Hen House Hierarchy- a story-LONG, but fun!

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Countryside : One Thread

This is a story that my Great Aunt Jean wrote of her experiences with chickens in the 1940's. She is now 88 years old and living in Arizona with her husband, Glen Rader, and I meant to get this story into Countryside to see if they wanted to publish it, but just haven't had the time!

If you have any comments you would like to share, please do...I plan to send her this as a print out. I think she'd really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks!

Hen House Heirarchy

by Jean Davenport (now Rader) of Tucson , AZ

September 14 They are here! Twelve sleek white hens with plump red combs which they wear at rakish angles, like Princess Eugenie hats, are at this moment exploring the hen house I laboured four days to prepare.

Mrs. Twickenham says they are laying. They'd better, that's all I've got to say. I heaved at least a ton of mouldy litter and stuff out of that coop. Then I scraped it, swept it, scrubbed it with hot lye water. I bought $8.70 worth of hen groceries, and I paid Mrs. Twickenham $2.00 a piece for the hens. That makes $22.70 invested so far. Heavens! I'm glad I didn't start out on the scale of several hundred.

Bill has adopted a tolerant attitude toward this venture. I think it makes him feel magnanimous to indulge his wife's whim.

They laid an egg today....but they ate it. I saw flecks of egg yolk on their faces. Good Lord, I wonder if they are perverted.

September 17 I made a discovery. If I talk to them and rattle the catch on the door before I go in , their reaction is considerably milder- more like an ordinary TNT charge instead of an atom bomb.

September 25 Five eggs today!! When I go into the hen house now two of the hens run toward me instead of away from me. They seem curious to see what I bring them. This afternoon I heard a terrible uproar-- all twelve of them cackling at the tops of their lungs. The cause was only a mouse, but they were completely unstrung as if they had seen a ghost. After dark, when they were all sleeping on their perches with their heads under their wings, I took Tobias T. Tomcat out there and he nailed that mouse in one second flat.

September 30 Today Mrs. Brownstern took a bit of stale bread from my fingers! She is the biggest and boldest of the lot, and her name came to me in a flash as I observed her walking away from me. She just ain't neat. There's another one I call Stubtail, and a third who has a crooked toe--that's Crippletoe.

It's fun to watch them, but the more I observe them the stranger they seem. God must have a sense of humor to have authored such an ill balanced, awkward cousin of the swift birds. She ambles about on two clumsy feet with toes pointing in all directions at once. Her body is designed neither for speed nor manueverability. She pokes her beak forward and then takes a step to catch up with it. This ungainly motion suffices for ordinary travel, but if she is really in a hurry she spreads her wings slightly, lowers her outstretched head like a lance, and charges forward, stern wobbling from side to side in a fashion strongly reminiscent of an unescorted stout lady hurrying to catch a bus.

October 7 Twelve eggs today! I was really moved. "Girls" I said, "I'm proud of you. Ya done fine. You're hundred percent Grade A chicks."

"Quaw-quaw-qua-aw" Mrs. Brownstern remarked in a complacent tone. Stubtail wigwagged her frayed tailpiece like a gal yanking down her girdle, and Madame Pompadour stopped eating mash and wiped her beak, first one side and then the other, on the edge of the trough. Self-satisfied females!

October 15 Mrs. Twickenham advised me to treat the hens for lice every few months, so I bought some sodium flouride, and tonight after dark I went out and took each hen off her perch (Bill held the flashlight) and worked a pinch of the powder into her feathers at various strategic points. It's the dog-gondest thing-- no matter what position you hold a hen, she keeps her head right side up. Bill said if I kept turning Hortense over and over in the same direction she'd wring her own neck. I was half afraid to try it for fear she would. Ten eggs today.

October 16 Looked over the pamphlets the druggist gave me about poultry care. They are put out by manufacturers of medicines for livestock. Chickens are certainly subject to a lot of ailments, but I still think the poor creatures have the edge on us because they haven't brains enough to worry about their health. You aren't likely to meet a hen who is a hypochondriac. Eleven eggs today.

