I saw this video recently, and thought it was worth sharing (I’ll have a regular post next week). The accents can be hard at times, but the happiness chickens bring these people is totally clear. Chickens can change lives!
The new chickens are settling in pretty well these days. They’re sleeping in the coop, on the roost with the old-timers, which I’m happy to see, since it’s getting chilly at night. The “chicken clump” inside the coop is one of the ways they stay warm, so I’m pleased they get along well enough to clump. For a little while, Henny Penny would peck the closest n00b if I shined my headlamp into the coop while they were all roosting, which, to be perfectly honest, kind of ticked me off. I get that she’s in charge, but that just seemed unnecessary. I guess maybe in the spotlight she felt the need to play the role of harsh taskmistress that goes with being the alpha hen. But that’s been toned down, if not completely abandoned at this point. Maybe Henny Penny realized that the clump is more important than a pointless reminder of who’s boss. Whatever the reason, I welcome peace in the coop.
Since it’s getting cold, and a few of the chickens were molting recently, I’ve been putting out chicken scratch for them every morning along with the rest of their breakfast buffet (which is basically just their usual food, plus yogurt). Scratch is high in protein, which they need when they’re molting, and also need to keep warm when it’s cold. Keeping warm takes a lot of energy, and while it’s not particularly cold out yet, it can’t hurt to start the scratch early. The chickens love it, and I aim to please.
Since it’s dark out when I wake up the chickens these days, they don’t often want to come right out when I open the coop door, and frankly, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t be out there that early if I didn’t have to be, but I have to be, so the coop door gets opened when I am there to open it. The Mandrell Sisters have figured out that morning now means scratch time, so they are pretty eager to get out there and dig in. It’s sort of like when they filled the cereal dispenser with Frosted Mini Wheats in college, which always caused a student stampede. You go for the food when it’s there, or someone else gets it. Henny Penny also comes out, since she’s running the show. Steve, John, and Suzy Creamcheese Junior aren’t quite as eager to come out as the others. I know they love scratch, because I’ve given them some when they’re out in the yard, in order to try to train them to come when called. (This makes it much easier to get them back in the run after free-ranging.) But the lure of gourmet treats isn’t enough of a draw. One of them, let’s say Steve (it’s either Steve or John, but it’s early and cold, and so cut me some slack on the recognition stuff) will come down, but she’s still too nervous around the grown-ups to walk right up to the pile of scratch and dig in. I figured, ok, they’re young and smaller than the others, I can see why they might be afraid to approach the main pile, so the other morning I added a secondary pile far from the other one, under the coop. The n00bs like to be on the other side of the run from the adults, so this seemed like the way to spread it out. Steve came out, found the scratch, and dug in. Until a Mandrell Sister figured out there was more and came over, sending Steve off into parts un-scratched. While all this was happening, John and Suzy Creamcheese Junior still hid inside the coop, possibly afraid of the dark, possibly afraid of the adults, possibly not ready to greet the day just yet. Meanwhile, the good stuff is getting eaten, and I have a “no food in the coop” policy, so they’re out of luck if they don’t come and get it. It’s a treat, so it’s not key to their survival, but it pains me to see them missing out due to shyness.
Since this all happens in the dark, and I don’t have the time to stand there in my pajamas in the cold waiting to see if they eventually come and chow down when it gets light out, I don’t know how long it takes them to come out, and if any scratch is left when they do. What I think I’ll have to do is try my two-pile system on a weekend morning, when I’m allowed to sleep until the sun comes up, and observe the goings-on then. When it’s light, they all come out (and are usually cranky that I’ve slept so late – usually 6:30 or 7, how lazy of me) and maybe, just maybe, they’ll figure out the system and find the courage to come out in the dark during the week. Assuming they recognize that there’s a system. I’ve tried to explain it to them, but like typical teenagers, they don’t listen. You’re on your own then, kids.
