I contacted my town paper about Too Many Chickens!, and they put me on the front page! Those of you not in the area, can read the whole article here.
Archive for January, 2013
(From the Friday, January 25th broadcast of Garden Guys Green Revolution Radio)
My mom used to constantly ask us about my son’s milestones. She’s a teacher, so she can’t help it. “Is he sitting up?” “Is he talking?” “Is he potty trained?” “Is he potty trained?” “Is he potty trained?” Potty training was the big one, and once that was out of the way, she seemed to turn her attention to the chickens.
“Any eggs yet?” became the question I knew was always coming. Early on I could explain that the chickens needed to reach a certain number of weeks of being alive before they could start laying eggs. This bought me a couple of weeks. Once we crossed that threshold, I had less to deflect with. I suppose I could have gone out and squeezed a chicken to see if an egg came out, but I had a good feeling it didn’t work like that. At the end of the day I’d still be eggless, and would have cranky chickens.
We got the chickens in June, when they were one week old. The general thought is that chickens start laying at around 19 weeks. Based on this, I was expecting eggs in October, but October came and went. No egg o’lanterns. Surely they were coming in November, right? Nope. No Thanksgiving omelettes.
I knew there was a lesson here about letting things come when they were ready. This is nature, and it does things on its own schedule. There was probably also a lesson here to not let my mother’s constant questioning influence my feelings about letting things come when they were ready. But I was very excited for the eggs to come, and any questions about it added to my anxiety. And really, where were they? “They will lay when they are ready,” said the internet. “It’s going to be at least six months before you get an egg,” said my mother in law. Who was right?
With December came six months. I went out one night, and as is my silly ritual, after I shut the coop door, I looked in the window and said, “nighty-night, chickens.” Unlike every other night, there, in the back of the coop, sat a small brown egg. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I audibly gasped, but not so embarrassed to not tell you about it. Composing myself, I brought it inside and showed it to everyone in the house, triumphant. There was plenty of excitement in the room, since my family had also felt the pressure of The Egg Question. While admiring its eggy goodness, my son said, “I think maybe there’s a baby chicken in there.” So then it became time to explain what role roosters play in this whole endeavor. An anxiety door does not close without opening an anxiety window.
Oh, and that egg? I ate it, and it was good. Not just good, but goooooood. I had been hearing a lot about how much different backyard eggs were from the ones in the store, and this egg was everything they said it would be. The yolk had a brightness to its color like I had never seen. The texture when cooked was hearty and robust, and the shell even seemed tougher than store bought eggs. I later read that store bought eggs are generally about a month old, whereas this one was hot off the presses, so to speak. I might eat a store bought egg again, if I had to, but I hope I don’t have to.
Chickens generally lay one egg a day, but in the winter months, they tend to lay less, due to there being less sunlight. We have six chickens, so that’s a half dozen eggs a day at full capacity. That’s a lot of eggs. And the chickens didn’t seem to get the memo that they were supposed to tone it down in the winter. They were firing on all cylinders, and the eggs were piling up. Too many chickens = too many eggs. We knew this was going to happen, but thought we were going to ease into it. No one said we’d go from no eggs to piles of them so quickly. We ate what we could, and I started mentioning to people at work that I might be bringing eggs in. This was met with much more excitement than if I had said I was bringing in extra zucchini. That market is glutted. And you know what, the chickens love zucchini, so I can bring free work zucchini home and feed it to the chickens, who make more eggs, which I then bring into work. Circle of life! Or something.
Another magic quality of backyard eggs is that they supposedly have less cholesterol and more vitamins than store bought eggs, thanks to the varied diet backyard chickens tend to get. Ours get all sorts of vegetable scraps, all the bugs they can catch, and regular chicken food. I’m not sure how I can test the vitamin content, but after my next physical, I’ll let you know about the cholesterol. Even if it’s through the roof, it’s a delicious roof to go through.
