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Spring Chickens

April 25, 2012

So in the spring we got chickens.

This is probably less surprising than it sounds for two reasons.  One, the numbers of backyard chickens continues to climb as interest in homesteading goes up and confidence in the food system continues to plummet; backyard chickens are “cute and trendy”, as Jennifer Reese notes1.  Two, we’re already a household with a lot of animals, so the care involved in taking on more of them is not as big a deal as it would be if we didn’t have pets already and weren’t inured to randomly finding poop all over the lawn.

To give you an idea, as of December this year we had three rabbits (two of which we’re caring for on a long-term temporary basis, the third of which we got the same way we ended up with a lot of our pets – what I call the “love of God, take this animal” method); one elderly ferret, who we were originally taking care of temporarily until it turned out her owner could no longer keep her; an extremely needy, neurotic dog my parents had adopted from the pound; and an irritable adult California king snake that I’m still working on taming down to make her easier to handle.  We’d also had a lone sugar glider for a while a few years before, which we got in much the same manner as the rabbit and the ferret, but single life isn’t good for those animals and we eventually gave him to a rescue that could introduce him to friends and take better care of him as an exotic than we could.

With me and my Mom already used to spending most of our time feeding or cleaning up after something (not always pets), taking the plunge and getting backyard chickens didn’t sound much more difficult than what we had on our plates already.  We’d have someone to help eat down the grass, that we could turn out on empty garden beds to turn over for cutworms, earwigs, and various other insects, and they’d be given whatever kitchen scraps weren’t already going in the dog’s pot or being fed to the rabbits (which, truth be told, isn’t a whole lot anymore), and in return we’d get the kinds of eggs we found at the farmer’s market, which cost six dollars a dozen but still made the eggs at the grocery store seem like pale, tasteless imitations of the real thing.

Our area is zoned for four chickens maximum, no roosters.  Having lived two doors down from an illegally-kept rooster before and having learned that the whole “crowing at dawn” thing was a lie – roosters crow whenever the hell they want to, especially all day long – I wasn’t exactly broken up that we couldn’t keep one.

Finding the Chicks

So the first step in having chickens is to figure out which breeds are best for the kinds of conditions they’ll be kept under, and then to figure out where you’re going to get them.  I had originally chosen three breeds that sounded good in terms of friendly temperament and ability to withstand enclosure – Buff Orpington, Cochin, and Americauna – and figured I would check in at feed stores in Santa Cruz or Gilroy starting in March.  On the other hand, one of my mother’s coworkers at Red Cross always put in a big order of chicks every spring from Murray McMurray Hatchery, and since chicks have to be shipped in large quantities to ensure they’ll stay warm in transit she always had plenty to give away.

I looked over the breed listing she had ordered.  Among them was the Buff Orpington I was looking for, as well as Aracaunas, which Americaunas are hybrid descendents of.  No Cochins with their sweet temper and fluffy little feathered feet, but they did have a very pretty type of Plymouth Rock, which sounded like a good breed to take its place.  We decided to pick up three little chicks from our friend and then work out how we were going to house them outside while they spent time indoors, growing big enough to handle the outside weather.

When we arrived, we were faced with this:

Oh wow.  The images on the website of breeds didn’t exactly help much in identifying which chick was which outside of some very distinctive breeds.

The Buff Orpington was simple enough to find (it was the only traditionally yellow chick in the batch) but we couldn’t entirely figure out the difference between the Plymouth Rocks and the Auracauna chicks, so we ended up with two of the former.  She had also gotten about seven extra chicks as a bonus for ordering so many, and convinced us to pick up a fourth.  We scooped up a little Black Australorp, fluffy black with a white belly, and tucking the four of them in a small box took them home to settle into their new brooder.

We settled the chicks under the swing lamp, which had a reptile’s basking bulb set in it to ensure it would produce enough heat.  They had some medicated feed from my mother’s friend as well as the normal chick starter we’d bought for them before, and a waterer with pebbles in the bottom to ensure they wouldn’t drown (chickens are not the smartest birds in the box).  We let them huddle up and attempt to sleep while we worked on figuring out names for them; they always say not to name food animals, but we’re still at the “they’re pets and we’re going to let them die of old age” stage here.

And so we ended up with Pepper, Penny, and the two we have difficulty telling apart and will probably need a leg band for (Ginger and Nutmeg).

Pepper

Penny

Ginger and Nutmeg

Then we spent a lot of the rest of the day trying to get the dog to leave them alone.  She was absolutely fascinated by this tiny peeping box, much as she is whenever any new pet comes into the house, and desperately wanted to eat greet the fluffy little newcomers.

 It took a while both for the novelty of new chicks to wear off (at least as far as the dog was concerned) and for the chicks to start growing in their new feathers, which they did starting with the wings:

Penny (Week 2)

From what we could see, Penny was probably the oldest by perhaps a day or two, Pepper just behind her, and the two Plymouth Rocks were either the youngest or the slowest to develop.  They had started to peck at spills in their brooder, as well as at anything that looked a bit different, like poop.  A little disturbed by this, Mom and I tried giving them little bits of other things to pick at: a jelly jar lid with cut grass, or a little handful of rolled oats.

This was about the time we learned that their absolute favorite thing in the world was oats and they would do about anything to get it, including learning how to beg.  But that came later.

