Bending over to refill the hybrids’ feed hopper at 7 this morning, I had my back to him when he crowed. But there was no mistaking it – the extraordinarily resonant sound, squeezed out through his upstretched syrinx (a bird’s vocal chord, situated deep in the throat, right next to the lungs). What a glorious thing, it sent tingles down my back. Spring had sprung. I did worry for a moment that if the neighbours had heard it they would have less exhilarating associations of mucky farmyards and bolshy country folk. But then I adjusted my ears to the ambient roar of the ring-road and next door’s dog began to yap. Infinitely more unpleasant noises, and surely (as far as Environmental Health is concerned) just as decibel-intrusive.
So now I knew – at least one of our three Silkies was a boy.
Popcorn, Acorn and Snowball have been living with us for nearly three months since my friend John kindly donated them to the children. They are the most pictureque trio (in the numerical rather than poultry-keeping sense), balls of white fluff that cling together with admirable loyalty. Over all these months, even when they were living in a cage indoors to protect them from the freezing weather, it has been impossible to tell either their gender or their status. Usually with groups of chickens (‘flock’ seems such a big word for so few birds) there is a strict hierarchy; certainly my three hybrids have one. But the Silkies were simply a three-some, never having been parted, even in pre-birth form as eggs under John’s broody. This breed is meant to be easily tamed (especially the females), but in our case it was really tricky – the moment you took one out of the group, they set up an awful fuss, screeching and rushing about in distress.
Until now. At breakfast I told my 10 year-old daughter Ellie that one of the Silkies had crowed.
‘Which one?’ she asked, looking outside towards the chicken run. Though I hadn’t exactly seen which one, it seemed clear to me – one of the threesome was definitely more muscular and erect. In fact, he was positively strutting his stuff in a manner I could not recall having identified previously.
‘The cocky one,’ I said.
‘Oh yeah – that’s Popcorn. He’s yours, Mummy. I always thought he was a boy.’
‘But what about mine?’ pleaded little Bea in the background.
‘It was definitely only one that crowed,’ I reassured her.’Probably the other two are both girls.’
Next thing we saw, Popcorn lowered his head and herded his sisters out of sight into the eglu. I imagined he was planning to assert his testosterone levels in more ways than one.
‘Oo – he’s a bully,’ declared Ellie.
‘Great – Silkie stew for supper,’ teased her Dad, though only half in jest. That has been the deal – whichever Silkie turns out to be male, we are going to dispatch it to the pot.
I have killed one of my hens in the past. Only one, and it wasn’t fun. The bloody act drove Ellie straight into ardent and dogmatic vegetarianism. I wonder how I am ever going to summon up the courage to do it again. Especially with the fluffy, white Popcorn who happens to be my very own. I’d rather like to give him a bit more time in the world of the living. And it’s not just me who feels this way, I’m sure. His sisters are bound to pine for him, even if he has been taking advantage of them on a regular basis. That’s familial loyalty for you.
‘It was only one little crow,’ I pleaded. ‘And it wasn’t as if he did it at 5 in the morning – 7 is really quite civilised. I think we should give him a chance. Wait until the noise really gets too much.’
‘…When next door are on the doorstep, complaining,’ he says. He’s always been better than me on neighbourly tact.
‘We’ll still be able to reassure them – we’ll say we know the noise is too much and so we’re planning to kill him.’
‘And then we’ll ask – and what are you planning for your dog?’