posts tagged with 'chickens'

chicken training

Last time I wrote about the chickens, we were having trouble getting the younger ones to go back into their coop. Well, I'm pleased to report that they've now mostly got it figured out. As before, it seems like the death of one of the older hens reshuffled the pecking order and helped the remaining chickens feel more like one flock. Now the nine of them are running in the same direction when I let them out, and for the most part they're all running right back when I call them. I got them put away in just a couple minutes when we needed to leave for homeschool Park Day at 10:30 this morning; what a relief.

It did take a couple minutes rather than 30 seconds or so because there is still one of the young hens that isn't totally sure about joining her elders in the coop (she's a Barred Rock, the first one we've had since our initial batch of hens oh so many years ago). The others run right in, but I need to do a little bit of work to corral her in the right direction. It's either than she's too smart to submit to being shut in all day for a few pecks of scratch, or too dumb to find the door. It's hard to tell with chickens. She may well be the bottom of the pecking order; the Buff Orpington, the former lowest hen, did the same thing in her younger days. If that's the problem, she just has to wait: the next batch of younger hens should be around in 19 or 20 months!

tough times for chickens

Our chickens aren't having the best time of it lately. The main thing I feel bad about is how much time they've had to spend confined to their coop. See, the older hens are great about coming back when I call them, so a few months ago I though nothing of letting them out first thing in the morning, even if we were due to leave the house at 9:00 or something. They could get a few good hours foraging, then when it was time for the humans to hit the road they'd happily return to captivity for a treat of scratch. The four young hens aren't anything like that though. In fairness, it's because the coop is much less comfortable for them: the older hens bully them unmercifully. So there is no chance they're going to come back voluntarily. Instead, one of us—maybe two or three!—has to spend five to twenty minutes getting them all secured. Needless to say, that means I'm not as ready to let them roam.

Take this morning. Our plans included a mid morning trip to Costco and an early afternoon errand to the farmers market in Lexington. Even though the hens were awake by 6:30 and could have enjoyed three hours of early-morning frolicking, I didn't want to deal with the struggle when it was time for us to leave. The four hours before our next outing didn't seem worth it either. So it wasn't until 4:00 that we were finally ready to let them out. I feel like our schedule is a little full for the humans in the household—and look, it's even affecting the livestock!

We also lost one hen about a week ago. She was looking sick, and I figured she probably wasn't long for the world. I couldn't do much for her—our hens aren't at all comfortable being handled, so when I tried to examine her and move her to a more comfortable spot she freaked out, and I was afraid I was going to kill her trying to help. So I let her be, chilling out right outside the coop next to the compost pile, with plenty to eat. When I went to close up the coop after dark she wasn't there, so I figured she was better enough to have gone in with the others... but then in the morning she wasn't there. Or anywhere, that I've been able to find. We've certainly had chickens spend the night in the open before without anything untoward happening, so it's not like being outside the coop after dark is a death sentence—but I can only imagine that in this case an opportunistic predator was there ready to take advantage. It's sad; but then again, I don't mind not having to dig a grave. And I like foxes and raccoons fine, and they need to eat too.

But needless to say I like chickens—my chickens at least—a lot better, and I'm thinking about what I can do to improve their lot this fall. They may have been stuck inside—well, in their capacious run—most of the day, but I made sure to give them a big pile of straw to scratch around in before we left. Maybe I'll get a squash or a melon for them next time.


the joys and heartaches of tomato farming

Some of the time I put a lot of energy into gardening. It would be better maybe to put a consistent amount of energy in, but this is where we are now. And besides garlic probably my favorite this to grow is tomatoes. There's nothing like a sandwich made with a tomato fresh from the garden, a little salt, and plenty of mayonnaise... (this time of year I regret our picnic lunch days because you just can't pack up a tomato sandwich). When everything goes well, life as a tomato farmer is just amazing.

Lijah holding a big tomato

almost as big as his head

But sometimes—often—things don't go as well. Lots of things can go wrong. Gardeners everywhere live in fear of the fungal blights that can devastate a previously healthy crop in just a couple days; and then there's less dramatic afflictions like blossom-end rot and tomato hornworm. Besides all those we have another challenge: our chickens. They like nothing better than to get in to the garden and peck bites out of every single one of the almost-ripe tomatoes in the row. It's brought me close to tears before. Today I finally just went and put a fence around the tomato bed. I should have done it a couple weeks ago but it makes it a pain to weed, and to pick tomatoes ourselves. But it was either that or kill and eat all the chickens.

We've still been able to pick plenty of unpecked tomatoes. And even the ones they got too still have food on them, if you're not too picky. Which I'm not. After all, these are home-grown tomatoes we're talking about!



