Chickens in the garden

Fall has arrived with its rainy vengeance and I’m beginning to pull a regular harvest of what remains in the garden.

This week I focused on the beets and carrots. Well, with the amount we planted, I’ll be focusing on them every week, but I’m not complaining.

What, you mean I have to eat rainbow carrots and beets from my garden each week? Yes please.

Being new to this backyard farming gig we created for ourselves, we didn’t fully embrace the concept of thinning the carrots. The result has been a lot of baby carrots and small beets, but we’ve still ended up with some nice beauties of both.

As the chicken run has been pretty soggy, I’ve been letting the chickens join me when I’m digging around in the garden. Grass is limited in the large run space which is something we are looking to remedy in time, but as we complete the harvest we’ll start letting the ladies graze, till up the garden, and hunt for worms.

While I miss Jackson, I have to say it’s been nice to only have hens. They are excited to see me each day and as I dig in the garden, they waddle over to investigate what I’ve found. Trying to keep them from eating the kale, chard and bok choy is a challenge, but who can blame them. Those greens are delicious.

Chicken math explained

Chicken math is well known among those who raise these birds. For most of us, something happens after you’ve watched your brand new chicks grow to pullets. The amount of chickens you intend to get doesn’t seem to be enough.

Then we meet other Chicken owners.

“Ooooooo your Black Copper Maran is beautiful.”

“I want to have some Silkies too!”

That’s how it starts for most I imagine.

For us, in March we started with 19 chicks. Ten Buff Orpingtons, five Welsummers (all female) ordered from the hatchery and four additional wild cards from the local farm store: Americauna and Mottled Java breeds,

A few Buffs didn’t make it shortly after arrival and the rest of the Buffs, except for one, turned out to be roosters instead of hens.

Our first time raising chickens has been interesting.

I tried keeping a rooster, Jackson. I adored him. I would bring my camping chair into the run and he’d come along and sit in my lap. By the time he reached 6 months, he was a jackass. I was attacked everyday. And while I know he was doing his job, protecting his ladies, I grew tired of our daily dance.

I still have a day job and I currently don’t have the capacity to manage a flock, three dogs, a stressful job and a rooster who couldn’t wait to kick my ass everyday.

He had to go.

So I posted him on Whidbey Island Backyard Farmers Facebook Page and hoped for the best.

Last week, I had a taker. She needed a rooster for her 30 hens, now we just had to catch him without injuring him our ourselves.

It took two days, about three pounds of sunflower seeds, a sheet and my husband’s capturing skills before we could secure him for travel. Within a few hours, Jackson was on his way to a larger haram. Far more than what he deserved, but honestly, I was happy he didn’t end up as Coq au Vin.

A few days later and I find myself scrolling through the Backyard Farmers Facebook page. People were downsizing and trying to find home for adolescent chickens. And as I was down quite a few chickens, I was willing to help out.

Fast forward 24 hours and my husband and I are sneaking two Plymouth Barred Rocks and two Silver-Laced Wyandottes into the chicken coop with the other ladies.

15 chicks-3 chicks+4 chicks-5 roosters-1 rooster (3 months later)+ 4 hens= beautiful flock of 14

That folks is how chicken math happens.

Rooster paranoia

Early March our baby chicks arrived and I became a mother hen in training. Since then, my husband and I have found our stride as chicken owners. The run is secure, we have automatic feeders and water systems (because, hey, we still have day jobs) and the chickens find safety in a small coop while we complete the larger one.

While the chicks were in the brooder,  we spent evenings entertained by Chicken TV which was better than actual television. We not only spent time watching them, but holding them and letting them climb over us while discussing the different kinds of eggs we’d expect. 

Just before transitioning them from the brooder to the coop, the Buff Orpington pullets loved nestling into our laps. I enjoyed watching as one would nestle down as I ran my hand gently over its head down to its tail. It was so amazing seeing how much these birds had grown in a matter of weeks.

