Originally published by Howling Hill
Last month WNDiN asked our readers what you’d like to see more posts on. One of the requests was for more information on chickens. I’m going to address this topic from my limited knowledge base.
First off, let me remind everyone that although Howling Hill is in a rural area of New Hampshire, we own but an acre of land. The majority of the acre is on the side of a hill so it’s unbuildable. Thus, we have limited space here. Howling Hill is surrounded by trees, predominately pine, and is heavily wooded so lots of wildlife live amongst us though mostly unseen. What I do see is tracks in the mud and snow. If it’s dry out there usually isn’t any evidence of animal life unless I see with my eyes. Generally mammals steer clear of the open space of my yard no matter how small that open space is. For example, in the four years I’ve lived here I’ve seen exactly one deer, one bear, and one fox. I have never seen a moose in the yard though I did see moose tracks in the driveway about a week after we moved here.
Despite really, really wanting chickens I was afraid they’d be a ton of work. Chickens are not. What I found is they are largely self-sufficient. I would let them out of their house in the morning and they’d put themselves to bed at dusk so all I had to do was close the coop door. Wolf built a chicken coop for the four chickens we had. We found the coop was bigger than what the four need so easily another four can be housed in the same coop. The wood Wolf used was from his work but I’ll let you read his words regarding the materials.
We got chicken feed and scratch at the feed store in Bristol though it wasn’t a lot of money. I think maybe $50. The feed went into a plastic bucket in the house and the scratch in a metal trash barrel outside. The bear tried the scratch but s/he must not have liked it because it’s still there.
The chickens we got were a cross between New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red, and Cinnamon but don’t quote me on that. Basically we got birds which were good meat birds and layers. All laid brown eggs. The reason we chose this breed is because they do well in the cold New Hampshire winter. It doesn’t seem to matter though, we culled them before the fall even set in. But I’ll get to that in a minute. My point is this: choose a bird for your needs. If you’re vegetarian and don’t plan to eat your birds get ones which are better at laying than at providing meat. If you want dual-purpose birds but don’t want to have them over the winter then get a chicken which will fatten quickly and lay good eggs.
Chickens need a red comb and waddle before they can produce eggs. Think of it like this: A girl won’t get her period until her pubic hair and underarm hair comes in. Same with the chickens. They won’t lay until their combs and waddles get big and red. Bright, bright red. You’ll know when they’re getting ready to lay because they will stamp their feet then squat which opens up their egg canal (vagina?). This is their way of inviting the rooster to service them. I found the Chicken Ladies doing this all the time, especially when I first let them out of the coop in the morning, so I put my hands on their back end and pushed down a little bit while simultaneously shaking their butts. I was firm but gentle when I did this and I found each of them would come to me looking for a little lovin’. They also looked to Wolf for this and he would service them also.
Our chickens mostly laid in the morning. Wolf picked up a couple fake eggs to put in the box to trigger their instincts and it totally worked. We found one chicken, Buffalo, picked up right away what she should do. The others learned from her I think. They do let out a squawk when they lay but it’s not super loud so you might miss it. I did more often than I heard it. I didn’t let the chickens out of the coop until after the laying was done or 12 noon came, which ever came first. Wolf made a door for me to open which was the back end of their laying boxes so I could see if their were eggs or if they were sitting. I found if I interrupted the Ladies they would go on strike and not lay in the box and lay somewhere else. Most of the time I didn’t find the eggs though sometimes I did.
The biggest problem we had was Ms. Mouthy Foxy-Fox. She ended up getting two of the four so we took the remaining two up to the Gitches who held onto them for a couple weeks then Wolf slaughtered them. We learned there is just no way we can free range chickens in this yard unless we get about 50 chickens, a couple — or at least one — roosters, and a dog or two who won’t eat the fowl but will chase off the fox. Having four was just too enticing for Ms. Mouthy Foxy-Fox. There is just too much woods around Howling Hill so flushing the fox out isn’t going to happen. Wolf’s solution is to shoot the fox but I see that as short term solution to a long term problem. After all, shooting the fox will kill the one in the yard currently but another will move into its territory once it realizes the first one is dead. My solution is to fence in a part of the yard, including the compost bins, burying the six foot fence a foot or two so the fox is prevented from climbing under it. The reality is there isn’t much you can do about the predators. The only answers I’ve come up with is “safety in numbers” and “get a fence.”
The only other problem we had, and it wasn’t a problem so much as it was a confusion, was the Chicken Ladies would take off running down the hill for my neighbors yard. Everything I read about chickens says our feathered friends stick close to home but ours were an anomaly I guess. I did train them to come to the sound of my voice. I called out “Ladies!” in a sing-song way as I banged my hand on the lid to the can of scratch. After a minute or two they would come running to get some of the scratch. I think this is why Ms. Mouthy Foxy-Fox was able to get them so easily. I called them multiple times a day and they always came running. I couldn’t think of a way to keep them closer to their house without locking them into their house. This is another reason I want to fence in part of the yard next year.
Chickens are not loud but roosters are. If you’re in the city or suburbia don’t worry about the noise. They do squawk when they lay and when danger is around but it’s not an overbearing noise like dogs who constantly bark.
Regarding house pets I was really worried Francesca (above) and Harley — our cats — would stalk and chase the Chicken Ladies but that fear was put to rest almost immediately. Both cats wandered up to the chickens in attempts to sniff and all the chickens raised their wings, squawked, and charged the cats. After that Francesca and Harley gave the chickens a wide birth. Our dog had already died so I don’t know how he would’ve reacted. I think the best advice I can give you is to “claim” the chickens as your own and to desensitize your dog. I know the Dog Whisperer has addressed dogs and chickens on one of his episodes so I can only assume he’s addressed prey drive in his books. Honestly I don’t feel I can answer questions on dogs and chickens so please don’t hold it against me! (I know you won’t =)
The chickens were happiest when there was pile of leaves to tear apart. I had this one pile I kept raking back up and every morning the four rushed out of their house, got serviced by me, then over to the leaf pile and happily ripped it apart looking for bugs. They also ate the mice and chipmunks my cats caught but didn’t eat. If I was in the garden the chickens hovered around the fence because I threw grubs out the them often. 2008 wasn’t a bad year for ticks and I’m not sure if that’s because I had the chickens or if just wasn’t a bad year. I’m hoping the former and not the latter. One thing which surprised Wolf and I was how they didn’t eat the ants. This really bummed us out because we hoped they would be a good form of ant-control. However they were completely uninterested.
That’s about all I can think of to tell you. To sum up let me say this: chickens are easy. Don’t be afraid. Go get some immediately if not sooner. And once you eat fresh eggs there is no way, NO WAY, you can go back to store bought. Ewww.