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chickens

Update on our other obsession – the chickens. So stop reading here if you’re looking for dog stuff!

After we sent the last of the Daisy Poppy puppies home, I promised the kids we’d have the summer for chickens. No puppies, the dogs settled and happy, and we’d just do birds.

And so, kind readers, we have DONE BIRDS.

Our first challenge was the sharp drop in egg production and fertility we’d seen in our older egg-laying flock, which is now coming up on two years old. We were getting only a few eggs a week from the hens, though we were getting plenty of sunlight and the molts were all over, and our incubation success was WAY down. Conventional wisdom says that chickens are only “good” for two years and so what we were seeing was exactly what to expect. We should (ahem) “remove” them all and start over.

I wasn’t ready to do that, so I thought for a while and did some research and said “You know, it’s always food. ALWAYS.” I know perfectly well what happens when you feed a dog low-quality processed stuff, so why was I expecting the chickens to thrive on “grain protein by-products” and “wheat middlings”? That’s what’s in even the best of the commercial foods. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians, and they actually eat very little of what we’d call cereal grains in the wild – and they eat absolutely none of what we’d call floor sweepings!

So we turned every grain supplier in the area upside-down and shook them hard, and put together a whole-seed diet that’s pretty close to the way I formulate the dogs’ food (looking at the evolution of the animal and trying to match feed to the way the wild species eats). We add a proportion of their old food, because they DO need some stuff that their crops don’t have to grind (sort of like a dose of dessert in the food). But for 2/3 of the ration they now get a mix of about fifteen dried fruits and seeds, including four kinds of dried peas, sorghum, millet, vetch, flaxseed, and so on. Nothing processed and very little that’s intensively cultivated (no feed corn, for example, but they do get some popcorn). They also get meat every week, usually our table scraps.

The first thing we noticed (aside from the fact that our feed price doubled – gulp!) is that they stopped billing out most of their feed looking for good bits. Now they just stand there and cluck delightedly and eat big mouthfuls. The second thing we noticed is that the eggs went from one a day to three a day to six or seven a day for the nine laying hens that are out there.

About two weeks into it, we began to set test batches of eggs. When you set eggs, you are looking for three figures – the fertility rate (meaning the number of eggs that start to develop), the number that make it past the second candling (meaning that they’re healthy enough to develop into chicks), and your eventual hatch rate. The last batch we set from before the food change had about 50% fertility and about a 30% final hatch rate. Our first batch post-food change was 90% fertile, and 85% survived through the second candling (we’ll see how they hatch in another ten days or so). Second batch post-food change was 95% fertile. Third was 100% fertile.

After we finished congratulating ourselves on figuring out diet issues (which should keep our older flock going for at least another couple of years), we still had to make the next step and get them all breeding toward a set goal rather than just randomly. Our big Jersey Giant rooster, the sole carryover from our original chickens, has had access to his few daughters that we’ve kept, so we didn’t want to have him breeding his granddaughters as well. And we knew we needed new blood for the Serama, our tiny hens that Honour breeds. From our original quartet (one rooster and three hens) we’d grown to about fifteen birds, but they were all very closely related and we were becoming alarmingly aware of why so many people start breeding Serama and then give up. They’re SO tiny that they don’t want to survive properly. They get egg peritonitis, they have heart issues, they have hatching issues, and they start to swing wildly from extremely tiny (sub-A size) to very large in the same hatches.

So it was time for A Plan. I’m going to detail exactly what we did in another post, but the short version is that we added a lot of new blood and are going to be hatching out several hundred eggs this summer.

The end result, we HOPE, will be a lot of this:

We’ll keep you updated – and may or may not call for help from underneath a giant pile of fluffy chicks!

chickens

So much love in that whelping box that even the chickens were not immune.

The puppies’ whelping box found new life when they’d outgrown it, as the winter home for the tiniest and most vulnerable of Honour’s Serama chickens.

