On Telling the Chicken Industry to Slow the Cluck Down

When my husband and I first got involved in raising our own chickens for both eggs and meat, we did it because we wanted to find ways to cut back on our participation in the food industry. It’s a sad reality that most of us know all about. The food industry is not, in general, good to animals, and it’s all about profit–no matter the costs to the animals.

When you find out about what happens when chickens are processed and the lack of care and respect they receive, it’s hard to imagine that things could get worse, but lo and behold, they’re trying to make it worse on both the chickens and the humans who work in these difficult jobs.

poultry-farm-1544654_640
Creative Commons photo

I recently learned that the National Chicken Council, a trade group in the chicken industry, has requested that the United States Department of Agriculture eliminate rules about the speeds for evisceration lines for chickens. Right now, according this piece, the speed limit is 140 birds per minute. The industry wants faster.

But animals rights groups, such as the ASPCA, and people who have worked in the industry say more speed would be bad for both the people working in the factories and the chickens themselves.

If the evisceration lines are made to move more quickly, then the rate at which the birds are killed would have to speed up in order to keep up. What does this mean? Why is this bad?

Well, according to some who have worked in the industry, right now, some chickens are not being properly killed in an effort to rush them into the lines. Some chickens are already not being stunned before they are killed, and, worse, some are not being killed until they are put into the hot water pots that they are put into in order to loosen their feathers.

The argument is that speeding up this process even more is going to mean more torture for the animals, as the factories will run the risk of having even more chickens put into the lines before they are dead.

Apparently, the industry contends this will not happen. They argue that there will be no compromising on food safety or animal safety. But I tend to think that these people who are clearly after profits above all else should shut the cluck up. It’s not like they have a history of telling us the truth. I’m tired of this. I’m so tired of animals being treated as nothing but a means to money.

I’m not a vegetarian. I do eat chicken, but my husband and I make sure our chickens are treated with respect and given a respectful, clean, quick death. I know not everyone can raise and process their own food, but, thankfully, right now there is something everyone can do.

Until December 13, 2017, the USDA is accepting public comments on this proposal from the National Chicken Council to speed up the lines. You can make your voice heard by going here and making a public comment.

The ASPCA has been using the hashtag #slowthecluckdown. Please share this story and/or the link to the public comments site and use that hashtag if you can. There are hundreds of thousands of us who love chickens and know how amazing they are. I think we’ve got to organize.

Maybe commenting on this petition could be just the beginning.

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Why I’m Not Adding Light to My Chicken Coop This Winter

I’ve been keeping chickens for three years now, and I’ve learned so much during that time. I’m a researcher and a studier of all things by nature. And, for the most part, for the last three years, I’ve been obsessed with chickens.

It doesn’t help that there’s so much conflicting information out there in the world. When even the experts disagree, what can you do? For me, I’ve realized that I’ve had to turn to a whole lot of observation.

Now, I have to confess that I don’t always have time to study my chickens as much as I would like. I mean, I teach and home school my son and have a fairly busy life. But, this summer, my teaching load was reduced, and I was able to do some fairly intense study of my girls.

I learned some key lessons from my summer of study, and one of them was that egg laying is hard on these girls’ bodies. Of course, chickens have evolved to lay eggs, but they haven’t evolved to lay eggs at the rate in which humans have bred them to lay eggs. In fact, wild chickens lay just about 15 eggs per year, which is, of course, a long way from 250-300 eggs per year.

Of course, I am thankful we get more than 15 eggs per year, but you have to wonder, in our eagerness to make chickens into what we want them to be, if we considered the health of the chickens. I think the answer is a resounding no.

I mean, it’s this is not what humans are generally known to do, and you need only look at the situations in factory farms to see that it all too often the case that we put our needs above any consideration for the animal. And, of course, when I say “we,” I don’t mean all of us, but the humans “in charge” have a long history of this kind of behavior.

When we bought our girls from the hatchery online, we researched birds that would be intelligent, hardy in the winter since we live in Maine, and really good layers.

And good layers they were. I just didn’t realize laying this much was costing them. The first year everything was great! We had more eggs than we could deal with and were selling them left and right. I noticed that some of our girls seemed to kind of be born with some health issues, but it didn’t seem to bad and it didn’t stop them from laying.

I had so much to learn.

