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Posts Tagged ‘Chickens’

I’m going to have to interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to bring you a very sad story. I lost 4 of my 6 chickens today- basically, my flock was wiped out, since the two remaining are young, not yet settled in, and laying about one egg every other day between them. All my good layers, and two of the girls I’d raised from day-old chicks almost two years ago, are gone. It’s been a heartbreaking day, but I committed to chronicling the good, the bad and the ugly parts of chicken-keeping on my blog – and there are some highlights and morals to the day that I don’t want to forget. Ones that might help others in the same boat prevent this from happening to them or at least take some comfort if it does.

This may or may not have anything to do with this morning’s events, but I awoke this morning to the sound of squirrels scrambling around on the roof and scolding loudly. They scold a lot (they’re not fans of my dog Copper, who chases them relentlessly) but the scurrying noise was a little unusual. Unfortunately not unusual enough for me to think much of it, especially since Copper was lounging on the bed with me and not reacting much. Fast forward to half an hour later or so… I’m in the kitchen getting ready to sit down with my tea and book as I’ve been doing these last few lazy days off. Tomas suddenly calls out from the living room, “hey, there’s a fox in the yard! He’s getting away with one of your chickens!” “What?! No!!” I yell and run to the patio door. Tomas is already outside, and as I’m trying to find shoes to throw on, he calls back to me: “he killed them all, honey, they’re all dead.” I want to freak out. This is so much worse than my first thought! I rush outside, half not wanting to see at all, and my only memory is of sort of going to look and sort of not looking at the same time. Through the chain link fence between me and the vegetable garden, I glimpse two or three chicken corpses lying on the ground. Tomas is over there so I start asking him for the details I’m too freaked out to see in person. “How many are there? Are they all dead? Do you see either of the new girls?” (they were conspicuously absent and we thought the fox must have made off with them first). I think I did end up in the garden for a quick survey before turning my back on the scene in disbelief to let the awfulness sink in a bit. They were dead, and not only that, they were all beheaded. 4 headless chickens sprawled in my raised beds and in the snow around the coop.

To clarify a couple of things, we have been letting the girls out every morning to free-range in the garden now that the raised beds are cleaned out, and locking them up at dusk. This has been going nicely since October, and when we added two Ameracauna pullets a few weeks ago, the extra space and distractions really helped smooth over what was a very difficult transition for them into the new flock.

Our coop was and is fully predator-proof, as described in great detail here… but we’d opened the gate so the girls could roam freely. We are fully aware of the MANY predators that frequent our neck of the woods here in the western suburbs, and we take a lot of precautions to keep our birds safe. But this was broad daylight, 9 a.m. or so. So, just as we did every other day, we assumed they were happily waddling around the yard in the sunshine, kicking up dirt and chirping at each other. And on a much less conscious level, I guess we assumed any predators were snoozing in a burrow or nest somewhere until dusk. The large fox disappearing over the fence – and the carnage he left in his wake – was a full-on nasty surprise of the first order.

Reasoning that there was nothing we could do with 4 dead chickens, and that the fox had already made off with the other 2, we decided to let him come back for the other bodies. Better let them feed some hungry fox pups somewhere than go to complete waste. He returned quite soon, and proceeded to try to launch himself back over our 6-foot wood fence with a 6-pound chicken in his mouth. That didn’t go so well. After a few tries, something spooked him and he vanished. We watched him come back and try again to gather the birds in a corner of the garden and take one away with him – but I finally gave up and let Copper out, who was growling and barking at him through the window. We had to bag up and throw out the bodies ourselves.

In the meantime, Copper was REALLY interested in something over on the south side of the yard – far away from the fox and chicken action. In my fog, I didn’t pay much attention to this either, until Tomas shouted “I found two of them!” The Ameracauna pullets were behind the wood fence in our neighbor’s yard and apparently hurrying back and forth over there and wondering how to get back home. By some miracle, the neighbor had not yet let his two large dogs outside. Tomas went over to tell him what was going on, make sure his dogs stayed locked up, and enlist his help. I grabbed the small dog crate that I use for chicken transport and followed close behind. To add to the circus atmosphere of it all, at that exact moment, Tomas’ mother pulled up in her minivan with his 18-month-old nephew. I found out later that she was bringing us loaves of leftover bread… for the chickens.

Catching these two frightened, still maladjusted and mistrusting birds was quite a caper. Three of us with a tarp, cardboard box and crate were put to shame by these nimble girls who, after all, had just escaped a seasoned, wily predator. When one of them, Scramble, darted through the gate that I had foolishly not quite shut behind me, I thought it was all over; we’d never catch her out in the neighborhood. Luckily she headed toward our backyard fence, and we realized we could open our back gate and try to herd her in that way. It worked! Maybe she knew this was the way home; in any case, she chose to run through the narrow opening rather than split in another direction. We slammed the gate behind her – at least she was in the correct yard – and decided to try to do the same with the other girl, Omelet. As we herded her towards the open gate, she caught sight of the dog crate sitting open nearby, decided it was a safe haven, and dove inside. Success! The remaining task of cornering Scramble inside our own yard and actually catching her was no small matter. I feared she would fly back over into the neighbor’s yard, where he had just released his dogs, and then to my horror Tomas’ mother opened our sliding door and almost released Copper (who would gladly grab a chicken and make it into her latest tug toy). Finally, we caught her and returned both to their enclosed, locked run.

