Now you see it… The case of the disappearing parsley

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Parsley is a delightful savoury ย 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. ย 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?).

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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.

So that’s where they have disappeared to.

In Mabel’s belly.

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Mabel, pictured with Ava, looking for tasty greens to sample
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Ava’s proud moment

 

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Little Ava

More than six months on, the new girls Little Ava and Mabel are settling in and contributing to their keep with an abundant supply of fresh eggs.

The first time Ava laid an egg was a morning of concern.

Now, most hens have a small comb on the top of their head when they’re not laying. But Ava, for some reason, has always prided herself with a vivid red comb. Much bigger and brighter than the other girls.

Okay.

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But then one morning I heard what sounded like a seagull in the garden. Crawk, the loud noise went.

I didn’t remember hearing anyone making that type of noise before.

I opened the coop door and saw Ava looking at me and making that raucous noise again.

Bright red comb. Squawk. Squawk… An unusual noise, unlike the other girls. Was it a squawk or a crow?

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Little Ava

Either she was going to lay her first egg or… What if she was actually a cockerel and they got it wrong at the farm?

I felt a tinge of foreboding. I had warmed to Ava and didn’t want her to go but if she was male, she might be too noisy for my neighbours…

Why would the farm get it wrong? The chickens were 12 and 14 weeks old when I adopted them, surely the farm would know.

Yet I had heard mistakes can be made…

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… And that female hens can turn into roosters.

Had I lived in the countryside, no problem, but unfortunately there were neighbours around who probably wouldn’t like a wake-up call at 5am every morning.

I brooded on this as young Ava went up into the indoor section and back down again. She seemed as confused as I was.

About 20 minutes later, I headed out again. It was nearly time to go to work and this matter must be left to one side for now.

Fortunately, events had reached a conclusion.

The result for the scarlet head, triumphant seagull sound and general confusion was that Little Ava had rather an eventual morning. She was proving she was definitely a lady with the egg she had just laid.

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Thank you Ava, I had never doubted you!

As for Mabel, she has proved to be a hard working member of the team, producing many delicious eggs. She is a little gutsy and always eager for an adventure. She will try to edge her way through the gate when I open it and I have often the need to tell her: “No, Mabel, you’re not going through the gate, stay in your own garden with your friends.”

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Facts of the Day

1. According to Andy Cawthorne, of Country Smallholding magazine, November 2016, ‘Hetty can become Henry overnight’ when ‘there is a part change of gender within a hen’. Thankfully – for those of us who have small gardens and neighbours nearby – this is not a regular happening.

2. A hen ‘will no longer lay eggs. Her comb and wattles will develop, her feathering and feather structure will become more male in appearance and she will even begin to crow’. She still is genetically a female though.

3. Andy says in his article that this phenomenon is caused by stress or illness and only occurs ‘in hens with one ovary’, the other remaining as a ‘regressed male gonad’ which can take over.

Meet the residents of Cosy Cottage

Here are the furry, feathered, finned and foliaged inhabitants of Cosy Cottage:

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Guinea pigs Loco and Blaze, pictured during their first ‘boar date’ in 2018

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Florence on top, Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava on bottom

Chickens Florence, Jemima, Dottie, Mabel and Ava.

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Zebra Danios, pictured hiding behind the plants.

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Aloe veras
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Palm-style plant
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Peace lily, about 8 years old

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Regular visitors jack russells Teddy and Molly.

Children and pets

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My godchildren came to visit recently, aged two, four and eight years old. The first thing they wanted to see at Cosy Cottage? The residents of course!

The zebra danios were nonchalant as always, swimming in their water world, only paying attention when Honey, Noah and Wilfred fed them.

Although the guinea pigs and hens were a little startled at first, hearing the sound of loud young voices and the pattering of little feet, they became fond of them over the weekend.

Especially when it meant more treats!

Loco and Blaze met the youngsters and enjoyed being stroked, even Loco who sometimes makes a big fuss about being handled (we don’t eat guinea pigs here, Loco, you’re quite safe!). He is always happy to beg for parsley though!

