posts tagged with 'chickens'

our perilous mornings

Once again, we had an exciting morning with the local wildlife. No sooner had Leah let out the hens than a fox dashed in to grab one. Hearing the commotion we drove it off empty-handed (-mouthed), but then I couldn't find the hen who had been attacked even after an extended search. After half an hour I was convinced there were two foxes in on the raid—or more!—and one of them had carried her away. Because it turns out we're surrounded by fox dens: there's one under our across-the-street neighbor's shed, and I've noticed another couple kits playing every morning outside a shed a few houses down through the back. Or maybe they're the same two, with a second home?

a pair of fox kits seen at a distance

kits taking the air

Happily, our poor hen had only fled the yard in panic, and before too long she wandered back in. Unlike last Sunday's victim, she's rather the worse for wear, with all the feathers missing from the back of her neck—clearly the Plymouth Rock breed isn't fluffy enough for complete protection. Still, I couldn't see any blood; and while she was clearly shaken for a while after the attack she seems to be entirely back to normal this evening.

It's a little stressful, I admit, having to be on guard like this. But the need for vigilance is at least motivating me to spend my early mornings outside, where besides getting to enjoy the loveliest part of the day I get to put in some serious work on the garden. Just the thing ahead of a day at the office (I don't have very many of those so I'm not really good at them).

I don't know much about foxes. Will they move on once the kits are big? Or will they all find homes around the neighborhood and continue to terrorize our flock—now with even more hunting adults? I don't have a plan in the latter case, except to keep up with the early-morning gardening when I have the energy, and when I don't leave the hens penned up until it's too bright and lively for foxes to be out and about. They might complain some, but as a creature with forethought and awareness I'm going to say that, considering the alternative, their temporary annoyance is something they ought to be able to bear!


our exciting Sunday morning

Yesterday morning I was up early to let the chickens out before we had to go to church. As we were getting ready there was a tremendous burst of alarmed clucking from the yard—the sound the hens only make when they're running from something. I had just come downstairs so I was ideally situated to run right out the door, and right away I saw all the hens in panicked flight from a fox. Well, all but one, who was firmly grasped in its jaws.

some feathers on the grass

an alarming sign

Sure it was too late but determined not to let the fox eat my Buff Orpington, I dashed down the stairs, grabbing up a stick as I went. The fox headed for the woods with me maybe 15 feet behind, and it slowed only a moment to dive under our fence—but in order to fit through the gap, it had to let go of the hen. Who, to my complete surprise, hopped up and ran the other way! On the other side of the fence the fox paused, but when I went through the gate it took off again. I chased through a couple yards before giving up; I figured I'd do better to check on the victim!

Who turned out to be much better than I expected, than anyone would have any right to expect: a little shaken maybe, but otherwise unscathed. The Orpingtons are our fluffiest hens, and it very well may be that all the feathers kept the fox's teeth from doing any actual damage. A lot of them sure fell out—it looked like about two chickens-worth scattered over the lawn in three or four clumps.

a lot of feathers on the grass

that's a really lot

We got all the hens into their run—it took some doing to find the last one cowering in the lilac bushes by the driveway—and I was a little disappointed to see the other hens didn't show the slightest bit of consideration for their sister who had just escaped, literally, from the jaws of death. She's pretty far down the pecking order, and as they squabbled for the scratch I tossed into the run they didn't hold back from pecking her away from her fair share. As we were leaving, she sensibly retired to the roost to recover.

I half expected to find her dying when we got back, but she was still fine; she was fine all day today—totally normal in fact, and not even much thinner for having lost so many feathers. So all's well that ends well—better, even, for the house sparrows and other little birds who snatched up all the downy feathers for their nests. I only wish I'd gotten a photo of the fox, who was a fine-looking specimen; as it happened I didn't really have time.


hens, what are they good for?

our red hen eating grass in between patches of snow

little red hen

Eric at Root Simple wrote a post last week wondering whether it made sense for them to be keeping chickens. I was surprised to read it: they wrote a whole book on "the Urban Homestead". And here I am going around saying that everyone should have at least a little flock—not least our friends who will soon be moving out here to the country slightly more spread out suburbs. So why do we keep chickens?

Reason 1: for eggs. We can get great local cage-free eggs at a reasonable price at the farm around the corner, or expensive pastured eggs at Whole Foods, or, seasonally, local super-expensive eggs at the farmers market. All of which are fine, but how much easier is it to be able to pick up hyper-local, free-range, sometimes-organic eggs right in our own backyard every morning? How much do we pay for them? Um, I'm not quite sure. But I don't think we pay much more than $30 in feed a month, and we're getting maybe 120 eggs per month this time of year, so around $3/dozen? We spent some money on the coop too, but not much, and a long time ago.