My freshman year of college, I had a class with a guy named Thad. Though he was built about as slightly as I was, he was on the rugby team. If you didn’t know me back then, I was the guy who once got a Christmas card that said, “Maybe Santa will bring you a chest for Christmas.” I’m not sure what kind of cards Thad got during the holiday season, but I found it surprising that he would go out for rugby, given the size of some of the other guys on the team. Maybe he liked getting squashed regularly, or maybe he just liked saying “scrum.” I don’t claim to understand what motivated Thad to do anything. Except one thing. One of the other guys on the rugby team once warned me to watch out for Thad at parties. I asked why, and he gave me a big smile, and simply said, “beer muscles.” I had heard of beer goggles before, but not beer muscles. However, given that I was in college, I used some of my intellectual powers to determine that this must mean Thad became a bit of a tough guy when he was drinking. I suppose some of his need to appear hypermasculine may have come out of having been named “Thad” (sorry to any listeners named Thad, but come on, this is not a name generally associated with tough guys). I’m not a psychologist, and Thad is long out of my life, so I’m not going to dwell much longer on this. But the term “beer muscles” sort of came back to me recently, and so I went down memory lane a bit.
I didn’t actually have a run-in with someone with beer muscles, or even experience them myself. But I have now on several occasions run into something I’m choosing to call “coop muscles.” I probably need to explain. Chickens are generally docile, or least many breeds are, and I intentionally chose mellow breeds so as not to put myself or my family into any sort of poultry-based peril. Even so, when Boss Chicken was healthy, she was a bit of a terror, but I suppose that was her job as Boss Chicken. (After her stroke, or Marek’s, or whatever her issue is, her personality did a complete 180. It’s kind of like Regarding Henry, but with a chicken instead of Harrison Ford. Think about that, then think about what Star Wars would be like with similar casting.) Basically she might have charged you if you turned your back, but once you faced her, she’d back down. Unless you were my son, who she had it in for. He’d climb onto a tall rock, and thus find safety. The rest of them generally steer clear of humans unless those humans have treats.
There have been a few occasions though, where I’ve stuck my head in the coop, and a chicken has really tried to take a chunk out of me. Sometimes when they get broody they can get a little aggressive, since they want to protect the eggs they think they’re incubating. But since they want to protect the eggs, they generally stay seated on them, which isn’t the best attack position. I’ve gotten a bad peck or two from time to time, but nothing major. What I’m really talking about is sticking my head in the coop to see what’s going on, and a chicken will charge me, squawking and kicking like this is some sort of championship cockfight. This has happened to me several times now, and I have no idea what I’ve done to provoke it. Usually, they’ll walk away from me in the coop, since if I’m poking around in there, I might be looking to grab a chicken to medicate it. Maybe every once in a while a chicken just isn’t interested in being handled to the point of completely losing it. We all have our bad days, but some of us try not to kick and squawk at the source of our annoyances unless absolutely necessary.
What finally occurred to me after my most recent chicken attack was that when I stick my head in the coop, I’m at eye level with them. Out in the yard, I’m bigger than them, so they respect that. In the coop, I must seem like I’m their size, and so maybe they think they can take me. I’m not really sure. But since it only happens in the coop, I’ve decided to just call it “coop muscles.” Next chicken to try anything gets named Thad.
Right about the time I was putting the finishing touches on my coop, I got a phone call from my mother. My uncle in Buffalo has a bit of a livestock menagerie, and thanks to a very determined raccoon, that menagerie had just gotten a little smaller. The raccoon had gnawed its way through the side of his coop and gotten in and killed all his chickens. It was the kind of thing where it just seemed like senseless violence, since they weren’t all eaten, but they all were dead. I’m not going to try to understand what was going through the raccoon’s mind, but I think it’s easier to accept a murdered chicken if it at least got eaten as part of the bargain. My uncle came home to his flock being scattered all over his driveway, and no longer an active flock. He told my mother about this, and that he now felt electric fences were the only way to go if you were serious about protecting your chickens. I wanted to be serious about protecting my chickens, and even though I was just about to put them out in the coop after a lot of effort in building the thing, I ordered a small electric fence. They could wait a few more days, if it meant being totally safe.