I have a tendency to not call things by their proper names. Or at least things that have proper names, such as pets and humans. I have been told that this is one way in which I am a weirdo, but I disagree. Sometimes you don’t know what something’s real name should be until you have known it for a little while. Hence my cat Hamish is referred to as “The Bone,” my wife is “The Dorf,” and my son is “Babydude” (at least until he gets old enough to really put up a fight about it). You give a name because you have to, but sometimes the “real” name emerges later.
So, you can see that I take naming things very seriously. By the time I have come up with a nickname for something it is safe to say I am pretty attached to whatever is being named. When I first got the chickens, I had decided that maybe I should not name them, precisely because of this attachment issue. From the beginning of this project, I have been haunted by the spectre of imaginary chicken death. It didn’t help that shortly after getting the chickens I read an article by someone who was dead set against the idea of chickens as pets, and railed about people being upset when a chicken dies, because chickens drop dead all the time for no reason. This article put me in a very weird place in terms of chicken emotions, and I was determined to not get too attached, in the event that no reason came along and dropped one of my chickens dead.
The thing about chickens though, is that they are very easy to get attached to. It starts with just liking them. Coming home picking up these tiny little creatures that scurry around in the brooder was one of the most peaceful parts of my day. I could come home from a bad commute and feel much better after a couple of minutes of chicken time. That’s how they get you. How could I not begin to grow fond of things that make me happy?
Then they had to go and have funny little personalities. We initially had kept them in a cardboard box for a brooder. Not very long into it, I went in to check on them in the morning, and one of the Barred Rocks was sitting on the edge of the box, looking at me. I did what anyone might do in this situation, and yelled, “Hey, chicken!” The chicken held her ground. I put her back in, and put a piece of cardboard over the side she had gotten up on. That night I came home, and she had gotten up on another side. I then moved them into a space surrounded by a baby gate, which was much taller. She got out again. One night, when my wife got home, she asked if all the chickens had been there when I got in. I asked why, and she said, “Because when we left this morning one of them had gotten out, AND I THINK YOU KNOW WHICH ONE IT WAS.” We were only a couple of weeks into this, and we were beginning to be able to tell them apart.
I finally covered the brooder with a screen, and this kept them in. But this little one was not going to go unnoticed. With her escape plans foiled, she took to chasing the other chicks around. If I put in treats, she would rush over and push her way in first. If the other chicks were in a group, she would rush over and fight her way to the center. She would also chase them all around and just make a general nuisance of herself. And slowly something started to build, until one day in my head I referred to her as Boss Chicken. Then it was too late. What has been thought cannot be unthought. Her name was now Boss Chicken. “Well, I just won’t name the other ones,” I said. And then one of the other Barred Rocks would go and flip out any time I came near the brooder, or picked her up, or basically existed. “That one freaks out so much, she’s just like Henny Penny,” I thought. And now two had names.
At this point it was inevitable that the third Barred Rock was going to get a name, but I really fought it. She wasn’t doing anything much to stand out, so that seemed like it would help keep her nameless. Until something went wrong in my head and I decided she seemed like a Suzy Creamcheese. So now half the chickens had names.
Naming the Barred Rocks was a little easy, since the three of them had variations in color. Boss Chicken is the darkest, and even her light spots are fairly dark. Suzy Creamcheese is the lightest. Where some Barred Rocks seem like black chickens with white spots, Suzy Creamcheese seems like a white chicken with black spots. Henny Penny is right in the middle. She seems to have a fine balance of light and dark. At least when compared to the other two.
The Buff Orpingtons have no such variations. They’re a one-color breed, so there are no spots to be different. And that color seemed really consistent across all three of them. So on the one hand, that seemed like a great way to not have to name them. On the other hand, I was feeling really bad that the more visually exciting chickens had names, and the plainer ones did not. I’m color blind, so I may be missing subtle variations in color, but I may also be some sort of chicken racist by not being able to tell them apart. This idea was too much, and since there were three of them, I decided to give them a name that was applied to a famous threesome of the past, and so we now had chickens that are collectively referred to as The Mandrell Sisters.
