Last year I inherited a pullet from a friend who has a large flock of chickens. As a chick, she had been sent as an “extra” in a delivery from a hatchery because she had a large tumor-like bulbous eye on one side of her head. Compared to the other chicks in the delivery, she was awkward and unsure of herself, but you could tell she had spirit. I remember her well when I went for a visit soon after the chicks were delivered, and wondered how she would fare in the coming months.
By May the mostly blind pullet was not doing well with the rest of the flock. She was constantly being pecked by the hens, including her bulbous eye, and bullied and harassed. Chickens, for those who don’t know, can sometimes be quite viscous if they feel it is warranted.
My friend asked me to take the pullet into my much smaller flock of four birds, who were the same age as the blind chicken. When I picked her up, she was in a sorry state…she looked abused and scrapy, but there was a spirit in her that was immediately attractive. Even with her disadvantaged vision, she still exuded a “can do” attitude that only a chicken with some serious fortitude can have. I named her Ginger One Eye.
Ginger One Eye’s first few months in my small flock carried the expected pecks and nicks from the more dominant pullets, who were growing into adulthood and getting ready to lay their first eggs that August. Even my wee bantam frizzle hen Phyllis, who was smaller than Ginger, took her turn. Having previously been the “low” chicken, Phyllis didn’t miss a beat in elevating her status in the flock. Ginger took it all in stride, doing what she could to have time in the nesting box, at the feeder, and pecking at special treats that I tossed to the flock. And she grew.
She grew and grew and grew, and developed a beautiful set of feathers that spoke to the pampering I gave her, and special treats meant only for her while the other hens weren’t looking. Ginger was more than just a lame chicken who, I thought, might never lay an egg; she represented those souls who get a raw deal yet still peck on with their beaks held high. It’s tough to not respect a man or beast who overcomes their challenges and makes the best of it, no matter what others in the flock think. And it takes a certain kind of Flock Mistress to empathize with such a creature, and devote time and energy to it, even though no direct gain (egg) is expected to be forthcoming. This sort of relationship is, without a doubt, the epitome of hope and caring, where giving takes place for the sake of giving and nothing more. It’s an act that allows you to look at yourself and believe that those who can’t see the good in you really need a hug more than anything.
And lone and behold, five months after her peer hens started laying, Ginger laid her first egg! It was a glorious oval brown thing, hefty in weight and with a clear color. I was overjoyed, and could tell that Ginger had a spring in her step that hadn’t before been present. She was, indeed, a proud hen at last. She laid that egg in December on a cold, snowy day. She laid that egg when the other hens’ laying had slowed down because of shortened daylight. And she laid and she laid and she laid.
Ginger laid like she was making up for lost time. She laid like it was full summer. And her eggs had thick shells, bright orange yolks, and simply kicked the pants off the other hens’ eggs in terms of quality. Ginger might suffer from a more restricted diet because of her vision problems, and she might frequently bump into my leg because she can’t see me, and she might spend her time in solitary foraging because she can’t see the other hens roaming, but she made up for it all. My faith in her was, indeed, warranted.
Laying is important business to a home hen. Right before an egg is laid, many hens announce it, loudly and longingly, to the world. But no bird can let out a pre-lay belt like Ginger One Eye! Her natural clucking is very raspy, as if she has smoked three packs of cigarettes a day since she was hatched. But when she’s getting ready to lay, she turns into an operatic diva, announcing loudly, clearly, and proudly to all who are within ear shot, that the best egg ever is about to be produced! Stand back in awe! Ginger even elevated her status in the flock, bypassing bantam Phyllis in the pecking order. Phyllis seemed resigned that the smallest hen would be last, even to a larger blind hen. But peace was present in the flock, and happy days reigned.
Ginger took her laying so seriously, in fact, she decided such perfect eggs must produce also-perfect chicks (never mind the lack of a rooster). So she decided to sit on them until they hatched. And she sat, and sat, and sat. She sat on eggs no matter how many times I collected them during the day. She sat on eggs that were not hers. She sat in that nesting box in the heat of summer, mouth open and panting, determined to hatch an egg…any egg. Even if there was no egg to hatch.
She was, indeed, broody. And the other hens would take none of that nonsense. The peace that had presided over the flock was lost. The more dominant hens would sometimes drag Ginger One Eye out of the laying box or even get in the occasional feed, at the cost of many feathers, so they could lay their own eggs. They pecked her and pulled her whenever she tried to sit in the nesting box; it didn’t matter that her broodiness had caused her own laying to stop. She just wanted to be a mother.
It got so bad, in fact, that I thought the other hens might try to kill her. Hens will sometimes do this, it seems, if they feel the genes of one of the flock aren’t worth propagating. The more dominant hens had deemed Ginger One Eye’s blind self as being too genetically inferior to allow her to produce chicks; more blind chicks might decrease the overall fitness of the flock! Their dominant peevishness at her broodiness went far beyond regular chicken drama. Ginger One Eye even developed a defensive temperament because of their bullying, and would puff up her feathers, and go after anyone who came near her, me included. I knew I had to intervene.
I made Ginger One Eye her own small, temporary, quarters in an old dog crate with the floor removed. She could flap her wings and scratch, and she could be outside with the rest of the flock, yet protected from their bullying. At first the other hens tried to get at her to relieve her of more feathers, or worse, but after a day they gave up. It helped that I gave the hens fresh ground beef for several days to quell their blood lust. The same raw meat was given to Ginger One Eye in her solitary confinement, along with other fine foods to allow her to regain some of what she missed in her broody vigil.
In a few days, the hens seemed to calm down. Ginger One Eye no longer looked like she was about to raise holy hell if anyone came near her, and the other chickens had resumed their regular use of the nesting box. They also generally left Ginger alone, though they did sometimes just hang out by her modified dog crate. After about four days, I decided it was time to let Ginger out.
Her release was almost comical; all of the hens behaved as if nothing had ever been amiss. It was as if I had imagined all the fuss and consternation, except Ginger One Eye’s feathers still had the bald patches that would take a long time to grow out. Peace had resumed in the hen house.
Ginger is in her second season laying, and she is still the best layer in the flock when it comes to reliability and quality. Even my dominant hen, Prison Break, can’t match Ginger One Eye in sheer egg quality. Ginger still bumps into posts and legs, and still has to give way to dominant hens who wonder what, exactly, she is eating so intently over in that corner? Her feathers are full and beautiful, and her disposition is sprightly and full of life. She still carries a strength in her that only a harsh past can give, but if you take the time to look at who she really is, you will see a gentleness, verve, and joy for life that is unsurpassed by showier birds who flounce their color in vain show, meant to impress. Ginger is genuine. Anyone who doesn’t see Ginger’s more vibrant, though veiled, color just isn’t looking at what’s in front of them. But that’s OK, because Ginger One Eye is my hen, and I wouldn’t change one feather in her plumage.