Hens survived the trauma of spring cleaning

One of the author’s annual childhood chores was cleaning the henhouse, but how would the chickens cope with change?

WINNIPEG — Eggs were often a mainstay of our diet when I was a small girl growing up on the farm, and it was my responsibility to feed and water the hens.

In summer, I enjoyed pumping the water and carrying it to the hen house, along with some grain and a few potato peelings from the kitchen. They each gave me a daily tip for my services, a nice warm egg slipped into the straw of the nesting box. When I propped open the hen house door each morning they were off to explore the barnyard, scratching for tasty tidbits in the soft soil of the garden plot, or else dusting themselves in the ash pile on warm summer days.

Come winter, however, my feathered friends were cooped up day after day in the stuffy confines of the hen house, the only light a few feeble rays of sunshine filtering through the dusty little windows. I was always happy, therefore, when on a fine March morning my mother would tell me that the weather was warm enough to let the hens out again.

They cautiously made their exit, a little overwhelmed by the bright new world that stretched out before them. But soon one hen would find a puddle of ice water and before long, several of them had gathered around it, sipping from its clear cold contents and tipping back their heads as if to savour every drop of precious nectar.

Now that the occupants were out and about, nobody even objected when I volunteered to clean the hen house. In fact, they were exceedingly helpful, as I recall.

In lieu of straw, my father offered me all the sawdust I needed from his lumber mill, my teenaged brother volunteered to haul it and both of them agreed that I could ride back and forth in the trailer.

I suspect they already knew, as I was about to discover, that stepping from a fresh spring day into a stifling dark hen house took a certain amount of pluck. I left the door wide open while I emptied the nesting boxes and raked the floor clean, always under the surveillance of one or two Rhode Island Reds. Self-appointed inspectors, they wandered around as matronly hens do, peering at everything in general and squawking at nothing in particular. They each deliberated over the fresh supply of sawdust with cool “cackle”ation, peering down at it first with one eye and then the other, as if to say, “we guess it will have to do, but it certainly isn’t the straw that nature intended for proper nests.”

Maybe I can impress the old biddies if I wash the windows, I thought, so I got a pail of water from the nearby pump, sloshed it on the little square window panes, and soon the spring sun was filtering in between the streaks.

Sitting down on the overturned pail for a rest, I contemplated the potential in this flock.

An elderly neighbour had tamed one of his hens to do tricks, and “Minnie” was known for miles around. She would come when called, fly up and land on Dave’s arm, ride around on his shoulder or perch on his head. My great ambition was to own a pet hen myself, preferably one that originated right from this motley little flock.

In anticipation of that day I had already begun to name certain prospective birds. Even now they were beginning to return from outside, pausing one by one on the threshold like small-town girls making their first debut. First Rhonda the Rhode Island came, and then Lena the Leghorn, and Bertha the Barred Rock. Standing first on one leg and then the other, they seemed a little overwhelmed by this strange new world of plush sawdust carpeting.

And then I began to worry. Just last summer a bad hailstorm had swept through, catching the rooster unaware. As he made a last minute dash to safety, a hailstone had caught him just below the comb and he collapsed, spurs up.

My mother started sharpening the knife, grumbling all the while about it being an inconvenient day to make rooster noodle soup. But then the storm blew over as quickly as it had come, and we looked out just in time to see the rooster regain his senses and wobble off to the barn.

We didn’t hear from him again until the next morning when he stepped forth as usual at the crack of dawn to usher in the sun. With feathers dried, and composure restored, he crowed loud and long, and I was not surprised. Destined to be the barnyard martyr, he had just escaped death twice in one day, once by hail-stoning and once by the edge of the knife.

With such a close call still vivid in my mind, I wondered what adverse effect such a traumatic event as spring cleaning could have on a group of hens. What if they were so upset they stopped laying altogether?

Would my mother start sharpening her knife as she had done with the rooster? Had I unwittingly destined every last one of my feathered friends to the soup pot? Worse yet, had I jeopardized the one and only claim to fame I might ever have?

Even as the panic welled up within me, Lena the Leghorn began to cackle, and when I went to investigate, there in the nest was a fresh white egg.

She had just laid my fears to rest.

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