On Preparing to Get Your First Backyard Chickens

Chickens are awesome. They just are.

And, as more people begin to figure this out, the word is spreading. I know many people who are considering backyard homesteading and want to start with chickens, and with good reason. Chickens are great producers of food, highly efficient, relatively easy to care for, sweet, interesting, smart, funny, and quirky. They’re a good homesteading animal to start with.

I dreamed of having our own chickens for years before we finally had a place where we could give them a nice coop, plenty of space, and would have the time to care for them. And, when we did get our chickens, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with them.

guiniveve

This is Guiniveve, and she has more personality than I thought a chicken could have. She’s also a great layer and just a sweet hen.

We started with 17 Rhode Island Reds, and I loved those girls from the start. They were my babies, and they changed my life. But I won’t go on and on here about how much I love my chickens or how much they have taught me; I want to focus this post on helping you answer this question:

What happens when you finally decide you can get those backyard chickens you’ve been thinking about?

I learned fairly quickly that, while chickens really are relatively easy to take care of, there’s a lot than can go wrong. So you have to be prepared going in. Preparedness is going to be especially helpful if you find that you love the little girls like I do and can’t bear the thought of losing one.

And, I’m just going to assume right now, if you get chickens, you will love them and want to learn as much as you can about them because, well, you’re probably just going to love them.

With that in mind, here’s a list of 5 tips I have for being prepared to get chickens for your backyard homestead.

Do some research about keeping chickens with good books and sites.

I’m a slow mover, so I read books and sites for about two years before we finally got our girls, but I think that’s probably a little overboard. Still, I recommend going to this site, Fresh Eggs Daily, and reading every single link on caring for chickens. The site is awesome, and Lisa Steele really knows her stuff. Her advice has saved more than one of my girls, and I am forever thankful! You can also order some helpful books here.

You should also check out these helpful resources from your local university extension office. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension office here in Maine provides a number of helpful publications on chickens as well as a number of web resources on everything from selling eggs to chicken nutrition.

Give them a home safe from predators.

Thanks to our neighbors who already had chickens, I learned about the high number of predators in our area. While it helped that my husband had grown up with chickens, I think having an awareness of the types of predators in our area also helped us make good decisions about the chicken coop.

We decided to keep it as close to the house as possible. This makes daily chicken chores easier, but it also adds protection. I have seen coops out near the woods, and those people tend to lose a lot of chickens.

Keep your coop close if you can, and having dogs around seems to help a lot. Make sure your coop is sturdy and can be closed up at night. There are just too many predators that can get at your chickens at night.

We also have two roosters, and they really do seem to help guard the flock. There are pros and cons to roosters, though, and one of them is the crowing. I like the crowing, but you should check to see if roosters are allowed in your area. Some towns will allow hens but not roosters.

Consider breed and number.

You want to consider climate, temperament, your space, and your goals as a chicken farmer when you’re choosing your choosing breed and making decisions on how many chickens you’ll get. We wanted a smart breed that was winter hardy and great layers, so we chose Rhode Island Reds for our first hens. They have been wonderful! But there are other breeds that work very well in Maine.

Here’s a link from The Livestock Conservancy that will let you download a chicken breed comparison chart. But you should also ask around; ask friends and neighbors for their experiences and recommendations.

Be aware you will have chores.

So, yeah, chickens are easy farm animals to care for, but they’re still work. As you do your research, you’ll find this out, which is why that research is so important. Chickens need fresh water every day and clean food and clean facilities. This means you will have some daily chores, which can feel a little tougher in the winter. We also shovel a run for our chickens in the winter, so it adds to my husband’s snow shoveling duties.

You’ll also need to do health inspections on your chickens to make sure all is well. But I’ve found that, if you spoil your chickens, the health inspections are easier. They don’t run too much when you try to catch them and don’t make too much of a fuss as you are investigating vents, legs, eyes, feathers, etc.

Get connected to chicken communities.

I’ve found that being connected to some excellent chicken communities has been so helpful. If I’m having a health issue with a chicken that I just can’t figure out or I’m just worried about, I can post a picture and description to the Maine Poultry Connection, a Facebook group, and get tons of help and advice. I’ve also learned so much by just following the threads and reading. There are MANY chicken communities online, and you’re likely to be able to find a community particular to your state on Facebook.

There’s a lot to consider, but I found that, once you’ve done your research and done your best to be prepared, don’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that we’ve learned along the way and things I couldn’t have been prepared for, like the time I was running around the yard trying to shoo away a hawk or the way my girls stole my heart.

