Mourning

This morning Featherfoot died. In our first batch of chicks, McMurray Hatchery sent us a free “exotic” which turned out to be a Cochin, and a rooster. He grew into a huge, gorgeous creature, with resplendent shiny feathers of black, red, and green. As do all Cochins, he even had feathers on his feet.

FeatherfootChickensFrom the start, one of Featherfoot’s legs was lame; however that didn’t stop him from his preordained duties. He protected his flock, signaling danger from hawks or other predators, and stood his ground until all the hens went to cover. He sired four chicks; two we still have—reddish-brown in coloring, like their Rhode Island Red mother, but with their father’s feathered feet.

FeatherfootAt one time we asked our chicken vet, Dr. Laurie Lofton, if anything could be done for his bad leg. She suggested adding calcium to his diet as the least invasive route. Eventually we realized he managed with his limp, often achieving a decent, loping speed as he chased his hens or ran for a treat. Then, over the past few months, he slowed, and the hens began to peck mercilessly at the feathers on his back until it was bare. He made fewer trips outside, and could no longer get on the perch at night. Through the long, snowy winter, when all the chickens were trapped inside, he found protection under the feeder, or in corners.

When Cherisse first took the dogs out this morning, and checked on the chickens, Featherfoot got up and ate some corn. Later in the morning we found him in a corner, dead. He resolved for us the dilemma of whether we should ask Dr. Lofton to euthanize him (as she did with another rooster we’d gotten in that first batch, who was more severely lame). We constantly debated his quality of life—had his diminished so much he was better off dead?

Too often with the animals in our care we come to that same question. Happily with Koa we aren’t there yet. In November we learned that the terrible pain she’d been suffering in her rear leg was from a fast growing cancer. Ultrasounds and x-rays determined that the cancer had not visibly spread, so we took the leap of having her leg amputated, following up with six doses of chemotherapy. The chemo is now over, and we will have another ultrasound done in a few weeks to look for any further sign of cancer (this procedure will be repeated throughout her remaining life). For now, though, she has adapted well to her three legs, and adjusted her routine accordingly. And, most importantly, she is free of pain and happy.Koa and Oliver 2015

This has been a very hard year. The winter took an unusual toll on Cherisse’s and my psyches with its unrelenting—and never melting—snow and bitter cold temperatures. Even before winter, we suffered losses and those wounds still have not healed completely. And yet spring came again. Seedlings I started in early March are large and healthy: celeriac, cabbage, Brussels sprout (first time!), lettuce, arugula, spinach, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, beets, bok choy, parsley and thyme. This weekend we prepare the vegetable beds, and some of the seedlings will go out under row covers. I will also plant peas, carrots, parsnips, and more greens for succession planting.

Indoors, tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings started two weeks ago grow bigger. Outdoors, snowdrops, crocuses and other early bulbs have emerged. We’ve raked most of the heavy, matted leaves from them, to the relief of the bunnies, who have now mowed down most of the crocuses. Each spring I curse them, but after this winter I am surprised many bunnies survived, so I don’t really begrudge them. Buds grow fatter on the lilac bushes and the forsythia branches glow with a yellow pre-bloom tinge.

Unlike many birds that form enduring families—and mourn losses—the hens don’t care that Featherfoot has died. They carry on with their daily routine, foraging in the spring mud looking for food, as nature begins another cycle and hope renews.

They grow up so fast

About six weeks ago a box of tiny, fluffy, cheeping chicks arrived; 19 in all, although only seven stayed. Friends went in on the order with us, and our choice of breeds caused some confusion. Of the seven chicks Cherisse and I ordered, four were Plymouth Barred Rocks. The coloring on their fuzzy little bodies was identical to our friends’ four Dominiques. We looked up descriptions of the chicks to find identifying marks, only to discover there was no discernable difference. I emailed My Pet Chicken, where we’d placed the order, and learned that the sole variation (at this early age) was in the comb. Dominiques have a rose comb (which does not denote color, but rather the look, which is broader and flatter). Plymouth Rocks have a single comb, which creates a ridge and has bumps.

