For a number of years we have kept chickens, and generally let them free range (unless DEFRA tell us otherwise). I love to watch them mooching around the garden, looking for interesting things to peck at, scratch up, or pass to each other. Mostly, I’m fascinated that they can display an amazing number of emotions and characteristics.
A contented hen will ‘purr’, whilst an irritable one will squawk at anyone who dares to look at her funny. They will happily gossip as they forage in the flowerbed searching for the latest titbit, and discuss each others’ findings by making little ‘Ooo, look-look’ noises. However, if one spots a raptor overhead, she will shriek a warning. At this sound each hen will freeze, wherever they are, before squatting low. When they hear the ‘all clear’ from the top hen, they stand up, shake, then resume the activity they were engaged in.
Hens have a strict pecking order, with a dominant hen in charge (or cockerel, if there is one in the flock). Each chicken knows its place and if she oversteps the mark, she’ll be pecked and shunned until she backs down. Only a protective broody hen will fluff herself up and growl at anything coming too close, before striking with her beak. The others will give her a wide berth, and allow her to feed when she needs to, regardless of her rank in the flock. It’s like they understand her priorities and make allowances. A sick hen, on the other hand, will isolate herself from the flock and hang its head and tail.
A depressed hen will isolate herself, too, for hens can generally do one of three things at any one time; lay eggs, brood chicks, or grow feathers. So if a hen looses a feather in her egg-laying phase, she won’t regrow it until it’s time to molt, usually once a year. Once a hen has laid all the eggs she wants to, the urge to brood will kick in and she stops laying in order to incubate. She’ll sit on her eggs for hours at a time, only briefly getting up to feed, scratch and get the circulation going again. Once the eggs are hatched, or removed, a period of molting begins and she’ll lose her feathers before growing a new set. And it is at this stage that hens can become depressed.
They isolate themselves because they feel vulnerable. They are no use as egg layers at this stage, so they drop down the ranking in the flock. They get bald patches which exposes bare flesh, making them a target for bullying by other hens. Additionally, as their system converts from egg-forming to feather-growing, biologically they can feel unsettled. This process can take a number of weeks, and when they integrate back into the flock, they may have to re-establish their place. Chickens are sociable creatures. They enjoy company, whether it’s another chicken or a human. When they isolate themselves, their health can quickly deteriorate. It seems that there is a connection between physical and mental wellbeing in hens.
We have two hens in this phase at the moment, and what caught my eye this morning was that they have found each other. They sit together and murmur occasionally as if sharing how they feel. They walk a little bit around the garden together, and when one stops, so does the other. They visit the water dish or food trough together, and then find a pleasant spot to preen and sunbathe together. They make no demands on each other, but seem to offer the right level of support. I’m happy for them.
As a counsellor, this is part of my role – to offer the right level of support to those clients suffering from depression. I hope to enable them to feel they have an ally, a supporter, a cheerleader ready to celebrate the small victories, and an encourager who helps them develop emotional resilience. Until they feel ready to rejoin their flock.