Once you’ve made your decision and are ready to purchase, I recommend purchasing local if you can, but you can purchase from national hatcheries. Just be aware that some post offices seem to be more prepared for handling boxes of live chickens than others. Ours is great, but I’ve heard stories about boxes of chickens arriving without many survivors. So local purchases are really a good way to go if you can.

I wish you the best with your backyard flock, and I hope they bring you as much joy and breakfasts as our girls have brought our family!

On the Year of the Rooster

Chinese New Year is coming, and it’s the year of the rooster! This is going to mean a lot to my fellow chicken friends.

rooster
Photo credit: Paulo Morales, Unsplash

I would love to sit here and pretend I’m this cultured person who has traveled the world and fully appreciates all the beautiful cultures our big world has to offer, but the truth is that this is just what I aspire to be. So I, shameful as it is to admit, originally grew excited about the Chinese New Year because it’s the year of the rooster—and, well, if you’ve read my blog before, you know I love all things chicken.

Now, I really was always pretty interested in the Chinese New Year anyway. As I said, I aspire to be more cultured and learn more about the world, but I never took the time to dig into the history behind this lovely holiday. Then, when I saw it was the year of the rooster, I was super excited about the holiday. Shallow, I know.

But somewhere along the lines, in my daily self analysis, I realized I should research the holiday and use this opportunity to teach my son and myself a little about Chinese culture.

Before I developed this plan to learn more, my knowledge of the Chinese New Year was limited to having some fascination with Chinese astrology and finding out that I was born in the year of the rabbit. According to what I’ve read, this means I am cautious, patient, quiet, kind of a worrier, and also stubborn and melancholy. I’m like, yeah, that about sums it up. I like this stuff!

But I never really investigated the history of the holiday—until the rooster.

And what I learned with my son has us both excited to learn so much more about this holiday.

  • The Chinese New Year celebration is thousands of years old. It’s so old, there is some debate, apparently, about when it started. It’s the most important festival in Chinese culture.
  • The myth behind the holiday is that, long ago, a monster named Nian (which also means year) would come on the first day of the year and eat the crops and the livestock. But the people learned that Nian was afraid of red and loud noises, so people started decorating their homes in red and using fireworks to keep Nian away. Since the Chinese invented fireworks, this makes sense.
  • The celebration lasts 15 days, and people celebrate with fireworks, costumes, parades, and people give gifts of money in red envelopes. We learned that the money gifts should be in even numbers, and it’s considered rude to open your red envelope in front of the giver.

Of course, this is just a bit about the holiday, and it’s a fascinating event. Thankfully, here in Bangor, we’re going to be able to expand our learning about Chinese New Year this weekend. There’s a Chinese New Year parade at our local mall, and I encourage you to check in your area, as, chances are, there’s something fun and educational going on.

I have a lot more to learn, but I’m going to keep at it. My curiosity has been sparked, and my son’s has been as well. We’re headed to the library to pick up some books, and in addition to attending our local parade, we’ll be having Chinese food on Saturday.

You can read more about the history of this holiday here, and you can learn about your Chinese astrology sign here. It’s fascinating!

Also, I’ll confess, I will be taking advantage of this opportunity to get some rooster gear. I already found some flour sack dish towels with red roosters on them. My frugality goals went out the door, but I’m giving myself a pass. I mean, really…

It’s the year of the rooster!

On Becoming a Maker in 2017

I’ve always been the kind of person who is hesitant about making New Year’s resolutions, but I made a couple last year that I mostly stuck to. This has me thinking I might try this again. Last year, I resolved to simplify my life and to eat more plants. Although I still have progress to be made in both areas, as we begin a new year, I realize I am doing better in terms of living simply and eating more plants.

With this in mind, I am trying this whole New Year’s resolution thing again.

For 2017, my big goal is to become more of a Maker. You may be wondering what it means to become a Maker, and it’s a pretty broad term. Essentially, just making some of the things you need instead of being a consumer makes you a Maker. But there are, of course, varying degrees of Maker-ness.

I have been working on this for some time, but a few goals have eluded me. I am hoping 2017 will be my year.

Here’s some of the progress I have made so far:

  • I learned to crochet scarves, and we really use them.
  • I cut everyone’s hair in our family, and I am not trained in this endeavor. I just watched, learned, and bought some really nice German scissors.
  • We raise chickens for eggs, and my husband raises some chickens for meat.
  • I make home-cooked meals for almost every meal. This has saved us a ton of money and had made us healthier.
  • My husband is relentless about repairing instead of replacing.