Reason 2: as pets. While our hens don't have names—well, not names that we know, anyway—we feel like they're not just livestock. Like, when they stop laying we'll be happy to keep feeding them in recognition of their service. And the boys would be more than happy to hold them and pet them, if they would ever let themselves be held and petted (I guess we didn't socialize them super well to people). I still don't like when they get in the house—but they're part of the full prayer-time roster ("...and Rascal, and the chickens").

Reason 3: as lifestyle accessories. Seriously! We can't call ourselves suburban homesteading hippies if we don't have chickens around the place. And they really liven up the property: visiting kids and people walking by on the street alike seem to appreciate them.

our different-colored hens eating spilled scratch

bad photo, pretty hens

Even the work involved in their care is a positive in my book. Sometimes I even wish there were more of it!

Of course, there are downsides. The permitting process in our town is a little annoying (not to mention costly). And this time of year, as the hens' wake-up call inches backwards past 6 am, I sometimes wish I could feel a little less like a farmer. But never for long. One issue I've heard from a lot of people is trouble with predators, but we've been lucky in that regard. I built the coop pretty secure, with multiple latches to the doors... but in all our years of chicken keeping I don't think we've seen any serious attempt to break in (and now Harvey leaves the nesting box lid unlatched almost every day). We have lost two hens to hawks over the years, but that doesn't seem unreasonable. Maybe Rascal keeps away other potential—more persistent—predators.

So while I won't say categorically that you should get chickens... if you've got any sort of yard at all, I don't see any reason why you shouldn't.


a story about chickens and snow

I'm not sure, but it feels like in past winters the hens pretty much never went out at all. With the dark mornings I never felt like I had to let them out early, like I do in the summer; failing that prompt I pretty much kept them shut up all the time. With nine of them sharing the space now, though, I feel like I want them to get as much time in the open as they can, at least when there's grass showing—as there was this morning. With snow in the afternoon's forecast I was extra motivated to get them their pecking time before all the good pecking was buried. Only, the snow came a little early, and it fell fast.

four chickens making their way through the snow

snowy trek

I was distracted by moving around all the furniture in the house—a perfect snow day activity!—so I didn't think of the hens at all until nap time (2:30 these days, at our house). When I went out to check on them I found four inches of snow on the ground, two hens in their run, and seven cuddled up under the shed. It's dry and cozy under there, with just a chicken's-height of head-room, so it's their favorite place to hang out in inclement weather. Except, as I knew and they did not, the weather was going to get worse before it got better and I was worried they'd get stuck for the rest of the winter! So I had to get them out.

It wasn't easy; there's no way I can drive them out from under, even with a long stick (I did try), and they showed absolutely no inclination to put even a single claw out into the snow. So I trampled down a pretty good area out in front of the shed—the snow was so light I could get right down to grass pretty easily, and tossed out some scratch. Slowly, slowly a couple of the braver young hens poked their heads out. I threw a little more scratch a little farther away and waited. It took maybe five minutes, but eventually they were all out from under and far enough away from the shed that I could dart in behind them. Then I mercilessly drove them through the snow back to their coop.

Actually, I didn't need to drive them far: once they were actually in the snow they knew that home, where their food and water and nesting boxes are, was a better bet then back under the shed. But it was slow going. They ignored the path I'd tried to make for them and picked their way along the fence, as pictured above; with each step they hesitated, clearly reluctant to put a foot back down into the cold and wet. The older hens, who lived through the terrible winter a couple years ago, were the most indignant about it.

Oh well, sorry girls: the rest of the inhabitants of this household love snow, so we'll be wishing for lots more of it this winter!


hens sleeping rough

Who knows why chickens do the things they do. The other night we had friends over in the evening, so it wasn't til late that I went out to shut the coop door. Stepping onto the porch I almost tripped over a hen sleeping on the porch floor; there were two more on the railing. The other six were crammed into the small open coop I made for the little hens to live in at the end of the summer. None of them were where they were supposed to be, in their own house. When it's dark chickens don't really move around much, so it wasn't hard to grab them one at a time and carry them to the henhouse, but it did take a fair while. I figure that the wind must have blown the door shut in the evening when they were still out, and when they couldn't get home they had to make other arrangements. It was open when I got outside, but whatever.

The next night I was late again. It looked like everything was as it should be—door still open, no hens to be seen outside—but I thought it would be ok to check just in case. And count. Seven hens roosting comfortably... out of nine. Hmm. This time it took me a little searching before I found the other two, cuddled up on the ground at the base of a tree. I picked em up and threw em back in. Last night it was just after dark when I got out, but dark comes early these days and the hens were once again abed—eight of them this time. The last one didn't take any trouble to find, though: she was right where she'd been the night before. Today it was wet and snowy (and we had our health department inspection) so I didn't let them out. Everyone will be sleeping where they're supposed to be!

