Parsley is a delightful savoury treat – for humans, guinea pigs and even for chickens. The girls had been proudly presenting me and my family with freshly laid eggs so it was my turn to treat them. I bought three reasonably priced parsley plants in a supermarket and planted them in the side garden, otherwise known as Hen Garden.
The ladies headed straight for the herbs. In the space of less than two hours, the parsley was no longer to be seen. It had been eaten, trampled on, demolished and vandalised.
(I call them ladies but that sort of behaviour is not very ladylike really. Is it Dottie?).
And it did make me think, my back garden is pretty much green with many plants (unfortunately many weeds and unidentifiable ones too) – Hen Corner in contrast is brown and barren except for a few lonely specimens such as an apple tree.
It wasn’t always such a forlorn desert.
Where has all the greenery gone?
Then I spotted Mabel gobbling up yet another leaf from one of the lucky plants still standing.
I often have neighbours popping into Cosy Cottage Garden Cafe. It is a self-service restaurant where customers can just help themselves to the regularly replenished supplies.
Fat balls are supplied, a delicacy favoured by the tits. The long-tailed tits come as a large close-knit family, the blue tits and great tits venture in by themselves or in pairs.
Robin is a regular, a nosy fellow, he likes to keep an eye on any gardening being done. Unfortunately, he is a jealous loner too, and doesn’t like to see others in his café.
There’s plenty of room for you all, I say, keeping the peace as cafe proprietor.
But he ignores me and shouts abuse at a larger blue tit.
Luckily, when the argumentative Robin flies on to another cafe, my customers come back. But despite his bad behaviour to other clients, he is a favourite regular and is always welcome here.
Blackbird prefers the ground seating to upstairs. As well as scatterings from the bird table, he may be lucky enough to catch a juicy worm for dessert. He too comes by himself, but is happy enough to share the edibles with the other birds.
Pigeon too, is a regular customer, sometimes he brings his mate and they munch on tasty leftovers, dropped by messy eaters from above.
Fat balls aren’t the only item on offer. There are coconut feeders and an array of healthier seed is also available, although the fat balls are the most popular. A drinking area with water is also set aside for my clients.
As well as regulars, there are the more flamboyant visitors. A bullfinch and his mate have hovered in the nearby trees, a nuthatch paid a visit on a couple of occasions, sampling the goods, and a Jay has also been a colourful client, staying a short while. Sparrows, starlings, a coal tit and a shy little dunnock, who prefers not to be noticed, have all sampled the delights of Cosy Cottage café.
It is a pleasure to serve such a diversity of characters. Do you have a ‘cafe’ in your garden?
Facts of the Day
1. The tail of the long-tailed tit is more than half the bird’s total length.
2. The great tit is the largest member of the tit family in Britain. More than 50 distinct calls and songs have been identified.
3. Coal tits are the smallest tit in Britain. Its favourite habitat is coniferous woodland.
Poor Jemima! All summer she had the broody affliction which meant she didn’t want to leave her nest box in case her invisible (actually non-existent) eggs hatched. And when she finally snapped out of that, she started losing her feathers and became bedraggled and tatty looking. A poor specimen of her former, proud, snow-white plumage-covered glory.
And then Florence started copying off her, losing her thick, soft plumage and becoming scrawny in appearance.
(If you remember, Florence copied Jemima when she started brooding in the summer too. Is Jemima Florence’s role model?)
But panic not. It’s all part of the normal annual moulting process.
It’s in late summer/early autumn when birds begin to shed their feathers and grow new ones. Dottie went through her moult earlier this year, in September. Jemima and Florence are shedding their feathers in November. I don’t know when Mabel and Ava will go through the process for their first time.
For all hens, no eggs (or certainly very few) will be laid during this time – even from good layers such as hybrids.
The advice for hen keepers is to make sure they have plenty of food as they will need good nutrition and protein to enable them to grow new feathers for the cold months ahead.
I pour a little apple cider vinegar into their water as a pick-me-up tonic as I saw it suggested in a book.