All 19 chicks stayed with us for the first 24 hours, which was helpful because even in that short time they changed rapidly. When the time for sorting came, we picked them up one by one and stared at their little faces, trying to decide which combs had ridges and which were flat. Some chicks we put back in the kiddie wading pool we had set up in the laundry room as their temporary quarters. Others went into a box for the drive to their new home.

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In halfway house

Now, more than six weeks later, the chicks have grown considerably, with beautiful feathers replacing the fluff. We got three out of four right—I am fairly certain we have one Dominique in the mix. However we have grown attached to her and agreed with our friends we wouldn’t make switches. The chicks moved first to a “halfway” house in the daytime and back to the laundry room at night. Now they are in the chicken coop, although segregated from the older chickens. They can all see each other, but we won’t integrate the flock until the chicks are much bigger. Hopefully this gradual process will ease the final transition. The big chicks have stopped laying for the most part—perhaps the heat, or the proximity of the new chicks have disturbed their routine. The number of eggs had already slowed to about one a day, so clearly it was time to add some younger layers to the flock.

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Chicks settle in to their side of the hen-house

From the beginning we wanted to handle these chicks more, so they would be accustomed to our picking them up. They still squawk a bit, but they don’t really mind, and they like it when we scratch their chests. We’ll be a little disappointed when they are “grown up” and we no longer have to pick them up on a daily basis to move them between their indoor coop and outdoor run.

Pecking order

Observing chickens provides an interesting perspective. When Ethel died, we wondered if Lucy would miss her. But after two-and-half years caring for chickens, we should have known better. Cherisse and I have mourned each chicken we have lost, but they simply reshuffle—and accept—their pecking order.

We assume Ethel was at the top of the order because of her pristine feathers (pecking order is literal…chickens peck at those lower down the hierarchy). Ethel must also have offered Lucy a measure of protection because now she’s losing more feathers. The most dramatic change in the flock’s dynamics, however, is in our bareback chicken. Originally at the bottom of the order, she had no feathers on her back at all, and few on her neck and wings. We now suspect she rose to the top after Ethel’s demise. All her feathers have grown in, and her personality changed. Before, she rarely hung out with the other chickens, preferring to stay close to the coop—and she was always the first inside at nightfall. Now we see her everywhere, she comes right up to us, and she’s often among the stragglers returning in the evening.

In her place one of the babies has been plucked mercilessly…because a pecking order always has a loser. Such is life in the chicken coop.

Ethel

Most of our chickens have descriptive names, like Featherfoot (our rooster has feathers on his feet), the bareback chicken (a Rhode Island Red hen who lost the feathers on her back), the Ancona (we started with three Anconas, but are now down to one, which makes the identification simple), and the babies (although they are a year old now).

We gave some of our chickens people names. Maria kept laying eggs in rock walls, and would stay out all night. She was named after Julie Andrews’ character in Sound of Music. (Staying out all night proved to be her downfall.) Junior was the mean rooster we dispatched. And then there were Lucy and Ethel—two RI Reds, with the most distinct personalities. Almost always together, they frequently peered in the kitchen door looking for something good to eat. Big on outdoor chores, both would be on hand for gardening or chopping wood, grabbing grubs and bugs, looking up at us expectantly if we were slow.

Ethel was at the top of the pecking order—not a gorgeous feather out of place. On Friday a freak accident befell her. She became entangled in a branch under the viburnum bush in the garden; she either strangled or broke her neck trying to extricate herself. We were home all day—I was working at the computer, close by. We never noticed.

The chickens aren’t pets like Koa, Oliver and Rebecca. They are however in our care, and they have charmed us. So with great sadness and regret we wrapped Ethel in burlap and buried her. Now we have five hens and Featherfoot (all of whom seemed to readjust immediately to their new number). The Ancona has stopped laying (she does this periodically), and the others are sporadic, so our egg supply has dwindled considerably.

