Archives for category: chickens

 

IMG_2579We were only gone for five days. The weather was mild, so the chickens had full access to their outdoor pens. And we had a chicken-sitter checking in on them–water and food and all that.

So, there was nothing to prepare us for the surprise when we arrived home. The first indication of a reality shift was that Einstein, our docile runt chicken, was marching the fence line, desperate to return to the company of the other two Chanteclers–her former tormenters. We’d put her in with the Barnevelder, with the idea that two lonelies might do better together–and at first, it seemed to work.

Rick went down to check on the chickens–and opened the gate between the pens. Einstein made a bee line for her Chantecler buddies. So much for trying to mediate chicken disputes. He noticed something else different…but didn’t say anything.

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I went down later, just to check things out on my way to the compost. It was subtle, but something was different. That Barnevelder seemed to have developed an attitude. It was patrolling its territory, with a decided swagger — even, I’d go so far to say, a strut. Head high and eyes bright…this was new.

“Rick, did you notice anything odd about the Barnevelder?”

He looked at me funny, nodding. “A little on the aggressive side. I saw her go after one of the Chantclers, talons first.”

“Do you think…”

“Yeah, I wondered. Maybe we have a rooster on our hands.”

The signs are there. There’s that upright posture, and the start of more pronounced tail plumage. Even new wattle and comb growth. (We’d selected our chicken varieties for low comb and no wattle, because there’s less chance of freezing in a cold climate. But, course, all bets are off if we’re talking roosters.) We’re pretty sure.

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The other chickens want nothing to do with it (him?)

We weren’t banking on roosters. So far, no crowing, at least we haven’t heard it. But then, we’re late-risers.

What to do with a rooster? Soup? We cannot have him annoying the neighbors. (Though a mean rooster would be an interesting match for those goddamn dogs.)

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

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Sorry for the poor photo–they didn’t like the big door open in the cold, and were not cooperative about posing.

At first blush, you might think it smacks of racism. But that’s ridiculous; they are, after all, chickens. But looking for the deeper meaning, there could be something equally sinister in play.

We keep chickens for the eggs. They are not pets. (Admittedly, though, we do get fond of them and their antics.) Originally, we had four chickens. You may recall that our neighbor’s dog ate one, leaving three. You’d think three would be enough.

Not all chickens lay an egg, every day. And, it turns out, in the absence of a rooster, some hens will ‘self-designate’ as the leader, and, with this elevated status, will not lay. We have such a self-important hen. (Though we try not to name our chickens, we call this one, Alpha.) One would think the solution would be to dispense with the narcissist chicken; but we’ve learned that another chicken is likely to just take her place. Better the devil you know….

So, this summer we obtained three more chickens. We have chicken selection parameters, they must be winter-hardy, dual use, and generally healthy. Our existing chickens are Chanteclers, a French-Canadian variety known for success in cold climates. Ours are Buff colored–easy to locate in the landscape–winter or summer. At the time we decided to expand our flock, I couldn’t find any Chanteclers, so we settled on Barnevelders, another heritage variety. The Barnevelders are beautiful, black and cinnamon colored, with a hint of iridescent green on their necks and heads. (I’m normally not impressed with ‘good-looking,’ but I have to admit, they’ve grown on me.)

You cannot introduce chickens easily. They have established pecking orders, and will fight with new chickens, and kill chicks. There’s a whole process to the merging of unfamiliar chickens. These Barnevelders were babies, so we set them up in their own coop, in an adjacent, fenced chicken pen.

Disaster struck. Some chicken ailment hit the babes. One day, one looked wobbly, then the next, two, dying within a day, leaving only one lonely chick! Chickens cannot thrive as solitary creatures. We were left with a dilemma–what to do with a very lonely solo chick, who had to be in quarantine for a week? She survived, and I drove back to my chicken-lady mentor/breeder, to fetch a replacement buddy. It all worked. The new chicken was a tad older and bigger, just what the lonely solo needed. They bonded immediately. And so we continued–hoping that we could combine the two flocks before the weather got really cold. (More chickens equals more body heat.)

We did all the right things. We started treating them, generously along the fence. Then, when they were accustomed to that, we opened the gate between the coops, for supervised visitation. They seemed to get along–without too much squabbling. When a particularly cold night was predicted, we waited for later in the day, and locked the Chanteclers out of their coop. To our relief, when evening fell, all the chickens retired for the night into the into the remaining, larger of the two coops. It seemed to go well. Or so we thought.