And these are my Maker goals for 2017:

  • Learn how to knit. I want to make socks and hats!
  • Re-learn how to can jams and jellies. About 15 years ago, I was taught how and did it a little, but I think I’m just going to have to re-learn this year.
  • Plant apple trees.

And, because I love infographics, I made one to emphasize some of the many benefits of becoming a Maker and trying to leave those consumer ways behind. I also have a few fun suggestions, but I would love to hear more.

be-a-maker_686_b990a3dff5be69339ffce636ab702430c22bf217

Do you have any Maker resolutions for 2017?

On the Best Chicken Stories from 2016

It seems 2016 was a big year for chickens. From chicken shaming to chicken sweaters, chickens have been in our hearts and on our minds in 2016. People all over the country are getting chickens for their farms, their backyards, and their homes. Chickens are the pets that poop breakfast, and we love them.

cute-chickens

We learned a lot of important chicken lessons in 2016. We learned from the CDC that we are not supposed to kiss our chickens. We learned about adorable chicken sweaters and then learned they weren’t a good idea. We learned a little bit more about just how intelligent these amazing little creatures are and that eggs are actually quite good for you.

As 2016 comes to an end, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the sweetest and most important chicken stories of the year.

1. We love our chickens a little too much and need to quit kissing them.

Because homestead, backyard, and even house chickens have become so popular, we learned this year from the CDC that salmonella cases are on the rise. This story from NPR summarizes the findings and tells us that we do need to stop kissing our chickens.

When I first read about the CDC report, I thought “I love my chickens, but I’ve never kissed them.” But, after thinking on it a bit, I remembered kissing a baby chick or two. I felt compelled to write a response in “On Kissing Chickens” and have given up my baby-chicken-kissing ways.

2. Chickens like to travel, too.

Without a doubt, the sweetest chicken story to come out of 2016 is the one about Monique, the seafaring chicken, who has travelled the world. In this story from the BBC, we learned about Monique and her travels with her owner, Guirec, from France. Monique provides breakfast and friendship, and in return, she gets to see the world. The video that accompanies this story is just the best, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out. Monique’s story has to be the feel-good chicken story of the year!

3. Chicken sweaters are adorable—but not such a great idea.

I don’t know how many times I was tagged in a Facebook post with pictures of chicken sweaters, and I have to admit that I wished I knew how to knit some little sweaters for my chicky girls. But it turns out that chicken sweaters are not so good for the chickens. Chickens don’t need sweaters. They do have feathers. And, apparently, putting your chickens in sweaters can do more harm than good.

So, even though those chickens in sweaters are cute beyond all reason, it’s best to resist. Chickens need to be able to preen themselves, and here’s a great post from Housewife Plus explaining both the trend and the reasons to resist.

As is often the case, Nature knows best.

4. Chicken shaming is a thing.

As chickens become more a part of our lives, we are learning just how much fun they are, and not to be outdone by dog and cat shaming, chicken shaming became a thing in 2016 as well. If you’re a chicken lover, chances are you’ve seen the chicken-shaming posts. There’s even an entire Facebook group devoted to chicken shaming. But it’s not so easy to get your chickens to pose for a shaming photo shoot, and I learned that the hard way in my own post on chicken shaming.

5. Chickens are wicked smart and full of personality.

Anyone who has kept chickens has known this one for a long time, but chicken intelligence got some great press this year. New research keeps adding to what we know about just how smart these chickens are. This piece from Modern Farmer, “The Inner Lives of Chickens” is a perfect example. It’s good for the world to know just how intelligent and interesting these birds are.

6. Eggs are really good for you.

And, while we really don’t need more reasons to keep chickens, new research was published this year emphasizing that eggs really are good for us. It used to be that we thought eggs were bad for us because of the cholesterol, but it turns out that eggs weren’t so bad after all. In fact, there’s a lot of nutrition packed into an egg. This piece from Time sheds some light on the egg debate. Fresh Eggs Daily also provides an excellent overview of the egg in this post.

One important thing to remember is that free range chicken eggs are much more nutritious than eggs from chickens in cages or even cage-free chickens. Chickens need space and to live like normal chickens for their eggs to be healthy, and I hope we continue to learn more about this in 2017.

If you’re a chicken lover like me, I’m sure you enjoyed all the press our little chicken friends have received this year, and we’ve certainly learned some valuable lessons. No kissing. No sweaters. And, if you plan to travel the world on a boat, a chicken can be a great shipmate.

Happy New Year, chicken friends!

