“We'll do it tonight. You'll have to come help me catch them, I can't do it alone.” I read Noëlla's text out loud to Ben.
That night we were going to help Noëlla capture her brood of chickens, one by one, and bring them to the henhouse we had prepared in our backyard. After moving from a house with a garden to an apartment in a nearby town, Noëlla no longer had space for her three chickens and rooster and was therefore lending them to us until she found herself living in a country house again. Ben had never had chickens and neither had I, and we hoped our first farm animals would like us. We were uneasy with our first impression on the chickens, feeling that maybe tackling them in their home and bringing them somewhere new under the cover of night wasn't the best foot to get off on.
Noëlla picked us up at 7pm which, in December, meant that the night sky was already pitch black. We briefly talked about our strategy. At some point the question came up of what we would transport them in- this is how prepared we were. We decided cardboard boxes would do the trick and my left over “des bras de plus” moving boxes proved useful once again. We folded the cardboard back into boxes then filled the back of Nëolla's van with the makeshift chicken carriers and some flashlights to help in our covert operation and hit the road.
When we reached La Tesnière, where Noëlla used to live and her chickens would live for approximately another 20 minutes, we tried to keep quiet. Sneaking into the hen house we saw the chickens were fast asleep, facing tail out and perched in their roost, oblivious to our existence. Kidnapping conditions changed abruptly when, realizing the flashlights we brought offered insufficient light, Noëlla repositioned her car and turned on the headlights, bathing the hen house in a wave of yellow illumination worthy of a prison break. This, of course, caused some commotion.
We had to act fast. Our plan, as Noëlla described it to us, was this: grab a chicken and put it in a box.
That was it- just grab one and put it in a box.
Ben went for the rooster, who seemed the slowest to realize he was in danger and therefore the easiest, albeit largest, to apprehend. Noëlla, who said she didn't want to catch any of the chickens at first- sprung into action and grabbed a little black hen who hardly saw it coming. I laid my hands on a larger white hen, who I managed to calm enough that I could arrange her flapping feathers into a cardboard box. We were left with just one hen, a beautiful white lady with a black collar who I call “L'Islandaise” or “The Icelandic” because she looks like she's wearing a traditional Nordic sweater.
To all of our surprise, Noëlla was by now fully in chicken catching mode and cornered the terrified lady, then lunged to grab her. While the others had eventually submitted to their fate, L'Islandaise was having none of it. She screamed her dissent and squawked in protest even after we had managed to get her into a box. Phase one of the chicken conquest was successfully finished and in anticipation of celebrations Noëlla ran off to her nearby wine cellar and came back to the car with a bottle of 2014 Chez Charles, her sauvignon that she had just bottled and a 2013 LBL- another elegant sauvignon.
On the road back to our house, with the adrenalin still rushing, Noëlla explained the job wasn't over yet. To be sure the chickens don't fly away we should cut their wings, she told us. I looked at Ben in horror. “It's not like it sounds” he assured me “we're not going to cut their wings- just their feathers.” Noëlla affirmed, “It doesn't hurt them, it's just like a haircut” she assured me.
After a bumpy ride to their new home, the chickens were once again shocked by the outdoor lights that allowed us to give them little hen haircuts before leaving them in peace. One by one we took them out of their box. I held their beating chests and tried to calm their jabbing legs as Noëlla carefully trimmed the feathers of only one wing- so that they were uneven lengths- preventing them from flying away. Freshly coiffed and lovingly deposited onto the fresh hay that Ben and I had attentively covered the floor of the hen house with, the brood settled into their first night in a new home.
Over glasses of wine with Noëlla, we got a training in Chicken 101, what and what not to feed them, what to expect by way of eggs (these chickens had stopped laying with the onset of winter- who knows when they would start again), and where to order the organic grain that we were to feed them, along with all the kitchen scraps that would enjoy from our kitchen.
We left the chickens in the hen house for ten days and then let them out to graze and learn about their new surroundings while we learned about them. There was Jacques, or Chi Chi, the rooster and his favorite of the brood- the large white hen I had caught- Bernadette, the lady I came to know as L'Islandaise was actually a chicken called a “Contres” named for the town her breed came from and for balance, the little black hen was named “Pour”.
Chickens have an unimposing presence, they are always there but never in the way. They go on with their day without asking for much aside from food and water. Even our kitten, who was only three months old and very playful when the chickens joined our family, wasn't tempted to hunt or chase his feathered friends- they're just so peaceful that it wouldn't occur to even the most energetic of living things to be threatened by their existence.
We had the chickens for barely a month before they started laying eggs. A sign that they were happy in their new home.