You may recall that Ginny the chicken has had something wrong with her for a month now. She is walking very funny, limping and hopping, but other than that she is fine. Eating, drinking, laying an occasional egg. After all this time, we had about resigned ourselves to the fact that she would never be quite 'right,' but at least she was managing.
Then the other chickens, somehow clueless all this time, suddenly got hip to the fact that Ginny was injured, and the torture began. One chicken in particular, Tonks, is very aggressive with Ginny, climbing on top of her and holding her down, then pecking away at her comb, Ginny squawking in terror the whole time. After many days of breaking up the fights, we found ourselves sequestering Ginny more and more often in the hen house with a bowl of food and another of water. She was able to climb down to the run if she wanted, but she didn't often go down, and so she was mostly looking at four walls all day. That's not good for any creature. And then when she'd go down, Tonks would be ever more aggressive, until one day we found Ginny stuck beneath the shelf on which we keep the large food and water feeders. She apparently had dug herself a hole under there to get away from Tonks, and then got wedged in there and couldn't get out. I managed it, but she lost a few feathers in the process. I started to think that we'd have to cull Ginny, because her life was miserable.
Then yesterday I had an idea. What if I let Ginny, and only Ginny, free-range? She would be free from the bullying, and be able to get more exercise, and one chicken can't do a whole lot of damage to our garden. So, with a deep breath, I let her out. She was ecstatic; scratching around in the bark all day finding sow bugs and earwigs and worms. She pecked a little at the kale, but not a lot. And she also found the compost pile and went to work over there. When I picked her up and put her in the hen house for the night, she settled down in a nesting box with what I could swear were contended coos. For some reason, at night, no one picks on her. Some unwritten chicken rule about bedtimes I guess.
This morning we let her out again, but today she acted differently. She stayed very near to the coop all day, clearly wanting to be with her mates. When I let her back in with the others for a moment, Tonks came charging out directly to harass her. I pulled Ginny out into the yard again, and made her a nice nesting box in the shade. She has her own food and water, and she's happy pecking about in the mulch. It might take her some time to get used to being outside, but in the long run, everyone will be happier. It just requires me putting her in the hen house each night and taking her out again each morning.
Tom's home this week on his spring break, and we had a good time watching Ginny scratching and pecking for bugs. It just looks right; like a chicken is supposed to look. And I said out loud, "this is a slippery slope...." I've always wanted the chickens to free-range. I haven't let them because I was afraid they'd eat everything in my garden. With full-grown, mature plants, it's not such a big deal - they can stand a little thinning and tearing. But seedlings or seeds - that's another story. And so now I have to start thinking about how I can protect each bed at certain times of the year, if I want to have all the chickens out. And it also will attract Mr. Coyote, for sure. So I have to think about this seriously before I go any further.
Meanwhile, it's delightful having one chicken out in the garden, doing the stuff a chicken likes to do.