PRISCILLA’S PARTY TRICK
PUBLISHED: 10:32 02 May 2014
Martin Gurdon’s Brahma sometimes accompanies him when he gives talks about chickens – and she seems to make everyone feel better!
Priscilla the Brahma likes to travel and meet people.
OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, as I suspect she’s not enthused, but she certainly doesn’t mind, and so far we’ve been to Croydon, St Albans and exotic Gillingham.
Why? Well, I give a comedic talk about chickens and, on occasions, take one of my flock. I do this less now, as it strikes me that if you’re a chicken, plodding about in the garden is preferable to travelling in a dog cage in the back of a Toyota estate and being introduced to members of the Women’s Institute or the University of the Third Age. However, in some cases, the talk does benefit from an avian accomplice, especially when I’m meeting people who would normally only encounter chickens at the supermarket.
I guess the furthest I’ve been with one of our hens is Edinburgh. This was an ex-farm hybrid who seemed to actively enjoy the attention and food and would hunker down in an old cat box, watch the world go by and occasionally lay an egg en route.
Some of our flock would find the experience an ordeal. For that reason I’d never take our highly-strung Araucana, Slasher, who loathes being handled, and would find it incredibly stressful to be under scrutiny and unable to escape. Ditto Svenson the cockerel, for whom the whole process would feel deeply, and possibly terminally alarming.
Last year, when I was promoting my book, Doing Bird, I did visit the Tenterden branch of Waterstones with Sarkozy, the Polish bantam cockerel we hatched in an incubator, because he’d known me since he was bout five minutes old. He was great success, strutting about in his cage, eating voraciously and crowing loudly enough to bring people from the street and into the shop. In fact, he sold far more books than I did, but almost a year on and he’s become far grouchier and I suspect it would be unkind to make him repeat the experience.
Speaking of unkindness, in the decade or so I’ve been doing this, I’ve only ever been challenged by one person about a bird’s welfare. This was at another bookshop, where a teenaged girl politely berated me about caging an animal. This slightly awkward conversation was truncated when a frankly rather odd older woman appeared clasping a cat box containing a second chicken, demanding to know where the other birds were, clearly imagining that the bookshop was going to be stuffed with live, domestic fowl.
Regarding animal welfare, I always make sure that any birds who travel with me have access to clean bedding, food, water, and that there’s a cover for their cages so that if they do become stressed they can at least have some privacy.
Priscilla, however, seemed entirely relaxed as she peered at the ladies who make up the Chalk WI near Gillingham, and her presence stirred a lot of conversation. I have a sort of chicken party trick at these events. The birds were originally jungle dwellers, and if reasonably relaxed will keep their heads still if you move their bodies up and down in a sort of avian belly dance. This nod to their wild past always intrigues non-chicken keepers, and Priscilla did her theatrical turn like a pro.
I’ve been to some pretty out of the way, and sometimes fairly benighted places, and spoken to very elderly, frail and careworn people, but at the end of the talks have noticed how the buzz of conversation is louder, and that there’s more laughter. That often has a great deal to do with meeting an animal. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it seems to perk me up as well.