It’s a fair estimation to say that 90% of your house sitting assignments will involve taking care of animals. Of all the houses I’ve sat, only one so far was bereft of organic lifeforms (not including myself, of course). Usually, it’s cats, dogs or both. You may get the odd fish, perhaps, or a rodent of some form. Then you have those assignments which allow you the chance to expand your skills into unexplored areas of animal care. I got such an opportunity during one of my very first house sits when I was afforded the chance to take care of a small group of chickens. Exciting times!
Now, it’s very easy to imagine that chickens are low-maintenance charges, undemanding of your time and stress-free in their simple existence. Certainly, that was my expectation, and to a degree that would have been the case, were this not shaping up to be an unusually hot summer. I was clear in my initial negotiations with the owners that I had no experience looking after chickens and was assured that following a simple routine of feeding and watering would be all that was required. In return, my new feathery friends would provide me with a daily bounty of eggs! It seemed like a win/win to me. No dog or cat has ever provided me with breakfast in return for my care, that’s for sure.
The chickens needed feeding and watering twice a day. Two types of seed was their diet and, despite the minefield of chicken poo that needed navigating within the enclosure, this was exceedingly easy to deliver. And sure enough, most mornings I collected enough eggs to keep a New York diner in omelettes. In fact, collecting the eggs often turned out to be the hardest part. I developed quite the battle of wills with one chicken, who was intent on making me pay a high price in beak marks for each of her eggs. I ended up wearing thick gardening gloves to retrieve her eggs and, trust me, that felt like a great victory.
What I learned about chickens:
- They don’t trust you. Enter the domain of the chicken and prepare to be treated like a city dweller that just wandered into the archetypal country pub. They’ll eye you up like you know nothing about grass, or trees, or chickens. Chickens treat you with contempt. Or is that just paranoia?
- They’re not scared of you. Don’t be fooled by the fact that some of them run away when you arrive. When push comes to shove they will peck the hell out of you if you cross them. Wear gloves before reaching for those precious eggs.
- They are very hard to budge if they don’t feel like budging. If a chicken has decided it doesn’t feel like getting up, you will have to work hard to force the issue. Once again, wear gloves and expect some serious beak abuse.
- That chicken breast you’re planning on having for dinner will take on a new dimension once you’ve found yourself bonding with the live fowl out the back.
- They have a tendency to keel over and die for what may seem like no reason at all.
Finally, it was that last fact that forever burst my chickens-are-a-breeze bubble. I strolled out to the enclosure one evening, bowl of feed in hand, to discover that one of the chickens had died. They had all seemed fine that morning, but how quickly things change in the life of a chicken, for here she was, her days of glove pecking behind her. I was, of course, absolutely panic-stricken. Of the three worst things that can happen to you while you’re house-sitting, the death of an animal under your care ranks just below the house burning down and being killed by the monster under the bed that the owners didn’t warn you about.
What had I done wrong? I had followed all instructions to the letter. Why was I staring at a dead chicken? Why was the chicken no more? And what should I do next? There was no option, of course. Voodoo resurrections require the sacrifice of a chicken, and that’s just too ironic for my tastes. I had to contact the owners and let them know that there was one less hen in the house. Thankfully, they were very understanding and I was assured that this happens to them too, and I was not being held responsible. Sometimes chickens just expire in unseasonably hot weather conditions. I felt better about it but that didn’t stop me spending the next few days watching those chickens a lot more intently than I had been before, scanning for any signs of impending doom.
A few days later and a sign of impending doom arrived in the shape of actual impended doom. Yes, my nightmare realised by the discovery of another dead chicken. My house sit was beginning to resemble an Agatha Christie novel. I could imagine gathering all the remaining chickens in the study for tea and questioning. Where were you at 7:15 pm last night, Professor Leghorn?
All joking aside, though, I did take this rather to heart. No one likes to lose troops on their watch. Once again, I was assured of my blamelessness, but as the bodies mounted up so, too, did my sense of having failed on some level. The fact that both chickens had belonged to the same breed brought some comfort after I Googled and discovered a sensitivity to heat in the breed, and eventually I did come to accept that some things are simply beyond your control, even when house sitting. Thankfully, there were no more fatalities that summer and the house sit remains one that I look back on extremely fondly.