So yes, I am now attached to them. As of this writing, they have not dropped dead for any reason, much less no reason, so I’ve got that going for me. One day when we were pulling out of the driveway and the chickens were looking at us, I asked The Dorf, “Is it weird that I love my chickens?”
“A little,” she said. But I am o.k. with that.
Here’s this week’s segment, with some pictures. Added value!
So you’ve got your chickens, now what do you do with them? Put them in the coop, right? You have a coop, right? I did not have a coop. Everyone says, “Don’t get chickens until you have a coop,” but then you read a little more, and it seems like lots of people still get the chickens first. I was not alone, in concept. I was very alone in practice.
You actually don’t just throw them in the coop right off the bat. Baby chicks need a lot of care and warmth until they “feather out,” (or lose the fuzziness that makes them so cute). But that’s good, because it buys you time to build the coop you have to have. They sit in a “brooder” under a heat lamp for a while, unaware of just how much stress the new home they don’t even know about is causing.
I could have just bought a coop, I suppose. That might have been the easy thing to do. Easy isn’t always cheap, though. Especially when you have crossed some sort of imaginary line about how many chickens is a lot. When I got the chickens, six seemed ok. When I actually looked into getting them a coop (which I did also do before I got them, I just wasn’t paying close enough attention, I guess) I would have noticed that most small coops hold up to five. After that, you’re in a different class of coops. A ridiculously expensive class of coops. Not that the small ones are cheap either, but room for one more chicken seemed to double the expense. That is an expensive chicken.
Given that the right size coop cost more than my car (I have a very old car, but still) I decided I would have to do this on my own. Did I know what I was doing? No. Has this stopped me before? No. Should it have? Probably. But I did it anyway. I spent most of my summer weekends and a few vacation days working on this. And I never remembered to put on sunscreen until at least an hour into it each time.
I originally had planned on using pallets as the framework. You can get those for free, which seems like a good deal to the budget coop builder. However, they’re also very heavy, and for some reason I couldn’t find many that were the same size. Some sort of modernist coop with odd sized walls and a severe tilt was certainly appealing, but I knew the limits of my skills. Chances were that even with matching pallets this thing would come out all cock-eyed, so I reconsidered my plan.
We have a room in our house that used to be a day care. The bathroom in that room has two toilets, each in their own wooden stall. I hated these. They were stained very dark, and it was depressing. One day I started to rip them out, and it dawned on me that here was a bunch of perfectly good wood that was already matched in size. The coop project started to look up. The stall walls became the sides of the coop, and the stall doors became the front and back. They already had hinges, so now I could use them as doors to get in and out of the coop, as needed. And a bonus was that with the stalls gone, we now had two toilets right next to each other, which I like to call “Lover’s Toilets.” You and a loved one can sit together and hold hands while you do your business, if you so choose. My loved ones have not taken me up on this offer.
So I had a wooden box, now what? The chickens need to have a run. I intended to let them out in the yard to lay waste to the local tick population, but during the day when I’m not around, they needed a safe place to roam. We’ve got pretty much every predator New England has to offer around here, so I wasn’t about to open a chicken buffet, if I could help it. The run is basically another wooden box, but with some sort of wire netting for walls. This keeps your chickens in, and more importantly, it keeps everything else out. Oddly enough, “chicken wire” is not the best thing for this task. It keeps the chickens in, but it doesn’t necessarily keep other things out. It’s easy to chew through, and the go-to horror story involves a raccoon that pulls chickens through the holes in the wire, one handful at a time. To avoid this, you need hardware cloth, which is made up of tiny metal squares. Hardware cloth is a great thing. Unfortunately, it is also an expensive thing. This is where about 80% of the coop expenses came from. But it’s also a thing you just can’t skimp on.
