This month, Michelle Dunn chooses her favourite bird – a prolific broody who chose the strangest places to nest
I’ve been keeping free-range chickens and observing their behaviour for more than 10 years, and in that time I’ve met some astonishing birds. There was Sam, the one-eyed cockerel, Flaps, the wild broody and Wonky, who was two separate breeds in one body. But the one that really stands out for me is Billiards.
Billiards was a Speckledy I bought from a local breeder. She was determined to raise chicks at every opportunity, and she had a very odd choice of nest sites. She never went broody in the same place twice and, of course, she never used a nest box.
She began mildly enough by going broody in a cardboard box she found under a bar billiards table in the cow shed. She was vulnerable to rats there, so we tried to move her, but after 10 explosive minutes of slashing, biting, flapping and fury, we decided to build an enclosure around her instead. She hatched out a full brood of 10 chicks which she raised successfully. Later that same year she went broody again, and this was her master stroke. She had chosen a high shelf in the workshop, directly above the mitre saw and table saw. There was, of course, no nesting material up there, so she had laid her eggs between a bottle of white spirit and a tin of paint. For three weeks she sat there, amid the screaming saws and flying woodshavings, immovable. The shelf was 6ft off the ground, so we planned to rescue the chicks when they appeared, but Billiards had other ideas. On the day the chicks hatched we could see the occasional tiny head protruding from Billiards’ feathery mass, but she wouldn’t let us get anywhere near her. The next day, we found her and her clutch of eight healthy chicks roosting quietly in the chicken shed. I’ve no idea how she got them down off the shelf and over to the chicken shed, but she did.
As she had now established herself as the most astonishingly talented broody I had ever known, from then on I left her to it. Year after year she would brood one or two big, fine clutches – her eggs, someone else’s eggs, it didn’t matter. She always chose mad places to nest – deep in the heart of the woodpile, or inside a plant pot on a shelf in the tool shed – and she always raised all her chicks. She taught them to hunt flies in the greenhouse, and dust bath in the herbs. She protected them from amorous cockerels, jealous hens and curious dogs. My old collie Meg still has a scar on her nose from when she tried to sniff one of Billiards’ brood. Imagine Vlad the Impaler with chicks and you’ll have an idea of just how protective Billiards was.
Billiards lived for such a long time that virtually every hen in my flock has been hatched out by her. She finally died of old age after eight long, active, bonkers years, and is still much missed. Every time one of our current flock goes hunting for flies in the greenhouse I recognise Billiards’ teaching, and smile.