Each morning before I go to work I sneak out to the chicken coop in the (almost) dark (still winter in New Zealand) to open the door so the girls can free range all day. By the time we get home each evening the sun has gone down, the chooks have put themselves to bed and I shut their door to keep them safe. This night however, we got home early and expected to see both Helen and Hilda Hen eating their last fill of fresh grass just outside their coop as they normally do before putting themselves to bed.
But this night something is very wrong. Helen Hen was where I expected her to be but she was on her own and looking anxious. (I didn’t expect to see Hannah as she goes to bed early.) Since getting Helen and Hilda Hen, they have never been more than a short distance apart even though they have such a huge area to roam. If one wanders too far, the other always notices and runs full tilt towards the other (sometimes with wing action).
So I anxiously called (here chook, chook, chook) and listened for Hilda’s answering chatter, but nothing. I sat with Helen and fed her grain while Haitch looked along the bush line for Hilda. I realised that Hilda was definitely not going to turn up so I thought I had better look a little further afield for her. I walked down the path that goes down into the bush where they spend a lot of their day and peered through the trees and called again. Nothing. Then I walked further into the bush and down the steep hill and called again.
This time Hilda answered my call. She was clucking very very loudly and sounding distressed. She was making the sound hens make after laying an egg but I knew that this was a distress call, not an egg laying call. It was dusk, she was a very long way from her coop in an area that is very difficult to get to, and she was on her own. No wonder she was distressed. To get to where she was calling from I ran further down the steep hill dodging trees and sticking out branches as I went, I slid down a bank so steep I had to slide down on my bottom and then ran over to where I had heard her. I couldn’t see anything as the bush on this part of our land is very thick and drops down quite steeply. I dare not go any further in case I too disappear into a place of no return.
I called again (trying to keep my voice calm) and she started clucking loudly again. I couldn’t get to where she was so I pulled myself back up the steep bank and then ran back up the hill through the bush to get Haitch. On the way back down the hill, we heard a loud clucking from near the coop. Maybe she had found her way back up the hill while I was inside. So I went back up the hill hoping to see both girls but no, Helen was there looking afraid and alone, so I guess the loud clucking was her answering Hilda’s distress call. I popped her in the coop and shut the door so I didn’t end up with two lost chooks.
I picked up the bowl of grain that I had been feeding Helen with, hoping it may help me get Hilda back. I ran back down the hill, slid quickly back down the steep bank without any thought to my own safety (a bit like a mad mother hen I guess, protecting her chicks). I called out to her again and this time she sounded a little closer. I kept calling and she kept answering. Then I saw her gingerly picking her way over the top of a very steep bank that was covered in thick fern and other bush debris. She slowly made her way towards me stepping cautiously and very slowly. She finally got over all the debris and ferns and was able to make her way to me but on the other side of a wooden fence (where a neighbours dog roams free who likes to chase chickens). Hilda just stood there looking at me, dazed, hungry and exhausted.
Although my chooks are friendly (especially Hilda) and are happy to take food from a hand held bowl and sometimes out of my hand, they are still new and I have never picked them up. So I couldn’t climb the fence and grab her as she might get a fright and run off again. To her left was the place of no return she had just returned from and to her right was probably the dog lurking somewhere. And she was just standing there looking at me and chattering quietly. Then I remembered the bowl of grain. I leaned over the fence and held it towards her so she could see what was in it. She took a few slow steps towards the bowl. I let her take a few pecks. Then I put the bowl on my side of the fence. She moved closer to the fence and jumped up onto the bottom rail. I held out the bowl and she started pecking. I reached my hand underneath her and picked her up. I expected a flapping of wings and a struggle but there was no fuss. She almost seemed relieved and settled in against me as I carried her all the way back to her coop where her sister was anxiously waiting.
I have no idea how she got down there or why. Maybe she got too close to the neighbours fence and the dog may have frightened her. Either that or she was being very adventurous or stupid. I guess that is the chance I have to take when I free range my chooks while I am at work all day.