When we first got chickens we worried about what to do when they stopped laying—chickens can live well over 10 years and while the coop is large, it can’t accommodate generations of chickens. However, we chose to let them roam and while this gives them a happier life (all you have to do is watch them and you’ll agree), it is also a more dangerous one.

This spring we will order new chicks. I hope there is another Ethel.

Chickens

Our neighbor Marguerite came by Saturday morning to tell us that a predator had gotten into their hen house the night before and killed 22 chickens. She thinks it was a weasel, because it must have gotten in through a tiny hole, and weasels kill for sport (the chickens were simply slaughtered, not eaten). Ironically, Tom had taken in many of those birds from another farm to give them a safer home, because weasels were picking them off. Throughout the day we heard hammering as he refortified his coop to protect the survivors.

Cherisse immediately checked on our hens and found everyone alive and clamoring to be released. Our coop is pretty secure—Cherisse built it tightly, because even a rat can kill chickens. But predators are crafty and determined, so we must remain vigilant. We had a brief debate about letting ours outside that morning, but figured that the weasel would be tired from his night’s butchering.

This is a daily decision we make, and we’ve become much more cautious—not letting them out if we won’t be around to keep an eye on them, and walking around with the dogs frequently to deter predators. One day Cherisse saw a huge hawk land in our crabapple tree. She ran outside, scaring the hawk away, and found all of the chickens huddled under bushes in the front garden—very aware of the danger. I know hawks will catch chickens, but they formed such a large mass I hope they were intimidating enough.

Every time we go outside the chickens rush up to us, to see if we’ve brought scraps, and several times a day the mother hen hops up the steps to peer in the kitchen door (recently Cherisse wasn’t paying attention and the chicken almost followed her inside). They have such distinct personalities, and they are so much fun to watch, that we now can’t imagine living without chickens. So we will continue to do our best to keep them safe.Chickens looking in

Chickens

Chickens in winter

The dogs, Cherisse and I reveled in the big snowstorm on December 29 which dumped about a foot of snow. The dogs raced through the drifts, and Cherisse and I made looping paths with our snowshoes so we could cross-country ski around the yard and through the woods.

Not all of us were thrilled. Rebecca looked out the kitchen door repeatedly to see if conditions had changed, then returned to her chair by the woodstove where it was warm and dry. The chickens were outraged.

Last year the chickens were outside when the first snow of their lives began to fall. They seemed unconcerned as it piled on their backs. As it turns out, they don’t like to walk in snow, so by the next day they wouldn’t leave their coop. Luckily for them it was a mild winter.

This year, we wondered how the three new chicks would react. After the December storm we opened their door and they all peered out…and then retreated, complaining loudly. For several days the snow remained deep, and the chickens stayed in their coop. Finally, Cherisse tramped down a path in their wire enclosure and they ventured out to get some corn—any corn that fell in the deeper snow was ignored.

Days later they had grown deafening in their complaint, and finally the mama chicken made a dash out the door we use. The others followed, but they only went under their house for a dust bath; they would go no further. Each day, as the snow melted, their territory expanded.

During this time, egg production also expanded. The three pullets have consistently laid small eggs with incredibly hard shells. The older hens had fallen off. Some molted and others we thought still might be recovering from their terrorizing experience with Junior. Then suddenly rhythm was magically restored. Saturday we got seven eggs—one from each hen—and Sunday, six.

People have asked what we will do when the chickens stop laying. Do they become stewing hens, or live on for years in comfort? We avoid this question. Our choice in letting the chickens roam free might just be our answer. We started with ten chickens, hatched four more, and yet our total count is now eight. So attrition is keeping our numbers manageable. We are sad with every loss, but the risk of predators (so long as the risk remains low) seems worth their freedom—they are so clearly in their element roaming free, and so outraged when they are locked up. And this younger generation seems even more cautious then their kin…and bigger, so perhaps we are breeding hardier birds. Except when it comes to snow.

