Keeping chickens brings all manner of challenges, but since ours free-range over an acre or more, a major one is trying to keep them safe from predators. It turns out that there is no shortage of things eager to kill and eat our birds – foxes, weasels, the neighbour's dog, me when they are particularly annoying – as well as random hazards such as passing cars.
They actually have up to eighteen acres to roam across, but somewhere in those little chicken brains, there appears to be an understanding that the likelihood of predators increases the further they roam from the house. We have even observed that birds who witness one of their own being mown down by a passing motorist are more cautious about crossing the road. (Why did the chicken cross the road? Because they are too dumb to know it’s dangerous.)
|Nobody here but us chickens|
Amazingly, the biggest single obstacle to chicken safety turns out to be... chickens. They make a wide range of noises to express alarm, but rarely when there’s actually something to be alarmed about. So far as I can tell, on seeing one of their number taken by a fox, one chicken response is not to scream loudly it’s a fox, it’s a fox, but to carry on with whatever they were doing, secure in the knowledge that foxy has already eaten. A second response is to fly up high and look down to check there’s a potentially sacrificial hen closer to the ground.
On those occasions when we are on high alert and doing some defensive bird-watching, because there’s been a fox around, we keep an ear out for sounds of distress. At the first sound of trouble, grab the big stick and go running to save some poor hen from being fox-snack.
Right. That works so well.
Let me give a few examples of causes of sounds of distress. The dialogue is a rough translation from hen to human; my responses are rarely spoken aloud...
Hen: He jumped on me, the brute, and pinned me to the ground, so I screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
Me: Yes, dear, he’s a cockerel, you’re a hen, that’s how it works.
Hen: I laid an egg. How did that happen? Hell’s teeth, that thing came out my arse. Anyway, I screamed, and screamed, and screamed... what do I do now?
Me: Yes, dear, you’re a hen, that’s how it works. Now sit on it. Or give it here and I’ll have it for supper.
Hen: She pecked me, the bitch, so I screamed....
Me: Yes, dear, that’s how it works. She’s a bigger, meaner hen than you, higher in the social order of hens, who has to remind you of your place.
Hen: OMG, I flapped my wings and my feet came off the ground. I think I’m afraid of heights, so I screamed...
Hen: Help, help, help... I just opened my eyes and I’m a chicken... and I’m surrounded by chickens... it’s enough to make me scream... HELP! I just shut my eyes and when I opened them...
Frankly, some hens can scream in panic over almost any routine part of being a hen, and with chicken-on-chicken violence being a regular event, moments of absolute peace are suspicious. Thus we have a system for handling false alarms where you have to listen for the quiet sound of almost nothing happening before rushing out to chase off a predator. Or we can give way to frustration and have chicken for dinner...
That’s the choice with the sounds of a chicken in distress – a source of angst, or a piquant sauce and some vegetables on the side.