As they strut in almost slow-motion-like precision, break into awkward side-to-side runs, or scratch and peck their way across the yard, my Americauna hens are like swirling mosaics of brown, black, yellow, orange patterns changing shape like a twirled kaleidoscope. I would like to imagine that I picked each chick carefully to achieve this movable artwork but I simply pointed at the metal tub where more than a hundred tiny, peeping blips rushed back and forth and said I’ll take twelve of those.
As the little chirping blips grew larger, I started to see the developing patterns of their plumage and realized that each had a distinct composition of color blending and body contours. Some have faces that are framed by short ruffle-like fringe feathers, while others have big rounded butts that look like feather dusters. Each hen is a distinct individual in appearance and behavior. In the early morning when I open the barn door, the same hens come rushing out to meet the world as if they have important places to go and things to do. Others are still on the roosts and seem startled that it’s time to get moving! I always stop my morning rounds to watch them moving slowly through the soft early sunlight following the trails of scratch grains I have set out for them.
To my surprise, the hens love running water. They crowd around the hose when I turn on the farmer faucet and are like children wading in a stream, enjoying the feel of the water rushing around their feet while dipping their beaks in the stream for a cool drink. They’re mudders, leaving their distinct foot signatures in the mud as they move along the water course before it runs aground.
While water is for dipping feet and beaks into, loose, dry dirt is for bathing. My hens will seek out natural dust bowls in their large yard and work prodigiously to flip as much dirt as possible over their backs while fluffing out their feathers to allow the dirt to filter through the layers of feathering from the large outside feathers to the fluffy down layer near their skin. Once a perfect dust bowl bath has been created, a waiting line forms and a hen that lingers a bit too long in the bowl is rudely routed from her dusty revelry!
My chickens have formed gangs. The original group that are now about 18 months old are in charge. They decide when the hens will eat, when they will venture out to the back field to rummage through the mule’s ears, rabbit brush, and dry pine needles and cones, and when they will roost for the night. A younger hen will sometimes forget this strict code of conduct and head out on her own but soon the errant youngster will realize that she has made a social misstep and run frantically back to the obedient group
People who know more about chickens than I, would have known when they brought home those little peeps that eventually they would be finding beautiful blue/green eggs in the nests in the barn. But they were a surprise to me. They are not all the same shade of green but rather many nuanced variations of a quiet, soft green/blue color that I can’t think of a word to describe. When I gather the eggs and look at them in the egg basket, they are each one distinct from the others. Even the texture of the shells differs between eggs. Some are very smooth and porcelain-like while other shells are thicker with small bumps of calcium speckled on their surface. The yolks are large and deep yellow/orange. And unlike many store bought eggs, these eggs taste like eggs used to taste before the conveyor-belt egg factories took over from the farm families that searched the barn each day for the oval gifts their hens had left for them.
My hens live in a society that functions very much as our human societies are organized. There are hens that provide leadership and direction. There are hens that follow the rules and do what is expected of them each day. There are squabbles.