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.