Our Silver-Laced Wyandotte hen died yesterday.  She had been in the nesting box when I went out to get eggs the evening before, which was odd.  I told her at the time that I was taking the eggs because I did not want her to get broody.  They will do that if we leave eggs in there for a few days; instinctively they want to hatch the eggs that are there.  At the time, she was warm and calm.  They are always calm at night time.

The next morning when I went to open the coop, she was in the nest box still, but her head drooped over the edge – eyes closed, unresponsive, cold

I double-bagged the body and disposed of it (her), with little ceremony but with respect.  The other three hens seem healthy and do not show signs of missing her.

I’m sorry, little chicken, I hope your life with us was ok.  I hope you are in a happy place.

Separated from Water

After almost 3 years as a chicken wrangler, I thought I’d pretty much seen our hens at their best and worst.  I know when they are agitated and when they are serene.  I know how they react to dusk, dawn, thunder, lightning, hail, snow, sleet, and sunshine.  By the way, a leaf rake agitates them a TON more than lightning (they just stand around), or hail (they just keep skritching through the yard), or thunder (not their issue).  If they have their basic needs met, they are truly unflappable.  (And yes, I DO think “pun intended” there.)

However, one day a few weeks ago, I tried an experiment with their water supply.  Since it was such a lovely set of days, I set their 5-gallon gravity-fed water container out in the chicken yard, as opposed to in the actual chicken coop.  The girls were out wandering in the chicken yard all day anyway, and they could just swing by the water out in the bright sunlight to sip at their leisure.

At night, as is their wont, they put themselves to bed on the roost in the coop.  I always go out at dusk or dark to shut the door to the coop.  We’ve never had a problem with predators bothering the hens, but there is a pesky possum (or an ornery opossum – depending what your level of ‘animal labeling puritanism’ is) that comes into the coop and eats the layer pellets.

Rather than move the water back in to the coop, I decided to leave it in the yard and remember to go out first thing and let them back out so they could get a drink early in the morning.  Although I DID go out in the morning, it wasn’t first thing, and they’d gotten thirsty without any recourse.  One of them had pecked into one of the eggs they’d already laid that morning – I guess thinking there was liquid there.  That egg was ruined.  This is the only time – except for the deformed eggs that Steve had been laying for quite some time; those also got pecked, but that was because the shell hadn’t been completely formed – that our hens had tampered with the product of their biological imperative.

I betrayed them.  They trusted me to care for them.  Really, they only ask me for food, water, a place to lay, and a place to sleep.  I learned this:  CARE for your people, your charges, your tribe, your flock.  Commit.  And try not to make excuses when you let them down.

Winter Quarters

You know how Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark finally decided at some point to stop for the winter and quit hiking?  They looked at each other somewhere in the Dakota Territory or Montana (or whatever THAT was before it was Montana) and said, “dang, it’s gettin cold up here! Maybe we should build a fire and get some firewood and food and hole up until Spring?!”

Well, we’re not explorers, nor have we built a fire.  But that’s not to say that suburbia (I’ve warned you before!) isn’t fraught with danger.  You’ve got to keep a weather eye on things so you aren’t caught by surprise by the bad stuff the world can throw at you.

All I’m really saying is that a week or two ago I put the winter boarding up on the chicken coop.  I also cleaned out the crappy hay (literally) (pun intended), and used most of a fresh bale of hay (straw really) (cuz they don’t need nutrition out of the hay – otherwise I’d NEED to buy straw) for the girls to scritch around the coop.

Also, I’ve been reading my chicken resource book, “The joy of keeping chickens: The ultimate guide to raising poultry for fun or profit”, by Megyesi.  That book says the hens need only 1 box per 5 hens as a laying box.  We built the coop with 5 boxes – one for each hen.  Our thinking was this would be an UPSCALE coop, a desirable property, the sought-after zip code.  All it really did was make 4 unused boxes, and me climb past the hanging feeder, around the waterer, under the roosting 2 x 4, and into the last box on the right – the least convenient box out there.