October 20 Mrs. Brownstern, as is her wont, greeted me cordially this morning when I took the feed in. I squatted down with a pan of oats in my hand, and darned if she didn't hop up on my forearm and start eating! Stubtail, not to be outdone, stood tall , examining a button on my jacket first with one eye and then the other, and then grabbed it and gave a fierce tug. When I talk to them the whole flock replies in various tones. I can even distinguish some of their voices. Bill acts superior and amused about "those damned hens" but I think he gets a kick out of watching them too. Twelve eggs today.

October 21 This is a beautiful blue-and-gold October day, and I let the hens out just to see what they'd do. At first they didn't venture out, but finally after long consideration, Mrs. Brownstern stepped forth into the wide world. Hortense followed and eventually all the rest. They explored slowly, eating clover, pebbles, bits of broken glass, grasshoppers, and other tempting morsels as they went. Dribblepuss wandered out to the road and almost got her everlasting from a big truck.

I am beginning to see why a hen is so flighty. In the first place her eyes are placed in her head at divergent angles, so that she is constantly seeing conflicting visual images, and the effort to focus her attention and resolve all of those conflicting images must be a terrific strain. This structural handicap is at the root of her silly swivel necked approach to any situation. She walks through the tall grass. A movement catches her eye, the right eye, that is. It seems to be a yellow cat, but she can't tell how close he is because she has no depth perception. Her left eye sees the barn door and the corn crib. So she sticks her neck up in the air like a periscope and rotates her head to examine the cat with the other eye. Now the right eye beholds the outhouse and beyond that, the orchard. Still, she can't tell whether the cat is two feet long and ten feet away from her, or ten feet long and thirty feet away. You can forgive her for being a little nervous about this problem. A cackle communicates her misapprehension to all her sisters, who immediately take up this range finding activity in an effort to corrulate enough pictures of the cat to form some idea of his size, distance, and possible danger. Finally Tobias Tomcat, his dignity offended by the uproar, yawns and stalks away to watch for a mouse somewhere.

Giddiness therefore is natural to the hen. Doubtless this accounts for her perversity. When frightened, she'll pass up an open gateway in panic and then nearly decapitate herself trying to frantically get through an inch-and-a-half wire mesh.

October 23 Stubtail lets me pick her up now. When I stroke her feathers and bring my hand near her head she closes her inner eyelid only. This membrane works from corner to corner, just the opposite of the outer eyelids. It would be a decided advantage to have two sets of eyelids, especially if you worked for a railroad. Ten eggs today.

October 25 As much as I like Mrs. Brownstern, i regret to say that she is a bossy old busy body. She is the self appointed head of the welcoming committee when I bring food, and whoever forgets it is reminded with a good sound peck.

Today I caught her trying to chase Dribbleouss if her nest, although there were plenty of empty ones available. Poor Droopy Drawers gets the worst of it, though. She's the one with the hang dog look. Even her tail feathers bespeak a lack of self-confidence, and everybody shoves her around. I am unable to decide if her ego was stunted because she was an incubator baby and has never known a mother's love or if she lacks self-assurance because of a naturally lower vitality. Possibly psychosomatics could supply the answer.

October 26 Bill cannot understand how I arrived at their names. "It's simple" I told him. "you know Mrs. Brownstern, of course. And Dribblepuss always looks as if she should have worn a bib. Droopy Drawers is the only one in the bunch who fits that name......"

"Well, Madam X is rather svelte and has a certain gleam in her eye, but she's sort of on the social fringe,like a woman with a past. Now take Frieda, there. Look at her. Ample of bosom, broad of beam, just a little blowsy, like a hefty Dutch hausfrau. You couldn't possibly call her Nancy."

"I see," he said in a tone which indicated he didn't see. "But why did you name that one Hortense instead of Martha?"

"I just looked at her and watched her and all of a sudden the name Hortense came to me. Martha wouldn't fit at all."

Bill shook his head doubtfully. Sometimes men reject the most obvious thing merely because they can't find a logical reason for it. They prefer to arrive at their conclusions by instruction or deduction or some such laborious method.

