Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Big sisters are watching you

I've just learnt that chickens use one eye for feeding and the other for looking out for predators. This gives an added dimension to their reptilian gaze, and makes my mind boggle. What do they see when they look in at me? Without a degree in zoology or a PhD in avian ocular biology, I cannot imagine.

When I sit at my writing desk, this is my writer's-eye-view: chickens in flower pots, chickens perched on old shelving; chickens pecking their way through the un-mown grass, dandelions and nettles of our back garden nature reserve. These are wyandotte bantams, and their yellow legs (currently folded away) remind me of the saffron-coloured hen stockings Mrs Tiggywinkle laundered.

But these are no twee little chicks. They are ferocious predators. They've seen off the cat, and the dog has clearly made up his mind never to have eye contact with them. I've seen them hunt, slice up and swallow a live slow worm. Given the choice, they are highly carnivorous, and they move around their territory like something deeply Cretaceous.

Sometimes there are five of them lined up, observing my indoor movements. Intensely curious about the interior of the house, they follow me with all ten of their beady eyes. I don't think I'm on the menu, but this watching seems to be entertainment for them, as if they're looking at real-time television.


Yesterday, I completed my three year study of the wild otter. It was supposed to be one year, but, as with all things ottery, it became slippery and spilled over. The wild otter inhabited me for all that time, and life will never be the same. An animal has been under my skin. At times I felt like I'd sprouted my own pelt and whiskers; I became shy and shunned human company, all I wanted to do was slide along river banks and seep into the water. The manuscript is written all over my body. I finished editing the story knowing it is in fact they who watch us, unseen, and however much we study and write, their mystery will always remain intact.

Today I'll go upriver and look for the otters again, my eye drawn along the green edges of the water, but I won't write it all down in a book anymore, as a new project is brewing.

My attention turns to the feathered company in my garden, and there they are again, my awkward muses, staring at me through the window, the semi-wild chickens I have acquired. They won't eat the food we bought them, even though it's nothing but the best- organic mixed corn - but they stare at me when I sit at the desk, with just as much interest and curiosity as I have for them.