Now, 15 weeks later, we are hearing confirmed cock-a-doodle doos.

Yes. Plural. I’m sure there are two…maybe more? 

The moment crowing happens I immediately try to identify the owner by racing out to the run quickly, but calmly as I don’t want to frighten everyone. 

Scanning the 16 potential suspects for the roo, I see no evidence. They all quickly turn back to their scratching and pecking…occasionally looking over their shoulder:

“Nope, wasn’t me!”

According to those on the “internets” this is a rooster. What are your thoughts?

A couple of mornings ago after letting the pups and chickens out at 5 a.m. The crowing began again. 
I pressed up against the back window and watched in the twilight. 

Soon I recognized two Buff Orpingtons crowing.. one right after the other and flapping their wings with pride as the glottal cackle reared from their yellow feathered throats.

Damn it! 

This is Jackson, the hen. Until I know otherwise.

Unlike the Mottled Javas and Americaunas, our Buff Orpingtons and Welsummers came from a hatchery….we ordered all female. And while I realize that there is margin for error, when you consider we ordered 10 Buffs, three which died within five days…and now two are roosters? Something’s up, or I have some bad karma to remedy.

I began consulting The Chicken Chick, YouTube, and my Facebook Group, Backyard Chicken Project. Apparently, one of the markings is the tail feathers. If they curl down and you have a “sickle” tail feather, you have a rooster. 

This is how I came to name “Jackson”…the Buff who I originally thought was doing the crowing….all the telling signs…thick legs, big feet, tail feathers bending downward like a sickle….but I haven’t seen him, or her, crow.

I make time to sit in the run watching my Buffs specifically…and over time they all seem to have rooster signs. Could it be that the hatchery sent me all males instead of females? 

I now have rooster paranoia. The struggle is real people. 

As I heard the crowing again this morning, I chose to forgo going back to bed and took a camping chair and my coffee to the run. 

I took a deep breath and for the first time in a couple of weeks took pleasure in the chicken antics: the scratching and pecking, the squealing at finding an oversized leaf, the pecking at the flowers on my boots, and the glaring curiousity as to why I’m sipping my coffee with suspicion. 

I browsed my phone and found a video showing hens crowing...as I played it, the chickens listened attentively. Maybe someone would crow, simply to copy? 

Perhaps I have a prideful feminist hen who refuses to give into her assigned role. Possibly, she’s choosing to copy the rooster representing the telling roo sign of that sickle tail feather. Or this hen was simply meant to be a roo, but it isn’t giving in until the bird gets the deserved assignment: that she is, in fact, actually a he.

If that is the case I respect that, and welcome it. How do I question nature?

Too many of us on this earth live lives for others….only because others perceive us to be a certain way, a certain person, personality…a certain gender. 

And for a period of time, it’s easier to be what others expect. Until it isn’t. Until nature rears her beautiful head forcing us to own our identity. Either in a loud cheer or fearful silence.

As I review these dynamics, one of the suspect roos clumsily makes its way in my lap. 

We looked each other over. I take another sip of my coffee and the bird settles down perching itself on my right thigh and finally resting its head on my left. 

And just like I did weeks before, I run my hand gently down from its head to tail. The bird closes its eyes. 

Relaxed.

We’ll all figure this out eventually.

Farm and garden DIY: The never ending chicken coop build

“Hey, what do we have going on this weekend?”

It’s a common question Josh asks each week. The common answer is: “Finishing the chicken coop.” 

Except these days I may insert an expletive in there somewhere.

The Chicken Palace, as we tend to call it these days, has been in progress since the end of March and I’m ready for this to be completed. It has pretty much consumed every weekend and I’m ready to get in some serious hiking.
We’ve been here for a year now and the last six months have been all about our chickens, their coop and our garden. 

The garden is fenced, planted and we are seeing great progress with our seedlings. I think we may be literally giving carrots and peas away in a couple of weeks. The chicken area though continues to be a constant work in progress. 