I removed 4 of the boxes and put only one roosting box right straight back from the door.  Easy for me to step in the coop (only one step which makes poop avoidance easier) and retrieve the eggs.

I haven’t covered the door with the winter wood yet.  It’s not too cold and they get so bored in there with nothing to look at.

A chicken’s gotta dream, right?

No new brothers and sisters for the “Gang of Five”

I’ve decided that we are going to have to withstand the temptation of the new little chicks at Tractor Supply this year. I want to get a few Auracanas, or Amuaricanas, just to spice things up. They supposedly lay a ‘rainbow-colored’ egg. But I’ve yet to see one. City ordinance limits a “domicile” to no more than 6 hens, and we already have 5. I’d hate to add just one little chick, because of the loneliness factor, and that would put us in VIOLATION of city ordinance. Which, honestly, wouldn’t be that big of a deal, except if I am going to fight City Hall, it’s not gonna be on that hill. I’d much rather tussle with them over trash hauling, or sewage rates (who’s gonna gripe about paying someone to flush poop away?), or even whether I should park my trailer in the yard or beside the yard or on the street or in the driveway.

But, see, in the world of us chicken farmers, every little dollar counts. And if we go buy some of those rainbow egg layers, then we gotta go buy chick starter/crumble. We gotta go buy chick-sized oyster shell. We gotta get the tub out of the shed and set it up in the laundry room again. We gotta set up the heat lamp again. We gotta get the sawdust out again. The water thingy again. We gotta name ‘em. We gotta make more chickerchiefs for them. Wait a minute; I think I am talking us back into buying some baby chicks. I better stop trying to convince ourselves that this isn’t a moneymaker.

The chickens helped me roto-till the garden the other day. It’s warm enough in south-central Kansas to get the garden ready, and I’ve been throwing the winter’s poop-laden hay on the garden plot. I figure as long as that stuff is under the soil, it will eventually help the ground. In Papua New Guinea, we’d say, “long mekim giraun kirap nogut na givim strong igo long ol plant”. Or something close to that – “klostu liklik ol toktok bilong ol gaden”. Mipela no inap ‘expert’ tasol mipela igat sampela save long groim ol gaden plant nabaut”. What I mean to say is, “We aren’t garden experts but we have some knowledge about how to grow stuff in the gardens”.

Anyway, good help is hard to find, but our Gang of Five are quality help. They are always happy to go the extra mile to get any loose bugs, or seeds, or earthy morsels cleaned up just for us. I wonder if they could use a couple more helpers?


So I went out the other night to put the dog away, which I usually do between 9 and 11 pm. Kenzie always comes up to the sliding glass door to the backyard when I open it, because we like to talk and stuff. I heard him trot for the door when I opened it, but noticed the sound was coming from a different part of the yard than his pen.

I also noticed that the door to the chicken coop was wide open. This was odd because I am usually the sole wrangler for the day, and I know I’d kept the door shut in the morning. As a matter of fact, I’d texted Jacob to ask him to get the eggs from the roost boxes. It was a cold day and I’d gone to the gym and work already – but didn’t want the eggs to freeze before I got home after dark. I surmised that when Jacob had gotten the eggs, he left the coop door open so the chickens could run around, which is very normal me to do.

There was no harm done, even though I do worry about critters getting into the coop after dark; there is still some animal that occasionally poops on the roof of the coop. So I know there is something wishing it could eat the chickens. Once I walked over to the coop with my flashlight it all became clear to me.

It turns out Kenzie was sleeping in the hay of the chicken coop. I believe that he knew they’d feel safer, he’d feel warmer, (although he has the same kind of hay and a similar wind-free zone in his pen), he’d be less lonely. But most of all, I believe he knew the chicken’s safety mattered to ME, and he loves me so he took it upon himself to protect my stuff.

Still learning. Even (maybe especially) from my dog.