There was much hilarity when Blaze pooed on Noah (big sister Honey couldn’t stop laughing!)

Loco then decided to do the same to Honey.

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Guinea pigs, so polite in company!

Noah helped me clean out the chicken coop, doing a much thorough job than I usually do!

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They helped with giving the chickens corn. Unfortunately the hens then thought it amusing to lead me – and the children – a merry dance and not head into the coop when it was time to go in.

I was expecting the hens to follow me in (bribed by corn, no less) straight into the coop, but no. They thought it would be a laugh to run around while me and the youngsters tried to herd them in.

Have you heard the phrase, ‘it was like herding cats’? I’m not saying it was as bad as that, but not far off either.

Never work with children or animals as they say in showbusiness!

It was a fun weekend for us all but I remain convinced the chickens were deliberately trying to show me up in front of the children and the five of them had a great laugh about it afterwards, especially Jemima!

๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿน๐Ÿ”๐ŸŸ

Children and pets – top tips

1. Teach your child to be gentle around pets and other animals.

2. Pets are good for teaching responsibility. But don’t get a pet and assume your child will always look after it. They may get distracted with other interests as they get older. Make sure you want the pet too and are happy to look after it, if your child loses interest.ย 

3. Be logical when choosing a pet. It’s better to research and consider how much time, space, attention etc you can give a pet than get one on a whim and give it away the next month. As they say, a pet is for life, not just for Christmas. ๐Ÿˆ๐Ÿ•๐Ÿน

 

One year on… After the hen party

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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

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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

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Summer 2018 – Broody girls and a hot summer

 

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!

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Ode to a mouse…

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A few months ago, my dad and I tidied the small 6×4 plastic shed at Cosy Cottage. It had got so crammed with random tools, D. I. Y miscellanea and various bags of chicken grain and corn that no one could actually enter the building. It was while doing this that, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse some thingย that was tiny and dark flash past me. It was so quick, I pretended to myself I hadn’t seen it.

Fast forward another month and I am letting the hens out. Dottie is, as always, herself. Florence and Jemima are going through a prolonged broody phase which means I have to physically carry them out of the coop into their run. I bend down to lift Jemima when I, once again, spot something speeding by.

Not knowing what this is gives me the creeps. But my hens’ health and safety is important so I need to check just what is lurking in the coop.

I gingerly lift the tray where the grit bowl sits on. A nervous moment. Something scurries away, under the next tray, where the water bowl resides on top.

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Gritting my teeth, I lift this tray and see two beady black eyes look at me, in a furry brown face unmistakably mouse.

Now, I am nervous of many things but I don’t fear mice. So now I know what and who this rapid motion belongs to, I feel calm.

 

The mouse then runs away from me towards the wire mesh.

My colleague with the allotment plot, James, had a rat who got stuck in the mesh in his coop. A horrible scenario and one which the rat did not survive.

Thankfully, the mouse avoids entrapment on the mesh.

Through a mercifully quick game of ‘Escape the Scary Big Human’, the mouse finds his way out of the open coop door to adventures elsewhere (I hope).

The rat/mouse issue is one which can puzzle a hen keeper. I actually wouldn’t mind too much if it was just the one mouse but how many mice are going to remain celibate and not invite their extended family to rich pickings in Dottie’s house?

And then their numbers can get too numerous and the neighbours might complain and a multitude of diseases spring up… All because of mice or rats.

So what to do? Some people would opt for poison or trapping. I wouldn’t judge anyone who does but hope I am never in that ‘last resort’ situation. I am screamish about killing, even small rodents. Also there is the horrid possibility of killing another animal inadvertently.

Molly and Teddy, the Jack Russells, would gladly help out but I would prefer not to inflict the Two Terrible Terrors onto an innocent creature! ๐Ÿถ๐Ÿถ

Under the trays and in the coop itself, I realised old grain and corn had accumulated and, obviously, this had been irresistible for our friend. You see, mice and rats are not attracted to chickens. But they do find grain delicious. Not just chicken food though, they also like what they see on bird feeders and compost heaps too.