On Preparing Your Backyard Chickens for the Winter

It’s that time of year. The snow finally arrived here in Maine, and our chicky girls are laying fewer eggs. There’s still some molting going on, and the days are getting shorter and shorter. I saw a post on a chicken Facebook site (yes, we have those) that read “Let the freeloading begin.”

I had to giggle. Thinking about our girls as little freeloaders. I mean, they are certainly spoiled and very demanding. I can’t even walk out the front door without them running up and whining for a treat. But they do give us a delicious breakfast every morning, and with all the research about how beneficial eggs are to our diets, I think it’s okay if we have to support our girls a little as they molt and adjust to light changes. They can be little freeloaders if they need to be.

But shorter days and fewer eggs is a good reminder that we have to get our flock ready for the cooler weather, and after making it through our first fall and winter with our girls last year, I think I have some helpful tips from the lessons we learned based on both experience and lots of research online and in books.

chickens-in-snow
It took a little time, but our little Rhode Island Reds finally got brave enough to visit the snow!

1. Handling molting

If your girls are molting, they will lay fewer eggs, so try not to panic if you see egg production drop down suddenly right now. While they molt, it’s a good idea to give them some extra treats for their health. Sunflower seeds are a nice treat and can help their little bodies as they go through the molt. Of course, if yours are like mine and still molting a little even though the snow has arrived, make sure your girls have a warm place to go. I noticed our little girl who molted really hard hangs out in nest box quite a bit. Thankfully, the feathers are finally coming!

2. Thinking about light

You can supplement with light as the days get very short. This will keep your egg production from completely plummeting because chickens do need light to produce eggs. However, I read that you have to be careful with light supplements with young birds. It can lead to laying problems, apparently, if you supplement light when they are too young.

Most of our girls are in their second year now, so my husband just started supplementing with a light that is on a timer in the coop. He has it set to give the girls an extra hour and a half of light each day. The egg production right now is still not nearly what it was this summer with those long, lovely days, but we at least have enough for breakfast every day and a little sharing.

3. Keeping clean, fresh water

When it starts to get really cold, water will freeze, so you really, really have to stay on top of the water thing. Some people get heaters for the water. That is a great idea. We have an insulated coop, plus the girls put out a lot of heat, so we haven’t had to use a water heater. However, a water heater would work best if you don’t have enough warmth in your coop. And you have to make sure the water is fresh and clean every single day. Even during the winter, clean water really is the most important ingredient to chicken health.

4. Preventing chicken boredom

Be aware of chicken boredom in the winter months because it’s a real thing and will cause your girls to be mean to each other. Your chickens could get hurt. Our girls go from free ranging everywhere to only having their coop, a run, and some paths my husband shovels. We also have a few girls who do not want to go out when it’s snowy at all. So we have to find ways to get them some space and some things to do.

One thing you can do is just make sure they get as much space as possible in the snow. They really do need to get outside to play, even when it’s cold.My husband was great about shoveling our girls’ run, and we read this year about saving the leaves from your trees this fall in bags and spreading them in the snow for your chickens to walk on and peck around in. This is actually the best tip I can share. It’s genius. It gives a great use for your leaves and will really help your chicky girls. Our girls have loved this so far, and it’s the only we’ve been able to coax some of them out of the coop since they are a little worried about this first snow.

But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. Check out my infographic here for more information.

Just make sure they are healthy treats, and, of course, always keep a balanced diet in mind. But, last winter, we would share fruit and vegetable scraps, and the variety was good. Working on the fruits and veggies also kept the girls busy.

5. Protecting their combs

And, when you let your girls outside to play in the winter, you should keep an eye on their combs. If you have chickens with large combs, it’s a good idea to put some petroleum jelly on them to help keep them safe in the winter cold.

6. Preparing for the deep freeze

Finally, if you haven’t done this already, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to winterize your coop. Just as we work on winterizing our homes here in Maine, it’s important to think about the temperatures for our chickens during the long winter months and what you will do during those long cold nights.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that chickens, depending upon how many you have, do put out some heat all on their own, so you may not have much winterizing to do, depending on how many chickens you have.

You may not need to insulate your coop, but, if you do, make sure your coop has proper ventilation. This is really key. You may think that keeping out the cold is the most important thing, but you also have to keep ventilation in mind. Chickens can get serious respiratory illnesses, and no one wants that.

According to my research, chickens can be okay and temps down to about 0 degrees Fahrenheit (and maybe a little lower, depending upon breed), so I recommend just keeping a thermometer in your coop to allow you to keep an eye on things.

