Monday, 3 October 2016

Book-dowsing: Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance by Martin Gurdon


Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance 
Martin Gurdon

I picked this book up during a spot of charity shop book-dowsing in Felixstowe.

Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance is a collection of anecdotes revolving around Martin Gurdon's (mis)adventures of owning chickens. It caught my eye mainly because the title made me smile. This book is funnier if you have experience of owning chickens. If you don't own them it helps if you understand that, like the majority of animals, they are capable of extreme arseholery. If chickens in your world are fluffy, friendly, cuddly creatures this book will come as a bit of a shock.

The phrase 'pecking order' comes from observed chicken behaviour - the dominant chicken in the hierachy is the one with the meanest beak. Martin Gurdon seems to have particular problems moulding his brood of chickens into a social group that can remain in the same run together and so this book contains many examples of mean chicken attitude and the enforced loneliness of those picked (or more appropriately pecked) on. Chickens can actually run a real risk of starvation and dehydration if there is a particularly mean bird in residence and Mrs Brown is one of Gurdon's more impressive bullies. Only the advent of the flamboyant rooster, Zorro, seems able to curb her in any way. His predecessor, the quavering Gerald, stood no chance.

Mrs Brown isn't the only mean chicken on the block as this example (which made me laugh out loud) proves:
One morning I noticed that the smallest bird, BB, seemed to have a slightly injured wing. As I watched her scratching about on the ground, Elvis came out of the raise hen-house and stood on the old kitchen stool the birds used as a perch., She took careful aim and then jumped onto the tiny bird, keeping her wings folded for maximum squashing effect.

I have a book or two on keeping chickens but they are relatively dry in tone so it's nice to add this volume to my very small chicken library as it combines entertaining stories with useful tips on chicken keeping. Gurdon covers the history of the chicken, the development of the egg and other factual topics in an engaging manner. Interspersed with these mini lessons are tales form his own coop. The most interesting for me was his story of how he rehabilitated a chicken that seemed to have lost reliable use of its legs by making a baby-bounceresque piece of equipment to encourage mobility. If you hadn't already guessed it from the fact that the chickens in this stories have names, Gurdon is NOT a farmer and keeps these birds for their entertainment value as much as their egg laying capacity.

Considering how much chicken-owning time can be spent with the back end of a bird, this picture is rather apt.

I myself provide lodgings for 3 pekin bantams – Alexis (black), Barbarella (grey) and Sue Ellen (blonde). Once upon a time there was also a particularly rotund lady named Priscilla but she was never the healthiest of chooks and died at about 18 months of age. I found her before the others realised she had popped her clogs and therefore she wasn’t partially cannibalised, which would have added to my sadness at her passing. The head chicken is Alexis, named for Alexis Colby from Dynasty. The name has turned out to be prophetic. 

Alexis is always first to perch on a leg. Just as cats think of a person as their rightful furniture, so do chickens regard human limbs as useful perches from which to view their subordinates.

Every chicken owner will have their own quirky tales about their birds. The birds themselves will often have been given entertaining names. My bantams were a gift from a friend who had a multitude of rescued chickens with names like Henzilla and Elvis - The Vegas Years. I caught sight of one on Facebook the other day called Chick Norris, a name I intend to shamelessly steal for a future bird.

Anyway, going back to the book at hand, I really enjoyed this and would recommend it to those who have chickens, have had chickens in the past, or are thinking of getting chickens in the future.

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