Personality Profile #1 – Mé chan
In Hen Pecked, Gary Steel discusses every conceivable aspect of sharing his life with a flock of hens. The first of this new series is a (platonic) love letter to his favourite feathered friend.
CALL ME STUPID, but it never occurred to me that every single chicken born to this world has its own unique personality. It’s an easy assumption to make that chooks are clone-like. Like all birds, chickens have faces that don’t show obvious signs of emotion, and personality – superficially at least – is often shown through facial expression. This assumption is magnified by the fact that Brown Shavers are bred in their millions as battery hens, and genetic variation is frowned upon: they’re egg machines, after all.
Visitors to our semi-rural hamlet often comment on the visual similarities between the hens, asking something like: “How do you tell them apart?” But to us, they’re very distinctive.
The analogy I use is one that would be referred to as racism amongst human tribes. I’ve often heard New Zealanders of European descent utter something along the lines of: “All those Asians look alike.” My Japanese wife tells me that similar paradigms exist in reverse, where Asians consider that Europeans look almost identical. This is the difference between viewing from a distance, and experiencing things up close. My big awakening as a youth was attending Film Society screenings of foreign films. The epiphany was this: at the beginning of a film based in say, China, I would have problems telling the difference between the characters; but by the end of the film, I couldn’t even “see” Chinese any more, just a whole bunch of very different, totally individual faces.
I believe we have the same problem differentiating between individuals in groups of animal species that we have amongst different human tribes.
This is a long-winded way to introduce Mé chan (pronounced ‘Maychan’), my favourite hen and the sole survivor from the original flock of five rescued hens we picked up from Matakana’s Animal Sanctuary in April 2010. [Read more about that here].
Right from the moment we got the five hens home and opened the boxes to introduce them to their new home, Mé chan was a larger-than-life personality. Unlike the others, who set about getting to know their new home, Mé chan promptly freaked out, and somehow catapulted herself onto a shed roof and over the neighbours’ fence, thence out onto the road (no jokes, please). Bare in mind that, having been at the Animal Sanctuary for only a few weeks to recover from their battery nightmare, the new recruits were practically naked. It’s distasteful to state it, but she looked like a partially plucked chook who had escaped the pot, and was running for her life. It was a cartoonish scenario. We chased this rogue hen up the road and around another neighbour’s garden, where she ended up getting stuck in a hedge. With some careful prising, we were able to extricate her, and return her to the safety of her new freerange environment.
From that day, it became apparent that Mé chan loved heights. She loved to jump up on things, and still does. At bedtime, chooks get an instinctive urge to jump up onto nesting branches, but she’ll jump up on anything just to get a better look at what’s going on, and that includes humans. If she gets the chance, she’ll attempt to fly/jump to the uppermost part of the human anatomy, but because hair is kind of slippery for chicken feet, she’ll often make do with a shoulder… or if you’re bent over doing the weeding, she’ll be happy perching on your back. Having achieved her goal, however, she’s aware that the environment isn’t exactly stable, and will complain audibly as if alarmed at the situation until she finally decides she’s had enough of this moving perch, and swoops back down to ground level.
I would never have picked Mé chan as a survivor. She seemed quite scrawny at the beginning, and was straight away the lowest ranking bird in the pecking order. She was relentlessly picked on by the others, and to get enough food at feeding time, she developed a hyper-active routine where she would always be moving, snatching and grabbing morsels from under the others’ noses, or finding yummy tidbits that had fallen on the ground or underneath the feeding tray.
Over time, she has proven to be resilient. Although she has fallen ill a few times, unlike most chooks she’s bounced back to a full recovery. And unlike most former battery hens, which are bred not to go broody, she does. It’s a rare occurrence, but two or three times she’s gone seriously broody, which means that given the chance, she will stay sitting in her nesting box, and if other hens have laid eggs, she will sit on them. Broodiness can be dangerous for chooks, because they seldom eat, effectively starving themselves, and are very determined to stay in bed. They also lose the feathers on their chest.
