The Pecking Order Here at Sunflower Farm
By Cam Mather
When we got our chickens I really just wanted them for their eggs. I knew they’d also make fertilizer for my gardens, but I had decided that if I was going to eat eggs I should know where they come from, and how much grain goes into producing eggs. What has surprised me is how much I enjoy them. They are so much fun to watch and they seem to have such unique personalities. So here in a nutshell, are the chickens that inhabit Sunflower Farm.
Henrietta, or Henny for short, is the ringleader of this pack of chickens. She is the alpha-male of this little gaggle of ladies and she’s decided that she’s #1 in the “pecking” order. When Flora and Belle arrived a couple of weeks after Henny and Penny, it was Henny who behaved like a bit of a thug to the other two. She was picking on Belle in particular, and it reminded me of my neighbor Ken’s stories about prison (where he worked for most of his adult life.) Ken says that inmates will single out and make an example of one easy target, so that other potential competitors for the top spot fall in line.
I’m convinced that Henny is conspiring to plan an escape from the pen that I built for them. But like Huck Finn, she’s convinced the others to do the dirty work. They’ve dug a big hole in the corner of the pen, where they plan to make their break and I’m sure it was Henny’s idea. When our HelpXers Mike & Melissa were here and we let the chickens out of the pen for some “free ranging,” they disappeared when I turned my back for a few minutes. Henny was the last one to be found that day. I found her down by the pond. I could tell she was trying to decide whether or not she could swim. She had that look… “if I could have just made it across this pond, I would have been out of here and never looked back!”
When we toss leftover rice into the pen, Henny is the fastest and most aggressive about grabbing the biggest clumps. She always picks the largest chunk of rice and she races off to a corner to devour it before the others can get to her. As I mentioned in a previous post, she is the Captain Jack Sparrow on this ship. In the morning as we lower the drawbridge/gangplank door from the coop she is always the first one to jump on and ride it down. I think she fantasizes that she is boarding a gold-laden Spanish galleon and the treasure will soon be hers. No really, I can tell this is what she’s thinking every morning.
Penelope, or Penny for short, is the vice-president of the little chicken government that’s formed in our coop. She seems happy to let Henny rule the roost, but she doesn’t take any chicken poop from anyone, including Henny. As I garden I often gather up undesirable bugs and I toss them into the chicken pen for the girls. Penny is always the fastest at eating them. She has the eyes of an eagle and she can spot a grub or cutworm long before any of the others. And when I put about 50 scarabs on a piece of white cardboard (photo in previous blog post), she just blasted through them like “The Terminator” against cops with handguns. In movie terms, the scarabs were “Gone in 60 Seconds.”
Penny is kind of like the Dick Cheney of our chicken coop. Henny seems to be in control, but somehow I sense that it’s Penny behind her pulling the levers of power. While Henny may talk a good story to convince the others of the importance of the task at hand, i.e. digging the escape hole, it’s Penny who thought up the hole to begin with. Penny knows there is something to being VP. When you’re number one, you’re the fall person. She’s a smart codger this Penny. You can always spot her, over by Henny, whispering something in her ear. She was part of the duo that went missing during the great escape. Penny is the second chicken riding the drawbridge gangplank down every morning, staunchly behind Mrs. President, Henrietta. The other way you can tell that Penny is like Mr. Cheney is that she never writes anything down!
Flora is like the middle child of the Sunflower Farm Chicken Cooperative. She knows she’s not at the head of the class, but she also knows she won’t be the last to get picked when they arrange a game of “dodge ball” or “chicken” which they play for hours.
Flora has that sort of raised in suburbia kind of outlook on the world. Oh, well yes, food will be provided for me. I will be kept warm. And all I’ll be asked to do is pop out the odd egg once in a while. I can live with that social contract. When there’s a commotion, usually with Henny picking on poor Belle, Flora stands on the sidelines and won’t get involved. You can see her little chicken brain processing the situation… “This is not my fight, and if I step in on Belle’s behalf I could get my chicken butt kicked, so I’ll just stay clear of this little tiff.”
I think Flora would like to aspire to greater things, but I think she’s just resigned herself to a life of mediocrity. She could write the next great novel, but she probably won’t. And that’s okay with her. You’ll never see her on top of the coop making a run and flight for freedom, but you’ll also never see her pouting in the corner if she didn’t get enough of the strawberry tops that got tossed in there with the latest compost bucket. And she’s good with this. When I look at Flora I see a continuous loop of the band Rush’s “Subdivisions” playing in her head. “Be cool or be cast out.” She’ll play the game, but she won’t be enthusiastic about it. What did you do on the weekend Flora? “Oh, got drunk in my parents’ basement, then I went to the mall Saturday and ate at the food court.”
Belle is a sweet, sweet chicken, but not the sharpest tool in the shed. Well, I hate to say it, and I don’t say it to be mean, but Belle is a little dense. Oh she looks pretty, and she lays fine eggs, but really, Belle is just eye candy in the Sunflower Farm chicken menagerie. If it weren’t for the chicken feed we provide in their dish, Belle would starve in about a day I think.
When I toss a bunch of rice into the pen, Belle seems perplexed about what to do. The other three quickly find the biggest rice clump and take off for cover to eat it. Belle has her head up but seems dazed and confused about what to do. Sometimes she chases the other three and tries to grab their rice ball, but mostly she stands there while the bulk of the rice is consumed by the other three. I’ve shown Belle where the rice is, tried to explain how to eat it, and have really emphasized the importance of Belle exerting herself over the other three. But alas, poor Belle seems destined to live in her own little world. If it weren’t for us providing her with life’s essentials, she’d need to find herself a good earning rooster to allow her to live the sort of lifestyle she desires.
While I have high hopes for Belle, I think she’s destined for the fast food, minimum wage kind of chicken job. She won’t be going to “Chicken University.” Poor Belle won’t even make a low level community chicken college. But hey, someone’s got dig ditches, and Henny is happy to have Belle around to do the grunt work of digging the escape hole to freedom while she watches from the sidelines.
Michelle’s Message – When I see how much fun these chickens have, all day long, digging holes, having dust baths, scratching in the grass, and just being chickens, I am reminded of just how cruel it is to confine 6 of them to a small cage, as is done in commercial egg factory farms. There seems to be growing awareness and concern amongst consumers and so let’s hope that this barbaric practice soon comes to an end!