Bird Brain / by David Pullar

I always swore that if I ever lived anywhere with a backyard, I would keep hens. I simply couldn’t envisage a backyard where there weren’t at least a few chickens, clucking contentedly as they circled and scratched at their patch of grass. To me, it would be like owning a house without a kitchen, or a car without a windshield.

It wasn’t nostalgia for my own childhood, you understand. I spent my early years in a succession of the poorly-differentiated suburbs of Sydney that stretched westward from Botany Bay. Several of our places had yards, but none of sufficient size for anything agricultural. I do remember us having a sandpit at one place, in Beverly Hills or perhaps Padstow. It was there before us; the beams already worn and lopsided. We didn’t put down deep roots, my family.

The chicken thing wasn’t lifted from a favourite childhood story, either; “The Little Prince and His Prize Bantams” or something like that. I don’t recall my parents telling me idyllic stories of roosters and hens and the boys that cared for them. In fact, I don’t remember the subject ever having come up. Certainly no one in our extended family had so much as a hamster as a pet. Perhaps if I had known more about the animal kingdom, so much of this could have been avoided.

It was just recently that I, with six months remaining on my postgraduate scholarship, took off out of the city. I was determined not to be one of those procrastinators whose thesis drags on interminably, but my good intentions had been met with limited success. Most of my research was completed and the references I needed were all electronic, so there was nothing tying me to campus. After some reflection, I decided to go to where rent was cheap and I would have nothing to distract me from the task of writing the damn thing.

One weekend in February, I drove west out of the city and up the mountains to Katoomba. Arriving at 1000 metres above sea level, I found that the air was crisp and clean, the inhabitants were delightfully patchouli-scented and every ramshackle house within my student price range had a yard. It was exactly as I had pictured it, the place where I would bash out my thesis. There was even one perfect weatherboard, painted sky blue, on a large expanse of lush green grass. As I looked at the colourful facade from the street, the thought came to me unbidden – here was where I would keep poultry.

It was far simpler to rent the house than to secure livestock for it, because that was a familiar task. Unlike in Sydney, there were no packed open inspections, no lengthy application forms; it was just a matter of a single conversation and a cash deposit. I didn’t know where to start with acquiring chickens. In fact, the first thing I did was Google “Where do you buy chooks in the Blue Mountains?” In response, the search engine gave me the addresses of several frozen poultry suppliers, but nowhere to buy a live one.

Fortunately, some things (if not many) are easier to do in a small town than online and buying animals is one of them. On a reconnaissance drive around the local area, I noticed a sign in front of a paddock advertising “cheap hens”. I pulled in to a straight grey gravel driveway, which I followed up to a battered shed, where a man named Bruce sorted me out keenly.

“Have you ever had the cochins before?” he asked me, as he placed two splendid mottled-brown hens with fire-engine red combs into a cardboard box. They clucked and squirmed in their temporary home.

At first I wondered if he was talking about some ailment but realised he meant the fowls.

“No. These are my first.” I didn’t specify that I mean my first birds of any kind.

“You know what to do with them?” He looked at me with concern, having now pegged my flannel-and-boots outfit as a city-boy affectation and me as a know-nothing tree-changer.

“I’ll work it out.”

“These birds are pretty special. You’ll need to know what’s what.”

Bruce gave me a look that suggested these hens had almost mythical powers, which seemed unlikely. They were pretty and remarkably good-natured about being transported in a box that used to hold multi-packs of ramen noodles, but they didn’t seem especially intelligent or gifted.

“If you have any questions after you get home, here’s my number.” He scribbled some digits on a scrap of paper and pressed it into my palm.

I was pretty confident I wouldn’t need much help, given my talents for research. That afternoon, I found a book at the local library on keeping hens in a backyard. It didn’t make any particular reference to cochins as a breed, but I assumed there was little to distinguish one variety from another. They all ate chicken feed and laid eggs, I presumed. I named my two birds Polly and Beetroot.