They did pretty well today. Eleven eggs.

October These Indian Summer days are few but unbelievably perfect. this afternoon I let the hens out and sat in the sun, just soaking up the golden light. The hens seemed to enjoy it too. Underneath the eaves where the ground is bare and the soil is fine, they made a dust bath. This dust bath is the ultimate in debauchery. I never witnessed such utter abandonment to dissipation. The feathered ladies came to like it like women of fashion meeting in a cocktail lounge. There was considerable conversation and gossip as Mrs. Brownstern and two or three others scratched and loosened the fine dirt....and by the way, there's no gesture in the animal kingdom as unlovely as a hen scratching. Wriggling into a girdle can't approach it.

Next they stirred the earth wuth short quick jabs of their beaks and squatted in the dust. Then the orgy began. Plumage ruffled, wings spread, they flopped on their sides and wallowed, fluffing the dust all through their feathers. After a few minutes of this dissipation, the dust began to settle, and there they lay, eyes bleary, combs awry, feathers ruffed and thick with dirt, look for all the world like D.A.R. gals on one helluva binge!

Frieda, Madame Pompadour and some of the others who didn't go all out in this spree sat nearby, preening themselves in the sunlight, fluffing, shaking, and smoothing their feathers. Heads darted under one wing, and then the other, on breast and back and legs, in a grotesque parody of milady using bath powder.

Poor Droopy Drawers and Madame X sat apart, like soacial hangers-on, having been cruelly squelched by the elite when they tried to join in the rites of the dust bath. Droopy Drawers especially leads an unenviable life, eating and drinking only when the others suffer her to. At nightfall she is the last to go to roost, she is pecked if she crowds to close to the others and usually winds up on a cold outside perch. Neither Listerine, nor Lifeboy, nor even a DuBarry Success Course could raise her enjoyment of liberty, equality and sorority. I wonder if Karl Marx was aware that priveledge and deprivation are not always a result of private ownership of the means of production. Ten eggs.

November 18 This morning their drinking water was frozen. When I brought them fresh water they crowded at the fountain to drink. Because they have a hard beak without lips and only a stiff reed like tounge, they have to rely on gravity to get a drink. They plunge their beaks in the water and then quickly tip their heads up and back in order to swallow it.

I never cared much for the chicken neck on the platter, but I begin to see this unlovely portion is structurally sound and necessary for survival. If you built a hen with a neck like a rabbit ,for instance, she wouldn't survive for a day. She couldn't even eat, because she relies on the forward thrust of her neck to assist in swallowing her food.

December 28 When Hortense lays an egg she hops off the nest, emits a functory "Kut-kut-kut-daDOCKit" and goes about her business. Crippletoe, on the other hand, really believes in advertising and will often cackle for ten minutes after her crowning achievement of the day.

Bill asked why the "damfools" make such a racket over an egg.

"Can you think of any other creature that can produce as much concentrated nourishment each day, in proportion to it's body weight?" I asked him. He thought for a minute ...."No."

I pressed the matter further. "Can you think of any way to improve an egg?"

He considered for awhile. "If they were square they wouldn't roll off the stove."

"Be serious," I said. "Think of the poor hen."

He grudingly admitted he couldn't think of any practical improvement in the structure or content of the egg.

"I don't know about you , Bill", I said, "but personsally, if I could do even one thing each day that was perfect, I'd cackle too."

January 19 The weather has been brutal, but the hens seem cheerful in spite of it. Spent $6.55 on the hens victuals today. Nine eggs.

March 19 We're getting low on eggs, and this morning I only had two in the house. I ran out to the hen house, and sure enough, Hortense was in the act of laying one. I waited a few minutes until she finished, grabbed it and brought it in for Bill's breakfast. He said it was unquestionably the freshest egg he had ever eaten. Four eggs today.

April 28 Mrs. Twickenham called on me today. She says the hens aren't sick, they're just starting to moult. So that's why they look so frayed out! Frieda has only two tail feathers left, and Madame Pompadour looks lik she has moths. Mrs. Brownstern is still going strong, though. She would! Only three eggs today.