Things began to come together, if slowly. The fact that we had live chickens in our storage room getting bigger by the minute is the only thing that kept me going sometimes.There was no shortage of dark moments. When I write, I experience something I have come to call “mid-project depression.” I reach a point where the initial excitement of working on something new is gone, but the end, and the satisfaction that comes with it, is still far off. When I’m in this place, anything I write seems like the worst thing I have ever written. I have come to recognize that I do this, and so I am able to push myself through once I notice it’s happening. But this is with writing, something I know I am competent at. I worked on the coop most of the summer, and I experienced mid-project depression every time I picked up a hammer. I was getting mid-project depression when the project was just to paint the window frame. There were too many small pictures for me to see the big picture, and if I had seen the big picture, I might have passed out in the face of its bigness. Because building isn’t a mode that I was used to working in, it took me a long time to notice that mid-project depression was happening. Luckily, I could go back inside and pick up some tiny chickens, which always managed to perk me up a little. But I still had a lot of work to do. And as the chickens got bigger, and they get bigger fast, it became less relaxing. I knew I had to get them out into the coop soon, and it seemed like they got a little bigger each time I went in.
I finally reached a point where everything was together enough that the chickens could go out to their new home. There were some finishing touches that needed to be taken care of, but these weren’t anything that would affect the safety of the chickens so out they went. Of course, a few days before I was finished, my mother called to tell me that my uncle’s flock had just been wiped out by a raccoon and that he felt electric fences were the only way to go. I located a small, battery powered one just in time, and Chicken Fort Knox was all set. We put them out, and for days I could hear them pecking the inside of the coop, which is how they feel for their surroundings. That, to me, was the sound of success. To everyone else it was probably just annoying.
If you tuned in, I hope you enjoyed it. I enjoyed doing it. Here’s the text of this week’s Too Many Chickens!
“Weirdest impulse buy ever,” my wife said when we got home.
It wasn’t exactly an impulse buy. We had been discussing getting chickens here and there for a year or so. The final decision to move on this idea had been made a few hours prior, but the seed had been planted when we first starting looking at houses, and thinking about what options a yard could bring us.
Yards are wonderful, but here’s the thing – our yard is swimming with ticks. Sit down in a chair to enjoy the outdoors, and you could pull a couple of ticks off your leg within minutes. It was really ruining the yard experience. Maybe you’re familiar with the phenomenon of hearing the word “bedbug” and becoming very itchy. This happens to me. Perusing the Craigslist free section, with its mere hinting at the possibility of some stowaways sometimes gets me going. The Phantom Bedbug Menace has almost 100% curbed my desire to bring home things people leave out for the trash (though, I did take one old computer back to my office for a work project, and subsequently itched for two days.) But that’s imaginary bedbugs. Now imagine that you’re getting ready to take a shower and you find an actual in-the-flesh tick on yourself. A big, honking wood tick. I’ve pulled off ones that were just walking around, and I’ve pulled off ones that had gone in for a bite, and it doesn’t matter. You will not stop itching for the rest of the day. And I should also point out that ticks like warm, dark places. Think of the closest place to your leg that fits that description.
Collin (my wife) eventually sent me a link to a company that did tick control for homes and yards. The problem, for me, was that it was all chemical-based. I’m sure it works, but we have a kid who plays out there, not to mention the neighbor’s dogs who frequently hop the stone wall to leave enormous “gifts” in our yard. There’s also the local fauna that had a lot to do with why we chose to live where we did. So, while I was all for wiping out these buggers with extreme prejudice, I was also concerned about wiping out everything else in the vicinity.
I did a quick search for “organic tick control,” which, it turns out, is essentially something that eats ticks. Guinea fowl seemed to be the best beasts for the task. They roamed around, were big enough that not too many predators would bother them, and were fairly easy to take care of. On the other hand, they roamed around, and I could see them getting into all the neighbor’s yards, which may not go over that great, and we live close enough to a main road that I worried about them getting hit. They also like to eat seeds, which I’m sure would go over well with the farm across the street, so I decided we were just a little too close to stuff for these guys.
