View from the deck on a glorious morning in early June.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chicken Politics

Warning: the following post contains content that may offend vegans, or animal loving omnivores who believe meat grows on styrofoam trays. Viewer discretion is advised

A bit of history: We used to have egg layers, with meat as a by product. At the peak of production I actually had 99 birds, in several overlapping flocks. Then a series of predator disasters ranging from bears to racoons to domestic dogs made me give up. Some years later I did meat birds for 5 years. More on that   another time.
This year I decided to try my hands at real chicken keeping again. The barn was fine, but the run needs to be rebuilt. I suck at creating infrastructure. Now, on to 2011....

The flock arrived in batches of three.

First came the Big Girls, 4 veteran Black Rock hens. They were  free, a gift from an acquaintance who wanted to rejuvenate her flock but did not want to deal with over-aged birds herself. The Big Girls have just finished their fourth summer, which will most likely be their last.

I had not planned to get birds till the fence around the outside yard for them was done, but this was an offer I couldn't refuse. So we got started inside the barn, with the best of intentions. I do apologize for never getting the outside part together yet. But they had lots of room, a dirt floor to scratch in under the straw, and plenty of fresh green treats.

The Big Girls were soon joined by 4 Isa Brown hens, also an offer I couldn't refuse. An almost-commercial egg farming acquaintance called to ask if I wanted some 1 year olds @$5 each. He renews his flock every year. Oh yes! I only took 4, for chicken-political reasons. I figured 2 groups of equal size would come to an understanding easier. In retrospect I should have taken one more.  The Black Rocks are so much bigger they easily dominated the newcomers. 

One poor brown bird was designated to the bottom of the pecking order and spent most of her time high up on the roost, only coming down to eat and drink quickly and furtively when the others were distracted by the daily treat of fresh kale leaves. Such is the way of chickens, alas.

Between them they laid 5 or 6 eggs daily, and there was much rejoicing. But we knew they would stop laying when the dark days came. Only this spring's hens will lay through the winter.

Therefore the next step was taking possession of 10 unsexed Ameraucana chicks, lovingly raised from eggs by a friend who has the perfect set-up. They were 4 weeks old when I got them, past that horribly vulnerable stage when they really should be under a hen's wings. 

Within days it became clear that one chick was sick. When it looked half the size of its mates I helped it out of its misery. Another one mysteriously disappeared. This happened in the same week that I found a pile of small grey feathers on the porch, the only time that happened. The working hypothesis is as follows: the door may not have been quite closed while I was in the barn. Curious chick got out and met the cat. So then there were 8, a nice symmetry. 

The barn is dividable in half, so I can have both an established flock and a growing one in there. Both halves thrived and did their chicken thing. Once the Young Ones were of equal size, I opened the door and let the flocks mingle.

Ah, the joy of having twice the space to roam around in! Ah, the trauma of having to deal with more chickens!

At first the Big Girls effortlessly maintained their superiority, with the Isa Browns clearly in second position. In spite of being bigger than the Isa Browns the Young  Ones were duly intimidated. It was quite funny to see a scrawny Isa chase a sturdy Young One away from the feeding place. It took no more than a small snapping movement in its direction. Even the bird that had previously been the bottom of the pecking order grew bolder. Her place was taken by my favorite Ameraucana,  a slim elegant mainly white bird, probably a hen. Poor girl. It is no fun being the only one of a colour if you are a chicken. It is true: birds of a feather flock together.

Then some of the Young Ones started to crow. At first it was merely amusing and instructive. Araucana hens look a lot like roosters, so the only way to know for sure who is who is to spend time in the coop and see who is making the noise. The first one to declare himself was a fairly mellow guy who did not do much to assert himself. That changed when more of his mates got into the act. 

One day I got in there and three birds were molesting a fourth, who barely escaped with its life. There was so much fighting going on that even the Big Girls cowered in corners.
The next day I took care of 2 who I knew for sure to be roosters. This left the most aggressive one for the time being, since I couldn't catch him. Peace did not totally return, but things were a lot more settled with the Big Girls in charge again. Today the most aggressive rooster met his fate. One more is a rooster for sure, but he was sitting way up on the dividing wall between the two halves, out of reach. Just wait, his turn will come.

Meanwhile, the eggs have gone down to 2 or 3 a day and the weather is getting miserable. The coop is uphill from the house,  a grueling trek once we are snowed in. This place was never designed as a homestead. It just sort of grew, never mind the details for now. 

The first snowy day with frozen water containers was a real wake-up call. I have to admit it:I am getting old and lazy. In spite of good intentions in the spring I just don't feel like doing this anymore. Therefore I have decided I will just be a summer chicken keeper. 

Next year, sometime in early spring, I will get a small fresh batch of one-year-old hens again. In late fall they will be either butchered or sold. As for the present bunch: All roosters and the Big Girls will become heavenly stew. The Isa Browns and any Ameraucana hens will go to my tender-hearted chicken friend, who runs a nursing home for ageing chickens. In return I will take some of her excess roosters for more stew. She knows what will happen to them, but prefers to pretend she doesn't.

And now, I have some boneless rooster breast to do up for dinner.

Postscript: Well. My chicken friend just came to take everyone not destined for the pot to her place. It turns out there was a reason I could not tell the Ameraucana hens from the roosters: they were ALL roosters. We turned them loose again and they shall meet their fate tomorrow or the day after. I could not bring myself to butcher The Big Girls after all. They just have such a nice personality. I was still getting 2 or 3 eggs a day, it might be them. Judy has access to spoiled hay for bedding, and is willing to take care of hatchery babies in her perfect set-up. We might start all over next spring.....I am tempted to get 25 unsexed heavy heritage breeds. 

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Chicken politics indeed! We haven't culled any, so, as they've died of natural causes... and not knowing the cause, we've let them go to happy pecking grounds uneaten ;)

    We currently have the new chick (only one hatched) in with the old fowls and 5 bantams waiting to join the oldies. I'm not looking forward to the squabbles that will ensue. There's our very stroppy silkie rooster and the new bantams have 3 lovely cockerels too. This will get interesting!

    Here in Ireland, if you have 50 chickens or more, you have to register as a chicken farmer, so next year, we'll be getting 49 in lol


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