A little chicken with the heart of a lion

Sara Bryant, from Pewsey in Wiltshire, tell us about a very special bantam

My life was enriched by a chicken.

We had always kept bantams of indeterminate species, believing firmly in the vigour of mongrels. Any chicken can perform the alchemy that turns a patch of dirt and the insect life upon it, with the added sauce of a little salad plucked where it’s found, into glorious golden-yolked eggs, but one day we were wooed, in the rare breeds tent at a country fair, by an important- looking little rooster and his fluffy, tiny wife. We nursed home six eggs of the breed Barbu d’Uccle, variety Mille Fleur, to put under our ever reliable broody who would normally sit on anything oval. To our surprise, she disdained our gift and flounced off to lay her own clutch so I was forced to borrow an incubator and nurture the resulting chicks as best I could.

The first to hatch was a ghostly, silver grey instead of the expected tiger stripes – a throwback to the ‘porcelain’ variety. When she drank from the bowl of a spoon and stretched up to swallow, looking like a tiny girl in a frilly frock, her hands tucked under the frills behind her, one leg would slide away, but she seemed thoughtful as she got up, as if trying to learn. Something was wrong and if she’d had a natural mother would have perished at an early stage, but her bright spirit and cheerful keenness spoke directly to me, and as long as she showed a fighting spirit I couldn’t let her down. I called her Tiny Tim.

She loved to nestle in my hand and be fed from there. With her weak leg, it was the only way to ensure she got value from her food without wasting all the goodness in the struggle to consume it and she’d go to sleep, digesting, in my palm. The vet gave me a vitamin B solution to add to her drinking water, and soon her leg improved and her sense of purpose began to show itself. From a squatting position, she would balance on her good leg, gradually pushing her weight onto the weak limb, to find her centre of gravity. Then she would stand, wobbly but upright, and her cheeping would speed up to a pitch of excitement no-one could deny. The concentration in her tiny eyes was very real and one of the most touching things I’ve ever seen in my life. It became her little tour de force; before food was thought of she’d demonstrate her latest advances, but not without first fixing my attention with her eye. As her confidence grew she’d gather strength and jump onto my palm, declaiming excitedly when she succeeded, mindful that, for her, it was an achievement beyond its seeming - truly a case of weak flesh sustained by a willing spirit.

Sadly, over time, the advances she’d made faded and her leg slowly slid away from her again, but not before she’d acquired all the confidence she’d need for life in the wide world. Once she’d joined the others in the hen house, she learned to perch on the corner of a box where the angle enabled her to roost securely. She joined in the normal life of hens as far as possible, overcoming her handicap in the most ingenious ways, and defended her corner if another bird tried to dislodge her or steal a juicy morsel.

I’d get her out and put her away at night, but one evening, when I was later than usual and received no reply when I called her, I feared the worst. However, when I shut up the others there was Tiny Tim on her perch. Subsequently I witnessed her laborious journey from coop to pasture. The speed was remarkable, but surely exhausting. Never have I seen more determination in any living being; as much, in proportion, but never more. She’d set herself a task and quietly fill her day achieving it, recognising no limitation. Torrential rain was an inconvenience but she’d always find shelter, and if she did get wet I’d dry her off with a hair dryer, which she loved. If I was short of time she’d turn herself around through 360 degrees in front of a fan heater until she was dry, while she sipped water and ate porage oats before snuggling under my chin and going to sleep.

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One day I found her cuddling one of two small, square topped eggs (the other was her sister’s) and realised my Tiny Tim had achieved perhaps her ultimate purpose in life – she could lay eggs. I can’t say who was the prouder, she or I.

Her exhausting manner of getting about, and the excessive heat of that long ago summer, must have put a huge strain on Tiny Tim and there came a day when I found her dead on the floor of the hen house near the drinking water. She must have put herself away early to escape the heat. There was no particular sign of distress. Probably her overtaxed heart, as big as a lion’s, had run its course.

I still, years later, feel as bereaved as I did that day. I buried her where flowers grew and bade flights of angels sing her to her rest, and I don’t care who knows it. She’ll always be one of my heroes - a most surprising little spirit and she enriched my life.