases, there was some aggression from Bronzey and Raisin. Flocks try to push out ill birds to protect the rest. And whilst Bluebell would sometimes joined in, she never initiated it herself. We found we could put Bluebell with Snowy and the two would be fine.
After a week it was time to try and get the two flocks to mix – initially for an hour just before sunset. We nervously watched as the new and originals, rather expecting the worst. There was a bit more pecking from Bronzey but nothing too bad, and everything seemed reasonably calm. Truthfully we’d been expecting Big Wattles and Bronzey to clash, but the two kept away from each other. Mostly the two flocks kept away from each other.
The next night we tried again. This time Bluebell deliberately close to the others, and “casually” ate amongst them. Just ate whilst showing her huge size. The new ones were wary but didn’t do anything. Bluebell’s position at the top seemed secure.
That just left Bronzey’s position. And it seemed she was going to go in for the “kill”. She started stalking the new hens round the garden. Quietly, casually walking up to then, then rapidly pouncing and pecking. Around human’s she’s an incredibly docile chicken. Happy to be picked up and cuddled. With other hens, she can be merciless. Twice she took on two at once. At one point she was holding down one of the new hens, her foot holding down the other’s neck.
We’d expected Big Wattles to really challenge Bronzey’s position – she’d seemed by far the most dominating of the new three. But she didn’t even try to take on Bronzey. Bronzey’s dominance seemed absolutely secure.
And then she just wandered off to the coup, and went to bed. Bluebell then followed her, as if to check she was all right and provide some moral support.
Over the next week, things slowly calmed down. Bronzey slowly calmed down. Eventually we could let them all mingle all the time, without being concerned that we might wake up to a chicken bloodbath. But for a short while at least, it seemed like we’d created a brutal, silent, killer of a chicken.
Bringing three former caged birds into our home has, without a doubt, caused some disruption. But it’s not been without its rewards. Three chickens who had lived all their lives in dimly lit barns, stuck in small cages, now have freedom. Chickens who have never seen the sun, don’t know what rain is, have never pecked at grass and soil, can now do all that. We’ve seen them stare at rain in wonder. Enjoy scratching at the ground looking for food. Basically doing what chickens should always be able to do. It’s wonderful to have given them that chance.
There are several organisations that rehome chickens from farms – from free range farms, barn chickens, and, of course, caged hens. Our rescue chickens came via the British Hen Welfare Trust who have a nationwide network of rehoming sites.