Yesterday afternoon I was watching the hens pottering about the garden and happily scratting under the shrubs. They have a favourite spot in the azalea border where they dig large holes for dust bathing and then wriggle about in ecstasy, fanning out their wings, scrabbling piles of dust and leaves into the air. I was busy admiring Mary's beautiful feathers and made a note to myself to get some close up photos today to show how the light and dark markings lace together in such a pretty way. She is so much lighter in colour than the others and considers herself to be a rare beauty. I fully agree. After a busy day in the garden the three of them took themselves off to bed just before dusk and I closed up the hen run while they oohed and aahed their goodnights.
As the saying goes 'Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.' This morning I went out to feed the hens and while the others were up being busy I found Mary still in bed with her head tucked under her wing. On closer examination I was shocked to discover that she was stone dead. She had shown no signs of illness or ailment, and believe me I've become experienced at spotting an under the weather hen. Indeed she was looking wonderful so I can only conclude that she died peacefully and suddenly in her sleep.
It really saddens me that she got less than two years of freedom but I try to remember that really every day was a bonus. The picture below was taken recently.
And this one was taken a day or two after her arrival in 2011, having been freed from the battery cages.
They change so gradually that it's only when you look back that you see how far they've come.
They are such utterly endearing little characters with very individual personalities. Mary promoted herself to top hen after Thelma's untimely demise and quite clearly enjoyed the position immensely. She always perched higher than the others and surveyed her kingdom with a regal manner. Last weekend I watched her chasing doves out of her garden. Clucking indignantly every time one dared to alight she would shoot out from the azaleas and ambush the poor things.
So my little flock of five is down to two. We're not doing very well. I mistakenly thought that if they survived the initial shock of release from the cages then they'd keep going for years. I was wrong. Hens are sold in trios because keeping a pair means that in the event of one dying, one is left alone and being flock birds they don't cope very well alone. So I have a dilemma. Do I get another one? My heart still hasn't recovered from losing the others and my head says 'Fool! Don't even think about putting yourself through more than you need to'.
I love having the chickens about the place. They chat away to me and are such contented little things. They make me laugh regularly even if they occasionally make me cry. And looking at the bigger picture there are so many who, after a pretty grim and un-natural existence, are just slaughtered because they've fulfilled their maximum factory farming output.
I think that despite myself I have room for a couple more. Maybe we could have an agreement that they could all die peacefully in their sleep like Mary, but preferably after a much longer life of freedom. I think I could cope with that. Maybe. But really it shouldn't be about me. It should be about giving an undemanding and abused little creature a chance of relative freedom and contentment. And when I think of it that way...