Helga, [hel-guh], noun -A wildly expensive chicken with a mind and a personality all her own!
Friday before last, while I was out with my mom and Sarah, Fred cut down three small trees from the curve of our driveway. These three had been choked by poison ivy and were in imminent danger of toppling during the next storm on to our West Virginia lawn ornament (a Caprice that has not run in almost a decade), or of blocking the driveway. Since neither of us has any desire to use the chainsaw in the next big gale Fred took the preventative measure of storing up a little early firewood.
Louie our dog loves to be where ever the people are. He is a great off-leash dog because he does not want Fred or me out of his sight. He does not wander off chasing scent trails(we are pretty sure he cannot smell), he does not (normally) run off with other dogs and generally he does not chase things unless they are in our yard. It is safe to work outside doing chores or whatever and assume that Louie will stay in close proximity.
While Fred was cutting down the trees, he looked around and realized that he missed Louie. He thought maybe the sound of the chainsaw had scared him so he took a moment to look around. What he saw was Louie at the fence line of the back yard, near the beehives, watching Helga manically tearing up and down the fence line. You remember Helga, right? Bionic, wonder-chicken? The chicken with the bazillion dollar emergency vet bill, the reason we ate brown beans for a week? I thought so. She is hard to forget, with a personality all her own and a quickly compiling biography to rival a VH1 behind the music special, this chicken is really something.
Anyway, Fred thought her behavior was peculiar enough to warrant attention so he laid the chainsaw down and started for the back yard. As he got closer he realized she was on the outside of the fence. Yes, Helga raced up and down the fence line in a red-hot panic as Stacy and Miranda mirrored her maneuvers from inside the yard. She had somehow managed to maneuver herself outside the fence line and could not figure out how to get back in and she was desperate to get back in. Our back yard (where the chickens live) has several pine trees and lots of nooks and things for the chickens to get under (which they love) our front and side yards, by comparison, are relatively barren with little cover and more importantly without her sisters who were all still obediently within the confines of the fence.
Fred picked her up and carried her through the gate without further incident. When I got home he related the story to me and we debated the possible methods of escape used by Helga the wonder hen. Fred seemed to think she had flown over the fence but was not sure. If she had flown over the fence then why did she not just fly back in? Chickens, while not the smartest of God’s creatures, can operate under learned behaviors and once they have done something are usually likely to do it again.
You see, of all the chickens Helga is probably the only one capable of “flying” anywhere. Allow me to pause for a moment and define flying for a chicken, it is a kamikaze run at something, full tilt, wildly flapping wings with a little prayer and a jump. It may get them an extra foot off the ground for approximately a nanosecond before they land with an unceremonious thud roughly in the same vicinity in which they started. The four BJGs are way too large to “fly” anywhere and Mama is much too small to get any real height, so Helga is really the only bird in our flock of a big enough stature and light enough weight to get her butt up off the ground with any significance.
We discussed it and figured it was a fluke. Helga loves people and, much like Louie, always wants to be where we are. Just to be safe, we walked the fence line and checked for holes, we checked the gate and along the ground to make sure nothing had been tunneled through. Everything seemed fine. We chalked it up to an overzealous bid for attention on Helga’s part. We figured in her desperation to get to Fred she had excitedly jumped at the fence only to magically find herself on the other side. Once through the looking glass she had no clue how to return to her own world and without a cake marked “EAT ME” or a bottle marked “DRINK ME” she merely chose to plummet herself wildly along the fence line until Fred rescued her. We check on her several times that evening and throughout the next day. She seemed normal and content within the confines of the yard so Fred and I shrugged and chalked her escape up to a freak accident, a fluke. HA!
Sunday found us arriving home from church to a crisp fall afternoon, a beautiful sunny sky and a chicken escapee once again running the fence line and squawking wildly for reentry. When we got home from church I stepped into the backyard to gather the eggs. As I walked towards the coop I was followed by five of my six hens. Helga was missing. I called for her and could hear her squawking like a maniac. I looked and called and her shrieks became increasingly incessant. As I rounded the corner of the house I could see her. This time she ran the fence line that boarders our front yard. Howling at me and probably convincing all of my neighbors I have a chicken torturing operation in my back yard.
