Our birds gather at our feet as we sit on the porch with our steaming (OK--cold) cups of spiced coffee. The hens scratch and peck at the steel cut oats we've tossed their way. Big Roo sticks his neck out and makes a weird sound like a whinnying horse (it's kind of creepy and hilarious all at once). It's like a game to us now, trying to understand the language our birds speak. They grunt, growl, squeak, cluck, purr, bok-bok, sing, and cock-a-doodle do. It's weird, but I feel I understand all birds better, by simply getting to know our chickens.
A year ago, before we got our eight baby chicks, who knew they'd be so entertaining and fun? But it's also been way more work than we ever imagined, too. (That's what happens when you do things backwards). For us, keeping chickens has been a learning curve that could take us to the moon and back--TO THE MOON AND BACK, I say! Let me tell you about it...
It all started when I was laid up with a back injury last summer (stupid church pew! It was a thrift-store find I wanted to paint white for our porch. But before that, I helped lug the old thing to a picnic spot under the apple trees. Long story short, the picnic never happened, and the pew is in a burn pile after being left to fall apart in the rain. Serves it right).
Anyway, I was bored. I'd picked up a book at the bookstore by my favorite homestead author, Jenna Worinrich, called Chick Days, Raising Chickens from Hatchlings to Laying Hens. I read it front to back and decided, if I was going to be holed up for who-knows-how-long, I should have a few chicks to keep me company.
"What about a coop?" My practical husband wanted to know. He was already overwhelmed with trying to plant the ten fruit trees we'd just bought before they shriveled and keeled over and in their root-bound pots under the hot summer sun (another story of lessons learned).
"Don't worry, we'll have six weeks to figure out a coop." That was a mistake, but I felt so smart. (Pipe dreams. My head was full of them).
The next day at the feed store, the man behind the counter seemed tired. It was nearing the end of chick season, and he'd probably answered the same questions we peppered him with hundreds of times since late spring.
We picked out eight A*D*O*R*A*B*L*E chicks: 2 Rhode Island Reds, 2 Speckled Sussex, 2 black Astralorps, and 2 Ameraucanas. Soon we'd be collecting a rainbow of beige, brown, pink and blue eggs.
We couldn't stop cuddling our new feathered friends. (We were the best mother hens)! We checked the room thermometer often, taught our babes to drink from a bottle with an ingenious little thing called a chicken nipple, and we kept an eye on the birds' bums for signs of "pasty butt" (a term used for when poop plugs a chick's tiny vent which is dangerous).
How we let our chickens take over our home, garage, farm, and whole life (almost)...
Eight little chicks became eight crowded chicks, and we had to give them a larger home (bigger than the 18 gallon tub they'd been living in). My honey built a GINORMOUS brooder-coop thing with a fold-down door, and sides of chicken wire.
By now, the chicks were older and the temps were such that we didn't have to worry about the chicks getting too cold at night, so they would do fine in the main part of the house (instead of staying in the bathroom).
We set the enormous brooder-coop thing in our "other" kitchen (we're still remodeling an old duplex into a single-family home, so for now we have two kitchens and two dining rooms. Weird, I know).
It was nicer visiting the birds in this larger area, and having them waist-high where we could play with them in their new play pen. But soon, our entire house smelled and looked like a barn. Pine chips got tracked EVERYWHERE, a fine white dust covered EVERYTHING, and the smell of poop forced us to scoop the coop everyday like a cat litter box (which we've continued to do to this day in the garage, but I'm getting ahead of myself).
Finally, the plans to our permanent outdoor coop and run arrived. It was time to get down to business! Which brings me to our next mistake.
How we lost our minds building the coop of our (my) dreams...
If you're going to keep chickens for eggs and/or meat, does it really matter what their housing looks like? (Now to be fair, you have to give me a small pinch of credit. I didn't just pick this particular coop, because it happened to be the most doll-house-cute thing out there (you can check it out HERE, but we've modified ours a bit). I chose the coop, because of my back (or so I convinced my husband). I loved how the doors were all waist-high and I'd be able to clean the whole thing without bending over. But now the truth is, it could have been any number of other simpler designs to achieve the same thing, but...come on, I just had to have the one I wanted!
So I persuaded my very sweet husband to indulge me. (Now look where it got us).
We've learned terms like stud, ridge board,
valley rafter and valley jack while framing
this puppy. Now if we can just figure out
how to roof the thing, we'll be sitting pretty.
My role in all this? Supply runs and
helping my honey make heads-and-tales
of the plans. (Oh yeah, and taking pictures)!
How we cheated our chickens...
For a year now, our birds have been sleeping at night in our garage in the same brooder-coop thing my honey built when the birds needed a larger place to exist while still inside our house. (Thankfully George made it big enough to serve indefinitely in this way, because who knows how long this arrangement will really go on for).
The birds' sleeping quarters in the garage
By day, our birds either hang out in an absurd make-shift run we call "the hillbilly chicken run," or they're allowed to free-range. The free-range privilege is granted for now, even though they poop everywhere and we have to constantly babysit like they're children or they'll wander onto our neighbor's property, or get eaten by dogs (though, now that Roo is big and tough, and some neighbors with a mean dog moved, things are better). And why do we put up with this? Because we feel sorry for our poor birds for having to live in that old 'billy run! (The fact that we love the poor dears in spite of all this trouble, means one of two things: We're either sick in the head, or just incredibly persistent).
Now, before you go feeling too sorry for our birds, I want to point out, they're all still alive (well mostly--we lost two early on to the neighbor's mean dog before they moved, and Roo was just a kid then, so he'd ditch the hens and hide, but not anymore).
The birds have been kept clean and dry, fed and watered, sheltered at night, watched over during the day, and they're healthy and happy. And to thank us, they give us eggs. Lots and lots of them. (We finally put some nesting boxes in the 'billy run and let them go for it).
Why we don't regret a thing...
Like I said--a learning curve to the moon and back. But with our birds right under our noses all year, something's happened that we didn't expect. They've captivated us with their antics. I feel I could someday write a book on how to understand chicken behavior. We've lived among them like what's-her-name, the monkey lady in National Geographic. So much so, that we know these creatures far better than we ever would have otherwise, most likely. And they know us, too. Like when Roo stands at the glass door using his mind-control powers to summon up the treat-fairy. He knows just what works (like knocking on the glass with his beak). Then, when the treats appear, he pretends to the hens that it's all a gift from himself, with that special clucky sound that brings them all running.
So you see, my friend: You have nothing to fear...
Why have I told you this story? Because I wanted you to know, that in spite of a million mistakes, our birds have more than survived--they've thrived. You may think you don't know what you're doing (and that's probably true), but there's all kinds of help out there. From the grumpy man at the feed store (who I called more than twice), and books like Chick Days (my birds would probably all be dead, except for Jenna's book), and a growing number of articles on-line, you'll find the support you need. Your birds will be grand. You'll see.
Now go make some eggs. (But for goodness sake, get your coop up first).
Until next time...
Joy--Fearless Farm Girl,
"Farm girl: it's a verb, because it's what you do."
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Helpful Books for Beginning Chicken Keepers:
Other Related Links:
How to train a rooster to be nice (or at least to stop attacking you).