My main concern was that I was going to fry some poor animal that just came sniffing around because it’s natural for predators to want to eat chickens. I luckily could only afford a fence that ran on two D batteries, so that didn’t seem like a killing jolt to me. It turns out this model is meant to just give the animal an unpleasant enough sensation that they decide the coop is not a fun place to be, and they move on. A friend of mine in Alaska knows people who use the same one to protect their tents from bears while camping, so this seemed like it went high enough up the food chain that I’d feel safe, but not so powerful that there’d be bodies to dispose of.
Of course, having technology always opens you to the worry of whether or not the technology is working. Luckily, there is always more technology to be had, and so I also bought an electric fence tester. You hook one part over the wire carrying the charge, and then put another part into the ground, and a little light flashes if all is well. The charge isn’t always going through the wire. It’s more of a little zap that gets sent through every few seconds. I was already learning things! And the flashing of the tester was vaguely hypnotic.
I used the tester for about a week before the temptation to see how bad it would hurt if I touched the fence overtook me. One night, I eventually decided to just hit my knuckle along the side of the wire as the charge ran through and see what happened. It felt a little like a static shock you’d get from walking on the carpet and then touching a doorknob. This undid any sense of fear I might have had toward the fence, and I ditched the tool and went to knuckle-only testing.
Shortly thereafter, I was latching the run door while the fence was on, and the back of my hand grazed the wire. I then learned that the more skin you have touching the wire, the worse the shock is, and my respect for electricity returned.
So far, I haven’t any any signs of animals trying to get into the coop, but I don’t know how much of a role the fence even plays. I still do my best to make sure it’s functional, in case it’s doing a great job. This means making sure things stay off the wire. In the winter, I shovel the snow away from the sides of the run so there’s clearance, and in the fall, it means having to go out every night and pick leaves out of the way. Things that touch the wire and touch the ground will short circuit the whole thing. I know when this happens, because I can usually hear the short. It makes a faint popping sound. Once I even had it happen because I pulled the wires too tight and it was arcing onto the hardware cloth. That’s rare, but the leaves are a constant battle. And it gets even worse. When the leaves are down, and it rains, the slugs come out. The slugs will climb up the leaves onto the wire. Remember how I said the fence wouldn’t fry an animal? I wasn’t broad enough in my definition of animal. I have had slugs melt on the wires, and it’s both sad and gross. I’ll hear the familiar popping sound of a short, and then I have to turn my flashlight off so I can see where the flash of the spark is. I’ll find it, and then I’ll find a blob of matter on the line that I now have to clean off. A few shudders later, and everything is back up and running. Slugs were not what I expected to deter with the fence, but this is where I have found myself. I may put a fence around my cucumbers next summer. The slugs pose no real threat to the chickens, but I had but one viable cucumber this summer thanks to slugs, and while I don’t like killing anything, I do like cucumbers. It might be time to break out the nuclear cucumber option.
Fall is a time for change. The leaves on the trees are the obvious example of this, commemorated by horrible traffic as people from out of town drive really slow, while oohing and aahing. Our gardens whither and die, leaving us to rely on frozen vegetables as side dishes. And in chicken coops across the country, chickens begin to explode on their roosts, leaving nothing but piles of disembodied feathers behind.
Well, o.k., they don’t really explode, but it certainly looks like it. If you’ve ever seen a chicken, you’ve probably noticed that they are covered in feathers. Now imagine those feathers without the chicken attached to them. This is kind of what molting is. The chickens ditch their old feathers and grow new ones in order to be ready for winter. Think of it as buying a new down jacket each season. Maybe wasteful for humans, but chickens make their own, so they don’t have to worry about blowing all their money. Must be nice.