I yelled for Fred and told him where she was. I did not want to leave the back yard for fear she would panic if she lost sight of me and bolt for the road. Or worse, if I tried to go get her all the others would follow and then I would have chicken anarchy on my hand. I really do not have any desire to log on to facebook someday and find myself the subject of the latest viral video, chasing chickens all around the yard like a lunatic. I talked to her and tried to keep her attention as Fred walked around the house from the other direction and picked her up. There was no real fear of her bolting, all she wanted at that point was to get back in the yard.
As Fred carried her back into the safety of the fence we discussed the fact that she was obviously flying out either after something or someone and we needed to put an immediate stop to it before one of the others began trying it or before she got hit by a car or became an expensive snack of one of the local dogs. I told him we needed to clip her wings. Now in theory this sounded great. I mean how many times have you heard the term “clipped wings” in some cliché fashion? I figured how hard could it be? Fred pointed out that neither of us had any wing clipping experience nor did we even know how to go about trimming said wings or which feathers to cut. I pondered this and left Fred to babysit the chickens while I went back in the house to do a little research.
Well what else can you possibly do when you do not have the answers or the expertise? That is right; I Googled and Google took me straight to a do-it-yourself YouTube video, yay for the internet. In three minutes flat I was practically a chicken wing pruning expert. Just to be sure my skills were perfectly honed I watched the video a second time, transferred it to my phone, grabbed the kitchen scissors and went outside. I made Fred watch the video twice to make sure we were on the same page and then I asked, “cut or hold?” Fred responded with a blank stare and I said, “Do you want to hold her upside down or do you want to trim her wings?” He decided he would hold. Lucky for us Helga likes to be picked up and held so we did not have to chase her all around the yard.
As Fred began to flip her upside down she began to flap her wings and screech in protest but as she rotated one hundred and eighty degrees she became suddenly, magically still and quiet. I do not have any idea why and I do not know if it applies to all chickens but something about flipping her over immediately stunned/calmed her. I stretched her wing out and Fred and I had a momentary debate as I almost cut the wrong feathers. Once we had agreed on the proper feathers to trim I unglamorously hacked away at them with my kitchen shears. Let me tell you, kitchen scissors are NOT for feather pruning nor are feather cuticles at all easy to cut through. However, after several minutes of sawing Helga was pruned and her feet returned to terra firma.
She seemed no worse for the wear and so we went about our business. There were no more escapes through Sunday afternoon and as I let them out Monday morning she seemed quite fine and not at all discontent with her new shorter feather do. I fed them and watered them and was a little concerned that Helga might be standoffish with me after having been manhandled the day before, but like a loyal dumb dog she ran up and let me pet her and begged for treats and followed me around the yard as I completed my chores. She seemed perfectly content and normal until later that morning when I went to the back porch to offer them some treats.
I called for the chickens and they came running from all over the yard as usual. Helga was in the middle of the pack. As they bounded up the stairs I saw Helga aim for midway up the side of the staircase, as she jumped and spread her wings she promptly clotheslined herself on the middle step. Oops. Apparently wing-pruning is not without drawbacks. I watched as she tried three more times, knocking herself back each time. I put aside some treats and waited to see if she would figure it out. Eventually she walked back around to the bottom step and, with wounded pride, climbed the steps slowly, one at a time. I hand fed her some raisins for her humiliation and she quickly recovered from her embarrassment.
The other unexpected side effect is that she can also no longer make it to the porch railing to eat from the bird feeder. While I will miss seeing this during my morning coffee break, it is a small price to pay to keep her in the fence and not have to worry that she will become dog food or road kill. She can still hop up on my lap when I sit outside although her balance is somewhat lacking. This chicken body modification has not seemed to tarnish her pride or ego in the least. She still tries to get in the house at every turn and expects special treatment when humans are in the yard. She also has become quite the jealous green eyed monster. If she catches you petting anyone else they are surely in for a sneaky head pecking, this includes the dog (and Fred).
Thank you for reading,