I still had two chickens! It was a silver lining on a really rough day; I still had to pick up a mass of feathers, down and bloody debris in the garden but I felt somewhat better than hopeless. When I brought them some leftover bread as a treat, it was comforting to hear their soft warbling sounds in the space that only recently had been the scene of so much fear and death. Still, the loss of my 4 favorite birds – true personalities, all of them, and wonderful layers – was a hard one.

But I want to end this post with some thoughts on the lessons I mentioned above. To start with, none of this would have happened if we had left our girls safe inside their enclosed run instead of letting them free-range around the garden. There may be some places where unsupervised free ranging is ok for a bunch of plump hens, but a suburb of Denver along a riparian corridor with coyotes, foxes, hawks, eagles, owls, snakes, raccoons and skunks is probably not one of them. I will have to take this experience to heart and keep the hens more restricted. We can still alternate between their little enclosed yard and the covered chicken tractor that we built to pasture them in the greener seasons. Letting them out into the garden and turning my back on them is just not an option, not now that Mr. Fox has found us.

Second, my two least tame birds are the ones that survived this terrifying experience and are now the entirety of my flock. While the loss of my ‘pet’ birds, which I raised from day-old chicks, is heartbreaking, I have real respect for the instincts that got these girls over not one, but two tall fences to safety. These don’t necessarily pair well with my pastoral idea of a happy clutch of chickens scratching around garden and stopping to take some cuddle time in my lap. But they proved appropriate today in a dangerous situation. I’ll give more consideration in the future to smaller, flightier breeds – maybe a Hamburg or a Campine, gorgeous birds that lay lovely eggs and just aren’t known for being docile or cuddly. They might be better cut out for life on the edge of the wilderness than some of the slower-moving, gentler breeds that I have been so biased toward.

A new project I see coming our way in the spring is to extend the chicken run. A larger space will make it easier for me to leave the girls ‘cooped up’ all day when I’m at work, without the guilt that caused me to give them too much freedom in the first place.

I also need to employ a few more predator-deterring tricks. Coyote urine was discussed at length on Facebook today after I posted about our incident. Giving Copper more access to the side yard so she can patrol it and leave her own marks might not be a bad idea either. And I’m reminded to go out and do a thorough inspection of the run in the next few days. Two summers and two winters may well have caused wires to loosen or rust, wooden framework to split or warp, or nails to come loose. Just because you build something to be predator-proof doesn’t mean it’s predator-proof forever. It’s imperative to keep an eye on the condition of your coop, and to repair it as needed to ensure it continues to keep your precious charges safe from intruders.

Last but not least: don’t give away all your eggs just because you have a couple cartons too many and the chickens are laying more eggs than you can keep up with. Our two dozen extra eggs should tide us over until I can get some new girls, but we’ll have to be sparing with them. You can go from plenty to poverty in just a few minutes! 

Mr. Fox (or Mrs) was a gorgeous, impressively large creature. I had the wherewithall to snap a photo of him on his return trip into our yard. It reminds me of the wilder side of this suburban life, and the harsh beauty of the natural world. For better or worse, we share our lives with nature and all her creatures.  I like to think it’s for the better most of the time.

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The girls (Popcorn, Tipsy and Sesame) checking me out on a sunnier day.

Three of the girls (Popcorn, Tipsy and Sesame) checking me out on a sunnier day.

I’m probably too sentimental to have chickens as pets. These are barnyard birds after all (or at best backyard), apparently with little need for extraneous things like light, warmth or comfort. Except of course that they appear to crave those things, if you really watch them. Which is why I turned the light back on.

I was so proud of myself, and my little girls (who just turned 8 weeks old), when I finally stopped plugging in their lightbulb this week and let them find their way into their house and to safety on their own in the dark. They’d been getting themselves in there very predictably the last week or two, and all I had to do was go out and shut the door; but whenever I then also tried to unplug their light for the night, they’d scream bloody murder, so I always just plugged it back in and figured I’d wean them off it slowly. I gradually went from a 100-watt bulb, to 40 watts, to 25. Still, I plugged it in around dusk every day because I thought they needed it to “lure” them into their house (which initially they did, actually; one night, when I wasn’t home before dark to plug it in, I found them in a pile outside by the gate – but that was in their first 3 nights outside and they clearly now know where home is). And after that, of course, I couldn’t unplug it again without setting off a terrible screeching. Which is probably not the way to endear your odd choice of pets to the neighbors, if I had to guess.

