There are chickens next door. We first heard them making oddly unclucky noises and, forewarned by the neighbours, went upstairs to have a look out of the bathroom window. There are two of them, with toffee-coloured feathers and red, stupid heads; they scratch their way to and fro in the undergrowth that borders most of their garden. They’ve made more use of the zen contemplation corner, turning it over to look for whatever it is that chickens eat when free-range, than our neighbours themselves ever did.
First there is the vicarious thrill of animals nearby. K. and I have long wanted some sort of pet, but the smallness of our house makes this difficult. A rabbit would, despite its small size, feel cramped for want of space to run around, even if we built something outside (and then the question would be: where outside?) A cat, or cats, might fit into the corners we rarely occupy; but I’ve a history of allergies to their fine hair. A dog is out of the question: the previous owner kept one, but then she lived alone; it still scratched merry hell out of the back door. Chickens next door are half a step towards keeping animals ourselves, only without the hassle of cleaning up their shit.
Then there’s the excitement of spotting something more bucolic than even our quiet, more rural end of the town is used to. Chickens – indeed any farmyard animals – smack more of my cycle ride into work than the housing estate in which we are embedded. There’s the farm museum nearby: but when the council was trying to get rid of it through not-so-benign neglect they let all the animals go; now it’s reopened, it doesn’t have the same menagerie. And these chickens are next door. They’re not in some designated farm-themed communally run area. They’re just hanging out, like the dog two doors down, or one of the many local cats.
But more than any of the above, I’m fascinated by the alienness of behaviour that I see in these creatures living practically on our doorstep (hopefully they’ll trim the flight feathers too often for that to become a “literally.”) Their undomesticated prey behaviours. Their weird, half-bird, half-dinosaur feet flexing to and fro as they amble and perch. The bizarre noise they make, nothing like the en-masse chicken sound effects that one remembers from cartoons or Countryfile. They’re fascinating, and weird, and I can’t get enough of watching them stalk slowly, suspiciously around the garden.
I spoke to Brian about what led to them getting chickens, and apparently his daughter “surprised” them with the pair: they literally fell off the back of a lorry, in a crate that burst open to free them and several other chickens. The van didn’t stop; the firm didn’t want the hassle of taking them back. And so they were parcelled out to schoolfriends of schoolfriends, probably all of them ending up as rather a surprise to the parents themselves. Brian, for one, was forced to set to rather rapidly and build a hutch and run for them; from what I can occasionally see he’s done a remarkable job given the rush he must have been in.
Apparently there are still four of the original crateful at large. I appreciate that it’s more than likely that a fox or some sort of mustelid has done for at least one or two, but still I would rather think of them still roaming, entirely wild, out there somewhere. Scratch, scratch. Peer, peer. Peck peck. Braaaark brk brk brk brk. Slowly, but surely, turning over the topsoil of the Cotswolds, inch by chickeny inch.