It's not that I mind them making alternate sleeping arrangements if they don't care for the home I built for them. I'm not offended! But I do like to see them in the morning, and given the wildlife running around here I wouldn't be too sure about their survival chances outside their hardened shelter. We're hearing owls—multiple owls—hooting around the house just about every night lately, just for one example.

That said, they'd probably be fine most evenings. At least twice I've closed up the run without counting and had a hen spend a night out in the open, with nothing bad happening. The only two hens we lost to predators were both in the daytime, to hawks. But there's no reason to take chances. So at least when I'm paying attention, I'm going to take the trouble to put all of them in. Hopefully they'll figure it out on their own and stop trying to make alternate arrangements. But, as I say, they think for themselves—there's no telling the mind of a chicken.


egg-citing news!

In case you're keeping score at home, we have nine hens now, the most we've ever had. One left from our first batch (five years old now!), three from the second, this year's four "chicks" (now full-grown, of course), and one bonus hen that was delivered to our doorstep in early fall (a story of its own). The is year was the first time we got spring chickens—the other two batches were born in August—so I didn't know what to expect in terms of the egg production schedule. Well, never mind the cold and dark: they've started it up now!

11 varied eggs in a carton

look at the variety!

Harvey is in charge of collecting the eggs these days, so I don't know if he experiences a thrill when he sees three eggs in the box this late in the year. Visiting children certainly seem to appreciate finding even one, but they aren't out in the cold before 7:00 in the morning doing a chore they have to do six days a week. Either way, though, I'm pretty thrilled when he brings in a haul like that. Here it is the end of November, and our egg carton is still just about full! I think we've bought five or six dozen for fall baking, but for eating we've been doing pretty well with what our farm can provide. I can't wait to see how many eggs we'll get come spring! Strangely, it makes me want to get even more hens...

It's a good thing the egg numbers are holding up, because we now have another egg eater in the family: Lijah has finally realized that scrambled eggs, at least, are delicious, and now happily shares in the breakfasts we make for the other two boys (that's his little hand reaching out for a raw one in the photo above). Since Leah's not doing breakfast these days I get by making four eggs on egg mornings now, though I understand from friends who have bigger kids that that won't suffice for long. But for now we're doing well, and I feel confident about the future. Keep up the good work, hens!

Lijah looking thoughtfully at the full egg carton

Lijah saying, "which egg should I want..."


chickens in our kitchen

One thing I had forgotten about having chicks in the house was the smell. No, it's not bad, it's a delightful mix of pine shavings, heat lamp, and a little something from the chicks themselves. When they start smelling worse it'll be time to send them outside; for now they're totally indoor cuties.

Zion looking at the chicks, Mama holding one

new tenents

Leah was standing by the phone all morning yesterday, but once again the post office was happy to make a special delivery and brought the box by this afternoon at around 1:00. We had some new friends over—another local homeschooling family—and they were just about leave; naturally they waited a couple minutes to meet the new arrivals!

Mama and Harvey opening the chick package

opening ceremony

All four chicks were alert and active in their packing box, but super ready to get out and start eating and drinking, which they were able to do without any intervention from us. They were plenty warm enough too, and didn't feel any need to huddle under the heat lamp; we've already moved it up twice.

the chicks in their brooder under the red heat lamp

red-light district

Our second-grade visitor wanted to know right away if we had named them—were we going to name them? None of our current hens have names, since we look at them more as livestock than as devoted family pets. And yet, we did get all of our chicks from, so a little petting seemed fair—once they had gotten used to their new surroundings, of course. All the boys were very gentle.

Zion and Lijah petting a chick

petting the pet

Our friends had to leave before that point, so now we can be sure they'll want to come back. We'll have the little cuties in our kitchen for another couple weeks; come visit them in their fuzz-ball stage, before they turn into gangly chicken teenagers!


happy birthday chicks

a bag of chick starter feed on our porch

a sign of the times

That's the sight on our side porch yesterday, and you know what it means: more chickens on the way! According to the schedule, four of the many chicks that'll be born today at the hatchery are destined to arrive at our house tomorrow. This will be our third time raising chicks; the first time is well covered in these pages, the second not as much. It may be that this time we're a little more ready for the excitement—what with not having an infant in the house and all—and we'll be able to make a little more of it than we did two years ago. We'll see!