So following one major spring clean of the coop and a more thorough regular cleaning routine and I have my fingers crossed that I will not encounter Mr Mouse again. ๐Ÿ๐Ÿ€๐Ÿ

I forgot to mention there was a tiny gap at the bottom of the coop door, now blocked by a small piece of wood.

So my advice, gathered from books, magazines and the Internet is – keep on top of your cleaning regime so there is nothing to attract mice and rats. And block any mouse or rat-sized gaps in the coop. And fingers crossed! But if you have any more ideas, please leave me a comment. Advice always welcomed! โ˜บ๏ธ

Facts of the Day

1. Mice generally have pointed faces, big eyes, prominent ears and a long thin tail. Rats are larger, with coarse fur and scaly tails.

2. Types of mice include house, wood, yellow-necked, harvest and dormice.

3. Voles and shrew could be mistaken for mice. Voles are chubby and have short noses and small eyes. Shrews are tiny and have pointed noses.

(Information from Readers’ Digest, The Best of Wild Britain)

I’ll leave the final words to Robert Burns (Rabbie to the Scots!) ๐Ÿ€

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Eggs-citing times!

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So, what’s the difference between a chicken and any other pet? Answer, they pay you back for their breakfast and lodgings! To be honest, if you’re looking for eggs, pekin bantams are not the way to go. Bantam eggs are smaller for a start (see pictures above and below, in comparison to ordinary eggs). Sure, they are tasty, scrumptious even, but these dainty little nibbles are roughly half the size of a normal egg.

Then there is the frequency, or rather the infrequency. When I looked after my colleagues’ full-size hens, the four girls supplied three eggs every day, without fail. (One was slacking, but we’ll forgive her!) ๐Ÿ˜€

At most my miniature chickens provide one – sometimes two – a day, between the three of them. I suspect Florence is doing most of the hard work but it could just be a ruse. Maybe she takes the credit for someone else when she enters and exits the nest box at the inopportune moment and sings the ‘I’ve Laid an Egg, How Great Am I’ song (surely a number one hit in the future, especially when chortled proudly by Florence).

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When the girls first arrived, a white egg appeared on the first day. It did look like one Jemima might lay…. except it was Dottie singing the Egg Song. A week later, a second white egg was laid.

(Different breeds lay different colours. The Araucana from Chile lays a blue egg!)

And then nothing. Weeks passed. I emailed the Poultry farm, they told me they were bantams (roughly 150 eggs a year, maximum), it was nearly winter (they don’t lay so much then), and they were still only pullets, too young to lay regularly.

At least they were healthy. That was the main thing.

They were moulting as well. Losing their feathers means they don’t lay as chickens require the energy otherwise lost when laying an egg.

And then when I had forgotten about the eggs and saw the chickens merely as pets, a surprise. A petite light brown egg nestled amidst straw in the nest box. And Florence proclaiming her good news. And she was on a roll.

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Picture: I like this photo but it’s actually from a Picture Library, not from any of my hens. As indeed is the fried egg photo at the end of the article! ๐Ÿ˜€

And later, someone else joined in with another tan-coloured egg. At this time, Dottie, who had been moulting and looking a little miserable, was back to her feisty, look-at-me, bossy self.

Now in January, the number of eggs have decreased again but it’s winter, it’s cold, the workers are allowed to strike!

Light-sensitive cells in the hen’s brain control the egg laying process. When there is more light – for example, in the summer months – these cells send a message to the ovary and production of eggs starts. Generally, a hen needs 14 to 16 hours of light regularly to lay.

So most breeds will stop laying over winter unless there is artificial lighting (which I don’t have and have no interest in).

Any changes in a hen’s life will also affect the egg laying system as they much prefer routine in their lives.

On two occasions I found this peculiar rubbery object…

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I thought it was a smashed egg at first but there was no yolk running out, no fragments of broken shell. Just soft and a horrible rubbery texture.

I researched it and read that it was a soft-shelled egg. It has a membrane but no shell. They may be laid by young hens who have just started laying or it may be the last egg at the end of the laying period.

So maybe it’s because they are still young and new to the art of egg-laying.