Anyway, last weekend I was discussing this dilemma with a more experienced chicken keeper and she just looked at me and said “Why are you unplugging the light? Just don’t turn it on in the first place!” Well duh. I guess I just didn’t spend much time thinking THAT one through; it seems pretty obvious now. So that’s what I did. They were on their own at dusk, no guiding light to lead them to their doorway. Lo and behold, they quickly (in 3 nights) graduated from being piled just inside the coop door – with their heads hanging out over the threshhold in the dark – to getting all the way inside and sleeping in the corners, to actually roosting on their pole tonight. Except tonight I turned the light on.

It was raining cats and dogs. We just got through breaking all previous records (set way back in 1906 or something like that) for longest heat wave – 23 days straight in the upper 90s and 100s. And today the skies opened up and it has been raining, then pouring biblically, then raining. Everything is soaked. The new ‘rain garden’ that Tomas and I built in front of the house next to a drain pipe is a giant lake. The vegetables are drooping drastically and some plants are just flat. During a drippy interlude, the chickens were out and about, and I was visiting them just to see how they handle the rain. Their whole coop, the plants, the air, the ground, all of it was just so damp and chilly that I felt terrible for them. Who wants to go to bed in the damp and cold and dark? Not me! I HATE being cold. Damp is even worse, and both is just awful. I thought it would be nice to plug in their lamp for a bit to sort of warm up their house and maybe even create a little area of drier, comfier indoor air to hang out in, instead of a dank, cold, poo-smelling shack. So I did, and went inside to do other things.

Well, before I knew it it was dark… so now they are roosting comfortably in their LIT house again, since of course I want to bet that pulling the plug on them at this hour would cause a ruckus. Maybe I can just alternate for another couple weeks – give them light and warmth on wet, chillier nights and leave them to their own devices on the more typical summer evenings. They are only 8 weeks old, after all. Babies, really.

Goodness only knows what I will be like when it really gets cold and dark. And snowy. And cold…

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We had a little party for our 5 new baby chicks last night – they are one month old and getting ready to move out to their new digs in the garden, so we called it a “coop-warming party” and invited all our friends. Everyone was quite entertained by the idea – one couple, who it turns out also has 3 chickens of their own, thought it was the coolest party they’d ever been to: proof that other “normal” people have chickens too. 

In addition to tours of the just completed chicken coop and plenty of time for everyone to pet and play with the chicks, we served up a buffet of summer patio fare: in addition to the obligatory brats and whole grain rolls, we had salad of watermelon, feta cheese and red onions, grilled tricolor bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash, grilled polenta cakes, orange cream cheese frosted brownies, a white balsamic custard tart with fresh fruit that went over very well indeed, and cream cheese with fresh chives and garlic from the garden stirred in. The most popular item of the evening, though, appeared to be the chard and onion quiche (I’d made two in the hopes that we’d have generous leftovers to enjoy this week – both were polished off in their entirety, so we will have to cook again tonight – too bad).

1 pie crust

large bunch chard, stems trimmed off and chopped separately, leaves roughly chopped

red onions, sliced – I used several small ones, but I’d say 1-2 large ones would work

grated Pecorino-Romano cheese (again guesstimating, I grated about a saucer full)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup milk (I used 1%)

1 cup cream (I used table cream that was left over in the fridge)

 a few toasted pine nuts

salt, fresh ground pepper, dash nutmeg and dash cayenne pepper

Directions:

preheat oven to 400 degrees

Saute chard stems in olive oil until softened; set aside

Saute chard leaves in olive oil, seasoning occasionally with salt and pepper, until wilted and tender; set aside

put onion slices in pan with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a generous dash of sugar; over medium heat let them cook until well softened and beginning to caramelize; try not to stir much to allow the caramelization to begin to take effect

line a pie plate with pie crust and fold over edges

fill bottom of pie with onions

layer chard stems and leaves on top of onions

sprinkle most of the grated cheese over the chard

mix together cream, milk, eggs and season with salt, pepper, cayenne and nutmeg

pour egg mixture into pie crust

top with remaining cheese and sprinkle with pine nuts

bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes

lower heat to 325 and bake for 35 more minutes, until golden brown and slightly crusty

let sit for a while before serving – at least 30 minutes, but quiche will taste fabulous hours later or the next day

I was paid the highest compliment on this quiche when a native French woman had some and pronounced it truly excellent; she commented on people’s tendency to overbake theirs until the eggs turned runny, and on the excellent flavor of the vegetables. You might as well just call it “garden quiche,” because it could just as well have had any other combination of greens and veggies in it; this is just what was ready for the taking yesterday. I can see by my fast-growing vines that we will soon have the opportunity to try cherry tomato and zucchini quiche, for example. Any good cheese and any tasty combination of vegggies, sausage or other kinds of meat would surely be just as wonderful. Let your imagination run on this one – as long as you have the basic base down, you can’t mess up a quiche!

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