Angela’s First Egg

Carol started and agitated cackling and strutting around in front of the nest box where Angela was holed up. Something was definitely up. The girls had grown into handsome birds, all shiny new feathers and bright red combs and wattles. Their legs had paled, which is an egg laying sign. Maybe today would be the magic ovulation day for Angela. I was as excited as an expectant mother to think that soon I would be looking at Angela’s first egg. Waiting a respectable period of time to go back out and check on the progress was difficult, but I kept myself busy with an attentive ear out to what Carol was saying.

About an hour later, I could wait no longer and quietly ventured out to the chicken run to see if Angela had exited the nest box. She had and I went in to retrieve the egg I knew she’d laid. I peeked into the nest box and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dimmer light under the tarp. Hmmm. No hard-shelled egg. Wait, what was that shiny thing? Angela had laid a shell-less egg, all tough membrane surrounding the yellow and white. I tried to gently pick it up to keep it intact, but the second I touched it, POP. Now I had a snotty mess in the straw of the nest box I needed to clean out. It’s important to keep the nest box clean to keep the wrong kinds of bacteria and bugs from moving in.

A chicken’s first egg is often not completely formed, so I didn’t panic and fear there was something horribly wrong with her. She was eating good organic food and had plenty of oyster shell calcium to snack on. The next egg proved she a capable layer. It was a small, respectable, brown, hard-shelled egg. The eggs would get larger over time as her oviduct grew. In fact, Angela has been known to lay a jumbo egg, so large the carton won’t shut, in recent days.

Tame Chicks

Marsha and Shelly were beginning to age and laid eggs less often. My thoughts turned to the prospect of buying baby chicks and raising them indoors so they would be tame and friendly. I called the farm store and sure enough, they had some Rhode Island Red pullets. Now, I was really new to the world of baby chickens and I had no idea what a pullet was. In my mind, a pullet was a chicken several months old, so I created an environment suited to teenage hens. I was surprised to arrive at the store and find out a pullet is a fuzzy, little baby chicken who hatched a day or two ago. They are called a pullet because they have gone through the sex identification process and passed as girls. I can imagine the job of sexing baby chicks must be something like, roll the baby over on it’s back, gently squeeze the belly and if a pecker comes out they go into the left chute and if it’s a hen they go in the right chute, down a conveyor belt and drop into a box for shipping?

I asked the guy who was helping me if I could choose the two I wanted. He kind of shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, which I took as a yes. He seemed irritated when I reached out and petting first one, then another, picked them up and said, “These two will do.” He popped them into a small cardboard box with holes along the top and I went on my merry way.

When I arrived home I took one look at the wire dog crate I had set up for the new hens in the kitchen and quickly realized it wasn’t going to work. I had my work cut out for me devising a containment area for something so small. I retrieved a plastic storage box from the attic and the door from an old dog crate in the garage to cover the top of the storage box. I decided the door needed to be covered with deer netting so the peeps couldn’t hop out. What to put in the bottom of the box for bedding? Apparently if you keep peeps on newspaper it will permanently splay their legs, along with getting covered in poop the babies would be walking in. Too yucky. Then I thought about sod. I was digging new garden beds and had plenty piled up, ready to use. The chicks were taken aback by the sod as this was a new experience for them, having been raised in a factory. Soon they were scratching and plucking blades of grass to their heart’s content. It’s amazing how they naturally know what to do with sod. I placed  mini food and water containers in with them and they were set.

Every day I would take the top off the box and lift them out to sit on my lap to be petted and gentled. They were amenable to the handling and soon began peeping and jumping when they saw me. They loved running around in the kitchen, checking in corners and behind things. I’d sit on the floor when I wanted them to come to me so I could pet them and put them back in the box.

As they grew, so did their personalities. My friend Angela came over one day and said one of the chickens was acting like she did, so that chicken was named Angela. The other one reminded me of my mother, so she was dubbed Carol. As they grew, I had to be sure to mark the changes in them so I could remember who was who. Angela had the bigger wattles and Carol was the boss.

They grew by leaps and bounds, big enough to climb on my shoulder, which was their favorite perch. They lost their fuzzy down and donned stiff adult feathers. Their sod had to be changed daily as their excrement became larger and more frequent. It was time to put them outside.