Our coop is insulated, so we only had to heat our coop a couple of times last winter, though some people will argue you don’t have to heat at all. In fact, unless you are really careful, it may be best not to heat. My husband built a cage to go around a small oil heater, so it didn’t put out much heat and was safe for our girls. It just kept temps above 0 degrees during the worst nights of February.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list but should help you starting thinking about adjusting to the cooler temps. If you have other tips or advice, please share in the comments section. It would be great to hear your tips as well!

And, remember, stay warm, my chicken friends!

On Chicken Treats in Winter

Winter is upon us, and I don’t know about your chickens, but most of our chickens are hesitant to leave the coop. “Snow. I’m not touching that stuff,” they seem to say.

But we have a few brave souls who will venture out, and, if our girls are anything like they were last year, eventually, most everyone will get cabin fever and have to venture out.

The winter months feel tough, and I worry about both boredom and health issues. The good news is that you can supplement a balanced chicken diet with some healthy and entertaining treats to help your backyard flock during our long Maine winters.

I created this winter treat infographic to share some treat ideas. But these are just a few ideas for healthy treats. What are your go-to healthy treats to keep your flock happy and healthy in the winter?

https://magic.piktochart.com/embed/18936278-winter-treats-for-chickens

On the One Bad Day: Processing Chickens

I’ve tried three times in my life to be a vegetarian. The longest I ever made it without eating meat was about 9 months. One day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I went to a local burger joint and scarfed a giant cheeseburger. It was so good, and though I felt quite guilty, I decided that this would be the last time I tried to be a vegetarian. I’m just a darn omnivore, I suppose.

The reason I wanted to become a vegetarian is pretty simple: I love animals and didn’t want to eat them. Even now, ten years after my last attempt at becoming a vegetarian, part of me doesn’t want to eat animals, and that’s making this weekend an extra difficult one for this wannabe chicken farmer.

Earlier this summer, my husband and I purchased some broiler chickens as a part of our efforts to become more self-sufficient and frugal. We didn’t purchase the Cornish Cross chickens because they seem to have a lot of problems related to growing too quickly. We wanted a bird that could get around and have a good life—right up until his or her “one bad day.”

So we purchased some Freedom Ranger chicks and have had good luck. They take longer to develop than the Cornish Crosses, so they are not as much of a cost-saver. However, according to some experts, the meat tastes better because they can live a natural chicken life. We’ve not lost any birds to health issues or predators, and, well, unless something happens today, we’ll have had success in raising them.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-11-21-26-am
This is the biggest rooster of the Freedom Ranger bunch, and he’s pretty magnificent and only a couple months old. I’m convinced he’s looking at me here like he knows what’s up.

Tomorrow is their “one bad day.”

My husband and I picked up this expression after watching a Michael Pollan documentary. In the film, a pig farmer discussed her struggles killing her pigs that she has cared for so much. She admitted to having a hard time, but she focused on making the pigs’ lives really good ones so that they just had “one bad day,” the day of their deaths.

This seemed profound to me, and my husband and I have made this our focus. We have worked to make sure they have had good lives.

The birds we have are pretty tame and curious and busy, and they also learned quickly how to get what they want from me and my husband, especially my husband.

As an aside, in an effort to protect me, my husband has done most of the raising of the broilers. I mostly handle the layers; they get to be my babies. And my husband mostly handles the birds for meat.

So my husband, who is definitely a believer in the good life until the “one bad day,” has taken those chickens more scones than I can count and has ensured they’re never without fresh food, water, and a clean place to live and play.

But, this weekend, the “one bad day” is upon us, and there’s definitely a tension in the air.

When we first decided we wanted to be hobby farmers, I did a lot of reading about farmers who love animals, eat meat, and struggle emotionally with the killing of their animals. It seems it’s quite common for the dread to creep in the days before “processing.” That’s where we are. Tomorrow is the day.

My husband says I don’t have to help, but I want to. First of all, it’s a lot of work, and this whole “self-sufficient farm thing” was my idea too. I don’t work outside the home as much as I used to, not nearly so much, so I do see the work on our hobby farm as my responsibility as well. But, second, it feels important to me. I feel like I should mourn those birds. I feel like I should have to know where my dinner is coming from and what the costs of it are.

I don’t know how much I’ll be able to write about it. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to be the blogger who provides the step-by-step support for the process, as some helpful bloggers do—at least not for some time. But I hope to share what it feels like emotionally, and I do hope to be able to share some tips about things people can do to ensure a humane death for their chickens. We have done a lot of research. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

If nothing else, a goal I have for my writing is to help raise awareness about our food we eat. It’s way too easy not to think about where our food comes from. I think we should have to think about it, at least some. I think we should give thanks to the animals.

