new-born with mama

. ~ Life of a hen ~ .

May 2004

Porto-Novo, Benin

By Netiva Caftori

my hen
I have lived on 4 continents and have countless stories. One that I'm still excited about but not sure if there is interest is about growing chicken in the "wild" in Benin, West Africa.
I was a Fulbright scholar teaching math and computer science in a graduate institute in Porto Novo. I wasn't used to living alone and was in dire need of companionship. At 1st I adopted a kitten rescued from a restaurant (where his family was used to chase mice), but then a hen adopted me or my back yard.
I have learned so much on the life of chicken in the wild and learned to appreciate them. Unlike what I knew before about hen being stupid I discovered that although they are mostly led by instinct, they have human-like personalities and behave accordingly. For example, sleeping arrangements were negotiated every evening between 3 siblings, 2 female and 1 rooster as there was room on a branch for only 2. It was pathetic and most enjoyable sight every evening at 6:50 precise.
More below:

G arrived into my backyard with 5 chicks, one black and four white.
She may have come there earlier before hatching them, but I wouldn't know.
At first she was afraid of me and ran away when I followed her and the little ones with my camera.
However with time she learned to trust me and came requesting her food every morning.
After a while I noticed she slept under a tree in my yard with her chicks under her wings.
I knew then she belonged to this place.

The chicks grew. One of them disappeared one day that my cat was out.
I am not sure of his sort.
The remaining four kept growing and with time I could recognize 2 hens and 2 roosters.
G one day became aggressive, chasing her kids away from her especially when food was given to them.
I was explained that she's getting ready to lay eggs.
Indeed everyday an egg was added to a new nest she chose behind a bush against the wall.
It was a well-protected spot from the element and an observing eye.
I was very excited about the prospect of new chicks but also wanted to taste an egg.
One day indeed I enjoyed eating one tiny egg.
However all 10 remaining eggs were duds, not fertilized.
G still sat on them for 2 months even though incubation time is only 3 weeks.
I finally grew pity of her and took the eggs away.
With time she came back to leading a normal life.
While sitting on her eggs however she would get away only once a day or every other day to get a very fast bite chasing everyone in site crowing with all her force.

cleaning time

my grandchildren

My egg meal

The four kids in the meantime led a very different life.
Instead of sleeping on the ground, as they did before with their mom, they found a way to climb the tree in front of my terrace, giving me the show of my life every evening at 6:50 pm.
By 7:00 pm two of them were settled on a branch on my tree for the night, while the other couple preferred the mango tree on the side where the branches were too dense to observe. It was always the same couple, the black hen with her rooster in front of my terrace. At first they climbed a pole I placed against a fallen tree trunk which almost reached an electric wire. From the top of the pole they jumped to the wire, then walked on it keeping their balance and then hop to the tree.
Even when younger the 2 roosters fought between them, however as adolescents they waged war with more ferocity. Finally the weaker one, I believe, disappeared, maybe for greener pastures. The white hen left alone slept alone I believe one night but the lone rooster took pity of her and slept with her the next night leaving the black hen all alone. I think that created havoc as finally they decided all three to sleep together on my tree. The evening show was different now. It was usually one of the hens climbing up first choosing a good branch. Then followed the rooster or the second hen that chose the same branch or not. Three could not fit on a branch and these chickens didn't like to sleep alone. So it was always one of them unhappy, trying to fit by in vain.
The rooster became a young man and starting crowing with a changing voice. Within two weeks he gained all his might and kept waking me up at 4 am every morning and keeping crowing till the whole neighborhood knew he was the man. My neighbor too realized that and showed up at my door one day with a threat: Either I take care of the rooster or he will. I guess I was waiting for such an opportunity although do not bend easily to threats. This one was too tempting. I was just becoming too tired never getting a full night sleep. Also I was tempted to taste that young meat although was not sure I can take it. My cook took it upon him to catch the rooster the next day and that evening I had a nice chicken meat for dinner. We call it bicycle chicken as they run all day and their meat is a bit harder as more muscular. That one was very good, maybe thanks to my good cook. I felt bad at the same time losing my "son" as I grew to love them as my own children.

If you ever thought chicken are dumb you were wrong.
My chickens were very smart. They recognized me from my cook, and came to me and ran away from him, fearing he will catch one of them too. They ran when I swept the floor from under by birds' cage, as they knew all the good food that was there for them. When the pole fell a few times, they found alternative ways to climb the tree. When one of them fell off the tree in the middle of the night, which happened once in a while, they found their way back although you could see they were a bit blinded and had a hard time at it. There were jealousy feelings too as I interpret them. The white hen one night decided not to sleep with the other couple. You could see her stand there reflecting on where to pass the night. The rooster remembered the pole fell, even though I dressed it up again the next day, and it took him a while to be convinced by the hen that he could again climb the pole instead.

The night after the rooster was killed the 2 chicken remaining didn't climb the tree. I was heartened, but then realized they noticed the bad weather coming and found shelter in a better place under a heavier bush. That night it stormed heavily.

9 eggs

I left town for a few days and at my return things were different.
The chicken never returned to the tree.
Maybe it was not much fun there without their brother.
G was walking about again, still aggressive even though without eggs or young ones, still chasing her kids away when food came.
I fed them bread, corn, or whatever was left over off my table.
They particularly liked papaya, just like my cat.
And like my cat, didn't particularly like mango, maybe because it was in ample supply in my yard during 2 weeks out of the year.
Soon enough I noticed the same aggressive behavior in the black hen and knew she was readying for eggs laying too.
She had 7 eggs of which I ate 3, thinking they were not fertilized either.
However 3 weeks later she had 3 chicks, 2 white and 1 black.
One of the eggs remained whole. Her dead brother must have been the father
. Rest his soul. I've become a grandma.
Amazingly the other white hen never laid eggs, remained old maid.
She stuck mostly with G, her mother.
During the day the hens arrived, here and there, requesting food or just resting on my terrace steps, cleaning themselves and resting.

cuttest ones

I left Benin in July 2004 after a whole year in that house, spending many hours on my balcony watching the hen. The 3 chicks died. I'm not sure of the sort of the older hen. I suspect my cook either continued to raise them for the eggs or ate them one day.

Louis, my neighbor across the street promise to take my cat. I'm not sure if that ever happened. I knew Beninese eat cats though a few aspire to raise them as pets.

I miss my beninese pets/children. They were my partners in my solitude and the hen especially taught me about journaling.

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3 generations
I miss them so...

Written May 1st, 2004. Then updated on 8/4/07

on my steps