They roamed my backyard freely and contentedly while I made a small enclosure with chicken wire. I ducked out to acquire a coop from a pet store, during which time the birds pecked a neat hole in the screen door. I even started collecting my food scraps for them to eat. I realised that I had done everything back-to-front, but the two hens roamed my backyard contentedly while I scanned the book for what they needed next. I wondered if parents ever waited until after their children were born to work out how to care for them. I imagined that such people would be targeted by Community Services fairly quickly.

Polly and Beetroot settled into their new home even more quickly than I did, perhaps because they had nothing to unpack. My possessions stayed in boxes for weeks, only removed one item at a time as required. I would need a spatula for cooking and remember that it was at the bottom of a pile marked “Clothes, Towels and Kitchen Stuff”. The only thing I procrastinated about more than writing my thesis was unpacking my household items.

I found the chickens soothing. They had a docility and contentedness with their circumstances that I found completely baffling, but admirable. Their needs were simple – shelter, food and water, and some ground to peck at from time to time. The one thing that I found disconcerting was when Polly started speaking to me.

Of course, I don’t mean that she spoke audibly. While some members of the bird family can produce word sounds from their throats, mainly parrots and the like, I don’t believe a chicken can do the same. Polly was no exception in that. Her beak didn’t move and no sound travelled from her to me; it simply appeared in my head.

You could quite reasonably ask how I knew that it was my cochin hen speaking to me telepathically rather than simply my own thoughts. Believe me; I grappled with this very question. It wouldn’t have even been an issue if the first words hadn’t been Polly introducing herself.

“I’m Polly,” she said. “But of course you already knew that. It’s a good name you gave me and I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome,” I vocalised to the hen, who was facing me at this time, her red comb upright and her claws scratching at the dirt.

Immediately I kicked myself. What was I doing talking to a hen? Of course, she spoke first and it would have been rude not to reply, but if it wasn’t actually her, then I was well down the slippery slope of madness.

I was surprised, not least because I’ve never had any particular connection with animals. Not having grown up around them, I am far from a Dr Doolittle. It did occur to me that what had been lacking wasn’t ability, just opportunity. Perhaps I had always had this gift and it was only as an animal owner that I was realising my potential.

At this, I began to wonder why it was happening now, after twenty-four years of animal silence in my life, and why with a chook? For all my ambition to own a couple of laying hens, it wasn’t out of any deep respect for their intellect. I wondered what this said about me and my mental frequencies. Why was I forming a psychic bond with an animal so much lower on the intelligence scale than, say, a dolphin or even one of the smarter Border Collies? Even within the bird family, I recalled that magpies are considered bright. Why had I never heard one speak to me during my childhood, perhaps while it dive-bombed me in the school ground?

    “This place is quite nice, really. Better than Bruce’s farm. There were too many other birds around. Here it’s just the three of us.” Polly looked at me with her small, dark, chicken eyes and shook her head from side to side.

Polly was at least being positive, which I found reassuring. Naturally, I wasn’t going to take anything at face value. The most likely scenario was still that it was my own subconscious, although if asked to choose between apparent serious mental illness and an ability to communicate silently with one of my new pets, I would most definitely choose the latter.

“Have you always been able to communicate like this?” I asked, out loud, not knowing whether this was the proper way to address Polly, or if it was enough simply to think it.

“I don’t know. I always communicate my thoughts, but no one has ever answered back.” She ruffled her brown feathers as if in a shrug.

I couldn’t tell if this was more or less plausible than if Polly was in regular contact with a farmyard horse, for example. The main problem, as I saw it, was that Polly’s communications seemed unlike how I would have expected a hen to speak. I realise this is absurd, because a hen that can telepathically talk with her owner is no ordinary animal. I also recalled Farmer Bruce’s comments that cochins were special in some way. Was this a breed-specific trait? If so, why was Beetroot standing there, mute? It was possible that she was just a little stupid.

