Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Call of the Chickens

In which Green Bean accepts her fate as chicken farmer.

Puff, a blue Cochin and my favorite hen

The February sun soaked over the back fence and slid down the hill, brightening every tree, bush and blade in its journey toward the house. From my desk, I watched its brilliant path broaden, saw the bugs and gnats outlined in its warmth and made out spider webs glimmering in the empty fruit trees.

The hill.

The reason we moved to this house. The hill behind it holds infinite possibilities. Room for the kids to play, dig, make mud pools, explore. Space for more fruit trees - lemon, mandarin, pomegranate, pear. A place for raised beds where tomatoes and peppers will bake in full-day sun. A lolling slope for pumpkins to creep and roam. And most of all, room for the girls to stretch their wings, dig up a few worms, and poop to their hearts' content.

By girls, I am referring to my hens, of course - three of them going on their second year of laying and the other two just a few months new to the Poultry Palace. They dirt bathe in the sun. Cluck around under the apple and fig trees. Follow any human about, looking for treats. And, if the mood is right, lay the most delightful eggs on the planet.

Fluff #2, a buff Cochin

Our first year was fraught with tears. Chicks that grew into city-forbidden roosters. A pullet that ate a screw and, well, died. Another hen who has been to the vet half a dozen times. A true chicken farmer would have offed that last one and, while I'm not there yet, I have managed to see past the drama to the land of eggs and honey.

I love my girls but I've learned that they are not your average pet. They don't miss you when you are on vacation - provided you've got someone else caring for them. They don't live as long as cats and dogs but the life I provide is much than the life they'd live on almost any "farm." The nasty ones remain nasty and sometimes are better given away to torture some other flock or grace a stew pot. You don't want to place your coop right up against your fence line because chickens are early risers and loud! And you need to be prepared for a poopy yard.

Minerva Louise, a Wellsummer, and Ginger, a buff Orpington

I've learned that it is easy to replace lost flock members, that there are many choices ranging from chick, pullet to hen, and that the breed selection is overwhelming but really really enticing. Still, I've learned to look for quieter (notice I said quieter as there's no such thing as quiet) and more docile breeds when replenishing.

And, I've learned to accept a yard full of chicken poop - but only in certain places. My girls are restricted to the hill - an unplanted dirt landscape where their poop is an offering from the gods. Not to say that my friendliest chicken, Serena, the one with all the vet visits, doesn't climb down the stairs, venture across the patio to peer into the family room window. She does, until I carry her back up the stairs and give her a firm talking to.

Serena, a Barred Rock and queen of the coop

Finally, I've learned that our eggs aren't "free", as friends often times assume. Despite all the food scraps they eat and all the free ranging they do, these girls are biiiiig eaters and consume quite a bit of organic pellets, sunflower seeds, oyster shells and meal worms. Due to a too soft heart and a not strong enough backbone, we've visited the chicken vet more than I care to count. Then, there's the cost of the coop, the run, the chicken sitters. Let's just say that $7 for a dozen for eggs at the farmers' market or your CSA is a steal! Jump on that deal if you can . . .

resist the call becoming a chicken farmer yourself.

Everyone is friends on the farm.


Melinda said...

How are the eggs???

I guess it makes sense that it's quite a lot of work and money. A lot like gardening, only taken to another level. None of this green, sustainable life is quite as rosy as the Back to Landers made it sound, eh?

I've been so jealous of those who can have chickens, but didn't realize all the drawbacks. Interesting to ponder...

Green Bean said...

The eggs are amazing, Melinda!! Beyond amazing. There are some drawbacks but I feel like I've gotten over those for the most part. I really enjoy my girls.

Farmer's Daughter said...

You know I've wanted chickens for years... I'd love to just free range in our backyard but there's no fence and the neighborhood dogs would polish off my flock in no time. What kind of a set up do you have? Did you already blog about it and did I miss it?

I'm seriously considering putting off getting chickens for another year. I keep saying NEXT spring. But I really really want them! Just not sure if it will mesh with our crazy lifestyle...

Green Bean said...

Abbie, I was like you. I went three or four springs before taking the plunge. In our old yard, we has a very urban (read tiny) backyard. It was completely fenced and I let them free range a fair bit. Our current yard is 1/2 acre! I let them free range up at the top as it is also completely enclosed but we get more hawks over here and lots of local cats. I've never had a cat go after the chickens. Mostly they sit and watch.

We built a bigger run at this house because I know there are times you don't want to let them free range - due to weather, vacation, being busy, something going on in the yard that you don't want them to get into.

I have heard quite often about dogs finishing off chickens but mine don't fly (you can always clip their wings if they do or get fatties - the Cochins - that cannot get more than a foot off the ground) so you could put up a smallish fence around an area in your yard, maybe and let them free range there?

They are quite fun to watch and the little guy would love them. I look forward to hearing about your adventures if you take the plunge.

Whitney said...

Please share the quietER and more docile breeds you recommend and which ones you would not recommend.

I didn't realize they would make a lot of noise in the morning and I'm currently building a coop ~10 feet off my neighbor's fence (to the side of their backyard). Hmmmm....


Green Bean said...

Whitney - they squawk when they lay eggs and some just chatter constantly. At our current home, we have them far enough from the neighbors that there is no problem BUT if I am out walking, I can hear them a block or two away. I remember thinking "oh someone else has chickens" and then realized that they were mine.

My experience has been that the Easter Eggers (aka Americaunas) are loud and not happy being penned up. Cochins supposedly don't lay as well (though I have two and they've been fine). The upside is that my cochins are very quiet and docile. I believe Buff Orpingtons are supposed to be that way as well but mine, while on the quieter side, is skittish as can be. I also have a Wellsummer (loud and skittish but laid ALL winter long) and a Barred Rock who is the queen of the coop and quiet enough.

Good luck! Check out my personal blog if you are thinking chickens. I write a fair amount about them over there.

Whitney said...

Thank you for your response!


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