Guest post by Chantal Teague.
This guest post by Chantal Teague is the first in a series of Terrastendo posts on the nature of chickens. I aim to demonstrate that chickens are individuals, with their own lives and personalities. I will contrast that information in subsequent posts with information on what humans do to them in the name of food and profits, and the enormous scale of the industry.
Ester entered Chantal’s life via the school at which Chantal was teaching. I am confident that the story of their journey together will open many eyes and hearts. Paul Mahony
How we came together
Ester came into my life quite unexpectedly. Hanging on to life with stoic determination, Ester’s days were seemingly numbered, or so I thought.
A schoolyard chicken, Ester’s existence had been no more than a novelty. Deemed to be of ‘educational’ use, Ester’s role in life was to teach children about animal husbandry. Yet, when she fell gravely ill, instead of being cared for, she was locked in a shed and left to die.
Days later, when I found Ester, she was alone in a darkened, cramped shed, unable to move, let alone eat or drink.
Things were touch and go
The school refused to pay for any medical care and I was ridiculed for ‘bothering’ to take her to the vet. On the way, I had to lift her head or wings, just to see if she was still breathing. Things did not look good.
Ester spent three nights and four long days having x-rays, needles, antibiotics and numerous tests at my demand. I was determined to not give up on her like everyone else had. It was on the fourth day that she began to eat again.
The new family member comes home
Having absolutely no experience in caring for chickens, I took Ester home. Disgusted at how the school had blatantly disregarded her life, I refused to bring her back. I had no idea how I would look after her; she was still unable to walk unassisted to get to her food and water. But as far as I was concerned, every day that she lived was a hard battle won.
Our bathroom became a chicken rehabilitation unit fitted out with a nesting box, straw, newspapers and a heat lamp. Each morning I would clean, feed and tend to Ester’s every need. Evenings were spent watching and hoping to see signs of improvement.
Getting to know each other
She was so unusual; big floppy comb, little black and orange eyes, prehistoric gnarly looking feet. I was used to the soft fur, wet black noses and big brown eyes of my dogs, and this was all a new experience. But what originally seemed so foreign soon became a comfort as I softened to Ester’s face and her quirky characteristics.
During those long nights, Ester and I would just sit and look at each other. I would stroke her feathers and comb, talking gently to her. She was eating more but was yet to walk.
It’s not only cats who purr
One night, I started to swirl my fingers gently around her head. It was then that I heard it for the first time; Ester started to purr. Not like a cat, in fact, not like any other animal. It was a thick, rolling of small clucks accompanied by a deep inhale and exhale. Her eyes closed, and Ester fell asleep.
The next night, I decided to pick her up. I wasn’t particularly good at handling her, but she patiently allowed me to put her on my knee. She looked up at me quizzically, but soon settled down as I stroked the back of her head once more. Shortly, I felt her sink into my lap. Her head fell slightly to the side and once again, she started to purr. Before I knew it, she was in a deep sleep. I sensed that she trusted me, and in that one action, I felt a great sense of responsibility to always look after her.
This became a nightly ritual. I would come in and give Ester her medication, drop water into her beak, and give her fresh food. Once Ester began to walk again, she would hobble over to me and wait for me to pick her up so she could sleep on my knee. She craved my company and affection and would seek the comfort of my touch. If for any reason, I could not get to her at the usual time, I would find her sitting at the door, out of her nesting box, waiting for me, her food and water untouched.
Ester ventures outside
It took three months before I could bring myself to allow Ester into her outside pen. I’d spend evenings settling her in, and she would follow me to the door. I’d have to keep putting her back into her nesting box and talk to her gently before she’d settle. If we left the back door open, Ester would follow me inside and sit at my feet, waiting for me to lift her.
She was becoming more confident by the day. Her strength was improving and we allowed her to come and go as she pleased. On cold nights, Ester would come inside and place herself next to our log fire. She’d ruffle up all her feathers, shake herself off a few times and slowly sink to her feet and go to sleep. She has been known to jump up on the arm of the couch to sit by me as I rode my exercise bike or next to my computer chair. Ester had to be near me at all times.
I’d often find, while I was preparing meals in the kitchen, Ester would follow me around like one of the dogs. She’d stand patiently waiting for a little treat to fall off the bench. I’d bend down and give her a pat and a piece of bread or some veggie scraps and she’d ‘tut tut’ back at me with a beak full of happiness.
That was over two years ago, and Ester is still a very affectionate little lady. Whenever she hears me coming she starts her little ‘chicken’ dance, picks up her petticoat and prepares to follow me with every step I take. She still follows me inside and waits by my side. It’s often a race to the back door to get in before Ester does.
A major scare
The night before my birthday last year, Ester went missing. We went outside to put her in her pen but she wasn’t in her usual place at the back door, where she’d wait for us. We spent hours searching for her by torchlight. I was hysterical; she had never done this before and was too weak to have jumped a fence and escape.
I spent the night listening to each and every miniscule sound. Was it a fox? A cat? Was Ester in trouble? Was she caught in something? Had she been taken by someone? The hypotheticals kept me awake all night, and by morning I was exhausted. At the first hint of sunlight I was back out searching for her, hoping she’d be by the back door waiting for me as usual. But she wasn’t there.
I sat by the door crying and calling for her. I pictured Ester there on my knee, looking up at me cooing and clucking softly as I preened her terracotta coloured feathers. I had no idea where she was or what had happened. Back to bed I crawled, despairing at the loss of my precious Ester. I kept hearing the sound of ‘pecking’ on the floorboards, but convinced myself I was imagining it.
When I got back up, I started walking around the house, I walked past the spare room and saw something I was convinced wasn’t there the night before; a clean, white egg. It was next to a fabric-covered chair. I lifted the chair slightly only to spot two orange, wrinkled chicken feet underneath. I threw the chair aside only to find Ester staring back at me. She’d trapped herself under the chair to lay her egg, and had spent the night in our spare room. Needless to say, she was the best gift I got all day.
Ester has a habit of leaving her eggs around our house. She prefers to lay in our home and will seek out the most unusual places to nest in. I’ve found eggs in the shower, on the top of stairs, and in the bedroom. Despite having the most luxurious of chicken beds, Ester thinks of herself as one of us, which she is, and prefers to be in the house where the action is.
Just one of the crew (or maybe the ringleader)
Every Sunday, the local fire brigade starts its siren as part of its training drills. Our dogs always start to howl. Ester happily joins in the chorus and will howl and cluck along with them. She puffs up her chest, fluffs her wings, lifts her head and parades around the house or backyard with the dogs. Sometimes, she will hear something and start howling first and the dogs will join in. She has the most entertaining personality; a fact I never even imagined when I first brought her home.
A deep emotional attachment
Having Ester in my home has enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined. Her intelligence, affectionate nature and charismatic personality were always there. It’s just that nobody had ever taken the time to get to know her before.
Ester had been a forgotten creature, stuck in a schoolyard and no more than a chore for the staff and students. Had her health not deteriorated like it had, and had I never been made aware, she may have died meaning nothing to anyone, like so many others. This incredibly deserving, brave and deeply determined little lady has forever etched herself into my heart. Her life is far more than an educational novelty, or an egg-laying machine, she is part of my family where she is loved immensely, and loves back in her own chicken way.
Chantal Teague (Edited by Paul Mahony)
When you’re adopting chickens, life’s like a box of chocolates by Tamara Kenneally
Life with chickens: a whole new world! by Liz Dealey