Molting this year is coming as part of a perfect storm for me. It’s triggered by the days getting shorter, which also affects how many eggs the chickens lay. When chickens are molting, they tend to not lay eggs either. And my chickens are nearing henopause, so our egg supply is really running low, until the new chicks start laying.
I’ve always thought it was a little crazy that they lose their feathers right when it starts to get colder, but I suppose the point is that they stick it out for a little while when it’s sort of cold, but are ready when winter hits. Being exposed to the chilly fall nights probably makes them tougher.
Every year when my chickens start to molt, there are obviously feathers everywhere. I get most of them out of the coop when I do my weekly poop cleanouts and chuck them in the compost, but the run has too many hard-to-reach corners, and those ones end up just getting mashed into the dirt where they become one with nature. Or more than one with nature, since they’re already a natural thing. They get buried. That’s what I’m trying to say. They get buried. But there’s a part of me that feels like this is wasting an opportunity. I built my coop out of reclaimed materials, so I’m totally on the re-use tip. I find myself starting to wonder if there’s anything I can do with all these feathers. I just hate to have so much of something and not put it to good use. But what would I honestly do with them? Make a comforter? Some pillows? Re-stuff a sagging down coat? Make a boa? Just have an enormous pile of chicken feathers in the middle of the living room? The possibilities seem endless. The possibilities also seem stupid. Maybe there’s a legitimately good use for them, but I don’t know. This might be where I find the limitations of my DIY recycling attitude. Some stuff just doesn’t need to be reused. Since feathers decompose, I suppose that’s fine. It’s not like the chickens are shedding rubber feathers that take 100 years to break down. We get a ton of leaves in the yard every fall too, and I don’t do all that much with those (though they do make good compost). I need to pick my battles, and maybe it’s time to concede to the feathers.
I come up with a lot of different ideas. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re so bad they’re good. And sometimes I think I’ve really hit on something that no one else possibly could have thought of before. I am almost always wrong. When thinking about how egg production is slowing in my older hens, I had a flash of genius. Surely, the thing to call this was henopause, and I absolutely had to the be the first person to think of this. Upon consulting the internet, I might actually be the last person to think of this. I’m going to use the term anyway, since it’s a good way of describing what happens with chickens after a while. They have a finite amount of eggs, and so one day, sometime between ages two and three the eggs are going to stop coming. My chickens are just a little over two. Henopause looms.
At one time it seemed like our chickens would never start laying eggs. I had heard they could start as early as 18 weeks, or as late as eight months (which I suppose is 36 weeks). The average seemed to be about six months. I was eager for it to begin, but knew that all things come in time. However, everyone knew I had chickens, and everyone was asking if they had started laying yet, and that starts to get to you. Every day I would go out and check the nesting buckets, but there’d be nothing in there. I took plastic Easter eggs, filled them with dirt, and put them in the buckets as a hint that hey, this is what goes in here. They may have gotten the hint, but hints don’t magically make eggs fall out of chickens that aren’t ready. I tried to be patient – both with the chickens, and the people who kept asking me about eggs. I had an easier time with the chickens.
Then, at about the six and a half month mark, in mid-December, the egg floodgates opened. It was a trickle at first. I got one egg, then nothing, then a couple more a day or two later, and then suddenly the ladies were firing on all cylinders. We had six chickens, and were getting half a dozen eggs every day. That is a lot of eggs. I went from “where are my eggs?” to “what are we going to do with all these eggs?” Luckily, home-raised eggs are not hard to get rid of. I brought some into work, gave some to my parents, and soon learned that fresh eggs can be used as currency in some situations. This was a great development. What was nuts was that chickens generally don’t lay much in the winter. Egg laying depends on how much sunlight the chickens get, and there’s not a lot of that in the middle of December. But this one magical winter, they laid eggs like there was no tomorrow.
The next winter wasn’t as fertile. They got the memo about the sunlight, and I had my first day of no eggs being produced. In fact, there were no eggs for exactly a week before the winter solstice, and for exactly a week after. Even before this they had stopped all laying at once. Instead of six, I’d average about three eggs a day, which was more than enough. I had plenty for my family to eat, and some surplus to trade or give away.
