Archive for the ‘Chicken Diaries’ Category

The Boys are Back in Town

This is our third year keeping laying hens. Every year we select a different breed to add to our stock, partly because it’s fun to diversify, but also because it helps us to distinguish the new hens from the old. The original idea was that when it came time to cull the flock, we’d be able to easily identify the old girls. So far it’s year three, no-one has been culled, and we might as well get used to the fact that they never will be!

What started out as a purely production flock has become an unruly mob of 70 some feathered dames that rule the barn, the yard, the garden, the greenhouse, the veranda and my husband’s garage when he forgets to close the door. They appear to make decisions by majority vote. Why else would I all of a sudden find a series of  floor nests crafted handily from straw and filled to overflowing with eggs when only a couple of days ago the nesting boxes I provided were doing the job just fine. They also plan mass “anointing” parties, choosing some hapless piece of equipment left carelessly in the open and encasing it in cement-like guano practically overnight.

By and large they’re a peaceful population comprised of several smaller cliques that band together during the day and roost beak by jowl at night. Of course there is the occasional squabble when some young upstart challenges the established pecking order, but normally these are pretty zen hens.

Last summer we disrupted the convent by introducing roosters. It was never our intention, but vegetarian friends who breed and raise novelty birds for their own laying flock found themselves with a few too many roosters for their hen quota. It was understood that as meat-eaters, we would probably dispatch them and add them to the pot, but we decided to observe them for a few days to see which rooster might prove worthy of our harem.

One Wellsummer, three Ameracaunas and a cross-bred mutt rooster called Falcor all got trounced in turn by the indignant  and unwilling brides-to-be. Pandemonium ensued and the whole operation started to resemble some twisted version of “The Bachelor.” The boys preened and strutted, every once in a while gathering enough nerve to sidle up to a likely conquest, only to be driven back into the bushes until they worked up the nerve for another foray.

Integration began to seem unlikely, but a week passed and a clear leader emerged from the huddle of disenfranchised Romeos. Falcor, the smallest, least flamboyant rooster, called up some dominant gene from the depths of his murky lineage and began a dating schedule that would have killed a lesser bird. Eventually the remaining bachelors gained favour with the girls, but were granted only the occasional clandestine rendezvous when Falcor was otherwise engaged.

In the end, we kept them all, deciding that their hilarious antics more than compensated for the extra grain. Although, at 3 a.m. when the one demented Ameracauna  begins another day of incessant crowing, coq au vin recipes start floating through my head.

Intern Julian a rare capture with Falcor

Intern Julia in a rare capture with Falcor

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Playing Fowl

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Chicken Launcher

One of the tests any new animal on our farm must undergo is their compatibility with chickens. I love letting the hens free range, which means ensuring that visiting dogs and our own Wellspring canine division understand that these are not playthings. Peace reigned on the farm until we adopted Hudson, a lively Lab-Shepherd cross with a penchant for chasing down hens and liberating a few tail feathers. I finally succeeded in convincing him the consequences were not worth the sport and he backed it down to the odd feint when he thought I wasn’t looking. Or so I thought. The other day as I was approaching the barn to top up the hens’ water he raced ahead and systematically launched a row of indignant birds off of a low perch by putting his nose under their rumps and tossing them off with a flick of his head!

Lightly Poached

When I decided to try my hand at raising laying hens from day-olds, you can be sure I read everything I could lay my hands on about egg production and caring for the flock. Hence, I was prepared for the drop in production during the cold, short days of winter. Still, even in winter the girls managed to put out eight or nine of their wonderful café-au-lait ovals every day, seeming almost anxious and apologetic when I came to collect. Nevermind I assured them, armed with my recently acquired knowledge of all things poultry, soon the days will be longer and you’ll be able to venture outside and get some sunshine. Sure enough, February provided a good number of mild days and the girls trampled a path from the barn to the south facing lean-to where they scratched in the dirt and sunworshipped for several afternoons. But still the egg count remained on the light side. In fact, it continued to diminish. Once again I hauled out my books, cosily curled up on the loveseat with my glossy black dog at my feet. Really, he was quite glossy considering the little grooming he gets. As I flipped through the pages, seeking out advice on moulting and other impediments to laying, I couldn’t help but remark on how the sun reflected off that dog’s coat. A niggling suspicion took hold in the back of my brain…

Straight to the Source

I tend to favour wood shavings over straw for the hens’ nesting boxes. For one thing, I can easily carry a bag of shavings into the stall that serves as their winter quarters, while a bale of straw is heavy, awkward and obliges me to slither sideways through the door holding it tight to me. Besides, shavings smell nicer. With only four nesting boxes to tend to (the 22 hens studiously ignore the other four on the adjacent wall, prefering to queue up daily to make deposits in the “fave four”), I don’t use the whole bag in one go. Being the worksaver that I am, I decided this last time to just leave the bag in the stall and scoop out a fresh handful when I needed it. The next morning I caught a slight movement in the bag as I collected eggs and, upon inspection, discovered a hen that had streamlined the process even further by laying her egg right in the bag!

Communing with Chickens

One of the greatest pleasures of my day this summer has been moving the chicken tractors to a fresh patch of grazing in the morning and communing with the chickens while they enjoy their fresh food, water and surroundings. My five-year-old granddaughter and I frequently  indulged in an activity we like to call, “What will chickens eat?” So far it’s  minnows, tomatoes, worms, bread, crackers, bugs (but not all), melons, oranges, garden peas…but the biggest hit so far is a branch laden with chokecherries. Think of feathered piranhas here: the branch comes back out completely bare in seconds!

Since our laying hens have matured and are allowed free range, their true chickenness has come into play. They raid the compost, intimidate the cat, hang out on the veranda when there’s company, invade the doghouse, find impossible places to lay their eggs and generally investigate every nook and cranny of the yard. Their capacity for self-enternainment is endless.  I particularly like their signature line dance move that goes, “scratch, scratch, backwards shuffle.” It never gets old for me, nor for them it would appear, since it’s their preferred way of uncovering tasty morsels in the dirt.

They also have an endearing habit of rushing headlong to greet me in the yard with a somewhat ungainly chicken lope that resembles a highjumper approaching the bar…head forward, wings back, and legs stretched out impossibly long. I don’t kid myself that their pleasure in my company hasn’t been greatly enhanced by the fact that I handfeed them tidbits from the garden and wash station on harvest days.

This summer has been my first full-on encounter with chickens (both meat and layers). I’ll confess to being a complete convert. Whereas I previously regarded chickens with a degree of disdain, considering them brainless and completely without personality, I now know them as engaging creatures that are amazingly well equipped to look after themselves. While I still wouldn’t mistake them for Mensa canditates, I find hanging with chickens most therapeutic.

So if I’m not answering the phone or replying to your emails, I’m likely outside, communing with chickens 🙂