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.

Goodbye Mr. Rooster

Mr. Rooster’s right leg has been deformed, as far as we can tell, from the beginning. We never saw any sign injury, but at about five months, when he was close to full grown, he had developed a thickened and slightly twisted right leg. This kept him from walking too far from the coop, but with use of his left leg and wings he could get about, and he enjoyed lying under the forsythia on warm days. At night he was first on the roost, securing his favorite spot near the wall.

A few days ago he lost all use of his left leg, which meant he had to hop on the deformed one. We could see nothing wrong with the left leg—but it clearly could no longer bear his weight. This limited his range even further, and in the last couple of days he could no longer jump up to the roost at night. Chickens need to be on perches when they sleep. They instinctively want to be off the ground (in the wild they sleep in trees to avoid predators), and it isn’t clean or healthy for them to lie in the shavings on the ground.

So we weren’t sure what to do. We certainly didn’t want him to be in pain or distressed. I called a wonderful woman named Laurie Lofton, who provides holistic veterinary services for all kinds of animals. She was trained in traditional veterinary medicine before switching her practice to homeopathic care. She made a “farm call” this afternoon, and took a lot of time looking at Mr. Rooster. She noticed that on both of his feet, the toe that should be oriented behind him (I assume for better balance), was facing forward. It seems likely that he was simply born with legs and feet that were misshapen. After discussing options with Dr. Lofton we realized the kindest thing was to put Mr. Rooster to sleep. Despite vowing not to get attached to the chickens, it is too hard not to once you know their personalities. So we will miss Mr. Rooster who crowed at dawn.

Chicken bunny

For the past three or so weeks, a baby bunny has been hanging out with the chickens. When we first noticed, it was a really tiny thing, going in and out from under a forsythia bush, where the chickens often take a siesta. At first I was worried that the chickens might try to kill it, but they seem to coexist. It will venture out quite far from cover, chomping on grass, surrounded by chickens, while we watch a few feet away with the dogs. Normally Koa would chase a bunny, but either she has yet to see it, or she accepts it as a part of the chicken family. We have wondered if the bunny thinks it might be a chicken; perhaps it lost its own family and has adopted a new one. Or it simply sees some safety in numbers. Since the chickens are not afraid of us, it treats us with less caution than it might (or should). I am both worried about it and so charmed I hope it stays.

Chicken and bunnyBunny

Return of the prodigal daughter

Last night we planned to attend a friend’s gallery opening in Providence, so Cherisse rounded up the chickens a bit early. When she made a final count, a Dominique was missing. We searched everywhere with the dogs, getting scratched in brambles, looking under every bush and up at every tree. There was no sign of her. The only conclusion we came to was she had been “snatched,” to quote Isaac. We were dismayed and worried. The “snatching” would have happened while we were out tending the bees, so we (and the dogs) were around, theoretically offering protection—although the chickens are venturing further afield these days, and it wouldn’t really be difficult for a hawk to swoop down and silently grab one.

Aside from being sad (the Dominiques are my favorites…they are the prettiest and sweetest), the loss of one would make us question letting the rest out (and risk getting picked off). Our original motivation was saving Featherfoot from being de-feathered, but after a brief respite it is happening again. Just the other day I commented on her beautiful neck feathers; today almost all are gone, exposing prickly chicken skin. However, the chickens are so happy roaming about and they create a ruckus in their outdoor enclosure until they are released. So what to do.

With heavy hearts we stayed home in case she returned and tried to get to her roost. Finally we gave up all hope and went to bed. The rooster crowed at dawn this morning and, shortly after, Cherisse looked out the window. There was a Dominique, pecking away under the bird feeder, completely unharmed and unbothered by her night outdoors. Now they are all out, digging up worms and grubs in the wet earth, unaware they almost lost their freedom.

More eggs!

This is not going to be the Egg Chronicles (I swear), but we are just too thrilled at the moment (I didn’t imagine it would be quite this exciting). This morning we collected three eggs (one from a Dominique and two from RI Reds). One of the RI Reds is laying really long skinny eggs that have two yolks (we know because we scrambled them all for lunch). This afternoon I happened to check the nesting boxes again and there was another egg! Smaller, so it must be a fourth hen starting to lay. At our friend Marguerite’s advice we are not letting them loose until late morning (to encourage laying in the nesting boxes and not outside); the afternoon-laying hen throws off that strategy, but hopefully she will continue to go inside when she is ready.

I suppose the excitement will wear off…but not yet!

Eggs!

I have been without computer access for the last couple of days, and had planned on writing about the Common Ground Fair, which we went to on Saturday (it was fabulous). But there is much more exciting news. Some of the hens have started to lay eggs! We had two different house/chicken sitters; the first, Marguerite, is an old hand at raising chickens. She found some eggs under a forsythia bush (instead of in their nice, clean, easy to access nesting boxes). Isaac, our young friend who had the second shift (with his parents) left us a note which read: “The chickens are great!!! Not one got snatched. They are laying eggs.” He also gathered tomatoes from the garden to feed them, and probably gave them far more attention than they normally get. Hopefully the production won’t come to a standstill once they discover we’ve returned home, and their new friend Isaac has left. Here is a picture of an egg laid in the nesting box.P92600181

They are quite small so far (they are called pullet eggs at this early stage), but as the chickens mature their eggs will get bigger. We may soon be coming up with innovative ways to incorporate eggs into our every meal!