Happy hens lay happy eggs

Winter is coming around the corner and it is time for all good ranch hands to cast their thoughts to the livestock’s health during the coming blizzard.  Whether wrangling thousands or just a few (like 5), every good wrangler plans for animalian comfort.  I’ve been told many times by experts that “chickens are hardy birds; you don’t have to worry about them in the winter”, but I still want to maximize their comfort in order to eat happy eggs.  Happy hens lay happy eggs.  Chilly hens lay unhappy eggs, and wet hens lay mad eggs.  (Tell me you’ve heard of the phrase, “mad as a wet hen”).

We now have electricity out at the coop as well as in the tool shed.  I only ran a GCFI extension cord to those places, rather than lay wiring underground in UL-approved-whatever, but we have a light out at the coop now, with 2 more outlets to power an anti-ice device (still to be purchased) as well as their heat lamp from chick days.  If we have a run of  zero to 10 above temp days like last winter, I’ll feel more comfortable with some heat out there for them.

I also installed a semi-permanent light in the shed.  When these days get shorter, I end up feeding and watering the animals either before sunup or after sunset.  It’s nice to know that when I reach into the feed bags that there aren’t any mice or crickets in there.  One time a mouse was in the dog food.  That was enough.  I check every time now because while mice can co-exist with me, they are NOT welcome to share the shed or it’s food with me or my people. Just no.

The hens seem really content these days.  They are laying faithfully and eating well.  They still only use the 1st 2 south boxes of the five laying boxes, but that’s ok.  I am the only one who seems to be bothered by the asymmetry of that.

We had a hailstorm about a month ago.  New roof on the house is already on and is already (mostly) paid for.  Insurance companies hand out SOME money pretty quickly, but are a little slower on the balance.  We are grateful that the house was done so quickly and the weather has been dry for all our neighbors to get their roofs done as well.  I asked the shingling crew for some extra shingles, if they had any when they were done.  They left me two opened bundles.  I used the two bundles to put a real roof on the coop.  It works famously, and the fresh hay I put in there after roofing is still dry, fresh, and fragrant for the girls.

Enjoy the fall weather while you can; it’ll be too cold for “chimenea time” before you know it.


Chickens inspecting the dog pen

Just when I thought there was order, routine, sanity, and precision in our backyard.  I went out last night, as is my wont (which means “my habit, or usual routine”, not a misspelling of ‘want’ or won’t’) to see that all the animals were safely in their places for the night.  Kenzie the dog does NOT like fireworks, so I give him a little extra attention to keep him loved and feeling safe.  We let him hang out in the shed the next few nights, because it has thicker walls and will insulate him from the sounds of the firecrackers better.  Lots of veterans do that too.  Remember “Born On The 4th Of July”?  We try to keep Kenzie’s flashbacks to a minimum.

Yeah, so the loss of order – that’s where I started.  The chickens, who I ASSURED you (from the results of my scientific study) always lined up the same way were in a different pattern.  This time, it was a Barred Rock, 2 RIR’s (do ya get that abbreviation?), another BR (how about THAT one?), and then the last RIR.  What does THAT mean to my life of order?!?!

I’m gonna go with this answer.  I now believe they are merely exhibiting good manners and taking turns getting to sleep by the wall.  Maybe the wall has the most secure feel.  Maybe the end has the least secure feel.  Maybe it’s like when you go to a movie with a bunch of friends and can’t decide who you simply HAVE to sit between.  I now say they all love each other, in a chicken way.  The best way to show that love is to share it equally.  Remember “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (the movie, with Jane Seymour)?  He says something like “I love you; would you have me do so… stintingly?”  (which means grudgingly or tight-fistedly).  I think these five girls love each other unstintingly – and that’s why it’s ok to switch the sleeping arrangements around at night.

Scientists don’t mind being wrong; especially if it’s in the name of love.