Having made significant progress on a PhD, I was fairly confident in my research and analytical skills, so I decided to devise some tests for Polly; some way of assuring myself that she was truly speaking to me. I considered first eliminating the possibility that it was my own mind. What would I know that Polly, as a fairly recent pet, would not?

“Polly, have I had any pets before?”

“No. But there are two problems with that test. If I’m telepathic, then I can read your thoughts and know that you’ve never had a pet previously.”

I had to agree with her logic.

“Secondly, you bought us before even setting up a coop or enclosure, and you keep looking things up in a book about poultry. I haven’t had a lot of owners, but that says to me you don’t know much.”

“You can read?” I gasped, before realising the absurdity of the statement. None of this interview had led to the conclusion that Polly was indeed a psychic chicken. That said, if she was, then her power was only compounded by the fact that she was a literate one.

“Only a little, mainly things that I saw around the farm. No one else in my family could read.”

“Can Beetroot speak or read minds?”

“I’ve wondered that myself. At first I just thought she was a bit stand-offish, but now I’ve come to the conclusion that she genuinely can’t. She communicates in her own way. We do this thing with our beaks where we peck the sawdust twice if we want to be left alone, and once if we’d like some company.”

I was fascinated by this insight into chicken etiquette. I considered quizzing her on facts about hens, perhaps from my library book. Of course, I would have to ask the question first before reading the answer, so as to avoid tipping off my subconscious at the same time. This still posed challenges. I had no way of knowing how self-aware Polly was, or how educated she was about her own species, being a young bird. Would it be like asking a school child the finer points of the human digestive system?

“You can ask me questions about chickens. Of course the terms ‘chickens’ can be confused with our meat, which means it’s considered offensive by some. I personally identify as a fowl, or a hen, if you want to be specific about my gender.”

This was good to know, because the last thing I wanted to do was address Polly incorrectly and have her walk away in a huff without letting me understand her better. I was, however, starting to become disconcerted by the mind-reading. I wondered whether things would get awkward if there were thoughts I didn’t want to share with her. It could be more than a little intrusive. What if I wanted to eat KFC at some point?

“What’s KFC? Why wouldn’t you want me to know about it?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer truthfully of course. I was so fortunate that her experience, up here in the mountains, hadn’t led her to the dark knowledge of the Colonel’s secret recipe. It was an uncomfortably near miss.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Polly; just a human food that hens don’t like. It’s not very tasty.”

Polly’s beady eyes stared at me directly and the wattles under her chin wobbled energetically. I could tell that she knew I was keeping something from her. This complicated our relationship terribly. Here I was, expecting to have a couple of docile pets who would produce some fresh eggs for my breakfast scramble. Instead, one of them was not only sentient, but potentially burrowing into my mind, turning the whole power dynamic on its head. I would need some space to consider the implications. I couldn’t stand here processing it all with Polly listening in.

I backed slowly out of the garden, through the screen door and into my kitchen. There on the counter was the sole cookbook I had taken from my packing boxes and it was entitled “Delicious Chicken Recipes for the Whole Family”, of all things. Next to it was an unopened carton of chicken stock. My mind was racing. Could Polly still read my thoughts here, inside? What was her radius of transmission? Did she require line-of-sight?

I looked out the window. Polly and Beetroot were pacing back and forth at the edge of the enclosure, looking deeply unhappy. Now panicking, I reached for my mobile phone and dialled the number Bruce had given me. I was hyperventilating by the time he finally answered.

“Bruce here.”

I tried to explain, but all that came out was a stammer that originated at the back of my throat that sounded like “cluck…cluck”.


David Pullar works in the communications team of a large multinational company and co-hosts the pop culture podcast Is This What The Kids Are Into? As well as writing his own work, he has criticised much better authors for Popmatters and has been a music critic for Stylus Magazine.