If these strange eggs are laid on a regular basis or by a more mature hen, it’s suggested that it could be because of calcium deficiency. Just to be on the safe side, I scooped more grit onto their grit tray (below). Fingers crossed, I’ve only had the two and, touch wood, this will remain a rare occurrence.

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And most importantly, how do bantam eggs taste?

Lovely, the yolk seems bigger and brighter than a normal egg and the taste is richer. Give your hens the best life they can possibly have with you, and they’ll reward you (when they do lay!) with delightful eggs. Obviously, to keep hens in battery conditions is wrong on a moral level but the consumer who buys such eggs is really missing out on the real flavours of a free range egg.

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Many thanks to Chicken Breeds and Care by Frances Basso and The Complete Encyclopedia of Chickens by Esther Verhof and And Rijs for extra informationย 

On the fence

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So what did the girls at Cosy Cottage get for Christmas?

Well, they received mealworms for being good hens and laying eggs, even though it is winter and so they had the perfect excuse not to work so hard. But they also got an extra surprise for new year.

When Santa (actually Simon) paid a visit to Cosy Cottage, he decided they would like a bigger run, actually why not give them the whole of the side garden? So Simon dug holes for ย posts which we firmly secured with bricks and stones. Then with wood pallets, he sawed, measured and drilled the planks of wood to make two fences. One secured, one that can be lifted and moved as and when.

The girls check out their new territory…

 

Below, Dottie bravely peeps out of the new fence, Florence and Jemima await her verdict on what’s ‘Out There’.

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And below, Florence plays a game of Hide and Seek…

‘They’ll never find me,’ she thinks…

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So on a day when I am around, such as a weekend, they can potter about in the garden, nibbling sweet grass and digging for worms.

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Florence

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Florence at her human’s house

Florence was a tiny slip of a girl, small and slender, nervous of everything and anything. The world was a terrifying place for our Flo. She was a real ‘Chicken Licken – The Sky’ s Falling In!’ character (This is a story of a chicken who believed the world was ending when an acorn fell onto her head).

Whether Dottie had taken her ‘under her wing’ in a caring manner or was being a bully, I couldn’t figure it out. They would cosy up in the same nest box at bedtime but then I would see Dottie pecking Florence. A friendly peck? Or a nasty one? How could I even tell?! Worried, I would lift Dottie from the box and place her in the other one (Jemima having decided to roost on top of the box). Then I would read that, while adjusting to the new pecking order, this type of – what I would consider – bitchy behaviour among chickens was perfectly normal. They were just trying to figure out who was boss.

A similarity might be politicians playing dirty in order to have a leadership contest.

While Florence chirped like a baby, Dottie would continually cluck to herself. While Florence was stressing about the possibility of the sky falling in, Dottie was calculating and plotting. She had her eye on the top job and there was just one lady in the way.

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Florence leads the way, Dottie and Jemima behind

Quiet, confident, self-assured Jemima. Jemima took no nonsense from anyone. She was sure of her place in the world, what she liked and what she didn’t.

Alas, Dottie couldn’t compete with such leadership material. She respectfully relinquished leadership to Jemima. So it was Jemima, Dottie, Florence. Poor little Florence. I did feel sorry for her.

One morning I noticed blood on her beak. Horrified, I brought her into my house, cleaned the blood up (it wasn’t much of a wound but I had heard of hens becoming nasty if one of their flockmates started bleeding) and fed her lettuce as a treat.

Was that the moment downtrodden Cinderella became a princess?

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Dottie, Florence and Jemima tuck into a ‘bowl’ of porridge

Somehow, from that moment on, Florence gained confidence fast. Her comb grew bigger, better than the other girls! Her plumage fluffier. Instead of running away from scary humans, she squatted, letting us lift her. Instead of hanging back, she was first out of the coop and first in to roost. When treats were being given, she was jumping up to grab any greenery from my fingers. ‘Cinderella’ took advantage of her ‘ugly sisters’ ‘ drab demeanour (due to moulting they were losing feathers) and proudly showed off her pristine, shiny coat in comparison.

Where was the Florence of old? She had disappeared!