My epiphany came after we had a broody hen this summer, Lucy, who went broody and was able to sit on some fertilized eggs, as we finally got our first rooster. She was one of our Reds who had struggled with her health from the beginning, so I was really, really worried about her. I thought about trying to break her from being broody, but she was stubborn—and I was selfish. I wanted some babies and thought I could just help Lucy stay healthy with a lot of extra care.

We gave Lucy extra treats and vitamins in her water while she was sitting on her clutch. She took her breaks but always went right back to her eggs. When it was time for the babies to hatch, we ended up with just one baby but were able to add one more baby for her to adopt. With two babies, Lucy was in heaven, but she looked worn.

And with the babies now taking up so much of Lucy’s attention, I was worried that she wasn’t eating enough. She wouldn’t take any treats anymore because she was saving them for her babies. I was really worried about her health, and I remember telling my husband I was worried we might lose her.

After all, she wasn’t in the greatest health when this whole thing started. But over time, Lucy became healthier–much healthier. And, by the time Lucy’s babies were big enough to be on their own, Lucy looked better than any Rhode Island Red I had ever seen. I mean, she was calendar worthy.

It didn’t take long for me to realize why Lucy looked so much different. Maybe some of it was just that motherhood agreed with her, but I feel certain the biggest asset to her health was the 2 to 3 month break from egg laying. I couldn’t believe the difference.

Beautiful Lucy
This is Lucy post babies. She looks so healthy after her summer break from laying eggs. I’m sure her molt helped, but she has molted before and never looked this robust and healthy.

Now, I have to admit that I didn’t just come to this conclusion without reading a lot about chickens and egg production. We had always added light to our coop in the winter, just a few additional hours, to keep egg production up. However, as our hens aged, I could see they were just kind of wearing out, which, thanks to my research, I’ve now learned is a common problem in hens bred to lay 300 eggs per year. Essentially, those girls don’t usually live very long lives, and, of course, the chicken industry in general doesn’t care.

But I care.

That research, plus my experience with Lucy, was all the evidence I needed. I talked to my husband about it, and I began to learn that other chicken keepers did not light their coops in the winter. They believe their chickens need the rest, and I now believe the same thing.

I understand that some people may have no choice but to light their coops. Some people rely on the eggs for income, and I can see that feeding your children or providing for your family would take precedent over the longevity and health of your chickens.

But, if you’re like me and thought that lighting your coop in the winter was completely harmless and without consequence, please know that it’s not that simple.

This winter, for the first time, we’re not adding light to the coop. We have 18 laying hens and, yesterday, we got 4 eggs. That has been our lowest number so far. I thought my husband might be having his doubts because our family eats a lot of eggs. But, no.

“I don’t mind,” he said. He agrees that our hens could use the rest.

We’re thankful to our hens for our food, but they are more than food to us. It seems giving them a rest is the right thing for our family. Though I know it’s not right for everyone, it may be the right thing for your family, too.

*Please note, if you have been adding light to extend the days for your hens, please do not just stop the lighting all at once. Lighting should be reduce gradually (about ten minutes a day) to protect the health of your layers.

On the Importance of Pie and Living Without Regret

When I was about 20 years old, I went to the movies and watched Michael. If you don’t remember the film, it’s about the angel, Michael, who visits Earth and helps humans learn to enjoy themselves a little more—at least that’s my takeaway.

In the film, Andie MacDowell’s character is a woman who loves animals, writes music, bakes pies, and falls in love with a grumpy man and helps him not be so grumpy. I loved her character. I wanted to be her and just didn’t know how. But the one concrete thing I thought I could maybe do was learn to bake pies.

In the film, pies made people happy, and, in my 20 year-old mind, I remember thinking that I would like to be an awesome pie maker and make people happy.

It would be about 15 years before I would set out on my quest to really learn how to make pies. Prior, I had been busy with graduate school, raising a little boy, and trying to fit in and survive the tenure track at work. I also was living a life that wasn’t good for me, and the depression of my 20s and early 30s kept me from making any pies. I just kind of gave up on pie.

But by my mid 30s, I was starting to figure out what was important, and I remembered Andie MacDowell and how much I wanted to be her in that movie. I wanted to make people happy and learn how to bake pies—not just any pies, I mean really good pies.

As with everything, it seems, making really good pies was easier said than done. But I practiced every summer with the Maine raspberries and blueberries and every fall with the pumpkin and the apple.