The permanent residents include Sticky Feet, above, who was born with deformed toes because her mom abandoned her nest a few days before the last of her eggs were supposed to hatch. The hours of cold before we got them into the incubator killed most of them, but Sticky Feet got herself going again and hatched beautifully – with toes that disqualify her from ever being a barn chicken.

There are two or three others, the ones who aren’t even a pound at full size and a few who get chilled too easily and move in and out according to the weather. Honour has made them into pets; they run to her when she calls them and they ride in her pockets and on her shoulders. One even plays dead on command. She cooks for them and worries over their little hurts and bathes them every few days like they are parrots.

To their number, Honour added seven chicks who were hatched last week. She hadn’t done a hatch since Sticky Feet herself, so I didn’t mind the return of sweet peeping and soft round bellies. These chicks were incubator babies, so they went into the corner of the box under a heat lamp.

Well, Sticky Feet and the others also love a good sunbathing, and they think the heat lamp is the best thing ever. They’ll edge closer and closer and then, very slowly, stretch out one leg and then the other until they are on their sides, mouths open, panting and faintly groaning, like feathered beachgoers who wore black socks out on the sand but can’t bear to leave the bone-melting heat long enough to take them off.

Today when Sticky Feet began her stretch, a tiny chick saw an opportunity and raced under her wing. She looked around wildly, but didn’t move. And then she got swarmed. They stuffed themselves beneath both wings, between her legs, down her neck feathers, and under her tail. Then they all collectively sighed and closed their eyes and put their heads down.

Now Sticky Feet is barely above babyhood herself; she is not even clucking yet and her face is the pale pink of immaturity. She should have zero broody instinct, and I held my breath and prepared to save seven little babies from the beak of a ticked-off pullet.

Instead, she very gingerly tried to move away until the boldest of the chicks opened his eyes and shrieked in protest. She froze, and then slowly stretched out her wings and settled down over them, and after a moment she closed her eyes too. They slept away the afternoon, beside the fire, making tiny chicken snores and sleepy peeps.

The next time somebody comes over and asks me why in the world I have chickens in the corner of my living room, I’m going to just say “Sticky Feet.”

chickens

Slightly less able to be carried in one hand

From November

to May.

This is our flock rooster, Big Bottom. He’s Tabitha’s chicken; she named him the first week he was here. He’s survived all the rooster culls and he’ll be here forever if I have anything to say about it. At over ten pounds he’s a massive, cartoonishly large boy who is nowhere near done growing and is going to end up the size of a small turkey. He has thirteen wives and takes beautiful care of them; yesterday I watched him pick a single blade of grass and take it to a hen. He laid it in front of her, stepped back, and excitedly clucked, looking from her to the grass until she (with an air of resignation) finally swallowed it. He gave a triumphant wing dance and ponderously trotted off to go attend to the next girl.

This is Eight, one of his wives. She’s been laying for a month now and has a couple in the incubator making us the next generation.

Love chickens. LOVE chickens. Somebody needs to make me the next Avedon of the poultry community.

OK, the FIRST Avedon of the poultry community.

chickens

Loving the guineas

Guinea fowl are really cool. We have nine of them out there with our chickens right now, and while their main role is supposed to be as tick-eaters, they are also expert alarm-callers and they keep the chickens safe from any danger. Since we raised them together they’re very bonded to the chickens (at least the current adults) so they protect them and watch the sky and the woods for them. This may become a bit dicey when we introduce the growing adolescents, because guineas are known to be terrible snobs and bullies, but for now it’s great.

The best thing about guineas? THEY SLEEP IN. Our neighbors don’t mind a little noise – as long as it’s a civilized hour of the day. The dang roosters, as soon as they realize they can crow, are yelling at 4:30 AM, which leads them straight to the dogs’ dinner bowl. The guineas only yell when they think something is wrong, and they shut it off when they conclude that the threat is gone. So they perform the protective role of the roosters without the crowing.