May 1 I was in the chicken coop this afternoon when Bill came home early with a headache. He remarked acidly that I spent more time with the damned chickens than I did with people.

Somehow I did not feel that this was the time to explain to him that I enjoy the chickens because they remind me of people, and that on the other hand, lots of people remind me of chickens. So I gave him two aspirin tablets and got him to lie down while I cooked dinner. Two eggs.

May 15 We are almost out of feed, and I had to buy eggs today. I finally broke down and admitted we were losing money on the hens. Bill said, with a tone of finality,"If they don't work, they get et."

The idea of eating Hortense or any of the others was not attactive, but I assented, provided he would kill and pluck them. I got the axe and handed it to him. "Which one shall we eat first?" I asked. Bill looked kind of funny and said"Aw hell. Let's sell 'em."

The poultry dealer gave us $18.20 for them. As near as I could figure, I made $3.28 net on them since last September. I told Bill about it.

"That's not very much," I admitted. "We should have gotten rid of them sooner. But gee, I'm going to miss Hortense and Mrs. Brownstern and the rest." Bill cleared his throat twice. "Honey,'he said," why don't you put that eighteen bucks aside until we can pick up some pullets?"

Well, here I go again. Next week I'm going to clean and disinfect the hen house.

-- Doreen (livinginskin@yahoo.com), June 22, 2000


Great story!!! I thought I was the only one who kept chickens just for the fun of it (as in: they arn't laying enough to pay for their keep). Wasn't $2.00 a piece a lot of money for a hen back then. I thought that mine were worth about that now.

-- Peggy Adkins (adkinsonthefarm@hotmail.com), June 22, 2000.

I really enjoyed the story! What fun! Thanks for sharing it.

-- Jean (schiszik@tbcnet.com), June 22, 2000.

Delightful story! Thanks for posting it, and now,I think I will go out and watch my own "girls" for a while! Jan

-- Jan in Colorado (Janice12@aol.com), June 22, 2000.

Doreen, please tell Jean Davenport Rader that surely she is a lovely person, with wonderful wit and appreciation for nature. Has she written more? Please see if she will share with us!

-- Rachel (rldk@hotmail.com), June 22, 2000.

Thanks Doreen. That was fun.

-- john leake (natlivent@pcpros.net), June 22, 2000.

What a great story! Brought tears to my eyes. I want more, please find out if she has anymore stories. thank you. Now I need to go visit my girls.

-- tina shrout (clia88@newmexico.com), June 23, 2000.

Your aunt has a gift for writing, Hope she shares more storys with us.

-- kathy h (saddlebronc@msn.com), June 23, 2000.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions of the little ladies - many a chuckle and smile was generated by this story. I saw my birds in her words, and have always considered chickens ('specially my girls) as having many of the same qualities and personalities as people - Thank you once again. Judi

-- Judi (ddecaro@snet.net), June 23, 2000.

Thanks so much for your comments!I thought that if people enjoyed this story half as much as I did that it would just enrich their day somewhat.

I don't know if she has written other stories...unfortunately I didn't get to spend much time with my extended family when I was young because we had moved a few states away and it wasn't feasible.

Aunt Jean was very active in the theater until lately and always the most fun to be around as she a natural story telling ability (akin to Mark Twain in my opinion) and the best delivery! She could keep you in stitches for hours!

-- Doreen (livinginskin@yahoo.com), June 24, 2000.

Indeed,she is a talented writer!Wonderfully descriptive! ~~~~~Tracy~~~~

-- Tracy Jo Neff (tntneff@ifriendly.com), June 24, 2000.

I only had a few minutes but thought I would check out the post any way and started to read! I forgot everyhthing else and read the entire thing!!!We should all try keeping our thoughts on paper for our grandchildern and greats! Maybe she has written more and will share with us!!Thanks again

-- Debbie T in N.C. (rdtyner@mindspring.com), June 25, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