Tuesday, March 10, 2009
My flock of redheads are officially one year old and all 13 hens and 2 roosters have somehow managed to survive a whole twelve months under my dubious care. They have come a long way from little yellow fuzzballs that could barely totter around on unsteady feet to the large red birds they are today, each with their own unique personalities. Not being around chickens since I was a boy the whole procedure has been quite a learning experience. A number of things turned out to be much different than I might have imagined. A few of the things I've learned/observed about chickens:
First, never raise a flock of 15 chickens in your house for two months. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, with the weather being cold and the coop still under construction last March, I would have been better off delaying their arrival until May. Chickens have an uncanny ability to make dust and though they were kept in a separate room and were continuously cleaned up after we have never had so much dust in our house. I must say although we would never keep baby chickens in the house that long again I am glad we did as not only did we bond with the birds but our grandson was able to observe them up close and that in itself was priceless.
I thought for sure they would all be named by now but the naming process never really materialized. There is Penelope, the not so much friendly as food aggressive hen, stubborn little Rosie whom I spent almost a month training to lay in the chicken house and not afield, Big and Little Red the roosters, and then there is the unsung majority. Perhaps it is because they all look so much alike, but more than likely, the daunting task of naming and remembering said names of 15 chickens was just too much for our own little bird brains to manage.
Chickens are not afraid of everything as the term "chicken" suggests. They are really quite brave, or perhaps I should say adaptive. If something (as in noise) or someone (cats, dogs, and small children) does not immediately harm them they eventually chalk it up as a normal thing and go about business as usual. Fortunately, for them, they have not adapted to the many hawks, eagles, and ravens that are constantly flying overhead looking for a meal, but they do differentiate and ignore low flying airplanes and helicopters. Apparently our little garden spot is of great interest to someone as it was circled by helicopters off and on all summer.
The birds are not dumb, they are actually fairly intelligent. Maybe persistent would be a more fitting term as in persistently trying to find new ways into my garden. And ,oh, what a battle to teach 13 free range hens that eggs are to be laid inside the coop and not in the bushes, that took persistence on my part. The trick is to be able to watch the little rapscallions like a hawk and as soon as they try to lay afield lock them into the coop until they use the nest box...that was a two week training seminar most of the flock was forced to attend. It is amazing how quickly they can learn when it suites them and what stubborn creatures they become when it does not.
I read about how well certain breeds of chickens can handle the cold, what a bunch of rubbish that is. Chickens, like people, do not like to be really cold and will get frost bitten if left without enough warmth. It did not take long for me to realize I needed an oil heater in their pen after seeing them huddled in the corner one cold December afternoon. I now make every attempt to keep the temperature from dropping too far below 30°in their sleeping quarters, mostly it remains right around 25-35°when really cold outside.
My biggest concern, next to being able to keep them warm enough, was keeping the chickens locked up for months on end this winter and how they would handle the change from being free range to caged birds...and how would I ever keep their pen cleaned. In both cases I was in for a pleasant surprise as they adapted quickly to confinement, and although allowed daily forays into the snow they mostly choose against it. The cleaning has not been an issue either as they seem to take care of that themselves, any waste is quickly scratched into the dirt floor. The loose dirt under the roost gets turned daily and shoveled out once every couple weeks.
Lets see...what else? We froze dozens of eggs in anticipation of a lull in laying that never really occured. I think feeding them greens and grated root vegetables all winter helped with that. The roosters get along quite well with each other, they even sleep side by side most evenings. One is obviously in charge, but he often looks the other way while his counterpart is flirting with the ladies. The whole molting thing never really took place, or at least it has been on such a small scale as to be barely noticeable...again the chickens feed perhaps.
My only on going concerns are their seemingly progressive ability to fly with ease...a little higher every day. I thought they would be less able to do so as they gained weight but alas it has not been the case. Imagine the fun I will have keeping them out of the garden this summer, my 7' deer fence may not be enough. There is also the issue of our incorrigible roosters not taking kindly to small children and strangers, they really seem to enjoy sneaking up on the grandson or visitors and assaulting them from behind. My poor wife usually ends up caught in the middle and leaves the engagment with a few bruises to boot. The grandson and roosters are now taking advanced behavioral management courses, although progress has been slow on this front, I still have hope that in time a more positive chicken/boy relationship will develop.
I suppose that my next adventure in the fine art of chicken husbandry will have to do with setty hens. Do I really want any more chickens? Probably not. I think, in hindsight, that six hens and no roosters would have been just about right for this small subsistence plot. Hopefully, I will be able to maintain the health and happiness of the flock through another season.