Oh, and the other event which coincided with Florence’s amazing transformation? She started to lay eggs. ๐Ÿฅš๐Ÿฅš๐Ÿฅš

Facts of the Day

1. The pecking order is the social hierarchy of a flock. They decide who is the ‘ruler’ and who is at the bottom. If there is a cockerel, he would normally be the leader.

2. Once a flock has established its pecking order, the hens live together peacefully.

3. The top (dominant) hen can peck all beneath here. The second dominant can peck all except the top hen and so on.

Hen party

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Nine revellers attended the hen party at Cosy Cottage. Six were human guests (including S, yes, we both survived the D. I. Y torment!) Three were the feathered V. I. Ps, who had arrived a week before and, despite a little pecking and bickering amongst themselves (mostly from Dottie), they appeared to be happily settling in.

One week earlier, me and Dad picked them up from the poultry breeder. They were so quiet in their large, sturdy cardboard box in the car, on the way to their new life, I fretted something had happened. But they were fine, perhaps apprehensive about leaving their home and friends behind.

By this stage, there was a spare coop in the garden, a plastic one (albeit a cheaper and plainer version than the more famous ones you can buy).

So for the first few days, while we worked on getting the wooden coop 100% ready for the ladies, they enjoyed living in the henhouse on the grass. A smaller B&B perhaps but one with a delicious restaurant attached, offering scrumptious sweet grass galore.

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On the first evening, while Jemima and Florence were getting ready for their beauty sleep after their busy day moving house, Dottie stood in front of their home, cackling away like a witch. ย I heard the loud harsh notes in my living room, wondering, what on earth is that sound? Is it a child crying next door?

And when I saw Dottie, proudly standing like a sentry guard, shouting her little head off, I cringed.

My mum was right, they were noisy. My neighbours will be at my door with pitchforks, demanding to know what that awful racket was, waking them up from an early evening snooze in front of Coronation Street. They will ring the environmental health, the police and the courts, I will be on the front page on the local newspaper and…

Maybe I should actually check what is actually going on?

And when I did, my fear-filled frown turned into a big smile. For there, in the nesting area was a perfect petite white egg (pictured below, in comparison to two normal size eggs). An object of beauty. It looked more like Jemima’s egg as she was white but Dottie was definitely taking the credit for it, whether it was hers or not.

And once I removed the egg, she was quiet again. Maybe she was telling me of her good deed for the day?!

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The girls moved from their summer residence to their main abode later that week. It was a test to see whether the coop which me, S and Dad laboured so long on was actually chicken-ready at all. My parents said I might have to ‘teach’ the girls to go up and down the ramp for the first few evenings. Yet, unlike guinea pigs Bugsy and Loco, who, first time they saw a ramp looked at it as if it had flown in from outer space, these clever girls took themselves to bed on the first night, no bother.

Not only that, bedtime was actually sooner than I expected. I only noticed it got dark about 8.30pm but they were all roosting by 8pm.

Two interesting observations – one, they can sense it gets dark much sooner than I can. Two, I really noticed the nights drawing in because they were going to bed earlier and earlier.

Dottie was the easiest to handle, she would squat down making it easy for this apprehensive first-time hen carer to pick her up. Jemima was confident but flighty and Florence, the youngest who didn’t have a full comb on her head as yet, was incredibly nervous and would run away as soon as anyone got near.

S decided to make friends with the hens.

First he lifted Jemima up. Jemima showed her respect by… Well, let’s just say S had to change his T-shirt!

Ladies?! Not sure about that! Mind you, I always had the feeling Jemima was a rebel with a strange sense of humour.

The ladies proved a big hit at the hen party and were on the best behaviour, except for Florence and Jemima who made an escape mid-move to the summerhouse. Fortunately, they were easily herded back into the coop. They received more fans from the Book Club, when I hosted the monthly meeting later that week.

I was hoping that with all this admiration they weren’t going to get big-headed!

 

Facts of the Day

1. The fleshy part of skin on top of the head of a chicken is called a comb.

2. The beak is made of hard keratin that continues to grow.

3. Food is ground up in the hen’s gizzard, helped by small stones which the hen will have previously eaten. Hens don’t have teeth.