And we’ll see how I do with this. This time next week, I may be on another quest to become a vegetarian. I really hope not.

One day last week, a little girl from our neighborhood was at our house playing with our youngest son when she saw the coop for the broilers and asked why it was smaller. “How will they have room to lay eggs?” she asked. I told her that these birds would never lay eggs, that they were for meat. I worried about how she might take it.

“It’s a little sad, yes?” I asked her.

“It is,” she said, “but at least you’ll have food.”

Wise words.

On Our Mobile Chicken Coop

This week was a big week for the Sands “Coop”eration. My husband built a mobile chicken coop for our broilers we purchased last month. The babies had been living in the brood box but were big enough to make the move outside, and we needed something sturdy for them to sleep in at night. We do live near the woods after all!

We are learning to be a little more self-sufficient all the time, and since we’re not vegetarians (I have tried and failed several times), we decided to get broilers or “meat birds.” We believe that, if we’re going to eat meat, we should know where it comes from. And, we’re taking it one step further and doing it ourselves.

At least that’s the plan.

It’s not going to be easy to kill our own food, but I’ll write and worry more about that another day. We’ve been watching videos and reading about humane and respectful deaths for chickens, but, for now, I’ll just say that I’ve tried to be very careful not to get too attached to the broilers.

Food; water; how are you doing? In and out.

Unfortunately, these birds are extremely docile and friendly, much more so than our Rhode Island Reds and ISA Browns. Our layers are more mistrustful, and you have to earn their trust. The little broilers just come right up to you, all sweet and curious.

Thanks, universe, for making this even harder. Just what I needed, right?

But we are, of course, of the notion that we want these birds to live a merry life, though it will be a short one, so my husband built them some nice accommodations this week, complete with wheels, so they can move to different parts of the yard and explore new areas.

This week, I share some of his process and the beautiful end results.

framing the coop
Here, my husband is just getting it started. As someone who can’t build a thing, I’m so amazed that this is the beginning of something so substantial.

 

bottom of chicken coop
My husband has framed out the bottom of the coop here. In an effort to be frugal, he used a lot of parts and scraps he had around. The “mobile” part of the coop was built in an axle he created. He used our son’s old bicycle wheels for the “mobile” part of the coop.

 

Entire frame for chicken coop
And it’s looking like a chicken house!

 

Mobile Coop Finished and Red
Here it is finished and in action. My husband very creatively built a slider system to make it easier to get into the coop for cleaning and feeding and watering. He used shower rollers on the roof for the rolling. I’m pretty sure he could have been an engineer.

 

Moving the Coop
And here’s the mobile coop being mobile. Of course, our youngest had to help, and he was a great help. He helped scoop up almost every one of those chickens.

 

Chicken Coop in the Trees
Here are the chickens with their new home. My husband built a large temporary run and even a little gate. The chickens seem to be in heaven out there!

Ultimately, it seems like a beautiful little place to be a little chicken. The chickens run around during the day and sleep in their sturdy little red house at night.

I think we need a sign above the door though, like the one we have over the door of our main chicken coop, but I don’t know what it should say. The grim part of me thinks it should read “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” or “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” I mean, I know what’s coming. I’m a little worried and have a bit of dread.

But I think my husband’s idea is better: “It’s a merry life but a short one.”

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, my husband just kind of invented his way around in creating this mobile chicken house, but if you’re interested in building your own, here are some resources.

On Counting to 16 (and Some Tips on Buying Eggs)

image of eggs

Since my blog last Friday, we lost one of our chickie girls. If you’ve been following my blog since the beginning, you’ll know this was tough to take. If you read my On Counting Your Chickens post, you’ll know how much I worried about losing a girl.

Chickie Girl #17 didn’t have a name because we can’t tell our Rhode Island Reds apart, and now that she’s gone, it seems even more tragic that she didn’t have a name. But she was loved as a part of my collective “girls” and loved with all of my heart. We do so much to protect our girls from predators and work so hard to give them a healthy, happy life that it was especially hard for me to take it that we lost her to a health problem she had related to laying eggs. She had a prolapsed vent, and, apparently, not all chickens die from this, but our girl did.

It was a sad night.

I was cooking a late supper, and my husband came to the kitchen door and said, “I think tonight might be the night.”