Building the Coop

While the chicks were starting to grow in their feathers, I began the search for either pre-made chicken coops or chicken coop plans that would suit what we needed.  Mark and I downloaded a few and did price checking on the materials before finally settling on the Garden Ark from http://www.thegardencoop.com/ (which I highly recommend for its nice design and very detailed instructions).  Arks are mobile coops, both to move chickens to new pasture and to prevent them from turning any one particular spot in the backyard into a poop-lined moonscape.  We had seen a few at the local feed store that were priced at around $300, but we figured that this one would cost maybe $50 more for an ark that was easily four times as large, with room for four adult chickens.  We printed out the plans, bought the materials, and began cutting the wood into the necessary pieces and painting them. . .

And then it suddenly decided to be winter again.  All work on the coop was halted while we waited for the rains to clear long enough to finish the paintwork before assembly.  While this wasn’t a problem early on while the little chicks were too small to go outside, it didn’t stop raining for more than a day or two for weeks, and the chickens didn’t stop growing in the meantime.  The brooder box soon became too cramped for them, and after initially trying to move an outdoor run inside (and finding that it couldn’t keep them warm enough), we upgraded to a plywood box on the floor of my father’s office, hastily constructed on a dry day.

The chicks went out when it was dry too, for longer and longer periods as their feathers grew out.  They were pretty scraggly looking for a while, and during the changeover they still had bald patches that easily let in the spring cool:

Not just an unhappy chicken, but a half-naked one!

As soon as the weather was clear enough for long enough again, we resumed building.  Most of the time that we’d needed was actually for painting, drying, repainting, and wood treatment; the actual assembly itself took two afternoons.

And we finished none too soon.  By this point the chickens weren’t very small anymore, and they were getting awfully big (and rather smelly) to keep in the house.  With the rains they hadn’t been able to get out to run in the grass and their box was too small for them to move around much, so we ended up putting them in the bathtub for a little bit just to make them stop whining.  I had never realized that chickens could be whiny, but somewhere along the line one of them – Penny, I assume, who’s the most people-oriented and always beelines for humans in the hopes of treats – figured out how to call in a particular pitch that could be heard clean across the house, was annoying as hell, and couldn’t be ignored.

It took the chickens a little while to get used to the idea of being inside the coop, but they acclimated pretty quickly.  The first night was a bit rough, however.  The chickens cried (loudly) in with that same irritant voice once night fell because they were outside, it was dark, and they weren’t in their familiar box anymore.  To quiet them my mother gave them some oatmeal and set a few solar-powered LEDs on the mesh on top of the coop to give them a little night-light.  Then three otherwise sane adults spent a rather rough night worrying the whole time about whether we would wake up to a set of tiny frozen bodies all huddled up in a row, to the point where we woke up around seven to make sure that they were still alive.

They were fine, of course, and greeted us by trying to climb around us and begging for oatmeal.

8 Weeks and Counting

As I type this the chickens are now eight weeks old.  They look like miniature versions of their adult selves, about half  the size that they will be when fully grown, and nowhere near as heavy.  Penny for example looks like this:

All of the chickens have acclimated to being outside or in their coop, and being extreme creatures of habit are used to us coming out to open their door to the outside run early in the morning, and to close them up (and maybe give them a little oatmeal, or a few mealworms) in the evening, usually around 6 or 7pm right now.  They’ve also come to love wandering around in the backyard free-range, although we’re still working out exactly how free-range we’re going to let them be.  For example, they’re an excellent weeding and pest control service, and they’re immediately by your side (and frequently underfoot) when you turn over the beds for new planting to eat any weeds, seeds, and bugs:

However, it didn’t take Pepper long to go from picking fat aphids off the bottom of the Swiss chard to pecking out holes for her and the others to eat, so we ended up fencing off most of the planted portions of the garden beds.  The fences don’t seem to have to be very tall to keep them out as long as there’s plenty of grass, weeds, and bugs available outside, as the chickens seem to prefer the path of least resistance.

It’s worth noting, however, that although they are adorable pecking through the grass, stretching their wings and rolling in the dust, they’ve already cost us at least $700 in coop-building, chick-buying, feed and straw, and accessories, and it’ll be another twelve weeks yet for them to start potentially laying eggs.  Jennifer Reese notes that you don’t really keep backyard chickens as an economical alternative to buying either chicken or eggs1, since they come with high capital costs (the coop at the very least), they still take time to produce either, and they’re likely to be kept in very small numbers that don’t lend themselves to the bulk prices that larger operations use to keep their costs small.  Furthermore, chickens lay best in their first year and slow down over time before they stop laying altogether, but they can live for up to 15 years2.  Unless the backyard chicken keeper is willing to take an axe or a killing cone to their unproductive layers, the chickens stop being food sources and simply revert to pets at that point, costing money to keep (mostly in feed) but providing no eggs.

But that’s not why we have them.  We keep them because they are cute and fun pets, because having homegrown, pastured eggs is a wonderful option that we wanted to try, and because we honestly don’t mind if they do end up as pets in their old age, toddling around the backyard.  As long as we have someone to eat the slugs, cutworms, and earwigs in the backyard, to trill musically in the morning and to expectantly run up to our feet when we come outside, they’re worth it.

. . . but I’m still looking forward to the eggs.

References

  1. Reese, J.  2011.  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch – Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods .  New York: Free Press.
  2. Coyne, K. and E. Knutzen.  2010.  The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City.  Port Townsend, WA: Process Media.
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