Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The U.S. Post Office mails live chicks.

Five years ago I didn't know that. Back then I started dreaming about a little flock of busy hens I could toss a bit of scratch to and that would add country flavor to my life. So I built a chicken coop and did my online research. Turns out there are hatcheries that sell dozens of varieties of chickens. And they offer discounts if you buy by the lot. I succumbed, mainly because I couldn't choose. Such varieties! And sooo cute. When I finished placing my order, there were 55 chicks on it.

It was August and the end of the shipping season, and while it's common practice for hatcheries to add an extra chick or two to each order to offset any losses during shipping and to add warmth during cold months, this hatchery was obviously wanting to deplete stock -- they sent 12 extras. All boys.

The mural on the back of the chicken coop - the picket fence is painted on the taller guinea coop
The post office called early in the day to let me know they'd arrived. I'm certain the workers were happy I rushed over to pick them up since 67 3-day-old chicks all cheeping at once make a remarkable bit of noise. They came in two easy-to-handle, specially designed cardboard crates that I could easily carry together.

All the chicks survived. Being a complete novice, I wasn't sure how much room the chicks would actually take up. Nor had I counted on the additional 12 boys. I had set up a 55-gallon aquarium for them, but realized that would be a tight fit. Luckily I had figured out I was never meant to raise tropical fish indoors so I also had an empty 29-gallon aquarium on hand. I set the temporary homes up in the sunroom and sorted the chicks by size: standards and bantams. Like regular Miniature Horses are simply small versions of standard-size horses, regular bantams look like half-sized versions of standard-sized chickens. Note that they also lay half-sized eggs.

Traansition from the aquarium at 3 days old to outside at 1 week old to temporary fencing at 2 weeks old
 Chicks grow fast. When they were 1 week old I moved them to a makeshift pen of hay bales, fencing and a waterproof tarp I erected just outside my back door. A floodlight on a nearby shed helped ensure protection at night and I weighted down the fencing over the top of the pen to keep predators out. It worked well, and no babies were lost in the transition. A week later, I added a second fenced area where they stayed until they were big enough to move to their new coop and big chicken yard with it's large pear tree to nap under. As they continued to grow, I realized they needed a little more wing room, so I cut a connecting hole between the chicken coop and the guinea coop. By that time I wasn't worried the guineas would hurt them and they all snuggled in together at night quite peaceably.

I discovered that the more exotic varieties of chickens aren't very hardy. The Silkies with their topknot pompadours were frail little birds with brittle bones and malformed feet. I lost a number of them in early adulthood to natural, inbred causes. The standard roosters were all very beautiful birds, and while they weren't terribly aggressive, they were quite, um, virile. And 20 roosters running after 47 hens didn't bode well for the hens. The roosters were rough with the girls, pulling out feathers and leaving large bare patches that would sunburn. The hens took to cowering together, and I realized that while many customers would have thanked the hatchery for sending them extra roosters they could use for 3 months of Sunday dinners, I had a problem since I don't raise animals to slaughter. So, reluctantly, I found a humane, no-kill home for 12 of them with the director of our local animal shelter. I kept all the bantam boys and a few of the standards, including the undeniable flock leader, who my dad named Big Red.

One myth about roosters I can dispel is the belief they only crow in the early morning hours. Not so, as many of my coworkers can attest after hearing the boys hollering while I'm on conference calls throughout the day. When you have roosters (and guineas), the mute button is your friend. Also, mine often start crowing around 4:30 a.m., long before dawn.

And a bit of trivia you can use to dazzle at your next party: Did you know you can look at a chicken and predict what color of egg she will lay? If she has red ears, she will lay brown eggs, if she has white ears, her eggs will be white. The shell is simply pigmented or not, just like their ears.

My Disney-fied motif on the front and end of the coop.
The little door in the lower right is chicken-sized to allow access
when the large doors are closed during inclement weather.

During the first 3 years, I made a few hundred dollars selling eggs, although I still wasn't quite breaking even with feed costs. The girls are now finally beyond their best egg-laying years and while they still lay more than enough eggs for me and my dogs, the weekly quantity continues to diminish. Since their laying cycle is based on the number of hours of light in the day, as well as temperature, they naturally hit a seasonal low around Christmas. There's a reason eggs feature heavily in the Easter tradition -- by the spring equinox, hens tend to be in full laying mode and families who keep enough layers to ensure a good supply of eggs year round, have reliably more eggs then than they need.

Coyotes have gotten more than their fair share of chicken dinners. And the original chicks, now in their sunset years, are passing on. I have had two hens -- one a bantam and the other a standard -- who found their way into the flock from who knows where. I don't know any neighbors who raise chickens, but the girls showed up separately, about a year apart, and stayed. Right now the count stands at 24: 10 roosters and 14 hens. Four of the roosters live in the guinea coop where I've built them a separate small pen. Two more roosters live in the backyard with the ducks since one of them was being bullied by his brothers and the other had the chicken equivalent of a stroke and was having trouble getting around.

The soul-soothing view from my desk and front porch
The rest of flock free-ranges, eating tasty weeds and chasing bugs, napping in the shade and taking baths in the sand. They have their individual personalities, quirks, and habits. Chickens are such a quintessential farm sight and having them around brings a bit of comfort to my life. Whenever I see them, I can feel a bit of stress unclench itself from my chest and just ... leave. It isn't chicken soup that's good for my soul. It's the wonder and beauty of the chickens themselves. And while I'll never have 67 at one time again, I'm sure there'll always be a dozen or so running around underfoot to make life just a little happier.


Sarah Laurenson said...

Oh my. What a story. And yes, those buggers crow at all hours of the night. Earliest one I've ever heard was about 2:30am. Or maybe he was really, really late.

Kay said...

What a fun story! I love the pictures. The last time I was in Kauai there were roosters everywhere and I swear the crowed 24/7.

Entertaining post. Thanks.


AA said...

My grandmother had guineas when I little. I loved their spotted feathers but they make quite a racket.

fairyhedgehog said...

That's a wonderful story. Those chickens are so lucky to be living with you.

Matt said...

Love the artwork on the coop. Did you paint that?

Phoenix said...

@Sarah: Maybe the 2:30 am crower was on Hawaii time.

@Kay: Ooh, Kauai! Sounds wonderful -- except for the noisy roosters.

@AA - Someday I'll post something about my guineas, where I'll agree 100% about the racket they make.

@FHH - The ones that don't get eaten by coyotes would probably agree with you.

@Matt - Yes, the artwork is mine. Those pix were taken 4+ years ago and seeing them again reminds me how dingy and weathered everything is now. I think when I freshen the paint, I'll make the hen and rooster on the big mural more colorful.

Matt said...

The mural style reminds me of Confucian scroll paintings. See for yourself:

Phoenix said...

Ooh, thanks for the link, Matt. I didn't know I had a painting style. Confucian scroll sounds like it could be it! :o)

Wilkins MacQueen said...

I want to see a pix of chicken ears! I had 5 chickens and never even noticed the ears. I loved the lips though. One old biddy just couldn't face the day without her deep purple red lipstick on. And to do her nails, I tell you, well don't get me started.



Wilkins MacQueen said...

Divine Miss Phoenix,
Your chicken talk got me thinking about my own poultry story. Another true if you can believe it story from Wilkins MacQueen. I dashed it off and posted it, I was wondering what was missing when I landed back in Asia. The darn rooster! So I now have a poultry short story added to my horse stories. Thanks as always. The eclectic mix of the writerly and the farmly is a good combo. Like chicken gumbo.