The Chicken Who Took Over Our House: Bunty's Story
It was a Sunday evening in September when we got our first-ever phone call about a stray chicken.
I have to confess that I was horribly hungover that day. Since it marked the moment that Bunty entered our lives, this hangover has been forever seared into my memory.
I’d celebrated my birthday the night before. At one point during the festivities, I’d purchased one of those enormous cocktails for the group to share, only for my friends to summarily depart to dance, leaving me and the cocktail to one another’s company. Since I couldn’t very well lug this vase of alcohol onto the dancefloor, complete with extinguished sprinklers and twirly straws, I started to sip it.
And I regained consciousness some time the next morning.
It’s days like this when one especially dreads the sound of a vibrating phone. When it does inevitably start to beep or ring, you pray to every deity known to man that it’s your friend sending you a funny Gif, and not an elaborate rescue that requires your urgent attention. It’s always the latter.
As it happens, on that Sunday, it was my mum and rescue partner, Lisa, who received the call, after I’d fallen into a small nauseatic coma and missed some frantic Facebook messages. A fellow volunteer at the CatCuddles Sanctuary, Stuart, told her, breathlessly, that he’d found a ‘cockerel’ running loose on a nearby common. He didn’t know what to do. Could we come and get it?
When my mum woke me up to tell me the news, I wondered if I was still drunk - a stray cockerel? Over the years we’ve been contacted about countless stray cats, several stray dogs, and the odd lost parrot or tortoise. But stray poultry was new.
I swear I made valiant efforts to get dressed, wincing as I brushed my hair and trying and failing, several times, to insert contact lenses into my bloodshot eyes.
And then I conceded defeat and just sent my mum. I know, I’m a horrible daughter. We agreed that if she couldn’t catch the cockerel, she’d call me and I’d come and join her efforts, though I think we both knew short of throwing up on the chicken to slow it down, I wouldn’t be much use.
Cockerels can be quite fierce. When my mum met Stuart on the common, she was expecting a tussle with a very large and very pissed off bird. Instead, she was bemused to find a hen roosting peacefully in some bushes.
Poor Stuart. A cat rescue volunteer, he had no experience with chickens. Believing Bunty to be a cockerel, and therefore potentially aggressive - she does have intimidatingly large talons - he was wary of picking her up, and more importantly, had no idea where to take her once he had.
So he had stayed by her side from the afternoon until long past sunset, not wanting to abandon her to the foxes, but not knowing what to do next, either.
And after all those hours of fretting and worrying and making phone calls, my mum arrived at the scene, simply picked the chicken up, put her in a carrier, and drove away. It was a little bit funny. Still, the underlying point, regardless of how we arrived there, is that Stuart helped save Bunty’s life.
When we got home, we checked her over, and put her in a dog crate with food, water, and bedding. Then we just stared at her for a bit, slightly dumbfounded, while she returned our gaze with one orange, reptilian eye. When you spend a lot of time interacting with small birds, a chicken looks quite large by comparison, especially in the confines of a house. Little did we know that within a few months, that’s exactly where Bunty would be spending most of her time.
The next day I set about looking for her owner. I was a little bit trepidatious; on commercial farms, egg-laying hens are often culled at 18-months old, when their ‘productivity’ starts to decline. I was therefore wary of sending her back to someone who’d just view her, and her body, as a commodity.
But we never did have any success in finding her owner, and at some point, before we ever said it aloud, a kind of tacit understanding formed that Bunty was staying.
Because she was funny, she brightened up our lives despite the extra work she also brought into it - like the mounds of shit and chicken feed scattered all over the garden, the plants she decimated, the section of wall she insisted on picking all the plaster off (sometimes I'd shout at her "don't eat the walls!", and then wonder what the neighbours were thinking).
She is kind of a jerk, to be honest. I have friends with chickens that are extremely cuddly and affectionate; they purr, they willingly sit on laps, they melt when they’re tickled under the wings. Not Bunty; from the very first day, she was fierce and independent, fussy and demanding, and a particularly cunning food thief. Our cats initially tried stalking her; within a week she was their feathered overlord. Our dog is terrified of her. But it was endlessly entertaining.
She has a keen eye for a sensitive spot to peck - she’d nonchalantly approach an unware cat, maybe sleeping in the garden, and with razor-sharp accuracy, aim a peck at their exposed testicles. I don’t think our other animals ever really forgave us for bringing her into their lives.
Most people don’t imagine chickens as having very distinct personalities, but they do. They also take pleasure in their lives. They have favourite foods. They doze in the sunshine on warm days, and gleefully bathe in dirt. They have weird quirks, eccentricities, habits, favourite napping spots.
Bunty underscored for me how trivial a meal is in comparison to all these things; to an animal enjoying her life. The thought that in another time or another place, she might miss out on being her rude, bossy self, and not for necessity or need but for taste and convenience, made my heart ache.
Initially, since we didn’t have a chicken coop in the garden, Bunty slept in a dog crate in the house. And then when we did install a chicken coop in the garden… she still slept in a dog crate in the house, and merely laid eggs or napped in the coop during the day, often accompanied by several cats. She had got into the habit of coming inside to roost, and we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to put her out in the cold of an evening.
Eventually, the crate turned into a small kennel in the living room, and we accepted that Bunty was a part-time house chicken; free-ranging in the garden in the day -protected from predators by our cat-proof fencing - and sleeping in the house at night.
Except, when the winter came around, she’d come into the house during daylight hours, too, hurrying inside at the first sign of an open door. She’d then make her way to the bathroom, for a nap on the heated tiles there, or would kick the dog out of her bed in the living room. Occasionally we'd discover her lounging on the sofa.
Or else, she’d stand in the kitchen and scream at passing family members for treats, giving pretty much everything she was offered a few half-hearted pecks, until you’d exhausted all of the food in the house. And even then she’d still be screeching.
It got to the point that, in cold weather, she'd spend 90% of her time outside sitting by the garden door, just waiting to be let back in.
Her time in the house gradually increased, adding another layer of eccentricity to our already eccentric domestic life. Once, during a bout of flu, I opened the door to an Amazon delivery driver, disheveled, in pajamas. Bunty wandered up behind me, crowing.
“Is that a chicken?” the guy said, his eyes wide. Behind me, Bunty crooned.
“Yeah”, I said. Then a long silence ensued, which I think I was expected to fill with an explanation, but didn’t.
I was tired. Anyway, where would I start?
Chickens are flock animals, so it was always our intention to adopt some ex-battery hens to keep Bunty company. But we've delayed, because it’s one thing to have one noisy, shockingly spoiled chicken in your house, and quite another to have three. When we get to this point, Bunty may have to concede to having fewer luxuries in her life, or learn the concept of sharing, neither of which she will accept without a fight. Like I said, she is kind of a jerk. But she makes us laugh every single day, and enriches our lives, like I hope we have hers.