Did you know that "rooster" used to be the generic term for any gender gallus gallus domesticus, which you may know as the chicken? It was only when certain people decided that the older name for the male of the species—"cock", if you were wondering—was something they didn't want to say in mixed company that "rooster" came to be the term for the big ones with the spurs and the cockadoodledoo. That means that we only have hens here at our house, but the point is that, in a less prudish world, they could be called roosters. Because roosting what they do. Or they're supposed to... only our small hens didn't get the memo.

We moved them outside about a week ago, when their smell prompted me to finally finish their house. They liked having more room to roam (inside their enclosure; I don't trust them enough to give them the run of the yard yet) but when it got dark they missed their comfortable box and all huddled up near the door. That meant if it rained they were going to get soaked; I knew if I left them there and it did start raining in the middle of the night I'd have to go save them. So I brought them in before I went to bed. The next night it did start raining, right as I was about to go to sleep, so once again I went out and got them (they hadn't gotten too wet, nor did I).

We persisted. There was finally a clear night and, though it was a bit chilly, I left them to huddle in the straw by their door. They survived. But I started to despair that they'd ever figure out that they could use the nice roosting pole I made them, or at least, you know, go to sleep under their roof. Then yesterday saw more rain, but this time perfectly timed: it started in the late afternoon, driving them into the roofed part of the house (they're not idiots when they're fully awake) and continued until after dark. I went out to check on them just in case, and there they were, cuddled together on the pole like proper roosters. Hooray!

And they've figured it out. Today was clear and dry, but at bedtime they once again flew up to the roost. I feel like a parent whose child just passed their first spelling test. Now all we have to do is get them integrated with the rest of the flock in a month or so. That couldn't possibly be hard, right?


no eggs?!

Our hens stopped laying for the winter a couple weeks ago, and I haven't totally gotten used to it. We've been buying eggs, but yesterday I used up the last three making french toast (Harvey's friend Jack slept over and we had to give him a good breakfast before we sent him off on the school bus!). We were planning to stop by the egg farm this afternoon on the way home from our outing, but then some friends said they could come over so we skipped the shopping in order to be at our house before them. And they stayed for dinner, which was great! But we still have no eggs. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact: I keep thinking of things to make and then remembering that, no, those things require eggs. Like, literally, I was shocked to realize our egg-less state two or three times in a ten-minute span. Tomorrow we'll get out to buy some. And the hens should be laying again in a couple months!

good morning hens

Sunday we were out late, playing Pokemon and eating lots of delicious food a our friends' house (I'm told there was also a football game on the television, but I didn't attend). So yesterday morning I wasn't ready for the hens to enthusiastically up and about before 7:00. In late May, on the cusp of summer, having them wake me up isn't so big a deal... but in February I'd rather not have to think about them that much.

Of course, I can't complain too much: ten of seven is not really anything like ten of five, and I should probably just be rejoicing that I can even think about sleeping in til seven on a Monday morning. Yes, the life of a home education consultant is a good one. And the hens have been laying all winter long, so I suppose they're entitled to some attention of a morning.

new year's musings

the moon over some trees

New Years Eve moon

It's a new year! As always, we begin it full of hopes and aspirations, and also exhausted and ill from partying the old year away. Today the boys and I tried to pause and take stock, and set some goals for the week (it's good to start at a reasonable scale; years are intimidating). The older two want to work on building better Pokemon decks, which is reasonable considering the amount of time and mental space Pokemon has occupied for us over the past week. I want to do better at scheduling working time and playing time, so we can all play—including Pokemon—without me feeling stressed and guilty and yelling at everyone for not working.

It's hard, as the holiday season hangs on to the bitter end. Today we spent all afternoon playing at at our friends' New Years Day party. But before then I managed to get some important work done, installing a heater for the chickens' water. See, it's been really cold here—never above freezing since Christmas Eve, and well below most of the time. In the past I've just brought the waterer inside overnight when it's cold, and then let the hens drink in the morning until it froze up again for the day... but that happens in less than an hour lately. And when it freezes solid, after three hours or so, it takes like half an hour under the hot water in the sink to thaw out. So, the heater. Which we've actually had for while; Leah bought it a few years ago, when she was the primary chicken caretaker. But we never used it since I was nervous about water and electricity and hot surfaces around the hens. We'll see how it goes, but right now those seem like lesser problems compared to them dying of thirst in this bitter cold desert.

Another result of the bitter cold desert air is that it's keeping us inside. The boys, anyways: Zion's and Lijah's little bodies cool down so fast, and when Lijah wears all the clothes he needs to stay warm he can't even move. But we're staving off cabin fever so far; there's so much to do in the house. So far, at least. Take a look at this seven day forecast!


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.