Thankfully, nature has kindly given hens a helping hand during this process – the feathers are replaced slowly and this means chickens won’t lose too many feathers at once. A handy thing as it means they will still be able to fly out of danger (unless they’re a bantam, in which case it might be more a case of run out of danger!)
Facts of the Day
1. Young birds moult twice during their first six months of life.
2. A partial moult sometimes also occurs in the early part of the year, often just affecting the neck.
3. A young hen will take around 6 weeks to finish the process, it may be double that for older birds.
From Choosing & Raising Chickens, Jeremy Hobs on & Celia Lewis
So it took two weeks for Mabel and Ava to meet and greet Florence, Jemima and Dottie through the fencing, first of their coop, then of the small run.
The first time Florence set eyes on the two new girls peering curiously out of the wire mesh, she launched herself aggressively onto their coop, flapping her wings.
Not what I expected from the once docile, sweet Flo.
Jemima did the same.
Not what I expected from the lazy, often broody Jemima.
And Dottie? Who was bossy and used to peck Florence when she was a youngster?
She ignored them.
To be fair, most of the time everyone ignored each other. There were curious glances but otherwise both groups of chickens got used to the other gang being in the vicinity. As long as they were kept apart from fencing, that is.
Dottie and Florence meet Mabel and Ava
Jemima meets the new girls, Mabel and Ava
After a week of ‘quarantine’, where Mabel and Ava got used to their new surroundings, they were allowed out in the small run. The older hens roamed free in the outer garden. I worried that the youngsters would try and sneak through the flimsy netting and (typical of my worst fears) get pecked and eaten by a three-strong gang of tough pekin bantams.
Well, maybe just the pecking although I have heard of cannibalism in chickens…
It went smoothly but, because of my concerns, I continued to keep close watch while they were out.
They were often in full sight of the other chickens.
Then it was deemed time for them to wander the full length of the Hen Garden. I closed the other chickens in, and Dad and I cleared the garden of anything that could possibly be a danger. We also closed off any potential small areas of escape. I worried they would fly away, squeeze under a tiny hole or eat something they shouldn’t.
None of these things happened. They loved their new-found freedom.
Then it was Meet and Greet Day. One by one, in the comfort of my living room, Ava and Mabel met Jemima, Florence and Dottie. All went well except Florence pecked Ava (where was the nice Flo?) and oddly, Mabel pecked Dottie.
Originally, they were all going to be introduced that night as I heard bedtime was the best time to introduce chickens. But after the two pecking incidents, I, well, ‘chickened out’ (!) Instead, every day for the next fortnight, all the chickens went out in their designated Hen Garden but slept in their respective coops at night.
At first, there was chasing by Jemima (well, at least it woke her from broodiness) and Florence. No harm done but it did make Mabel and Ava wary of the mean girls.
There also seemed to be segregation, with one group at the top and the other at the bottom of their garden. And vice versa.
But gradually, over the fortnight, Mabel and Ava creeped over towards the group, little by little, step by step. Still a little chasing went on, usually by Jemima, and I caught Dottie peck Mabel (was this revenge?) but generally, they slowly, surely, accepted the two youngsters.
When Mabel and Ava wandered over to the older hens’ coop and pottered around, eating grain, there was an air of acceptance.
I was nervous when the big moving in day arrived. At 5pm, when it was twilight, not dark for us humans but bedtime for chickens, Dad and I took out Ava and Mabel from their perches and placed them on the perch in their new home.
A couple of times I sneaked towards the coop, hovering by the door, waiting in anticipation for any noises.
All quiet on the chicken front.
The next morning, they were all as one. A little bit of bickering went on about corn (well, if you can’t argue about corn, what can you argue about?) but otherwise…
I left them in their coop, to their own devices, while I went for a walk. When I got back, I found Florence had laid an egg (good girl, Flo!) and she had been followed into the bedroom by Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava.
Over the last week, the once segregated groups have integrated into one, bigger group. It took patience, anti-pecking spray and nerves – and a few weeks – but it looks like Ava and Mabel have made themselves at home and made new friends at the same time.
