here's a post inspired by a request by one of you lovely readers... we've got chickens, here's how we do it!
our flock is pretty mini. we started out with 3 hens, 3 years ago--mikey was the blonde, cee-cee was the black and white (like cookies and cream, hence the name), and plum was an arucauna that laid the prettiest blue-green eggs (totally martha stewart-esque). jeremy built them a small coop using plywood, chicken wire and a metal sheeting roof--it's really nothing fancy but it does get the job done, keeping them out of the rain and giving them a safe place to rest. the coop has 2 nesting boxes, which go mostly unused, and a wide branch at the very top of the coop where the girls like to roost.
first lesson learned about chickens: they poop. a LOT. i was aghast when jeremy brought them home (already fully grown) and the girls popped out of their box, strutting around their fenced-in area. depositing massive piles of "fertilizer" behind them. it's big. it can be stinky. there's lots and lots and lots of it. after 2 years of letting them roam freely around our yard (after their initial fencing in to get us all acclimated--including our dog) the girls now have a chicken run (an area about 30' x 8' ) and are only rarely let out into our finished yard. lots of this had to do with the birth lucy--best to keep crawlers out of the poopies, don't you think?
second lesson learned about chickens: poop attracts flies. hay, grass trimmings and sprays of water help keep them at bay, but now that the girls are fenced in, so are their droppings. i didn't notice flies nearly as much as i do now, but i've heard planting geraniums can be a deterrent to flies. no idea if the chickens would feast upon the geraniums, though. oh wait, they probably would.
third lesson learned about chickens: they are easy prey. after nearly a year of incident-free hen ownership (and lots of omelets) we woke in the early morning to hear horrible sounds coming from the backyard. our lovable mikey had fallen prey to a raccoon. the worst part? it was completely our fault. we had neglected for months to close the coop at night, and finally our luck ran out. in our defense, we sincerely had never thought that something so horrible could happen (call us 100% naive). now we (jeremy) closes the coop shortly after dusk (the chickens go in on their own when the sun begins to set). which means jeremy also must rise with the sun to let the chickens out--they are quite loud with their cackling and we have neighbors on both sides of our house. rural farm this isn't. the good news it that jeremy now has an excitable cohort to join him in his task--that little lucy is as reliable as any chicken when it comes to waking early. when we go on vacations, we must now find someone to come let the chickens in and out of their coop. footloose & fancy free is not the life of a farmer.
fourth lesson learned about chickens: they come when called, and are extremely motivated by food. a simple "deet-deet-deet-deet-deeeeeeet!" will send them into a running frenzy, wings flapping the whole way.
fifth lesson learned about chickens: they lay eggs where they want. when they want. if they want. chickens are like all females, they eventually go through menopause (henopause, ha). since the average life span of a chicken is 7 years, they can stop laying around 3-4 years--halfway through their life. we named our chickens, so we're stuck with them, even if they don't lay. right now we have 2 layers and one who seems to have given up. we get 1 egg per day, usually, and sometimes 2. the hens opt not to lay in their coop, they prefer to hide them from us, under bushes and most currently, in a small woodpile. now that they are fenced in, this isn't much of an issue. when they had full run of the yard, it was quite the adventure. jeremy once found a clutch of 23 eggs tucked away under my sewing studio.
after mikey died, we adopted 2 more fully grown chickens--foster, another blond (who had been robbed of most of her feathers by mean pecks from the chickens she had been living with), and dark brown porter, who had also been pecked over, though not as badly. the pair has since regained their feathers--our girls are nice enough to get along and not engage in the whole "pecking order" thing. a few months later, plum was found dead on the floor of the coop, and our flock was again numbered at 3. i think plum had a sickness of some sort--for nearly a year she couldn't cluck, didn't lay eggs, and kind of separated herself from the rest of the flock in general. we were very sad to see her go.
we feed the girls hen food from the semi-local feed store. it seems to meet all of their needs--occasionally they'll begin eating their own eggs, which supposedly means they need calcium. crushed oyster shells can be bought for 25 cents a pound (best deal ever, right? a pound of something for a quarter?) and is supposed to help. they love treats of birdseed, old bread, some fruits, cracker crumbs, granola, and try their best to get at lucy's toes and fingers when she's standing near their fence. of course, they're mistaking these for worms--there is nothing that makes turning soil more fun that having a few chickens delighting in the path behind you. they eat bugs with such gusto--it really is amazing. and gross.
this spring i happened to be picking up a sack of feed and a few bags of hay at the feed store, when the ups guy came in and dropped off a few boxes of baby chicks! lucy squealed, i cooed, and i was *thisclose* to calling jeremy and talking him into a few new friends. but i didn't. i'm not sure if we will get more chickens--at least, not until the ones we have are buried alongside mikey and plum. like any animal, there is a high level of commitment involved, and life with lucy has proven itself chock-full of commitments of every kind. we'll see, as i also can't imagine having just one chicken, either. how sad for the last one standing, to be all alone at night in the roost.
last lesson learned about having chickens (at least for now!): when placed in a bowl full of water, a rotten egg will float, while a good egg will sink. eggs are designed to stay good for long periods of time without refrigeration when freshly laid--this is because a mother hen waits until she has a clutch of 5-10 eggs before she decides to sit on them. shells are airtight--keeping the egg from spoiling even in hot weather. over time, the shell will begin to break down. air gets into the egg and causes spoilage.
this lesson is important to us mainly b/c in the past, when we came across a grouping of eggs, we had no idea how old they were--2 days, 2 months--there's really no telling without the water trick. in over 3 years of chicken raising, we've only come across 2 bad eggs, and i have never had the experience of cracking one in the bowl and finding it rotten. however, in my last box of trader joe's eggs, 6 out of the 12 had double yolks! what's that all about?
want more on life with chickies? check out this blog--i was seriously addicted to it when we first got our girls. these are chicken farmers who do it right--don't forget to check out the "hen cam!"