But I was now in a bird frame of mind, so I decided to see how chickens performed. Not as highly as guinea fowl, but they weren’t exactly slouches, either. I emailed Collin and said we should try chickens. “Will you be able to handle it when they die?” was her first question, and not unexpected, given that my attempts at having aquariums frequently ended in bum outs. Fish get weird illnesses! “I think so,” I said. “They’re just chickens. How attached can you get to a chicken?” Says the guy who gets attached to goldfish.
Once the big decision was made, we needed to decide on a breed. There are a lot of types of chickens out there. I wanted ones that could get around to eat ticks, deal with New England winters, eats ticks, and if they wanted to lay eggs and eat ticks, that’s cool too. I decided on Buff Orpingtons, which were rated #1 on a chicken website I found. They’re docile, decent layers, and pretty rugged. That sounded good. Also, that’s a fun name to say. Buff Orpingtons. From what I had read, chickens were social, so I decided we’d get five. (I was leaving room for one or two dying, since baby chicks seems pretty fragile, and I was putting on a brave face over the thought of imaginary chicken death).
The easiest way to get chickens, believe it or not, is through the mail. The problem you run into is that mail-order hatcheries frequently require you to get fifteen or more chicks at once. The large number keeps them warm in their parcel. Fifteen was the maximum we were allowed in town, and way more than I thought I could deal with.
This is how I came to remember that the feed store in town usually had a sign out when it was time to put in your chick order. I called them as furiously as one can make a phone call. “Is it too late to order chickens?” I asked.
“We always get some extra, and people sometimes don’t bother to pick up their orders,” she said. I asked what kind she had. She rattled off a list that I pretty much entirely wrote down incorrectly, demonstrating my ignorance of the vast chicken universe, but Buff Orpingtons were on there, so I was happy. “Just keep in mind that as the week goes on, we’ll have fewer choices as people buy them,” she said.
That’s when I started to panic. What if someone bought all the Buff Orpingtons before I got there on the weekend? What if there was a Buff Orpington craze about to sweep through town? (By now, you should be aware that my first reaction to pretty much anything is to panic. I have gotten my son to say “I think we should panic!” whenever something happens to keep me in check. Four year olds get it.) I decided I would have to rush there after getting home on the train (in a fairy tale world in which the train got me home when it was supposed to) grab some chickens and go.
I took my list of available chickens, and cross-referenced it with ones online, and found out how badly I had interpreted what the lady on the phone had told me. I checked each breed’s popularity rankings, and most were low enough down the list (oh, please, do I look like someone who would accept the #5 chicken into his life?) that the Buff Orpingtons remained the clear victors. When I got to Barred Rocks, they were listed as #2, so in the spirit of inclusiveness, I deigned to consider this breed. I looked for a picture.
“That’s a handsome bird,” I said, admiring their stripey (er, I guess I mean “barred”) goodness. “Maybe I’ll get three of these and three of the Buff Orpingtons.” And thus, without realizing it, got one chicken too many for a lot of reasons, most of which we will discuss at a later time.
The train, as usual, was late. Luckily on the way home, I got a call from Collin. “We are meeting you at the feed store. Babydude wouldn’t leave preschool, so I tried to lure him home with the promise of chickens, but he wants to be there for the transaction.” So she gathered up all the stuff we needed on the counter, and I ran in at 5:59 (6pm closing time), paid, and we got out of there. Graham (aka Babydude) wanted to ride with me because the chickens were riding with me. There was peeping. Have you heard peeping? It’s pretty nice, and very relaxing. All the rushing around felt worth it to hear these little sounds coming from the back of the car. Graham liked it too. “The chickens are talking,” he said. I liked what they had to say.