This summer things started to slow down. We hit the two year birthday of the original flock, and the days of no eggs sometimes started coming for several days in a row. This was when I knew henopause was coming home to roost. I can keep varmints out of the coop, but some things come from within.
I had known this was coming, which is why I got a few new chicks this year. They can start fresh while the old guard gets ready to retire from the egg business. I assume we’re looking at December before we see any eggs from the new jacks, though. That seems like a long way away, and some weeks we don’t get enough eggs to have enough for breakfast on the weekend. Aging and the waning sunshine that comes with Autumn are working together to grind the egg factory to a halt. That’s o.k. Eggs are only part of what’s great about having chickens. They’re still hilarious to be around, and they eat ticks, which is why we got them in the first place. We’ll be keeping them around for a long time after the last egg is laid. We just may be having oatmeal for breakfast instead.
(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Don’t Drink Nothin’ But Corn by Black Twig Pickers)
Naming your chickens is a very important step in your role as one who chickens. Or at least I think so. There are plenty of people out there who are fine with chicken anonymity. It probably makes it easier if you’re the type who lops their heads off and then gets on with your life, but that’s not my style. I’m not a head lopper, or a neck twister, or whatever other ways there are of dispatching a chicken. To me, they’re pets who happen to also produce food, which puts them slightly above our cats. I’m not about to eat what those ding-dongs produce the most of. But pets need names, and I am not one who enters into giving out names lightly. But if I do give a name, I don’t always stick to it. My attitude is that you don’t always know what to call someone until you really get to know them. Because of this, I find myself in situations like where my cat Hamish is known as “The Bone,” thanks to the convoluted logic of my mind. If you know him, it makes sense. My wife often has to tell my son, “you know how daddy always calls things by different names.” I need to experience your essence before I can figure out your true name, man.
With our chickens, I had tried to not give them names the first time around. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I really thought I was going to mess it up and kill them somehow, and I figured no names would give me some sort of emotional distance. But because it turns out chickens had more personality than I was expecting, I found myself referring to them by names in my head, and those names stuck. Boss Chicken got her name because from day one she was all up in everyone else’s business, pushing them around. Henny Penny, as cliché a name as that is for a chicken, got her name because she was afraid of everything. Suzy Creamcheese . . . well I suppose she just seemed like a Suzy Creamcheese. And then there’s The Mandrell Sisters. They got their name because there were three of them, like the actual Mandrell sisters, and I couldn’t tell them apart, so a group name was the only way to go. I couldn’t just not give them a name after I had named the others, now could I? That’s just rude.
Now that we’ve got three new ones, I knew the naming issue would come up again. My parents, who I split the chick order with, first considered doing a Mandrell Sisters type group name for their chickens, and then settled on Gladys Knight and the Pips. It works out well, since Gladys is a different breed of chicken than the Pips, and she’s also the Boss Chicken of that bunch. We didn’t have any strong personalities here with our new ones, so that made it harder to come up with anything. I wasn’t too worried about it, though. I knew with time I’d figure something out, and I was so focused on getting the new chickens integrated with the old ones, that I barely had time to think about names anyway.
Then my son began to ask what I was going to name them. I told him I hadn’t thought of any names, and suggested that he could name them if he wanted to. I knew the risks involved here. When my wife was his age, she named her dog “Oscar the Baseball Player.” To be honest, that’s not too far off from some of the names I come up with anyway. The new chickens are two of one breed, and one of another. My son said he wanted to name the lone one Suzy Creamcheese, since the original Suzy Creamcheese died back in spring, and he had been fond of her. I said we couldn’t name her Suzy Creamcheese, because there had already been one, but we could name her Suzy Creamcheese Junior. He was o.k. with that. That left the two of the same breed. He thought about it for a few minutes, and then decided he wanted to name them Steve and John. My wife pointed out that the chickens were girls, but he didn’t care. Seeing as how I once had a girl cat named Phil, I was in no position to complain. And frankly, I don’t think I really have anything to complain about. Steve, John, and Suzy Creamcheese Junior are names that any chicken would be happy to have.