Then next morning we checked. The littlest chicken (the original survivor of the scourge)  was dead! Drowned in the water dish! Bastards! We felt terrible. Of course there’s the possibility that, drowsy, she fell in and drowned during the night. (Yeah, right.) Her buddy Barnevelder was nudging her–to get her back up. It broke our hearts.

What a conundrum! Obviously, the surviving Barnevelder was not safe with the other three. Neither would she be able to survive cold winter nights on her own. We needed to find the right chicken combination. It took a couple of tries, when finally we put Einstein (the Chantecler runt) together into the same coop as Big (the surviving Barnevelder). It’s a working match, black and buff.

It’s not about color. It’s about pecking order, and social standing within the flock. We are up against deeply ingrained genetic rules of socializing and tribalism. When it works, you’re looking at combinations that shelter and nurture each other. When it doesn’t, it’s ugly, fowl play and even murder.

We won’t try to mix the two groups until spring. Perhaps, with the added freedom of free-ranging, they’ll make it work. In a larger context, I read the news, shake my head, and wonder if we can.

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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

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Snow Forts for Chickens

I’m new to chickens. I did live on a chicken farm for seven years–but I was not responsible for the chickens. And, in Two Rock, they don’t really have winter. Here we have winter, and it’s a tad early this year. If not early, I’d suggest that it is earnest. We have a solid 6 inches–and that’s after the first two or three melted immediately upon landfall. It’s not when snow first falls that makes for winter; it’s when it sticks.

Anyway, three of the four chickens are reluctant in snow. The fourth has been roosting all over the chicken pen. We’re not sure if she’s a fan of winter, or if the other chickens are giving her the cold shoulder. The chicken coop stands up on legs. Before the snow fell, the chickens liked to hang out under the coop–out of the sun or rain. Without that breezeway, the chicken territory gets pretty small if the chickens won’t do snow.

So far, we haven’t heated the coop. We’re contemplating a low wattage bulb for heat and light (so as to encourage egg laying.) But when we open the coop doors for feeding, it’s not really cold in there. Or so it seems.

Today was the first day that the chickens’ water was frozen solid. I’ve ordered a thermostatically controlled water dish–and now I’m even more anxiously awaiting its arrival. In the meantime, I’ll have to be more dilligent about making sure they have fresh water.

I’m not sure if this is a normal Northern chicken strategy, but today I built them a snow fort. The snow is the perfect consistency for snowmen, or fort building. So I built walls along the edge of the coop–essentially banking it in to create a snow wall. This will keep the area under the coop clear–and warmer. It’ll also help keep the coop itself warmer.

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Thus far, it’s a complete success. I put the chicken scraps under there and two chickens followed those treats into the fort. They haven’t left yet. The other two chickens, upstairs, are making a racket, redistributing their fresh bedding. Chicken Nirvana. I don’t think this will keep the water from freezing, but it seems to be making for happy chickens. Has anyone else out there built snow forts for chickens?

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Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

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I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

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Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

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Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

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Emus in Absensia

A.V. Walters

Elmer called the other night—they have emu chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Emu are at it again and, with all the food we gave them over summer, and the mild winter, they now have a sizable clutch of eggs. Or had. Out of the original twelve, two chicks have already hatched and died. Stretched so thin, Mr. Emu has difficulty watching the new little ones—he’s still nest-bound.

So Elmer and his daughter kidnapped the one little guy they found still alive and plan to remove the rest as they hatch. Between cold nights and predators, little emu chicks have a rough go of it in Northern California. Hence, the call. Rick and I are the only ones on the farm who have successfully hand-raised the little guys, and they need help.

They’ve decided that more emus would be just the ticket to guard over their new venture in organic duck eggs. (You should see all the ducks, it’s pretty impressive.) Emu guards are not a bad idea. We learned, the hard way, that the emus in our front yard were, in fact, protecting the chickens.  And so, the questions begin. What do we feed them? (Finely chopped kale and apples, to start.) Can we give them chicken feed? (No, chickens are seed eaters. Emus are grazers and need green fodder.) How warm do they need to be? (94 degrees F for the first two weeks, tapering off 5 degrees a week, after that.) What about water? (Not for about a week, until they’ve mastered balance and eating.) Those, and more, are all questions that we had to find the answers to, a year ago—either through trial and error, or what we could find on the net. As it turned out, we did okay. We had no losses from the five we raised. I guess that makes us emu experts. (And, given some of the so-called “expert” advice we found on the net, we are!)

We haven’t been homesick since our relocation. We miss some of the people, but we are caught up in the possibilities of our new lives. This, though, gave us pause. We definitely miss the emus—and raising them was an adventure we really enjoyed. So, we stand ready to be emu emissaries. We’ll provide all the information we can. And, of course, we’ll worry.