Bye bye Betty Blue

Betty in tea-cosy pose

Betty passed away peacefully overnight. She spent all yesterday in her comfy house, standing with her head under her wing. It rained most of the day so I sympathised with her. This morning the sun was shining. I went to put her in a sunny spot and found her at rest on the hay in the corner of her house.

One of three rescued hens, she seemed to be older than the other two and stopped laying some months ago. Her comb and tail had become smaller and she liked to settle in the sun while the others were busy around the garden.

Here are some happy memories of Betty Blue (she had a blue tag on one leg and is the lighter colour of the two brown birds).

My niece (also mourning Betty’s loss) and friend found some hens running loose on the Port Hills last winter. They managed to catch two (Betty and Dora). Popcorn came from the SPCA to make a mini-flock of three. They named the hens Satay (now Dora) and Butter (Betty). The hens came to live with me in January. We have no idea how old they are. Dora and Popcorn are still laying regularly. My niece believes Betty was hit by a car at some stage which may account for her increasing frailty. She was the lowest in the pecking order, but still did well to get her share of food and treats. Now, there is just the head hen (Popcorn) and the sentinel or lookout (Dora).

Betty’s grave is under the lilac trees. I found a suitable rock – which, now that I look at it, resembles a chicken beak down, tail up. Around it I have planted fox gloves and an azalea from my beautiful sister. Winter sweet flowers add scent to the scene.

The Hens by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

The night was coming very fast;
It reached the gate as I ran past.

The pigeons had gone to the tower of the church
And all the hens were on their perch,

Up in the barn, and I thought I heard
A piece of a little purring word.

I stopped inside, waiting and staying,
To try to hear what the hens were saying.

They were asking something, that was plain,
Asking it over and over again.

One of them moved and turned around,
Her feathers made a ruffled sound,

A ruffled sound, like a bushful of birds,
And she said her little asking words.

She pushed her head close into her wing,
But nothing answered anything.

Three calling birds

I’m finding the language of hens fascinating. Here are some of their sounds, from loudest to quietest:

AAAARRRKKK-ark-ark-ark-ark-ark – A long, very loud, drawn out call. Based in the back of the throat, employing the glottis between sounds. Often repeated for what seems a long time. The neighbours around the block will probably hear this one. What does it mean? Something momentous has happened. An egg laid. A major breach of hen protocol perhaps, such as another hen sitting on your egg or hogging the nesting box when you are desperate to lay your egg? These options seem likely, as the call tends to occur around the entrance to the nesting box. Many people say that this call is the hen announcing she has laid an egg. I’d say that is something to make a fuss about. Did you know the rounded end comes out first? Ouch!

SQUAWK! SQUAWK! SQUAWK! Loud, high-pitched and with a tone of panic. At this point, the hens are running in all directions, in a flutter of feathers, probably to evade something like this:

Well, he does practise on a stuffed duck.

WWEERRKK! WWEERRKK! WWEERRKK! A loud, sharp sound. High pitched, almost a whistle. This call is accompanied by the neck stretched up, head swivelling like a periscope. It seems to indicate that the hen has spotted something out of the ordinary which may pose a danger. A warning call.

EK EK EK EK A quiet sound with rising inflection made as the chooks browse together or as they follow me about the garden. It is like a voiced question mark. I picture little question marks floating over their heads.

BOOK BOOK BOOK BOOK Mid-volume when running to see what I’ve brought them. Low volume when used in everyday activity such as scratching in the dirt, or grazing on the grass. Perhaps a contented sort of sound, or a “nice bit of earth here” moment.

MUTTER MUTTER MUTTER MUTTER Lowish in volume. Often with a rising inflection at the end, giving it a tone of peevishness or complaint. They make this sound when I’m getting them their morning mash or their evening mash or … anything, really.

Hens also do a kind of percussion. When they jump down from something such as a low wall, they make an echoey thud which reminds me of the settling of the voice box of a teddy bear when you turn it over to make it growl.

TRRRIIILLL TRRRIIILLL TRRRIIILLL My favourite call. Very quiet. Often overheard when they are settling for the night. Almost like purring. A quiet, calming sound.

Good night.