(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Dance Of The Priestesses of Dagon (Saint-Säens) by The Victor Herbert Orchestra)
I’ve apparently been doing this chicken stuff long enough that I’m beginning to forget some of the things I’ve experienced. I mean, you never forget the first time you stick your finger up a chicken’s butt, but some of the less glamorous problems may begin to fade from memory after a while. Because of this, I almost missed a nasty disease that snuck back into my flock. The following account may be considered shocking to some listeners, but if you have chickens, you know how gross they can sometimes be.
On one of my nightly egg checks, I opened the coop door and found that there was a chicken sitting in the nesting bucket while all the others were roosting for the night. This is never good. I figured if I was lucky, she was just broody, and I’d separate her from the others until the urge to hatch an egg subsided. But when I reached in to move her out of the bucket, she got up and ran away, and there was a real mess left behind. An egg was cracked in the wood chips inside the bucket, and her rear end looked really bad. I panicked that I had another chicken with a prolapsed vent, so I ran inside, got rubber gloves, and began my examination. It turns out that she merely had pooped and it had stuck to her butt because the broken egg had made everything super sticky. That was a weird thing to make me feel relief, but believe me, it was better than a prolapse. I tried to clean her off as best I could, but ended up trimming the soiled feathers, since it would not just wipe away.
This happened right around the time I had put our new chicks in the run, with their chick food, which the adult hens kept eating. I thought that maybe she wasn’t getting all the nutrients a hen that lays eggs needed from eating baby food, so I added more calcium chips to the run to try to compensate. I figured that would be the end of it, but about a week later, the same exact thing happened. Broken egg, stuck to butt, combined with poop. Nice. I again trimmed the feathers as best I could, and thought about how to stop them from eating the chick food, as I was convinced this was the culprit. I then made a mash of layer food mixed with yogurt and calcium chips, figuring the novelty would attract the refined adult hen’s palate. They did eat it, so I kept doing it, figuring once she got her good nutrition, all would be well.
Until the night she came outside and laid a brittle egg in the run, which she also sat on. I was now really beginning to worry. Then I remembered my run-in with vent gleet from last year, and it all started coming back to me. Vent gleet is a fungal infection of the vent, a.k.a. the chicken’s butt, which can cause strange chicken behavior, and egg problems. I hadn’t considered it as a possibility because I give the chickens apple cider vinegar in their water, as well as yogurt every day, both of which should ward it off. She also didn’t have the diarrhea that you usually see, but I was pretty sure this was what her problem was. Luckily, I wrote about this last time it happened, and I now suspect I have a chicken that just may be prone to it. The chicken having issues now is a Mandrell Sister, and the chicken who had it before was also a Mandrell Sister. Of course, I can’t tell them apart, so it might not be the same one, but for now I’m thinking it is. I brought her inside and began the treatment.
The first thing I did was clean her up as best I could. It’s not easy. When the poop gets mixed with egg, it’s like cement, but I trimmed the dirty feathers again. You can bathe them to break it up, but my attempts to do that before have ended with me blow-drying a chicken in my front yard, and I’m not going back. Once she was clean, I gave her butt a quick spritz with athlete’s foot spray to kill any bacteria. Then the real fun began.
The best method to cure this is to give the chicken a dose of epsom salts and water. Getting it in their beak is not easy, or enjoyable. You can get the beak open by gently tugging on their wattles, and then you drip a little of the solution in there, and repeat. It takes a long time to give the suggested amount. Also, I do this while straddling the chicken. When you miss the beak because the chicken moved, you then spray your crotch with epsom salt solution. The chicken will move a lot. Then you go back into your house and everyone wonders what you’ve been up to. Your explanations do not help your case.
