The past year has been tumultuous, full of upheaval and tragedy, but my chickens have been spared it all. Indeed, their year has been unusually pleasant and peaceful. After years in which they have been regularly subjected to murderous assaults by foxes and dogs, they were finally fenced into a section of the garden that savage animals could not penetrate. In consequence, there has been a year of rare tranquillity in the chicken world.
The worst that my little flock of six chickens has had to endure is the company of a guinea fowl, which I originally got because guinea fowl have a reputation for being good guard birds that make a great din whenever a predator is in the vicinity. But this particular guinea fowl is interested more in bossing chickens than in protecting them. The name given to it by Freya, my 11-year-old daughter, was Meany-Bully, because one name wasn’t adequate to cover the full range of its character defects. It chases, pecks, and otherwise frightens the chickens without cease, most fiercely at feeding time when it tries to stop them from eating their corn.
My mother used to keep chickens and gave each of them a name that she always managed to remember and allocate correctly, even though there were a lot of them. This struck me as silly and sentimental because I thought that every chicken was much the same as the next; and this impression was strengthened by the way many thousands of chickens for commercial production were then tightly crowded in battery cages. But when you have only six, free-range chickens, you soon realise that every chicken is different from the other, not only in appearance but also in temperament. It cannot be said of chickens, as it is said of dogs, that they feel loyalty and affection for human beings, but they do nevertheless respond to them differently.
A grey speckled chicken called Pebble, because of her habit of pecking at pebbles, eats corn out of your hand, but none of the other five chickens will. Blueberry, a blue chicken, is exceptionally shy, hardly ever seen by anyone except at feeding time; but Witchy, a black one, is fearless and protective of her fellow chickens, which she tries to defend against the guinea fowl. She will also attack a human being who interrupts her when she is broody. There is a white chicken, also named Meany because of a former habit of pecking other chickens, but who proved that chickens are capable of reform for she now blends amiably into the flock. Then there is a smaller white bird that is called Angel to describe her peaceful and trusting temperament.
Those are all my chickens except for the prettiest, nicest and kindest of the lot, a brown chicken that Freya called Sweetie, for obvious reasons. But now I have only five chickens instead of six, for just before Christmas Sweetie died. I found her lying on the ground beside her hutch, limp and motionless, breathing feebly. Freya and I carried her indoors and placed her on a bed of straw in a warm place, but she never recovered. Within a couple of hours, she was dead.
The year 2016 was notable for the sad loss of many memorable human lives, so the death of a chicken might seem of little significance, as indeed it was. But it touched us nevertheless, and did so much more deeply than the deaths of any of the chickens that had been torn to bits by foxes, maybe because we had come to know her better. In any case, some solemnity felt appropriate. Freya dug a grave in a flowerbed and we buried her there. Then we observed a minute of silence at the graveside, which was later covered with a paving stone to mark its place.
On the walk back to the house we decided that Sweetie should be replaced by another brown chicken, but not until the spring when the weather was warmer. Then there was the question of what to call Sweetie’s successor. ‘She was the colour of demerara sugar,’ said Freya. ‘Perhaps we should call the next one Demerara?’ That was rather difficult to say, I said; so we reached a compromise and agreed that the next chicken would be called Sugar.