Well, buying chickens has led to a whole host of interesting issues within the household! Here in our house there live 19 people: mother, father, four brothers and their families. Each family has its own flat. I live with my husband on the second floor opposite his brother, with his wife and daughter. On the ground floor live two brothers and their wives and children. Mother, 70, and Father, 90, hover on the ground floor as they were displaced as sons got married and wives were brought in to live in the family home.
Up until the point where we acquired our chickens Mother looked after the hens, and the women of the house threw them their scraps She had bought fifty hens from the souk and housed them with the three rams. She looked after them all. But here in Upper Egypt chickens are not taken care of in the same way as chickens in the West. The same chickens which they get eggs from are the same chickens which they eat when they want to eat chicken. To buy a broiler, or chicken specially reared to be eaten, costs 50LE. A lot of money when that same amount of money can feed you vegetables from the souk for nearly three weeks!!
So, when they fancied chicken they just went out to the hen house, grabbed a chicken by its legs or wings, brought it into the house and cut its throat. Halal meat! It didn’t matter whether this chicken was a good layer or not. It was not even considered. The flock of hens slowly dwindled and flock dynamics were in a constant state of flux!
When our friend Chris bought us our first three chickens and the rooster, we housed them separately so that I could raise them in the way that I always did in Ireland and in the UK. We put them in their own enclosure and put a lock on the door so that no-one could help themselves to the eggs!! I wanted to go in everyday and collect them in one batch. Here the kids would randomly go and take whatever eggs they could find and bring them into their respective house. However, a rat decided she wanted to eat Mother’s eggs so we put her hens in with ours so that we could deal with the rat! The kids got the message pretty rapidly that this was now a no-go area!!! However, the adults were a different matter altogether! We gave a key to Mother so that she could continue to feed her hens and we tried different ways of allocating the eggs. None of which worked! The women of the house were used to going and taking the eggs whenever they wanted but now, they couldn’t do that. On top of that I noticed that the hens were dwindling in number and it turned out that they had been eating them! Unfortunately I don’t know if my new hens had gotten the chop as we had only gotten them and I didn’t recognise them yet, apart from the rooster and the one with the limp!
So we had a chat, or rather Omar did, and we put a stop to that!!! Then we bought four new hens and I put them into a separate coup within the enclosure so that the other hens would get used to them! I wasn’t sure how the pecking order would establish itself as the flock was in a constant state of change and people here are really not all that interested in flock dynamics!!! But I wanted to ensure that the new hens integrated properly. When we first bought them we put them in the large, palm-tree cage where they felt at home. But because of the way chickens are handled here Mother would let them out, thinking that they needed space! However, the other hens pecked them badly and these newbies had lived in a small cage with other hens their entire lives, They were being sold as food! Letting them out of their, now larger, home was traumatic! I watched them for a couple of days, allowing them to be out as Mother wanted, but they were not eating or drinking as the other hens wouldn’t let them near the food! They hid in the corner or in any dark place they could find. It was like watching freed prisoners of a concentration camp, who are so traumatised that being given freedom proves to be too difficult to manage. They feel safe in their confinement.
I watched one of the hens as she ran around the edge of the hen house and it seems that she had a strange nervous habit. Like a tic! She would run and hop and try to peck at something in the air. I realised that because she was used to living in a tiny metal cage with no food for most of the day that she would try to catch flies as they flew by. It really was like looking at a freed concentration camp prisoner who is still acting as though they were captive.
I put the four back in their run with a perch and they were perfectly happy! Hens here are not provided with nesting boxes or perches. But are allowed to eat greens. We built them a couple of nest boxes, put straw in them and Omar made a traditional earthenware nest from a broken water jar! But we are still trying to get the message across that the new hens need to be kept in the run! They keep being let out and so their food is eaten!! Yesterday I was concerned about the health of the strange hen with the nervous tic as she seemed to be quite weak and was hiding all the time. We took her upstairs and she ate and drank for a full half hour, non-stop! She is obviously not getting enough food! Then she pottered around quite happily, jumping up onto our bed and checking our carpet out! It is only when she is with the others that she is hiding. The other three are a little more confident but only barely. If they have been let out of their run they hide behind it. So I have to keep putting them in and explaining what we are doing. Well, Omar does that as my Arabic has not reached that level of proficiency yet!
Its a constant battle and a very frustrating one but we have to keep going. Hopefully, when they are producing more eggs they will see what we are trying to do and resentments that have built up from the women who are not free to take the eggs whenever they please will hopefully dissipate when they see that they are getting a lot more than they were before!