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.