Anyway, I got her to drink as much of it as I could. You’re supposed to keep the sick bird away from the others for about a week, but much like last time, she wouldn’t eat or drink while isolated, and after the epsom salts, she should really drink a lot. After a day of her rejecting a mash of water, apple cider vinegar and yogurt, I put her back with the others. She seems to be doing fine, but I know she’ll probably need a second dose. They usually do. Maybe I’ll put on some waterproof pants next time. But regardless of my pants, vent gleet is going to be something I remember from now on.
At the end of last week, I was thinking that maybe it was time to get the new chickens sleeping in the coop with the old ones. There had been an incident in which the alpha hen attacked one of the n00bs when I tried to put her in the coop, and so I began a slow process of acclimating the two groups of chickens to each other. This involved leaving the new chicks in the run in the protection of a dog crate, and then building up to leaving the crate door open during the day so everyone could mingle if they so chose, but the teen chickens could hide in there if they felt threatened. I also threw in a hearty dose of group free ranging. The free ranging really seemed to be helping. The old guard was surprisingly tolerant of the new school when they were out in the yard together, and so I knew it was only a matter of time before they began to accept them in the coop as well. Just how much time was proving to be the big question.
After a week or two of the free ranging togetherness, I decided that this was it. They were getting along fine, or at least ignoring each other, out in the yard. If they could do it there, they could do it in the coop too. So finally one night, when the grownups were in the coop and the youngsters were roosting on top of their crate out in the run, I decided to try putting another youngster in the coop. I picked one up, hoping it wasn’t the same one who got pecked so badly the first time around, apologized quietly for what might be about to happen, and put her right inside the door. There was what amounts to the chicken equivalent of a growl, but there wasn’t an attack. Seeking to capitalize on this moment, I put another one in there. Another chicken growl, but peace. Going for the hat trick, I put the last new chick in there. Still just squawking. This was the moment I had been waiting for. Except that the chicks all piled on top of each other with their heads sticking out the coop door, rather than hunkering down inside. It was a start, anyway. They were in the coop.
My original group of chickens took under a week to figure out that I was going to put them in the coop every night so they might as well just go in on their own. These new ones either weren’t so fast to figure it out, or were too afraid of what might happen if they went in on their own. After a week of putting them in every night, I decided it was time to take the dog crate out of the run. That would get them to mingle even more with the adults, and would take away their default nighttime roosting place. So I took it out, and that night I came out and found them all roosting on one of the roosts I set up in the run for daytime use. So I continued to put them in by hand, and they continued to stick their heads out the doorway. I guess this was like sticking their heads in the sand. If they couldn’t see the adult chickens, they weren’t there, right? And if they’re not there, they can’t peck you.
I didn’t mind leaving the coop door open at night when it was warm, but it was getting colder. There were several nights in the 40s being forecast, and I wasn’t going to leave the door open for that sort of cold. So the night before the first cold snap, I put the chicks in, and then pushed them far enough into the coop so I could close the door. They made agitated noises, but the grownups were silent. The next morning, everyone was in one piece.
That day when I went to check for eggs, it was already getting dark. As I approached, I noticed that Henny Penny was actually herding the babies up the ramp into the coop. She had finally taken them in as members of the flock, and was making them sleep in the right spot. Or, sort of. They still sat in the doorway, but at least they were going in on their own. I crammed them in and shut the door again.
That Saturday I cleaned out the coop, and the youngsters came in to watch me. They were very curious about what I was doing, and then they saw the roost, and that seemed even more interesting. They all sat on it and made excited chirping noises. I think they had been so intimidated by the older chickens that they were afraid to even try roosting in there. But they gave it a shot when the grownups weren’t around, and they seemed to enjoy it.
The next night when I went to check for eggs, it wasn’t quite getting dark, but when I opened the coop door, the youngsters were all in on the roost, ready for bedtime. I sometimes want to go to bed really early too, so maybe they’d also had a bad day at work. Or maybe they were getting there early to get a good spot. Either way, after attempting a lot of different techniques for getting everyone together, it had finally worked. At last I had a happy chicken family.