The Line-up

I appreciate the consistency of the chickens when they get on their roost at night.  I tend to go out right at dusk or a little after, to make sure they are in, secure, alive, calm.  They always line up near the north side of the coop.  The right as I stand and look into the coop.  From the right, it’s 2 Rhode Island Reds, then a Barred Rock, then a Rhode Island Red, then the last Barred Rock.  So far, in my non-scientific study, they follow this pattern every night.  I wish, for symmetry’s sake, that the colors and breeds would be strictly alternating, but I don’t think they care about the color scheme.  Steve might, I guess.  But what can one misnamed chicken do?

They are fully grown now.  They’ve lost their chickie voices, and use their ‘young female out in the cruel world’ voices.  As I herd them back in their coop after a few hours of backyard time, they murmur to themselves about the injustice of it all.  “What is that green stickie thing he keeps waving and clicking at me?” “I know there were more bugs to get – why didn’t he let me finish that?” “Is that dog gonna chase me today?” “There’d BETTER be fresh feed in the coop when I get back, or I swear someone’s gonna be SORRY.”

When I open the coop door they hop out and fly with exuberance.  Only 5-10 feet, though, and it isn’t an ESCAPE type of flying, it’s just an excitement to be out of the fence.  Like Hancock when he jumps out of the prison fence to get the basketball and comes right back in.  I am surprised that they usually skip the vegetable garden.  I would think they’d like to scratch around there; lots of bugs for sure on the zucchini plants, as a matter of fact, they could really help me out there by eating all those.  Must not be their brand of bug.  They usually head for the flower gardens which have lots of close, concealing foliage.  They migrate then to the butterfly bush, then the crabapple tree, a quick trip by the trailers, and then through the honeysuckle.

That puts them in Angie’s potted herb garden, which is usually good for a few minutes of scritching.  They love to head for the wood pile.  On it, beside it, behind it, around it – they do that whole race course several times.  If I haven’t come out to put them away yet, they start the whole thing over – double checking past scritches, and making new ones along the way.  You never know what could have shown up since the last lap.  May as well check it out.

Fresh Eyes

I feared this day.  The day that I would say to myself, “there is nothing special to say about the chickens; why keep writing about them?”  They’ve become a fixture in our backyard.  They come out and scavenge the yard when I open the gate.  They go back into their coop without mayhem.  The dog doesn’t practice pinning them.  They don’t try to escape the confines of the yard’s fence.  There are no more food or water tipping over adventures.  Angie doesn’t sit on the “observation stool” and watch them anymore.  We can’t pick them up and cuddle them.  They don’t gently peck at food in our hands – their beaks and necks are too strong.

But as we sat on the patio yesterday, fresh coffee in our Pier One mugs, Angie with her crossword puzzle, me with the rest of the paper, we got to see what still makes our chickens special.

They walk around the yard delicately.  They’d be good archaeologists, because they examine everything with fresh eyes, even if they just saw a thing the previous day.  They climb on the limbs from the Lacebark Elm (the ones I had to cut so the Dish could still get the download from Satellite 129 – the high def one) as if they are newly placed there and could have loads of bugs or caterpillars on them.  They traverse the wood pile like Everest Sherpas threading their way through the Kumbu Icefall (which is, historically, way more deadly to Everest climbers than the actual summit attempts are).   I know there are some old fence boards with nails on the wood pile, but the chickens don’t act AFRAID of the wood, they act FASCINATED by it.  I am so guilty of glossing over the things of my life; once I’ve labeled a thing, that is what it is, and I no longer need to study it.

We watched our chickens go into Kenzie’s pen and do the ‘double scratch and hop back’ maneuver to see what they’ve uncovered.  Yes, it’s the same dog pen they’ve been in every time they are let loose.  Doesn’t matter; today could be the day they make a life-changing discovery.  Remember Kurt Russell, in the movie “Miracle”, yelling “Fresh Legs, fresh Legs!” at the end of the match against the russians?  I hear that voice when I study the chickens, except it is saying “fresh eyes! fresh eyes!”.

Man, I wish I could remember to do that.