Plus they look awesome. Each feather is intensely spotted, their bodies are as round as a ball, their helmets are blue, their heads are white – they’re space alien birds. And where the chickens are always either panicking, eating, or sleeping, the guineas think and plot and scheme and go into team huddles where they talk intensely with each other while darting glances your way.

Right now out there in the barn coop we have two almost-grown roosters; they are the two that don’t crow until after 8 AM. I am sure they don’t realize that their sleepiness is what’s keeping them alive, but it is. I’ve already made plans for the two young cockerels still in the grow-out pen in our basement, who realized they had voices this week. If the outside roosters change their minds about when dawn is, we may end up with nothing but guineas and hens out there.

If that happens I’ll be a little sad, but as long as I get to keep my guineas all will be well. The guineas and the seramas (Honour’s tiny tiny chickens) are the two that have totally unexpectedly won me over. They manage to have such personality for basically being lizards with feathers. And in this case, HORNED lizards with feathers.

chickens

How to not suck at chickens chapter 2: Plan the run

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Prepare the battleground: The run

Your first step to starting off right is actually to forget that you’re getting chickens. It’s tempting, once you decide to do it, to go look at hatchery catalogs and decide on breeds and even make your order.

However, the right way to do it is first to imagine creating a zoo cage that will hold – at the same time – something that can climb infinite heights, something that can fly, something with the strength of an average human, something that can fit through an inch of space, and something totally unafraid of humans.

Think of it like caging the Wonder Twins – or, to put real names on it – a coydorachaweafox.

The huge problem with chickens is that they’re like the microwave popcorn of the cubicle office of the predator world. They’re fast, they’re easy, and the smell of them brings hungry moochers from all over the place.

If you’re living in a downtown area with nary a blade of grass or tree for miles, happily confident of the fact that you don’t have to worry about predators, STOP RIGHT NOW. The first week your chickens are out in their run you’ll discover that you’ve been living with a veritable horde.

Your top predators in most areas are going to be:

1)    Dogs. Yours and your neighbors’. They don’t climb too well but they dig amazingly well. They also kill for the fun of it, so if they can get in they’ll keep going until anything that moves is dead. Mentally build a kennel that cannot be dug under (this will keep out coyotes as well).

2)    Raccoons. They are too big to fit through small spaces, but their hands are not. We lost a half-grown chick the very first night we had them out, in what I thought was Fort Knox, because a raccoon reached through the wire and grabbed a leg. Half the chicken was left behind. Not pretty. Raccoons are extremely – freakishly – strong and they can undo latches and pry up staples. Mentally build something entirely held together by screws and with a sizeable area made of wood or metal where the chickens can run and hide and not be grabbed through.

3)    Hawks and owls. They will come from the sky and they like lone, vulnerable animals with no cover to get under. Mentally build something with a strong and closely spaced roof or covering of some kind.

4)    Fox. The best diggers. They can get under and into anything in a very short amount of time. Urban foxes will hunt during the day, too.

5)    Weasels (and their relatives – fishers and skunks and others). Don’t climb too well, don’t fly, but tunnel like crazy and can fit through anything that’s over an inch in diameter. What they don’t fit through they chew through. Mentally build something with only tiny holes, and make sure the wire is heavy..

So… that cute little run made of chicken wire? That only costs $15 for a huge roll? Forget it. Chicken wire is basically useless except to keep chickens out of something. Fence off your garden with it if you’d like, or use it to create internal dividers in your coop if you would like to keep separate breeds. Do NOT use it as any kind of an external barrier that separates your birds from the big bad world.

What you want to use instead is a combination of welded wire or chain link (for strength) and hardware cloth (for tiny holes). Every inch of exposure up to about waist height must either be wood (or thick plastic or metal) or BOTH heavy wire and hardware cloth. Above that you can usually leave off the hardware cloth, but you still need a barrier to deter the climbers.