Most importantly, they also learnt very quickly where they could beg for mealworms!
Simon’s garden is the opposite of neat and manicured – and this is all for the better as it is a shared garden, used by both locals and residents living further away. And these users – birds, insects, reptiles, butterflies and mammals – appreciate his garden, coming back to feed and drink, or living there quite happily. I’m rather envious of this as my garden doesn’t attract quite as many different species as Simon’s. Woodpeckers, blackcaps, wood warblers, goldfinches, greenfinches, frogs, blackbirds … these are just an example. So he took me on a garden tour and gave me tips along the way. We did this in August so a lot of colour had unfortunately gone, but there were still many good ideas.
The front garden
Sink pond in the front garden, which is often used by garden birds having a ‘bath’.
Valerian has been used as a medicinal herb since at least the time of ancient Greece. It is usually used for sleep disorders, such as insomnia.
The back garden
Verbena. According to the Wildlife Trust, there are around 250 species of verbena. They are very useful plants providing nectar for butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
Sink garden. At the top there is a gap caused by a plant dying in the 2018 summer drought, (even rock gardens need watering but due to the high drainage it’s difficult). There is also thrift, small leaves of thyme and a red campion seedling (weed that can be moved). Middle right, are stonecrop and thrift. Dominating slightly are the silvery leaves of dianthus (Latin name) in the middle bottom. There are a few ox eye daisies dotted around.
Water butts capture rain water which can then be used to water plants. Very handy, especially in a drought. A water butt is something I keep meaning to buy.
Buddleia, echinacea, crocosmia and evening primrose
Crocosmia, valerian and red campion
Black Niger seed attracts goldfinches. A plastic bottle on the wooden stand deters rats, much and squirrels from climbing up
Peanuts. A plant pot collects any remains – another gathering spot for birds – in the plant pot!
Above left, black Niger seed attracts goldfinches. A plastic bottle prevents rats, mice and squirrels from climbing up. Above right, a plant pot collects leftovers from peanuts. Often birds can be found in the plant pot, enjoying their breakfast leftovers!
The main pond, with frogbit on the surface and wormwood in the foreground. At the back, behind the stone turtle, is a frog hideaway. Simon has three ponds altogether – two in the back garden and a small sink pond in the front, often used by birds for washing.
A visitor and probable resident – woodpecker and frog. Simon has rescued tadpoles from elsewhere on a couple of occasions, when the water levels have dropped because of the weather or the pond has become stagnant. They lived in a second hand aquarium in his house until ready to move into the garden pond.
Nest boxes in an old tree. Several birds have lived – and reared their young here – over the years.
Flower of Kent apple tree. This is the variety of apple Isaac Newton saw falling to the ground in 1666 – and inspired his theory of gravity.
Facts of the Day
1. The single easiest way to add wildlife value to a garden is to install a pond. It doesn’t matter how small. Consider adding a plank of wood to help any wildlife that might fall in.
2. If you want to grow vegetables, it’s best to stop using chemical pesticides. These upset the natural balance and can be lethal for wildlife (and not just the ‘pests’.
3. A compost heap is an essential for a wildlife garden. It cuts down the waste sent to landfill and provides a habitat for a number of insects – which can be a good food source for hedgehogs and other animals.
It’s hard for me to believe but Florence, Jemima and Dottie first came to Cosy Cottage more than a year ago, in August last year. Here’s a few highlights… And lowlights… of what happened over the year:
February – August 2017 – Building the coop
August 2017 – The girls arrive for the hen party!
September 2017 – Florence grows up
December 2017 – The new gate equals Freedom!
February/March 2018 – ‘Beast from the East’ brings snow to Britain… And Cosy Cottage
June 2018 – A mouse in their house
Summer 2018 – Broody girls and a hot summer
Jemima and Florence (behind) in the nesting area
July 2018 – Dottie’s illness and recovery
Now… I hope to have many more months and years with these delightful ladies. They may be slow on the egg department but they are all charming and make me smile when I see them first thing in the morning. And mealworms make them smile!