One afternoon, a neighbor stopped to ask if we had any chickens missing. All of ours were accounted for, happily scratching around the yard and pooping in places I’d rather they didn’t. It seems that a small flock of hens had taken up on the property across the road. Our neighbor wasn’t sure where those chickens had come from, but he sure wanted them gone. “If you can catch them you can have them,” he told us. If we didn’t catch them and take them… it was off with their little heads.
Naturally, we’d take some free hens. We’re always looking for more eggs and six new hens don’t come cheap. So we tried to catch them. But we could not. Unlike our very tame yard birds, these chickens could fly! And I’m not talking about that extended awkward wing flapping situation that startled chickens sometimes do. No, these birds can soar. It was a lost cause. My husband gave up and came home.
A few days later we noticed the flock closer to our place observing our free range flock from afar. We were happy to see they hadn’t been shot, and so we all gathered around the window to get a closer look. They were much smaller than our hens and sinewy. Turns out, they were basically a flock of feral Cornish game hens, a breed typically used as meat chickens. And unlike our fluffy little foul, they wanted nothing to do with humans. But what is country life good for if not a good challenge? So my husband decided to throw out some scratch and see if we could entice them over to our place. They took quickly to the scratch but kept their distance. When we opened the door they flew for the trees.
For several weeks we threw out scratch, an open invitation to come on over. And every day we threw it out just a tiny bit closer to the door. Occasionally one of our roosters would get in an awkward little dust up with theirs. But soon they were all commingling. We kept throwing out scraps and scratch and they kept coming closer and closer. Next thing we knew, they were happily free ranging with our chickens by day. When nightfall came ours walked into the coop and hopped on their roosts. The wild hens flew to some surprisingly high limbs of the nearby pines.
It wasn’t long after this that we moved over to another nearby house, closer, in fact, to the wooded area where these hens roosted at night. We upgraded our coop; we moved our hens over to the new coop (come to think of it, that story of nighttime chicken relocation should be a whole column in and of itself), and everyday we threw out kitchen scraps and the two flocks joined in. There for a few weeks we had to keep the chickens cooped up in the new pen while we trained our (wonderful) new dog some on chicken manners. No problem, said the wild hens. They just flew over the fence and spent the day with ours and then flew the coop that night. Some days their rooster would fly onto the swing set and crow loudly from this perch.
It was around about this time that we hit the jackpot: We discovered where they were laying. The first nest we discovered was by the shed, behind the lawnmower and at the corner of the deep freeze. There, in tiny pile of old straw they had worked with their skinny little legs into a little nest, were six eggs. The next thing we knew we starting finding eggs in an old dog house on the porch. Then we started finding them in the coop with the other eggs.. We can always tell they came from the Cornish hens because their eggs are white and smaller. Last week my husband found some eggs in an old filing cabinet in the shed, a reminder to keep the door shut before summer comes and we miss an egg and wind up with unbearably stinky situation. Sure, it’s a little work to go looking for all the possible nests, but we think of it like an endless Easter egg hunt. Also it’s one of our kids chores and they seems to find it as entertaining as we do.
One of the things about trying to grow at least some of your own food is that it becomes easy to always be thinking about what still needs to be done. You never reach a place where your work is complete and you can sometimes forget to just bask in the gratitude of it all. If we as a family never get around to raising goats or sheep or getting that mule and guard donkey of my dreams, I can happily say that reaching a mutually beneficial relationship with wild, tree roosting hens is one of our greatest life accomplishments and a goal we never knew I had.