It was the night I had dreaded—and the night we spoke about so often. Our girls free range most days, and they just can’t stand it otherwise. And even though we do a “chicken count” many times a day, we will sometimes get busy and not count as much. So, when the girls come into their coop at night, it’s always an extra relief when you do your final count for the night and get 17. But, this night, there would be just 16.

I cried harder than probably a grown woman should, said goodbye to her as she lay in my husband’s arm, and watched as my husband buried her in the backyard near the woods, where the beloved pets of the previous owners of our house were laid to rest.

I wasn’t going to write about this experience. It seemed wrong, like I was exploiting her death. I also worried about sounding a little too much like the crazy chicken lady because I was so broken up over the death of one of our chickens. But something happened this week that made me think I really need to tell this story.

As I was mourning the death of Chickie Girl #17, I took a moment to mourn the bigger picture—the animals who are unfortunate enough to live on factory farms where they are abused and subjected to the most inhumane treatment. Our girl’s death reminded me to remember.

Then, this week, this story hit our local news about an egg factory farm here in Maine where the chickens are, apparently, living in deplorable conditions. According to the news, the state is now investigating, but, for me, this story is just another example, another reason why we, as consumers, need to force change with our pocketbooks.

I don’t want to be preachy, but factory farming in our country is awful for the animals and awful for us. I certainly won’t get on my soapbox about the conditions in factory farms for all animals, but I will do this: I want to share some options with my readers about getting eggs and share why I think these options are important. My goal is to be helpful and help spread the word about better alternatives to factory-farmed eggs.

First, if you can, it’s certainly best to buy eggs from a local farmer you know. Just driving to a friend’s house a few miles away on Route 9 yesterday, I saw several signs up from local farmers selling eggs. If you can see where the chickens live, that’s even better.

image of eggs
We have Rhode Island Reds, so all of our eggs are brown. But there is such variety in terms of shade, speckles, and shape. These are like little treasures to me, and we sell them to friends and neighbors, who also seem to appreciate these eggs.

It’s important that chickens are allowed to be chickens. They need to be able to spread out, be social, eat bugs, complain about the little things, like somebody else being in one certain nest box when five others are clearly available. If you live in Maine and are reading this blog, I’m guessing you probably even have a friend selling eggs. It seems like chickens are everywhere here. Take advantage of this.

If you don’t live in Maine, I want to share some links that might be helpful.

  • EatWild offers an interactive map to local farmers who raise grass-fed animals. The site does not guaranty each farm, but each farmer has signed a statement about the way their animals are raised in order to be listed with this organization.
  • Agrilicious.org is a site devoted to connecting people with local farmers. Local farmers and artisans can sign up to share information about their goods, and you, as a consumer, can get connected.
  • Of course, be sure to check out your local farmer’s markets. In addition to getting connected to local food and handmade goods, they are just fun. This site, from the USDA, lets you search for local farmer’s markets by your zip code.

If you’re busy and feel you don’t have time to buy local, then it’s important to be aware of what the labels mean on the egg cartons at the grocery story. “Cage Free” is not necessarily good, and most of the labels like “All Natural” don’t mean a thing at all. You want to look for “Certified Humane” and/or “Pasture Raised.” I found this great article from NPR that provides interpretations for all of those labels on your egg cartons. It’s a huge help.

Having chickens of my own has taught me just how unique and important each little life is. I still eat meat, but we are working very hard to only buy our meat from places where the animals are allowed to be animals and live a good life while they live—or raise the animals ourselves.

Our little chickie girls are funny, interesting, and each one is unique.

curious chicken
This is one of our curious girls. I was taking pictures of the chickens at snack time, but this little girl seemed way more interested in my camera.

Some are mama’s girls, some are daddy’s girls, and some are just their own girls. Some are scared of a new bowl, the baby ducks, and maybe their shadows. Some are way too bold, in my opinion.

Right now, we have a broody hen, who is so grumpy when we take her eggs, but we have to because we have no rooster yet. So my husband takes her grapes in the evenings, her favorite treats, and he talks to her while he reaches in and takes the eggs. She calms down when he talks to her. She lets him rub her little beak and head, and she talks back. I watch this in awe—two species, unable to communicate with each other, but the chickie girl seems to somehow understand my husband means her no harm. It’s a powerful sight to see.

It was a tough week for the Sands “Coop”eration with the loss of one of our girls, but I hope that telling her story can help just one more person decide not to buy eggs from a factory farm anymore.

