18 June

Stories From The Farm. Teaching The Imperious Hens To Share (I Can’t Believe It Worked.) Animals Surprise Me All The Time.

by Jon Katz

I can’t believe it worked.

I often bring leftover food or mealworms out to the hens during the day; after years of ignoring them, they and I are friends. One problem we have is that one – sometimes two – of the Imperious Hens will grab the food or treat and run off with it to hide and eat it all.

Sometimes this leads to squawking and severe pecking, and indignant clucking. There was even some blood the other day.

The older hen, in particular, was often denied the chance to eat any food at all. Every trip outside with food for them turned into a brawl; it was more like chicken football than Bedlam Farm’s Peaceable Kingdom. The two younger hens were getting into the happening of bullying her away from the food so they could eat it all.

We don’t accept nastiness here, not from any people or animal. We share and live in peace.

We rarely have any trouble. I did have to shoot a nasty rooster who attacked Maria and drew blood from her leg.  That was five years ago. The hens were getting nasty. I’m not big on talking to chickens, but I had to try something.

But the Imperious Hens are – well, imperious. They are tough and generally fearless.

Taking advantage of my new and close relationship with the hens – I have become quite fond of them and bring them worms at least once a day – I decided to bring some etiquette to their food manners, inspired perhaps by social media, where all semblance of civility and good manners is fast disappearing. Rudeness is a pandemic all of its own.

Not on my farm. No rudeness or thoughtlessness here. Even the dogs understand that. We share, and we wait our turn calmly and politely. We get along or we get out. That’s the rule.

I took some veggie crisps (all crushed up and tasking like cardboard) out to the grass. Minnie, who grew up with chickens and sometimes seemed to think she was one, came rushing out to see what was on today’s menus. I gave the chickens a talk. Our aging barn cat, Minnie hobbled out to check out the food and see if she wanted any of it. They treat her with respect.

“Before I put this food down on the ground,” I said, “I have something to ask you. I don’t want to see any more grabbing of food and running off to take more than your share. There is enough for all of you, even Minnie, and I don’t want to see anyone left out or deprived of their rightful share.” With animals, I know you really have to mean it to get a message across. They are sensitive in ways we don’t yet understand, but sometimes they can figure out what I am trying to tell them. I’ve made a lot of progress with the dogs in this way.

Sometimes, I don’t even have to speak to get them to understand me.

The hens looked up at me, shocked and bewildered; they clucked and twisted their heads, trying to listen.

I dropped a few of the crisps. One rushed to grab it and run. I put my foot out in front of her. “No,” I said and then hissed. She was startled and puzzled, but she didn’t run away, and I made sure not to touch or tap her with my shoe. “I mean it; we’ll stay at it until it’s done,” I spoke softly but firmly. Animals are very sensitive to tone.

This happened three times, and each time I gave my speech again. The hens were hungry and restless, but they were also trying to figure out what to do to get their treats. Chickens are not the most intelligent or complex animals in the world, but they are brilliant about food – where to get it and how. They will do almost anything for a shred of leftover pasta.

I made sure to project authority and continuity. I said the same thing each time, in a loud and don’t mess-with-me voice.

On the fourth time, they astonished me.

All three formed a circle, took up position, and waited to move until the food hit the ground. Every time one moved aggressively, I clucked and said, “Ssssssssh!.” They paused, stopped grabbing the food and running off, and all three pecked at the crunched-up veggie crisps quietly and politely. Each took their turn; no one grabbed food away from the others. I paused and projected in my head what I wanted to happen. I made a picture of the hens eating slowly and calmly and letting everyone get their share of the good.

I know from my work with dogs that you have to mean it. If you don’t mean it, they won’t do it or do it for long.

I went inside the farmhouse and peeked out the window. It was like an old-style tea party, all calm and courteous, with lots of pecking on the grass for food, but every hen stayed in their zone.

I was, frankly, shocked. I never think the chickens understand anything I say, apart from “food!”

I tried this again today – twice, to be sure – and it worked both times. I stand before the hens, make a hissing or shushing noise, and sprinkle the food evenly and quietly. The Imperious Hens were transformed into perfectly well-behaved citizens of the farm.

Maria was both shocked and impressed. She usually talks to the animals, and I still can’t really explain what happened or how. But I think I just taught our hens some manners, a shocking thing. Maybe they aren’t so Imperious after all.

14 April

Chicken Aid, A True Story: Maria Builds A New Path For The Unhappy Imperious Hens

by Jon Katz

Some people might have shrugged their shoulders and just let it go. Maria is not one of those people. Every day, the Impeerious hens would crawl under the pasture fence and feast on the manure pile and the droppings and bugs in the pasture and the pole barn. Last week, Mike fixed the wobbly wall, effectively trapping the hens in the pole barn.

We didn’t realize they were stuck back there until we came to open the roost one morning. They were all curled up in the pole barn beside the sheep all night.

Too bad, I said, but they have plenty of things to eat in the backyard and along the South fence.   The hens were distraught. They kept going to the same spot over and over again. They were unhappy. They love pecking at that manure pile, especially when the flies and bugs show up,  as they are beginning to do.

(Luring them in.)

I should have known better than thinking this would stand. Every morning, Maria woke up with a different plan for giving the puzzled and frustrated chickens access to the pasture again. I vetoed two or three of them, and I hate messing with a secure fence. If things can get in, things can get out, and things you don’t want to get in a can.

But that is true of our gates as well. Maria wasn’t letting go; I knew when to shut up. Her heart is as big as life.

Finally, she came up with a plan. She started digging an under a section of the fence and away from the gate. There was nothing to object to. Large animals couldn’t get in or out. But the hens didn’t quite get the idea. So Maria went out every afternoon with a favored gourmet treat – bits of fish, crab salad, and popcorn. Mary and Anne needed some persuasion, but when Maria sat inside and sprinkled bits of cod, both gave in and crawled under.

It also took the old white hen another 15 or 20 minutes to slide in. Maria sang and pleaded with them; she ensured they got the idea by dropping morsels of food on both sides and watching to ensure they knew how to get in and out. They have their new path to the pasture.

Mission accomplished. I said almost no one would do this for three chickens, including me.

I know, she sighed, but she was very pleased with herself. Somehow, I know the hens appreciate her.

Inside the fence, victory.

The chicken story had a happy ending, and Maria was pleased.



P.S. My rented 85 mm lens past the Maria test. I love the portrait of her peering out from some flowers on the porch.

24 March

Imperious Hens: The Morning Mealworm Ritual

by Jon Katz

I call it the Morning Mealworm Ritual. Every morning after breakfast, I go out to the barn and dig two handfuls of dry mealworms out of the can where they are kept. I dump them on the floor of the barn and make a clucking sound.
The Imperious Hens come running and devour the worms, one by one.
Food is the language with which we most easily communicate with animals, the hens and I both seem to enjoy this quiet time together. I get to observe them, they get a healthy source of protein.

29 January

Two Eggs From The Imperious Hens. The Days Are Getting Longer

by Jon Katz

As the days begin to last longer, our Imperious Hens are beginning to lay some eggs. It’s hard for anyone who eats fresh chicken eggs to stomach the flavor of the eggs bought in supermarkets. Maria looks every afternoon and is very excited to find fresh eggs. Spring is creeping its way toward us.

These will be scrambled eggs for breakfast.



Bedlam Farm