We look back with nostalgia now on the weeks after the young chickens arrived. They were so frightened that they couldn’t walk up the ladder to their house. We had to go up to the pen at dusk every night, pick up the four drowsy chickens nestled together in the long grass, and place them in the house, closing the door on the squawks and bangs as the old chooks showed them to their roosts. Gradually they learned the way up, learning to go to bed before the older ones so they didn’t get pecked, like Ping, as they made their way through the door. Gradually they became a flock of six. The older ones slowly became less aggressive, the younger ones less scared. The younger ones discovered the tree, and pioneered roosting in its branches, impressing the older ones with this daring. We gave them names for the first time, calling the old ones the Aunties and the younger ones Andy and Lucia (the Andalusians) and Bib and Bub (the identical New Hampshires).
As predicted by the chook lady back in December, the two Aunties are now ‘spent’. Or nearly. They rarely lay eggs any more, and the darker Aunty, the one who used to rule the roost, who used to peck kind friends when they looked in to top up the water, is rapidly losing feathers. The base of her neck is bare, and she is hesitant about coming forward when there’s food in the offing. She sits on a branch in the tree, away from the rest of the flock below her. In contrast, her partner in crime, the lighter-coloured Aunty, the one who used to wait behind her boss for the scraps, is now top of the roost. She delivers a sharp peck to the younger ones when they come too close to her favourite foods – the sunflower seeds out of the mixed seed, or the rolled oats – which I am using for handfeeding in an attempt to make them all a little tamer.
But she is mellowing too, and when I leave the pen I look back and see her sharing the water dispenser with Bib (or Bub). Surely she can see the time coming when the younger ones realise that they’re bigger than her? Change is all around. The pen is full of feathers, either from moulting or fighting or both. Bib and Bub have started laying eggs – little pink-brown eggs with freckles, sometimes without their shells – and Andy and Lucia can’t be far behind. This Aunty’s time at the top of the ladder will be brief. Maybe there’s a lesson in this for all of us.