Nature’s miracles

My birthday nearly took a grim turn when a puppy guest suddenly chased after our chickens. The dog managed to grab a mouthful of Featherfoot’s feathers before the rooster—through sheer survival instinct—summoned a burst of speed that was remarkable, given his bad leg. When Cherisse went to investigate, she saw only one of the pullets, who she assumed was dead. The chicken was lying lifelessly and appeared to have no head, although there was no visible blood. But when Cherisse knelt down and touched her, she popped up and raced off toward the coop. She had been playing dead, and had buried her head in some grass and leaves.

All of the other chickens had vanished, slowly reappearing only when the dog was clearly gone. As darkness began to fall they filed into the coop. I went out to take a count, and two were still missing, but upon hearing my familiar “hey chickies” call, the stragglers came inside. Only Featherfoot seemed traumatized—he was huddled in the bottom nesting box, and the hens one by one came over to check on him. I wasn’t sure if he’d been hurt but thought that trying to look closely at him would upset him too much, so I locked them all up for the night. By morning, though, he seemed fully restored, and came right out of the house with everyone else, the fright of the day before either forgotten or relegated to the past.

Earlier in the week the last remaining Dominique was killed. Something attacked her, right in the front garden, although evidently not for food. Our neighbor Marguerite thought it might be a weasel, and Cherisse did some reading and thought that was certainly a possibility. For one, they are small, and could easily gain access to our front yard. They also kill for sport. When we lost other chickens to predators it seemed clear that it was because they were an easy food source.

If a hawk flies low overhead, we’ve seen the chickens freeze. When they are too close to the fence line and hear something in the woods, they run/fly back toward cover. Still, we haven’t witnessed the previous predator attacks, so we wondered what the other chickens had done while it was happening. Did they even notice? Were they terrified? Now, after the dog scare, we think they all might run and simply melt into the landscape until they feel safe again. The hen who played dead did so for some time—and I find that utterly fascinating. She was hatched in our own coop, by one of the hens, and we witnessed most of what the mother hen taught the babies. But playing dead wasn’t one of them; this was pure instinct, not taught. It is an astounding example of nature’s way of protecting its most vulnerable creatures. One of the wonderful miracles of natural life.

The mean one

A dramatic step was taken this week, changing our role—and mindset—as chicken keepers.

Of the four chicks that hatched this summer, three are hens. The fourth, a rooster (technically a cockerel), grew to be as large as his father, Featherfoot, and just as spectacular, if not more so, in plumage. Unlike Featherfoot, who is bowlegged and lame in one foot, Junior exuded health and vitality. Unfortunately, as he matured and became interested in mating, we discovered he was far too rough and had begun to terrorize three of the older hens. Once they were outside they didn’t want to come in, or they decided not to go out at all, remaining all day in the nesting boxes.

Our egg supply ceased. Chickens can stop laying when stressed, so we understood why three of them might not be producing. We speculated that the others simply couldn’t get into the nesting boxes and might be laying elsewhere—until Cherisse caught one of the RI Reds eating eggs. Exiled to the nesting box, she had become interested in them as a food source.

Last Sunday the Dominique hen spent the day far away from the others, dangerously close to the gaping hole the hurricane ripped in our deer fence. As darkness fell, she was the only one not in the coop, so I herded her back in twice—the first time Junior made a grab for her and she ran screeching back by the fence. The second time I shielded her until she nestled in next to Featherfoot on the perch.

We knew the situation was intolerable. Monday Cherisse spent time on chicken discussion boards to see what others had done in our situation. In the end we realized that we couldn’t give him away, nor segregate him on his own. Plus he just wasn’t nice.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle her young daughter Lily raised laying hens and sold eggs. When she wanted to buy a horse, her mother said she needed to come up with half the money, thinking that would postpone the purchase for some time. Realizing that selling eggs wouldn’t achieve her goal, Lily calculated how much she could make from meat—something she had been loath to consider. Her rationale was that she would only kill “the mean ones.”