Right now we have five hens: two barred rocks from the original four, and a Blue Orpington, Partridge Rock, and Gold-laced Wyandotte from the 2014 class. Coming this week—if all goes well—will be an Australorp, a Buff Orpington, a Welsummer, and a Silver-laced Wyandotte. I'm looking forward to meeting them!

Of course, while we're excited we're also totally pros at this by now and, beyond buying the feed pictured above, haven't done anything in the way of preparation. We assume the brooder setup is still down there in the basement ready to use; I know we have lots of shavings in the shed; the heat lamp bulb may or may not work but we can always track down another one if needed.

That last is especially true because chicken-raising has officially gone mainstream here in Bedford: on our most recent trip to the hardware store a couple weeks ago the boys and I noticed that they're now stocking chicken feed (in bags half the size and twice the price as we get at the feed store out in the country, as befits the artisinal suburban hens it's destined for). We didn't see any chick feed, but I'm sure they have heat lamps. And if not we can always hit up the feed store, and while we're there pick up some more scratch for the big hens. The little guys will be cute, but we won't forget our old friends: they're the ones giving us eggs right now!


chicken alarm

I've had some very productive mornings lately, thanks to my ever-reliable (at least at this time of year) feathered alarm clocks:

the chickens scratching in the garden before sunrise

chickens in the gloaming

I'm not sure whether their behavior is learned or innate, but by making an unholy racket every morning the hens get me up at an ever-earlier hour to let them out into the yard and give them a handful of scratch—at which point they mostly shut up for an hour or two.

There's certainly the possibility that, left unchecked, their predawn noise would wake up the kids in our house; but actually I'm more concerned about the neighbors. Our kids are up at 6 anyways most days, but I'm sure that our immediate neighbors keep more civilized hours. They're nice folks, and I wouldn't want them to take against us and our livestock any more than they already have.

Not that I've had any evidence that they've ever heard the early-morning chorus. In fact, a couple days ago our neighbors on one side had a problem with their car alarm, which went off at around 5:15—and kept sounding for long enough for Leah to get up, go next door, and ring the bell. They didn't hear the alarm, but at least they responded to the doorbell.

My post on facebook about the incident might have seemed a little grumpy—might even have seemed to suggest I'd let the hens make some noise in order to get back at those neighbors. Far from it! I only meant that I'd be less worried about chicken sounds now that I know a car alarm immediately under their bedroom window doesn't bother them. I'm still going to let the hens out though, just in case. And it's not so bad, getting to read or garden in the crepuscular peace.

Especially if I manage to get to bed before 10. Still working on that part.


fox in the farmyard

Saturday morning at around 8:00 I heard some noise from the chickens out in the yard—noise that was alarming enough to send me running out to the porch. That was the correct reaction, because right there coming around the corner of the house in hot pursuit of a few of our hens was fox! I yelled for Rascal, who was still in his morning stupor: somehow hadn't noticed when the chase started in the backyard, and he took an unsatisfactory four or five seconds to get out the door after the fox. And then about half that to chase it out of the yard.

a fox in the neighbor's driveway

lean and hungry look

Two interesting things about this fox, the first one I've seen up close and personal in an adversarial situation. One, it was small: too small, luckily, to easily engage with a chicken. It was close behind three of the for several seconds but couldn't manage to get its jaws into any of them (and somehow it didn't go after the two who made bad course decisions and caught themselves in corners of the garden fence!). Two, it showed good situational intelligence. It pretty much ignored me when I came out, but left like a shot when it noticed Rascal. But then when it got outside the fence (the outer fence right now is just a reminder to any animals much smaller than Rascal) it realized almost instantly that he wasn't after it any more, and stopped to look back—look back mockingly, I'd say, though maybe it just had its tongue out to pant.

At that early hour there wasn't anyone else around outside, so the fox felt safe to trot slowly around the edge of our property, with Rascal keenly interested in its progress the whole way (it was moving so slowly I had no trouble getting the picture above; I just wish I had thought to grab my real camera). When it got to the back yard again, though, it ran into trouble: the fence is lower in the woods, and Rascal was enraged enough to jump it to rejoin the chase. That was the last we saw of the little guy, who knew to get out while the getting was good.

Not wanting Rascal running all over the universe, I put him on the leash and tried to get him on the trail—but given he's a sight hound not a scent hound, the results were unsatisfactory. There was so much fox smell around he just followed the trail back around the house, and there was no way we could figure out which direction the fox had taken off in. So that was the end of the story. A happy ending for the chickens, thank goodness, and they went right back to pecking and scratching... just as we went right back to enjoying our Saturday. And a mostly happy ending for the fox too, I suppose; as happy as I'm prepared to allow it!