It was rough at first. My ex-husband had always made it very clear to me and everyone else that I was a terrible cook, so I was really starting from scratch. I tried so many pie recipes, and my poor second husband (who just so happens to be my soulmate) ate every one of those terrible pies. And he did something profound for me—instead of telling me what was wrong with my pies, he told me what he liked about them.

My husband encouraged me so much and ate some terrible pies. I think the worst were the ones where I was trying to figure out a way to make the pies without too many calories. I’ve come to realize that, if you’re going to have pie, you might as well go all out and make it good.

apple pie
Photo credit: Annie Spratt, Unsplash

And with practice and a whole lot of praise and support from my family, I got pretty good at making pies. I got so good at making pies that I started to make them for the neighbors, and I started to share my recipe. I couldn’t make them very pretty, but they were always good.

I think one of my proudest moments was when I was visiting my neighbor one day and met her sister for the first time.

“You’re the lady who makes those awesome pies!” she exclaimed.

I was in heaven.

Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about a pie contest at a local harvest festival here in Maine. I knew my pies were ugly, and appearance was 30 percent of the judging, but I knew I had to enter.

But I didn’t. I chickened out.

Then, the festival came again last year. It was time to enter the pie contest. I signed up, practiced, got help from a decorating genius of a friend, and chickened out again.

As an aside, I don’t think the phrase “chickened out” is very inaccurate. I have some brave and bad ass chickens, but you get the idea.

Anyway, when the festival came around again this year, I knew I was going to enter. Something had changed in me, and it started with Tom Petty’s death.

I love Tom Petty, but I had never once been to a concert because I have a fear of crowds that goes back to my childhood. I couldn’t handle the mall at Christmas and had a panic attack in a crowded store on more than one occasion growing up. My fear was pretty strong, so big concerts are just impossible to me.

But, when Tom Petty died, I was filled with regret that I had never overcome my fear and went to one of his concerts. I thought about my life. For the most part, I’ve done pretty well finding ways to live my life authentically. I mean, I left a big job with good pay, so I could work part time and become a chicken farmer. I’m a very, very cautious person, so I always proceed carefully, but I usually find some way of living in a manner makes me the most happy.

And there I was, facing this big regret about never seeing Tom Petty. I didn’t like that feeling.

So there was no way I wasn’t entering that pie contest this year.

I filled out the form, read the rules, and went to work. The contest required an apple pie made with apples grown in Maine. Apple is one of my weakest pies, but I figured I could practice and just make a good showing. I figured I couldn’t win, but that wasn’t the point at all. It, somehow, was never the point.

I just wanted to be the kind of person who enters a pie contest, and that’s what I did.

I worked all week the week before the contest—researching the best apples, researching people’s preferences for apple firmness, traveling to several towns trying to find the best apples. I even honed my filling recipe I had invented.

I was sharing apple pie with everyone. I shared pie with my oldest son and his roommate, my youngest son’s cello teacher, the music store owner, my neighbor. I took feedback from everyone and tried to make the next one better.

The night before the pie contest, I scoured the internet for tricks to make pie crusts pretty and decorative. I realized I was lacking in the tool department, but I got some ideas and ran with them.

When I pulled the pie out of the oven the morning of the contest, I knew I had done the best I could do. “It’s really pretty!” my husband said. I could tell he was impressed. It was a pretty pie—at least for me. I was pretty excited and really proud.

I was so proud that I didn’t even feel sad when I saw the enormous amount of beautiful pies that were already sitting on the tables waiting to be judged when I entered the room. There were at least 50 or more. I could quickly see at least 10 or 15 pies that completely put my humble little apple pie to shame, but, somehow, I didn’t care one bit.

I had met my goal; I had entered that pie contest. I felt really good about myself, and that’s big for me. It just is.

And what really matters is that my pies make my family happy, and they sure seem to. When I take pies to my oldest son, he’s grabbing a fork before I’ve even put the pie on his table. And, when my husband says, “I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to have one more piece of that apple pie,” that’s the best stuff to me.

On Chicken Hugs and International Hug a Chicken Day

Have you ever had a chicken hug, I mean the kind where the chicken comes up to you and initiates a hug? Did you know this is possible?

I didn’t think such things were possible with most chickens. I love my chickens beyond words, but they’re not as humanized as some. Some chickens are house chickens, but mine are not. They run around, eat gross things like whole frogs, and poop all over the place.