So we killed the mean one. In Providence, on Federal Hill, is a store called Antonelli’s Poultry Company. For decades they have sold the freshest possible meat, and for $5 they will “process” your own chickens. Cherisse got Junior in a big container, drove him in, and handed him over. After a short wait she was given a bag with more than 6 pounds of chicken parts. I received a text that said simply “It’s done.”

We have recognized the hypocrisy in not wanting to eat our own chickens while buying them from Pat’s Pastured. However, some of our own chickens have such distinct personalities that not only are we unable to contemplate eating them, we will be sad when they die. Junior terrorized the hens we cared about, and so we saw no option. With just a twinge of squeamishness, we ate him.

Pullet egg!

Chickens start laying eggs at around 20 weeks, so we hoped our three baby hens (the fourth is definitely a rooster), would begin producing mid-November. Our older hens have slowed down considerably. The Ancona stopped altogether—possibly she is moulting, or she objects to the new chickens in the coop, or there is some other reason (she seems perfectly healthy). The Dominique lays sporadically. Only the RI Reds are consistent, but now lay every other day. We’ve been getting enough eggs for our weekly consumption—just over a dozen—but we’ll need a lot more for holiday baking.

Today when I checked for eggs I found a beautiful, tiny speckled one. A pullet egg, from one of the babies, a couple weeks earlier than expected. The babies have been trying to sleep in the nesting boxes, to stay away from the older chickens. To prevent this, Cherisse blocks access to the boxes at night, so the chicks are forced to go on the perch with the others. Today the young hen figured out what the boxes were for, laying her egg right next to a RI Red egg.

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Pullet egg

We took far less pleasure in checking the bees this afternoon. As suspected, the older hive has died—there was one bee inside which we think was a scavenger, after the now unprotected honey stores. We took three of the full frames from that hive and placed it in the other. Frames that had contained brood as well as honey we kept aside—we don’t think the older hive died from sickness, but we wanted to take no chances. In the newer hive the small population clustered together, but their numbers seem too few. We will keep checking on them…if they stay alive we will need to supplement their food supply, and if the winter is cold, we can wrap the hive to keep it warmer. If they don’t make it, we will take any honey that is left. Come spring we will need to start two new colonies.

Our discouragement over the bees was offset by the excitement of the new layer. We’ve seen chickens die and new ones hatch, plants wither while others flourish. In the balance, we’ve done all right so far.

 

Chicks come home to roost

The baby chicks, now 10 weeks old (halfway to becoming laying pullets), had a busy day. For the first time they made it entirely around the house (several times in fact). They seemed especially pleased with their discovery of the flower garden, and they spent a good part of the day there.

I found one still there, long after the adults had headed home for the night. Looking for the others, I discovered they had somehow jumped the fence and were pecking in the driveway. It took some doing (and two of us) but we managed to get them back into the coop with all the other chickens.

The chicks have been in the main part of the coop since Monday. When we began letting them out, the baby chicks returned each night to their side—although long after the adults had shoved, shuffled and eventually settled themselves. Monday, when Cherisse went to close them up, she found only one baby inside. She eventually found another on a branch in a lilac bush. Cherisse got that one down and herded into the coop, then a third chick materialized, and finally she found the fourth when she looked up and saw it on a rafter.

We had wondered when to integrate them into the adult flock, but because the chicks seemed to want to perch, Cherisse thought the time had come. She removed the board that separated the coop area from where the chicks had been raised. One baby promptly entered and jumped onto the perch. Two more went into a nesting box—on the adult side but not actually near them. The chick on the rafter stayed there, comfortably settled in. This continued throughout the week, until Cherisse finally blocked off their side entirely, and they were forced to go in and out of the coop’s trap door entrance. They get chased by the older chickens but as a matter of form; there seems to be no deadly intent.

The babies are growing rapidly, and their feathers change all the time—some are speckled and one chicken, which could be a male, has a lot of lovely purple tail feathers. We can’t wait to see what they will look like as adults. For now they are endlessly entertaining.

Chicks in the garden

Chicks