(CREDITS: Theme music: Chicken In The Barnyard by Fireproof Babies, Music Bed: Little Nemo Selection by The Victor Herbert Orchestra.)
When we left off last week, I had let my new chicks get to know my old chickens by putting them out in the run in the protection of a dog crate. I figured after a while, everyone knew each other, so all I had to do was show the chicks that at night they went inside the coop, and then we’d just have one big happy family. When night fell, I went out, took one of the chicks out of the dog crate, and put her just inside the coop door. Within seconds there was a loud squawk and a blast of feathers, and that poor little chick came running out at top speed with my alpha hen right behind her. Henny Penny, the leader of the flock, stood in the doorway making unhappy noises as I put the hopefully not too scarred chick back in the dog crate. This would take some more work, it seemed.
I decided to return to the idea of letting everyone free range together and see if that helped. The coop was like the big kids’ clubhouse, and maybe the little kids needed to hang out and show that they were cool before they’d be allowed in. With humans, this means proving you’re not going to tell mom what they get up to in there. With chickens, I wasn’t so sure, but I figured there was less smoking and fewer dirty magazines. What I did was let the grownup chickens out into the yard, and once they were on the loose, I opened the dog crate door so the babies (well teens, but they’re still my babies) could stretch their legs a little. Just like the first time I opened the crate door to let them out, the first to the threshold took a triumphant leap into the outside world. This time, she stayed out though, and then she and the others began to explore the run. More importantly, they began to explore the run without the older chickens there to bully them. They checked out every corner, and after they felt they had seen it all, one or two of them even made the trip out of the run and into the yard. Nothing too crazy, though, they kept to around the doorway, or hung very close to the edge of the run. But this was huge for them.
Even more interesting was that one of them wandered up to two grown ups, including Henny Penny, Queen of All She Surveys, and everyone pretty much shrugged it off. “Maybe there’s something to this letting them free range together after all,” I thought.
You’d expect that at this point I was setting you up for someone pecking the chick within an inch of her life, but that didn’t happen. They continued to peacefully co-exist the whole time. I was as shocked as anyone.
Eventually I ushered them all back into the run. I decided to not press anyone’s luck, and put the chicks back in their crate. The next day I let everyone out again. There wasn’t quite as much hobnobbing, but there also wasn’t any aggression, so I figured this was real progress. I still had learned my lesson though, and didn’t put the chicks in the coop yet, though I wanted to.
After two days of milling around together, I felt it was safe to leave the crate door open during the day so everyone could continue to get to know each other. If there was any bullying, the chicks could run back into the crate to safety. That was my thinking anyway. When I got home each day, everyone seemed happy, if a bit weirded out by the new arrangement. But weirded out is better than covered in blood, so I didn’t let a little avian awkwardness get in the way of my new system.
A less than happy development I noticed was that the grownup chickens learned about the chick food in the dog crate, and that is apparently the donut of the chicken world, because they gorged on that like you wouldn’t believe. I would chase them away whenever I saw them eating it, but since I’m gone all day, I could only do so much. I ended up putting the food up on top of the dog crate. I don’t know why, but I figured it would somehow stop this. And the weird thing is, it sort of did. The adults did go up on top of there, and I had anticipated this by putting cardboard over the top, so as to prevent them from pooping on their new friends. That’s a bad first impression. But they didn’t go up there as much as I thought, and so the food got eaten less.
After a few days, the chicks went from sleeping inside the dog crate to sleeping on top of the dog crate. I’d fill their food up each night, so they could get access to it first thing in the morning. Once they got hunkered down, I figured they weren’t going to eat much, but it was there for breakfast. This way I at least knew they were eating. Eventually, I decided they couldn’t just sleep on top of the crate out in the run every night. It was getting colder, and they needed to be inside. But just how to get them into the coop?