Sick chooks and broody chooks are the bane of anyone who shares their lives with hens, and it’s something seldom discussed. In the old days, chooks were kept for the eggs, and the occasional “cull” for meat, and as soon as a chook got sick it was slaughtered. But I’m keeping chooks to give them a great life, a second wind after their first 18 months of imprisonment. Something to think about when taking on a flock is: are you prepared to sacrifice time to deal with broody or sick chooks?
Anyway, Mé chan made it through her bouts with broodiness and illness (read more about those issues in forthcoming blogs) and over time, with natural attrition and new “girls” added to the flock, she has risen in the pecking order to second-to-top. Not that she acts like a lieutenant, because she’s really quite mad. As I mentioned, she’s always been a flighty chook, and rather more hormonal than the others, but ever since her first serious broody session, she’s never been quite the same. I don’t know whether her starvation diet meant that she lost oxygen to the brain… who knows. But she’s rather eccentric. For instance, where most of the hens will happily just drink from the water bowls, Mé chan will also “scratch” the water bowl. Now, hens constantly scratch the ground when they’re moving around looking for seeds and bugs in the grass and soil. But most of them know they don’t need to scratch the water bowl. She’s also extremely demonstrative, and clucks repeatedly as if calamity is about to strike, while the others stand around thinking “what the hell is she on about now?”
Then there’s her voice, which at some point changed dramatically, and now sounds like some kind of machine voice box, and gives her a kind of robot-chicken sound. Maybe she just used it too much!
Of all the hens, she’s the one that most obviously relishes different tidbits. Each chook, just like us, has its own likes and dislikes. She’s a tomato and strawberry freak, and when any kind of fruit is on offer (but especially those two) she’ll always grab them first. Like any animals, however, tastes change: last year, she really loved ripe figs, but this season, while the other chooks are going fig-crazy, she couldn’t be less interested. She also LOVES raisins.
While she really hates being touched, she loves having a conversation, and knows that when I point to something with my finger, she should investigate.
It’s hard to describe just how hens can impact on you emotionally, but when you get to know them all individually, and they begin to assert their personalities (and chooks all have larger-than-life personalities), they become all the more precious, and the predicament of the millions of chickens sacrificed to the industrial-human feeding machine becomes even more unbelievable. Mé chan is my favourite, but having said that, I love them all equally. GARY STEEL
RIP Mé chan. Circa 2007- 27 Dec 2016.
After I wrote the profile above, Mé chan, against all odds, rose to the very top of the pecking order. Ultimately, all of her contemporaries died off, and the new recruits didn’t know she had started out as a lowly mad chook, so she became the boss. By the time we left our semi-rural idyll in July 2016, we only had two hens left. About a month after we arrived at our beach house up north, one of those took ill and died, leaving Mé chan alone. Birds are made to live in flocks, so we arranged to adopt three more rescued chooks from the Matakana Animal Sanctuary. Usually, there are a lot of territorial disputes and quite often, savage fighting, and new birds have to be introduced carefully over days, if not weeks. In this case, it was seamless. Mé chan almost instantly accepted the three raggedy new chooks, and taught them how to live in a more or less natural environment. The last months of Mé chan’s life she seemed incredibly happy, in her safe plot behind the house, bathing in the sun, and taking sandbaths. But just before Christmas she took ill, seemed bloated. We tried everything, eventually resorting to antibiotics and force-feeding along with her favourite remedy, yoghurt. But this time, nothing worked. She seemed to really improve on Boxing Day, and even ended up eating some strawberries and blueberries with quite some gusto, but this morning, her beautiful red comb had turned purple, and after clambering out of the chook house, she collapsed in the bushes and died.
* Looking after rescued chickens – or any chickens, for that matter – is an endless learning curve, especially for a former city dweller. In Hen Pecked, Gary Steel discusses every conceivable aspect of sharing his life with a flock of hens.