When I have to do health checks for my chickens, I mostly have to do it when they go to roost. They pretty much never want to be caught. My chickens love me tons, but I tend to think it’s mostly for the treats I provide to them.

I’ve seen the video of the lady with the super sweet chickens who wait in line patiently to give her a hug. She has about six beautiful hens, and they all seem to adore her. I remember feeling like such a bad chicken mama when I saw that video. My chickens were more likely to try to jump on my head and poop!

But I had an experience this summer that changed me.

We had a few girls who were just having a rough time. We have three ISA Browns who are just so passive that they were just too much of a favorite for our rooster, as well as another hen who seemed to turn from girl to boy last year (that really does happen).

Each one of those girls was in need of a good spa day, so over about a week, each one of them spent a morning with me getting a warm bath, foot rubs, medicine for their poor sore backs, and a hen saddle I made for them myself with some old denim and old curtains.

All of my girls, despite their initial resistance to being caught and picked up, go along with spa days very well. They seem to know I mean well and go right along with the whole program, even when they have to have the little saddles put on.

But on this morning, something different would happen.

That little hen, who has since been named Melinda, did something different as I sat in the bathroom floor with her. I had finished rubbing some all-natural, Vaseline-like substance on her legs and feet and then put her saddle on, so I was talking to her, telling her she was a good girl and that her new saddle was going to help protect her poor back.

She began walking toward me and hopped into my lap. I was moved for sure, but she wasn’t finished. She walked up as high as she could into my lap and then leaned her head into my chest. On my chest, near my shoulder, she started this gentle pecking that was accompanied by the sweetest little chicken talking I had ever heard. She snuggled right into my chest and just leaned in.

It was a real and true chicken hug!

I was moved to tears, and that moment changed me. It was on the most profound moments I’ve ever had with an animal, and it was extremely powerful.

Melinda After Hug
This is Melinda sporting her new jacket in our bathroom after my hug. My goodness, I fell in love with that chicken that morning.

I knew chickens were brilliant little animals, but I had no idea a chicken could show that kind of emotion to a human that she was not used to be handled by on a regular basis. In fact, this girl had probably hadn’t been held by me in a month or so. I’m convinced she knew I was trying to make her feel better, and she was expressing gratitude to me. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

November 5 is International Hug a Chicken Day, and I know it may seem like a funny “holiday” to some, but there really is some importance behind it. It is a day meant to raise awareness about how important and wonderful chickens are and that the deserve some respect. I think this day is so sweet in spirit—and also very important.

Chickens are one of the most abused animals in the world. The live in horrific conditions right here in the United States, without space or any kind of comfort. They’re highly intelligent animals living in terrible situations with inhumane treatment, and I think the only way this is going to stop is if we vote with our wallets.

I’ll write more on the problems with “cage free,” but please just know that cage free is not enough and that you need to look for “Certified Humane” labels on your eggs—or better yet, buy them from your local farmer.

And, this weekend, let’s honor chickens and think about all they do for us. They provide so many people with nutritious food. They deserve our respect and kindness. Chickens are a joy. Let’s celebrate chickens in all of their loveliness.

Happy International Hug a Chicken Day! Now, let’s go hug some chickens!

On Backyard Chickens: When They Won’t Let You Have Anything Nice

I love my chickens—probably too much. I’m convinced one of the best decisions we ever made for our family was getting chickens and starting this whole homesteading thing. Our hens provide us with breakfast every morning and constant entertainment, but they also provide us with a sad backyard.

If you’re thinking about getting chickens, I would highly recommend them, but I should only fairly warn you that you won’t be able to have anything nice with those little dinosaurs running around your yard.

I’ll start with this image. See this beautiful backyard shed and magical flower garden? This does not belong to me. I was visiting with my neighbor this summer and realized that she has a magical flower garden that is breathtakingly beautiful.

Marie's Garden

Then, I headed home to see my own backyard full of holes our chickens have dug for their dust baths, despite having their very own sand box to dust bathe in.

It was a little disheartening.

I see the paint the chickens have pecked off of our shed door, the one I was so proud of when my husband painted it red because red is one of my favorite colors.

Shed Door

I see the holes in the yard where our chickens are either trying to dust bathe or dig to the center of the earth.

Rooster and the Holes

I see the patches of yard where grass will never again grow because they are high-traffic areas for those cute little chicken feet.