I created a smaller run in with Marsha and Shelly so they could all become acquainted slowly. After about a month, when the chicks were getting some size on them, it was suggested I open the door and let the young’ins out to meet Marsha and Shelly face to face. Big mistake. Angela and Carol had never known any sort of unkindness and in their youthful exuberance, they ran straight up to the big girls to introduce themselves. I stood off to the side watching as Angela went up to Shelly and said,”Hi, I’m Angela”, which Shelly responded to by jumping on Angela’s back and tearing out a bunch of feathers. Angela was dumbstruck. Then Marsha got into the act and tried to tear Angela’s throat out. I was mortified and when I could make myself move again, I had to work quickly to get the babies back in the small run and the big girls back out in their area. I was on hands and knees crawling around in the soiled bedding and under netting trying to break up the fight.

I was so traumatized, I decided to keep the big chickens separated from the babies forever. Fortunately, I still had the old chicken tractor and that became the big, bad girl’s home while the sweet, young chicks inhabited the newer chicken run.

Building a Chicken Run

Dragging the chicken tractor around on wobbly wheels lost its appeal. The tractor was heavy and when the chickens scratch and dig, they undermine it so it sits in a hole making it nearly impossible to move without herculean effort. It was time to reconsider the chicken’s habitat.

Around two sides of the garage and about ten feet away is a chain link fence. It would only take a short piece of fence and a gate to create a chicken run. Oh yeah, and reams of netting over the top to keep the girls from flying out and undesirable critters from getting in.

The gate and short piece of fence were easily installed. The netting was a totally different story. At Lowe’s, the most affordable netting was for deer, so I purchased a large roll. After scratching my head for a while trying to come up with the best plan of action, I collected all the things I thought I would need for the job- ladder, drill, drill bits and driver, screws, staple gun, extra staples, strips of wood, wire and scissors. Yes- many of the men I know are jealous of my tool collection.

First I unrolled the netting along the ground around the run. I quickly learned that deer netting gets caught on the smallest twig, root, vine, splinters on the sides of the garage, ladder rungs, even the buttons on my shirt. It became the number one frustrating aspect of creating the chicken run.

I thought the best way to secure the netting to the garage would be to staple the netting to strips of wood, drill holes through the wood strips and screw them into the garage wall up under the eaves. Or so I thought.

The stapling went well, as did setting up the ladder. I pulled up the first piece of wood, catching the netting on a rough spot of my shoe. In shaking the netting off my shoe, it became hung up on the ladder and wouldn’t disconnect. Down the ladder I went to untangle the mess. I finally made it up the ladder and with the wood wrestled into place, I attempted to screw the wood into the garage wall.

After a few jaw clenching, shoulder wrenching attempts to make the screw obey my will to melt into the garage wall, I realized it was a futile effort and came back down the ladder to get the drill bit. Having only one drill made the job even more infuriating since I had already pre-drilled the holes in the wood strips and could only reach two of the holes at a time while up on the ladder to drill holes in the garage. I had to take the screw driver out of the drill, insert the bit, drill the two holes and re-insert the driver to put in the two screws. You can see where this is leading, right?

Eons later after much cussing, climbing up and down the ladder to drill, screw and untangle, I was ready to move to the chain link portion of the onerous task. This part, I thought, should be a cake walk. My dreams were dashed as the netting caught on little rough bits of metal on the chain link and the places along the top of the fence that are folded over and the solder has popped off that grab and keep the netting like gnarled fingers. I was soon red-faced with anger.

Finally the job was finished and the tools put away. The final touch was a chicken coop made from a used shipping crate. I opted to leave the inside of the crate with an open floor plan because the chickens tended to lay their eggs in one spot anyway. I cut a small hole in the front for the girls to enter and a wide, large hole in the top half of the back of the crate for easy egg retrieval and clean-out. To complete the coop, I added two old cabinet doors with hinges and screen door hooks on the front and back doors so the coop could be closed up in cold weather.

Finally Marsha and Shelly were moved into their new digs. I opened the door to the chicken tractor and herded them over to the new run. They seemed overjoyed to have room to spread their wings and fly. Seeing their joy made all that frustration worth while.

Redneck Thanksgiving

cropped-11_09_28.jpegOne Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, some friends came to celebrate with me. We were busy creating a beautiful holiday feast and needed parsley from the garden, so I went out to fetch some.

I let the girls out to free range earlier that morning and lo and behold, both of them were pecking around in my neighbor’s yard. I went back inside and asked my friends to come help me round up the chickens. Out we trooped. I wasn’t aware that the girls would freak when they saw new people and create more work in their capture, but it sure did.

