Today was the day I was going to tell you about the chicks growing up. I was going to tell you how funny it is to go out in the morning to the broody coop and find the hen still sitting as if she were on her eggs, no sign of a chick anywhere. Then a little head peeps out, and another and out from under the mother come the chicks one by one. Surely they must get squashed you would think but they seem quite happy, squeezing themselves out and striking out for the food bowl. Often one of the chicks would climb onto the mother's back and sit up high in the corner, cheeping away to itself. Then down it would come, sliding down the smooth feathers like a child in an adventure playground, the mother all the time seeming to ignore that she was being used as a climbing frame.
Sometimes she would take them out. She would walk them round the outside of the coop. A quick repeated cluck seemed to be an instruction to come here, to scratch here, to gather round. It was funny to see in our own garden something that was part of the books of my childhood and my children's childhood. I went to my grandson's and read to him about the mother hen who lost her egg:"I've lost my egg" said Mother Hen. "It's not in here" said Big Dog Ben. The story has a happy ending.
I went out at about eight o' clock this morning and checked they were ok and had water and food. We had been putting bricks around the edge of the pen in case something dried to dig its way in and when I had finished giving them more chick crumbs I put them back again, having shut the run tight. There is a cover for the run which I lifted back on as the feed bowls were outside the coop and it was raining very gently. At night we weight the roof down with large stones but I didn't do that, knowing I would be out again soon.
At about ten o' clock I peered in as I wandered the garden with my cup of tea, taking a break from work. Pecking, cheeping, scratching. All was well.
At half past eleven I picked up the bag of chick crumbs and thought I would replenish supplies. As I came through the gate I clocked that there was something lying on the grass by the raspberry canes - a large piece of bark? something blown in from the field? As I walked down I saw simultaneously that it was Edith, the mother hen, and that the two young dogs from next door were bouncing about in the corner of the garden. There were feathers everywhere. I bent over her. She was quite dead.
"Robyn" I shouted and the younger dog turned and ran, the older one racing after it up the drive. The roof of the run was skew whiff but the run was still standing and still closed. A frantic peeping from the coop revealed a single tiny chick, squashed into the corner and shouting fit to burst.
I went it and picked it up. It's tiny body trembled in my hand and it continued to peep. There was no sign of any others. As I came out I saw first one and then another, wet and dead on the ground. I carried the living one up to the utility where, one handed, I found a cardboard box, covered the bottom with wood shavings and gently placed it inside. I installed the cardboard box in the greenhouse and went back for food and water. The chick squashed itself into the corner of the box and continued to cheep.
Outside the garden was noisy with birds. I walked back up to the coop, my throat thick, looking for any sign of any more dead or dying. Flattened into the grass by the raspberry canes I found another tiny body. I picked it up but this one wasn't wet so hadn't been in a mouth. It was still soft and downy and perfect. It cheeped faintly at me. I was quite unreasonably cheered by the idea that there were two living, rather than just one. A chick is not meant to be solitary. Gently I put it in the cardboard box with the other one and it burrowed immediately underneath its sibling, looking for protection perhaps but failing to find much.
I wondered if there was any chance of finding the other chicks and whether there might be any more alive. Behind the coop is a area thick with nettles and brambles and bordered by a holly tree. Standing looking down at the tall grass I decided that one of the noises I could hear was the persistent distressed noise of a chick cheeping rather than birdsong or the cheeping of other chicks in wild nests.
For an hour and a half I worked my way through the grass and nettles. I found one quickly and, encouraged, decided I could hear another. I went back into the house to put on a jumper to cover my arms which were tingling with nettle stings. Slowly I found more, two together, one so far under the holly I had to lie in the dirt, an old curtain over my head to stop my hair tangling in the dense prickles. Back and forward I went to the greenhouse. The chicks were still terrified, piling one on top of another in the corner of the box, trying presumably to recreate safety and warmth but creating a tottering tower of frantic yellow chicks, peeping incessantly.
Final tally: one mother dead, two chicks dead, seven chicks living, one chick not accounted for. The garden is quiet now. Whatever happened to the last chick I do not think it is still alive. But seven still are, so time to turn to how to keep them alive without the mother hen who, although this was her first brood, clearly had all the instincts strong and true. A friend sent me a weblink to a useful site. I consulted my books. They are a week old and they still need heat for another month or so. Another friend says she has a heat lamp and will bring it over.
I have just moved them into a bigger box and they are still in the greenhouse. Every time I reached in for one the noise was frantic but now they are quieter, they have eaten and scratched and, while close to each other, are no longer trying to disappear into the corner of the box in a pile of fear.
I suppose this is how it is when you raise things: creatures die. You wonder what you could have done differently to protect them. Younger daughter is coming home for the weekend tonight and was so looking forward to seeing them. I do hope they make it through the night. I might just need to go out and check up on them again. Edith was a great sitter and a great mother hen. I am so sorry to have lost her. Let us see if we can raise the chicks that are left.