On Chicken Shaming

You may have seen the images of the chicken shaming that have been going around social media in the past few weeks, and I hope they made you smile as much as they made me smile. The one about the chicken who ate the mouse whole really made me giggle. I haven’t seen my girls do anything like that, but I have seen them take down some pretty large and pretty gross things, mainly fat grubs.

The images got me to thinking about my own girls’ behavior and how hilarious our chickens are. They make me laugh all the time, though they can also be a real pain sometimes, and those chicken shaming images made me want to share with the world how wonderful, awful, funny, and wild our chickie girls are.

Now, let me tell you, shaming your chickens is not as easy as it seems. I don’t know about other people’s chickens, but my girls are pretty tame. Yet the first time I tried to hang a sign on one’s neck, I felt like the worst chicken mama in the world! My poor sweet girl was so scared and seemed convinced the sign was going to be the death of her. Needless to say, this broke my heart and made me realize that I was going to have to find an easier way to shame my chickens and share their cuteness with the world.

I could only manage a few, as word spread quickly amongst the girls that mama was up to no good, so I could only put the signs I made near the “guilty” chickens in question. It worked pretty well overall, but I have many more stories to tell, like how the chickens have completely dug up our yard or how they moan and groan and squawk and cry to the high heavens until they are let out to free range each day.

But I’ve captured some of what it’s like to live with chickens, I think. I love these stinkers!

chicken with small egg

I don’t even know how this happens, but, a couple of times, one of the girls will lay a mini egg. It’s adorable but not worth much. There’s no yolk–at least there wasn’t a yolk in the first one we found. But, of course, I’m fine with a tiny egg every now and then. It’s just too funny that this happens.

This next one is Guineveve, and she’s one of our newer babies. She’s an ISA Brown, and we found out that this breed originated in France. Unlike our 17 Rhode Island Reds, each of the ISA Browns looks a little differently than the next one, so we’ve been able to name these girls.

Guinevieve is the most beautiful to me, but she’s also the most aloof. She lets us pet her, but she doesn’t come running to us like the other girls. And, most worrisome, she doesn’t seem to like hanging out with her sisters very much. She even roosts by herself at night.

Well, this week, we thought we’d lost her, our first loss. If you read my original post on counting chickens, you know how much I worry about losing one of our girls. Guinevieve seemed to be our first casualty this week.

It was time to put the little girls up for the night, and my husband said he could only find 7 of 8 baby girls. The girls are sleeping in the garage right now, so I was sure our chicken was somewhere in there. But, when I went outside and looked at the baby girls, I realized the missing girl was Guineveve! Considering her loner behavior, I thought maybe she was really gone.

Hiding Chicken

I thought surely she had flown out of the open garage door and had been chased into the woods by one of the bigger chickens, only to be eaten by a fox, hawk, bobcat, or some monstrous, chicken-eating creature in our woods. It was getting late, and we looked for an hour with flashlights, calling for her. I was crying, and my husband seemed to feel so badly. I was trying so hard to tell myself that I had to deal with this kind of thing, that this kind of thing has happened to our neighbors times 10, times 20! I had to be tough.

I kept going back and looking in the garage, just to be safe, but still, just 7 of 8 little girls. But, then, after a little more hunting, my husband said, “I wonder if she’s still in the garage somehow,” and it dawned on me–I had not looked up really high. I just assumed she could not get up to the rafters in our garage.

Guess what! That’s where she was! When I opened the garage door, looked up, and saw her little white tail feathers, I was happy, relieved, and bemused that this little stinker had caused such a commotion. So we still have Guinevieve, but she’s getting shamed this week!

chickens with sign about squirrels

And, though I love our chickie girls more than I can say, I have to admit that the girls can often be stinkers–even a little mean. I have to stay on them and “be the rooster” sometimes, but, when they can, some of them will be little bullies. This spring, several of them have taken to bullying the poor little squirrels in order to take the seeds from the squirrels we feed. Or, perhaps, they do it out of spite because I see how enviously the chickens look at the squirrels when the squirrels are running free in the mornings while the chickens are still waiting to get out of their pen. I’m pretty sure those squirrels are getting the evil chicken eye.

So, this week, my mean girls get shamed as well!

Finally, after spending this morning “chicken shaming” and scaring some of my girls half to death with my little signs, my husband said that I should be shamed myself. I think he’s right. Our little chickie girls are sweet and beautiful and, sometimes, downright ornery, but I never want to make them feel badly. So my final sign is for me.

author shamed

And, since I wasn’t able to tell all of my girls’ ornery stories via pictures, I’ll just have to tell more stories in the weeks to come. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from raising chickens, it’s that those girls are always up to something and always completely entertaining!