I posted one friend by the fence between the yards thinking she could keep them from going too far one way and the other friend ready to close the tractor door. As Marsha became airborne to cross the low section of fence, she spied my friend standing there, freaked and took a magnificent leap up and onto the  eight foot privacy fence between my yard and the next door neighbor’s yard. I was thinking, “Please don’t go over to the other side.” Too late, she teetered there a second before dropping over into their yard.

How can we possibly get Marsha to fly back over the privacy fence? Then I remembered the hole under the fence I had blocked with a board and cinder block, my own touch of “kountry”. I left one friend to unblock the hole and then stand out of sight while my other friend and I went around to herd Marsha through the hole. Fortunately for us, Marsha was looking low instead of high. As soon as she saw the hole, she ducked through.

While we were worrying about Marsha, Shelly took a leap over the gate and into the driveway on the other side of my yard. Our first step was to ensconce Marsha in the chicken tractor, close the door and then work with Shelly. She’s a more sensible hen and walked through the gate once we opened it and over to the tractor without a fuss. The hardest part was keeping Marsha in the tractor while we opened the door and herded Shelly in. Not what you’d call a cake walk. Round and round we went until finally everything synced and on Shelly’s umpteenth revolution of the tractor, the door opened, Marsha was out of the way, and Shelly entered the tractor.

Success. Now we can harvest the parsley and finish the feast. My friend claimed that this was the first Redneck Thanksgiving she’d ever been to.

Wild Things

Marsha and Shelly were wild girls. As chicks, they received no loving or pampering. As time went on and they came to realize my presence meant food and treats and they would come up to see what I had to offer. They had no desire to be touched, so getting them to go places I needed them to was like- well, herding chickens. Mary would tolerate being guided along with my foot, but if I ever reached out to actually touch one of them with my hand they would fly about in a panic.

Mary was notorious for going over the chain link fence between my backyard and my neighbor’s when she was let out of the tractor to graze. Usually I had to chase her back and forth along the fence line until she was too tired to fight me, which is not my preferred method of exercise. Once she ran into some netting and became tangled up, which helped with her capture and enabled me to hoist her over the fence and into her own yard.

Next time I get chickens, they’ll be babies and I’ll love ’em up so they’ll be easier to deal with when they’re loose in the yard.

Hen’s Can Crow, Who Knew?

Chicken Tractor
Chicken Tractor

A couple years ago I began my trek into chickendom. I live in town, and wasn’t sure chicken’s were allowed as pets, but one neighbor had them and no one was squawking. So I followed my motto-“It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

One evening, as my neighbor Bill and I were taking a walk, I mentioned the possibility of keeping chickens to him, enticing him with the prospect of fresh eggs every day. Bill was struck with chicken fever and before I knew it, he built a chicken tractor and was given three grown hens by a coworker. Bill was in the egg business.

Bill named the hens after three of his female friends. The Rhode Island Red was named Shelly, the Barred Rock after Marsha and the blonde hen was Cindy.

The chicken tractor was a bear to drag to a new site in the yard so Bill, being ever ingenious, took some wheels off an old baby stroller and installed them on the tractor. Rolling was moderately better than dragging.

After a time, Bill decided to give the girls some freedom and started letting them out to roam the yard a while in the late afternoon. As darkness fell, the hens would go back inside the tractor to roost for the night. Gradually, Bill increased their time out. Finally the girls had explored all of Bill’s yard and thought they should widen their territory. They weren’t aware of their neighbor’s chicken eating dog until it was too late. Cindy lost her life in the tragedy and the other two lost their freedom.

Bill eventually grew tired of being a chicken farmer and decided it was easier to buy eggs from the supermarket. He offered the chickens and the chicken tractor to me and I gladly took them.

I was outside working in the garden one day and I heard the strangest sound, was it a crow? I wasn’t sure. It definitely wasn’t a normal hen sound. A couple days later I heard it again. It was Marsha making a weak, garbled crowing sound.

Not long after that, I had some musicians who  played a gig at the coffee shop stay over night with me. In the morning I took them for a tour of my farmette. Margaret decided to give us a crow and Jim educated me about hens crowing to show they are the dominate female. And here I was, thinking Marsha was a hermaphrodite because she was a terrible egg layer.