My Blind Hen Hildy – Free Ranging March 1, 2013
For the first few years, our blind hen Hildy didn’t ever leave the coop on her own. This was something of a relief. After she recovered from her injury and learned to find the feeder on her own, it gave her unmolested time to eat and drink from the feeders and waterers, since the rest of the flock was outside foraging and enjoying the day.
When Hildy got to be around three years old, though, she started venturing outside. We’re not sure what prompted it; it may have been the simple discovery of the doorway: “WOW! I can walk through that bright patch in the corner of the coop!”
I always imagined that first time that she felt like Alice in Wonderland, having gone down a rabbit hole.
Hildy’s discovery of the door presented several problems, though. The first was that we were afraid our sweet little blind hen would just wander off into the woods, never to be seen again. Wandering proved not to be a problem—or at least not a consistent problem. On her first few adventures outside, she did get disoriented. But how in the world could she learn to navigate the yard unless she was allowed to explore it? So I kept a vigilant eye on her for the first few weeks, and if I saw our blind hen getting too far away, I’d go outside and call her name. Her head would pop up, and she’d stand as tall as she could, listening to me. When she had triangulated my location—based on, what?, the sound of my voice, combined with a person-shaped shadow?—she’d run toward me with her adorable high-stepping gait, and find her way to stand on my foot until I picked her up. These incidents got fewer and further between as our blind hen became familiar with the new surroundings, and she was able to discover what the flock’s territory was—and what it wasn’t, much to our relief.
Our second concern was for her ability to avoid predators–that is, she’d have no ability, right? But again, she learned to rely on the flock for clues as to what to do. She was able to follow the flock around, perhaps based on her very limited vision and her ability to hear the chatty clucking of her sisters.
The first few times our top rooster Gautier gave a warning cry that there was a predator, she didn’t know what to do. She could sense that something was going on–everyone went running!—but she seemed to have no instinct to take cover herself. We wondered if she could even see or understand the concept of “cover.” Whether she did or not, she eventually learned to follow the other hens and hide beneath the forsythia because of her instinct to be with the flock—but until that time, Gautier had to take extra steps to protect her. (He had always had a soft spot for her.)
So when he realized that our blind hen didn’t heed his “predator” warnings at first, Gautier didn’t abandon her. Instead he stayed by her side, puffed up his feathers and strutted around her, trying to look as large and intimidating as possible. When he felt the immediate danger had passed and it was safe enough to do so, he’d try to herd her with strategic pecks and chest bumps to the rest of the ladies. Eventually she learned how to behave when he issued his dinosaur-roar of a warning cry, and she’d run along with them and stand with the others beneath the forsythia bushes.
The problem I’ll discuss next week was the big one: while our blind hen had figured out how to leave the coop, she couldn’t figure out how to get back in! What would worry you most about having a blind hen? Or if you have another special needs pet, what are your biggest worries?