The run was already in place but needed some securing. The coop however is another matter. 

Josh made plans for a custom built coop. It will be a 12×12 box for our current flock of 16. Why so big? Wel we want to add chicks in the future, right? The plan is to have a slanted roof a cottage style door and window. The nesting boxes are fancy…the will eggs roll to the front. Once complete it will hold at least 40 chickens. 

Not that we necessarily want 40 chickens, but we dream big here. 

We finally have three walls framed and this structure is actually beginning to look like something may be completed one day. Today we are framing he roof and the front for the door and window. The hope is that we can complete this before the end of the month so our chickens will have a larger home and so we can start enjoying life outside our farm here and around the Sound.

Mother hen in training

I’ve started this post in my head several times beginning the day I ordered our chicks from Meyer Hatchery. I wanted to share how I anticipated the arrival of 10 Buff Orpingtons and 5 Welsummers, but the anxiety of it all and the realization that I wasn’t prepared.

Well wait. I was, but my brain gets the best of me and I’m sure like any new mom, we want the best for our new little ones. I’m a first time chicken mom and I was a wreck. When would the post office call me upon their arrival? Will the box be chirping or quiet? (Please don’t let me get a quiet box) Do they have enough water? Can everyone get to the food? Why isn’t that one moving? Are they warm enough? Too warm?

img_6238All chicken knowledge I consumed the weeks prior in preparation of their arrival just disappeared. Just keep the chicks alive….easy enough, right?

I was happy to hear them chirping from the box. And like any good mother, I had the car seat warming for them and I gently strapped them in for the drive home. In pure documentary fashion, I texted a quick pick of them all buckled in and sent it to my husband who was traveling that week.

“It’s official. You are now a crazy chicken lady.”

He had no idea.

Once I got the ladies home, it was time to place them in our homemade brooder. Here img_6231that knowledge which I thought escaped was coming back. The brooder had been prepared the night before and the thermometer read that the temperature was holding around 98 degrees. All the chicken prep reading I did said the temperature should be around 95-100 degrees the first week. If the chicks huddled underneath the light it was too cold, and if they strayed from the light it was too warm. What you want is to have the chicks form almost a perfect circle on the edge of the heat lamp.

I quickly picked each one up and placed them in the brooder after checking for “pasty butt” and attending to those affected. Before letting the chicks explore their new home, I dipped their beaks into the water I had prepared with electrolytes. Apparently, chicks need to be shown where the water is located and they take it from there. Fourteen chicks were now successfully drinking in the brooder and, for the moment, free from pasty butt, but one sweet girl wasn’t doing well.

After attempts to feed her water from a syringe, she seemed to perk up, but later in the day when I checked on the girls, she showed no sign of life. It was hard, but I know this is part of it. I tried to guess all the things that could’ve happened: the travel, the temperature, or perhaps she was smothered under her siblings. All terrible, but the truth is, death is part of this. I know this, but it doesn’t make it easy.

A few days later, the girls were getting the hang of their life in the brooder, but on day three, we lost two more of our Buff Orpingtons. I was baffled as two losses in one day could mean something was terribly wrong. Everyone was eating and drinking and I was tending gently to rid them of pasty butt twice a day. I began Googling “buff orpingtons keep dying” to see if there were other stories, but found no evidence of anything wrong. Several posters from the chicken threads I found simply stated “sometimes chickens just die.”

That night before my husband returned home, I spent hours hovering over the brooder, looking for signs of ill chicks. All of them seemed strong, except for one. She was the smallest of the bunch and I decided I would make it my mission to help her survive if I saw a change in behavior. Maybe sometimes chickens just die, but this mother hen was going to do everything in her power to keep the rest of these ladies alive.

That night I watched over the little chicks until they all one by one slowly fell asleep, not directly under the heat lamp, but in a perfect circle on the edge of the lamp. Just the way they should be.

Perhaps this mother hen knows how do take care of her baby chicks after all.