Herding chickens

When we planned our garden gate, we wanted the rods to be spaced far enough apart for Rebecca to get through, but not wide enough for a dog’s head to get stuck. What we didn’t account for was chickens.gate

The new iron gate is attached to a wooden fence, encircling the garden. We have a deer fence running around a good bit of our property, which attaches to the wooden garden fence. It has worked beautifully to keep the deer out and the dogs in (although periodically the dogs find yet another hole the bunnies have chewed in the fence, and Cherisse has to patch it up).

It didn’t take too long for the chickens to find the flower garden, the iron fence, and a bunny hole. And so a brave few have been making their escape.

The first chicken I found in the flower garden I tried in vain to get over the wooden fence. I wanted her to fly over, but she just ran back and forth, between the prickly holly bushes and the flowers; Koa, thinking it was a game, chased her, which didn’t help. Next I put a little table alongside the fence to use as a stepping-stone. She ignored it. Finally, in desperation I dug a hole under the fence, which she went under. Then I filled the hole back up.

By Monday, three more chickens had made it into the flower garden and then through the iron gate. Cherisse and her mother herded them back in. Tuesday there was another breakout, possibly through a bunny hole.

Soon I think we will have even bigger problems to deal with than escapees: it is only a matter of time until they hit the mother lode—the vegetable garden.

Free range chickens

Cherisse’s mother and her husband are visiting from Colorado. They have taken on the project of electrifying the chicken house; providing more light in the winter will hopefully increase egg yield during the shorter, colder days. While they work, the chickens race about, pecking and scratching. The chickens seem to have good preservation instincts: they don’t stray too far from the shelter of numerous bushes, and when they want to cross an open area they have a run/fly combination that is hilarious to watch.

At first I was afraid they wouldn’t remember where their water was, but they go in and out of their house throughout the day, returning a final time at dusk, when they start to jockey for prime roost position. They aren’t always so clever though. We have been bringing them kitchen scraps late in the day (we are trying to condition them to follow us, in case we need to get them in at a certain time). Tonight I carried over a bowl with melon and tomato pieces and a pot with yesterday’s corn cobs. Most of the chickens hustled after me, but two didn’t go in their door…instead they tried desperately to get through the fence, focused only on the food I had tossed in. I tried to herd them in, but even that took some doing.

Chicken on rockChickens pecking
I can’t believe how much fun it is to look out the window and see them scooting about. Forget Angry Birds–watching free range chickens is much more fun. Rebecca gives them a wide berth; she watches them, but they are just too big for her to mess with. The dogs are interested in the droppings, but except for an occasional chase, they usually walk past them.

Letting them out was a success all around. Endless fun for all. Featherfoot, however, is still losing feathers! We think she might be pulling out her own feathers now…we just aren’t sure. If there is blood, we will need to segregate her immediately. Chickens are omnivores; like sharks they zero right in when there is blood. We will continue to watch until forced to take action.

Featherfoot

McMurray Hatchery added a free “exotic” chick to our order. We believe we got a Cochin, although I haven’t been able to match it more specifically. She has grown quite large (she looks about twice the size of the others), and has the most resplendent feathers, almost peacock-like in coloring, all the way down to her ridiculously feathered feet. Despite her size, she has seemed slower to develop than the others, and her feathered feet seem to throw her off. When the chickens first had access to their outdoor enclosure, “Featherfoot” as we call her was too afraid to walk down the ramp. She gave pitiful, agitated clucks from inside, while everyone else was enjoying pecking in the grass. She was also slow to master jumping on one of the perches; even now it is still a great effort for her, although she can do it.

Chickens
We are quite fond of her and all of oddities. To our horror, we noticed yesterday that a large patch of her chest feathers had been plucked out…and we saw the culprit in action: one of the Rhode Island Reds. The books call this “cannibalism” and it is evidently not uncommon. It can be diet related, so that can be tinkered with, and it can be caused by boredom. We didn’t want to take the measure of removing the instigator (what would we do with her?). So we thought perhaps if we provided enough distraction there wouldn’t be time for cannibalism.

Free-ranging chickens have always been my vision, but the worry of hawks and other predators has deterred us, and we kept saying, “maybe when they are bigger.” Well, this morning we let them out, risking all of them to hopefully save the one. What a fantastic time they are having! All of that tantalizing grass and growth they could see just beyond their pen walls are now theirs for the pecking, and they are bustling everywhere. We were worried about getting them back in the coop, but at one check we found them on their perches inside, taking a siesta. They have been in and out of their house all day. The dogs are so used to them now they have barely noticed the chickens are actually free.

Free ranging chickensChickens 2

We won’t leave the chickens out if we—and the dogs—aren’t around to keep an eye on them. But now that the chickens have tasted freedom, and the abundance of bugs and greenery available to them, they aren’t going be happy cooped up.