Of course, I only wanted three hens when I first began making plans for keeping chickens at Acorn Lodge, so perhaps this is merely a case of “Be careful what you wish for” come to fruition . . . but still, the further thinning of our small flock has taken some time to come to terms with. Sadie, the Welsummer, is gone. Her departure from our chicken run was ultimately compelled by the need we felt to care for ourselves: we needed to protect our own well-being in order that we might continue to care for our girls in the manner we see fit. And yet, the decision to cull Sadie from the flock was a difficult one.
Dolly, Dottie, and Biddy all began laying eggs back in September within a few weeks of each other, more or less according to expectations — most hens begin laying at around 6 months old. Right about the same time, two things happened: Sadie fell to the bottom of the pecking order (yes, it’s a real thing!), and she began to behave aggressively towards me when I would enter the run. She would run at me and peck at whichever appendage was closer, leg or arm, hard enough to draw blood. I began to armor myself in black rubber boots and long sleeves before entering the run, but also did some research to try to figure out how to deal with an aggressive hen.
The first piece of advice I happened upon suggested picking up the offender immediately upon entering the run each time, keeping a hold of her firmly while completing any chores or spending time with the flock. Sadie didn’t mind being held and I would carry her along with me into the Barn to fetch grit, oyster shell, or treats — which I hoped might also serve to endear her to the others if they associated her with the delivery of such. For a few weeks it seemed this might be the solution to keeping myself safe from her strong beak, but then one day as we sat together on the log in the run, she suddenly craned her neck and pecked my cheek, about an inch-and-a-half below my left eye. Shaken and bleeding, I retreated from the run looking for another approach.
The only other piece of advice I could conjure that seemed sound involved utilizing distraction: throwing treats into an area of the run away from where I needed to be might buy me enough time to complete any necessary chores without drawing Sadie’s attention. This worked pretty well if I needed to enter the run during the day, and I decided at the same time that I could choose not to let the girls out of the hen house in the morning until their food and fresh water were already in place, meaning I could then open the door of the house, set the ramp for them, and high-tail it out of the run before Sadie had a chance to go after me. But neither of these strategies allowed for me to simply sit with the girls, enjoying their company, as I had done in the past. I missed spending time with the flock, but remained hopeful that once Sadie started laying she’d settle down and we’d be able to get back to my visiting the run on a social call.
And then, one day in November, my husband went out to the run to offer the hens some oats, their favorite treat: we’ve hand-fed them oats almost daily since they were about a week old, and visitors to Acorn Lodge have often participated in the late-in-the-day ritual. On this particular day, as he squatted down at the door of the run to proffer the treat, Sadie sailed at him and pecked just to the outside of his left eye. Almost as soon as he’d left the kitchen to visit the hens he returned to me, shaken and bleeding (sound familiar?), the white of his eye rapidly becoming suffused with blood as well. As we rushed off to the doctor to have his eye checked — thankfully there was no damage — we kept thinking, “What if it had been a visitor, a friend, that she had done this to?”
Sadie still wasn’t laying nor was her plumage becoming more hen-like: layers sport fluffy bottoms and an overall silhouette that suggests nothing so much as a 1950’s debutante in a short ball gown. Her tail feathers weren’t exactly rooster-like either, but her aggressive behavior, which had come to include chest-bumping, combined with her failure to lay, suggested that perhaps she wasn’t ever going to develop fully into a hen — and certainly she wasn’t showing any signs of settling down into our little flock. We, quite literally, have the scars that prove that. Certainly we undertake an obligation of care and nurturance for the animals we adopt into our lives, but of course, we are obligated to all of those animals and we have a duty to care for and protect ourselves so that we are able to provide that nurturance. And so, the next morning, I delivered Sadie to the farm center that had taken Lollie/Lalo in last summer.
The first thing I did when I returned home was visit the chicken run: I sat with the girls for the first time in months, and now it’s back to being a regular habit. Biddy likes to roost on my shoulder, while Dolly and Dottie prefer nestling into my lap as we enjoy each others’ company. We coo back and forth while I stroke their soft feathers, and I am suffused with a feeling of well-being. I feel the chicken run is a safe place once again for all comers, and I’m thrilled that I’m able to nurture the girls fully, without constraint. The decision to remove Sadie from the flock was not an easy one, but I’m at peace with it: I tried — and failed — to find a way to keep her, but the demands of the greater good of the flock and its keepers prevailed.