Diggers are stopped by one of two options: burying a couple feet of closely spaced welded wire or aluminum below the fence, or creating a skirt of welded wire that extends a couple of feet out from your fence.

OK – that’s the run. Just the run. Not the actual coop! You should be getting the impression that this has stopped being a $50 run to Home Depot quite a while ago. Building it right is not easy or cheap.

I am sure that right now a bunch of people are saying “Look, I kept chickens in an upturned orange crate for twenty years!” or “My neighbors have their layers in a run made of a piece of sheet attached to a rotten tree and they’re fine!” And they’re right. Lots and lots of people keep chickens like that. But I can guarantee you that they either lose a bunch to predators every year or they have a good outside-only farm dog.

When I was growing up, we had chickens in a cute little coop with an open-topped run. We lost very few except when a broody hen would decide to hide out in the woods and get picked off. We also had a German Shepherd with free run of the place (this was in the days before leash laws), and she never came inside. Her ears got sliced by raccoons and foxes before she was full-grown, but the chickens were safe. For twelve years she patrolled; the year she died we lost almost every chicken.

So yes, a good dog can save you. But most people don’t – and don’t want to – live that way anymore. Really reliable dogs are few and far between and neighbors don’t like the nighttime barking even when the dogs are good ones. In order to be a good neighbor you need to be able to batten down the hatches and appear as though you don’t exist by about ten at night, which gives predators free rein through most of the hours of the dark.

So now that you’re looking gloomily through the home center website and wincing at prices, plan on enclosing about ten square feet per chicken if they’re going to be spending most of their time in it. In other words, if you want nine hens and a rooster, a ten-by-ten area will work very well. You can get away with a little less per bird if you can offer them free range time each day, but trying to squish them together for any length of time is asking for them to get bored and cannibalistic.

If I can give you a bit of hope, especially if (like us) you are long on enthusiasm and short on money, one of the very best runs can be had for almost nothing if you look around.

My craigslist is almost always full of dog kennels. People buy them, use them a while, get rid of the dog or the dog goes to heaven, and they’re left with the kennel. The going price around here is about a hundred bucks for a ten-by-ten size in really good condition. Dog kennels make absolutely fantastic chicken runs. They’re the right size for a family flock, they’re strong, they look nice, and if you run hardware cloth around the bottom and hang deer netting over the top they’re pretty near impenetrable.

Next: What to put inside the run: Coops!

To give you some sneak-peek ideas, you can look at Backyard Chicken’s coop gallery. It’s a little intimidating, if you don’t feel like spending ten grand on a chicken coop, but there’s no better place to see a ton of people solving the same problems in different ways.

chickens

How to not suck at chickens: Chapter 1

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CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION

Know what you want

The first step is to figure out what your ideal result is. When you close your eyes and imagine what it’ll be like to have your lovely group of family chickens, what are you picturing?

And, more important, is it realistic?

Eggs

Realistic: You can have a steady supply of incredibly delicious eggs, eggs that will make you wonder how anyone can eat store-bought. These will be eggs you will literally run over and show the neighbors, and suddenly family gatherings will prominently feature quiche, breakfast casserole, pound cakes, and omelets.

You can be absolutely sure that the eggs you and your family eat are clean, fresh, and (probably) disease-free.

Bursting your bubble: You’ll pay about $10 a dozen for them (if you have to build a coop from scratch you can bump this to somewhere between a scream and a stifled sob per dozen), and you’ll have a steady part-time job gathering them, managing angry hens, soul-searching about the fate of roosters, and making sure they stay as clean and fresh as when they were laid.

You also may not avoid the danger of salmonella, since a few hens carry it in their ovaries and lay eggs with the bacteria already inside (and those chicks grow up with the same problem, etc.). The way you avoid this is by NOT getting birds from auctions or flea markets or similar. It’s really smart to start off with NPIP/salmonella-tested hatcheries and breeders, which we’ll talk about later.

Meat

Realistic: You can fill your freezer with the freshest meat there is, and you can be sure your meat was raised in a humane and appropriate way. Home-raised heritage-breed meat has a fuller, more complex flavor and is a dark-meat-lover’s dream.

Bursting your bubble: You will pay substantially more than grocery prices per pound, and if you were planning on selling extras to make up your investment you’d better have a group of people willing to pay through the nose for it.

You will also wrestle with the short-term issues of butchering and cleaning, and the longer-term issues of sustainable production and ethical raising. We’ll go into that more in another chapter, but there are not easy answers.

Fun

Realistic: Chickens are hilarious, just about every second of every day. They have an endearing mix of instinct and a tiny glimmer of personality, and many breeds exist purely as eye candy.

Bursting your bubble: That tiny glimmer of personality hides what’s basically a lizard with feathers. Chickens can be shockingly cruel to each other – henpecked is not an accidental adjective, and if they decide that one in the flock is vulnerable they will kill and even eat her in a matter of hours. Roosters don’t know when to call it quits and can damage or kill a “favorite” hen.

Even if you manage to avoid chicken-on-chicken violence or the rape and pillage of the boys, you will almost certainly have to deal with injury, death, parasites that make you shudder, and an unconscionable amount of poop.

Give kids the experience

Realistic: I’ve never much believed that dogs teach kids responsibility – they require too much of a relationship to fit that role well. But chickens – heck yes. Actually, it’s not so much “responsibility” as “I don’t care how far along you are on the Poptropica island, you have living things that take precedence and need you.” It’s a focus away from self and on to hard work and a good amount of honest dirty labor. Since chickens don’t need a relationship, but do need quite a bit of shoveling and fetching and carrying, they can give kids a bit of much-needed work.

Bursting your bubble: Kids will also get a view into death that you may not be ready for. Chickens are fragile and they don’t help themselves to stay alive very well. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t had at least one major predator-related loss (which usually means coming in to find half your flock slaughtered and several other major injuries) and chicks seem to want to throw themselves off the metaphorical cliff to their doom. Chicks drown in their water dishes, they try to jump off things and die, they croak from infections and digestive problems, they can be born deformed… it’s not Mary Poppins. I personally think it’s great for kids to experience the reality of life and death, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t rocked kids who were stormily weeping for hours over the death of a favorite bird.

Environmental

Realistic: You can be part of the movement away from factory production of eggs and meat. Because your flock will be small and well cared for, it will be less likely to need pesticides and other chemical intervention. If you plan well, your poultry can do wonders for your garden and give back to your lawn and trees as well.

Bursting your bubble: It’s been my experience that all too often owners buy into the “if a little is good, a lot is better” mindset and absolutely inundate their animals with chemicals. I’ve got news for you – if you’re dosing with ivermectin every three months and creating dust baths with Sevin insecticide and lashing coccidiostat all over the place, you’re actually creating foodstuffs that are MORE contaminated than the store would sell you. At least the commercial poultry houses have somebody saying “Wow, enough!”

It’ll be your responsibility to know enough about the various medications and interventions to find a balance between keeping your flock healthy and keeping your food and your kids uncontaminated. We’ll go over common interventions later.

Saving money

I’m just going to burst your bubble on this immediately. Store-bought eggs and chicken meat are cheaper than you’re ever going to get in your own backyard. Once you count the cost of housing, medicating, raising them to laying or butchering age, and the feed you’ll be buying in little high-priced sacks instead of by the ton like the big guys do, there’s not any hope for you.

However, having your own chickens can get you through brief periods of poverty and can work some real miracles when you desperately need it. Yes, you had to pay $15 for food last week, but when you’re down to your last two bucks this week it feels like manna from heaven to have a big fat casserole to put on the table thanks to your hens.

Next: How to start right