And it’s not like our chickens don’t have a ton of room. They have like ¾ of an acre fenced off with trees, a sand box, a beautiful, sturdy coop, two waterers that are refreshed every day. And there’s only 20 of them. They’re living the good chicken life. They are just a little destructive.

I love our chickens, but potential chicken mamas should know, you won’t be able to have anything nice. I keep hearing my mom’s voice saying “We can’t have ANYTHING nice around here.”

Now, I’m not saying I would have a beautiful garden like my neighbor’s garden, where surely the fairies live, if we didn’t have chickens, but I’m thinking we could do better.

This summer, my husband talked about building a flower garden in the middle of the chicken area to help fancy the place up.

I just laughed.

So, if you’re considering backyard chickens, just know they’re going to be a little destructive. You can’t let your chickens in your vegetable garden until all the plants are pretty big. Those chickens will dig up everything you plant and eat your green leafy veggies. They will tear up your flowers for sure and replace them with dust baths. And, for some reason, they will peck at your paint. They will peck and scratch and dig holes that you fall into when it’s dark and you have to walk through your yard. You will curse at your chickens for sure when you nearly break your ankle and fall to the ground.

And, just in case you don’t believe me, I’ve added photo evidence from other chicken mamas.

First, good luck decorating for Halloween…

chicken and pumpkins
Photo credit: Used with permission of user on chicken forum.
pumpkins on porch
Photo credit: Anna Powell

And your chickens will have to be involved in everything, and they really like to poop as well…

chicken under the hood
Because checking your oil has to involve a little chicken poop! Photo credit: Elise Michelle Allen

And chicken poop on your computer is always nice…

chicken and a computer
Photo credit: Abbey Lynn Prast

But you will love those little T-Rexes anyway. Because, in addition to tearing up your yard and making sure you don’t have anything nice, those chickens will steal your whole heart. And, when you have a chicken jump into your lap and give you a big chicken hug, you’ll forget all about those holes in your yard and your half-eaten pumpkins on your doorstep!

On Keeping Chickens and the Dangers of Salmonella: Are the Warnings Real or Just Hype?

Even if you’re not a chicken person, you’ve probably heard about the rise in salmonella outbreaks in the United States in the last few years. This rise in the number of salmonella cases directly corresponds with the rise in the number of people keeping chickens. But every time this issue comes up–and it does keep coming up–many backyard chicken owners dismiss the CDC reports as conspiracy.

I’ve written about the rise in salmonella cases myself and wondered about my own chicken-keeping practices. When I first wrote that I would have to stop kissing my chickens and shared my post in chicken communities, some readers were downright angry with me.

I have to admit that it’s hard to know what’s real and true about anything these days, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there about chickens. I can spend weeks researching something about my chickens, only to get conflicting answers from all the experts I can find. Plus, I totally understand the urge to have at least a little mistrust of government agencies who have very strong ties to agribusiness.

But I don’t think that’s the end of this story.

In the middle of all of those posts in the chicken forums about how all of this salmonella talk is just a lot of hype, I also read a few stories from chicken owners who had contracted salmonella from their chickens. It’s not fun. The women telling their stories were very, very sick.

But where does that leave us?

I always find myself somewhere in the middle on most issues, and this one seems to be no different–and this is after researching this issue quite a bit for about a year. In 2016, I first read about the CDC report linking the rise in salmonella cases to the rise in backyard chicken keeping. Since then, as more people continue to get backyard flocks, the issue comes up again and again.

Recently, NBC news reported on the rise in salmonella in the U.S.

According to the numbers, the cases of salmonella continue to rise, and in 2017, we’ve already had more cases than we had in 2016 total. We’ve had 961 reported cases so far in 2017. But these numbers do seem kind of low to me considering how many people in the U.S. keep chickens. I can’t find any definite numbers on the number of people who keep chickens, but it must be hundreds and hundreds of thousands. One chicken forum on Facebook alone has about 100,000 members. Still, I can’t help but think it would be terrible to get sick from my chickens, and for the people who have gotten sick, I’m sure it’s terrible.

This summer, we had to keep a baby chicken in the house for two weeks to keep it alive, and while I wouldn’t change a thing and am so glad I did it for that little sweetheart, I understand that I was taking a risk. For those two weeks that my baby chick, Buttermilk, was in the house, I was worried and super careful. Was I careful enough? Well, I didn’t get sick. Did I just get lucky? Maybe.

But I think the thing we can all agree on, whether we think all of the salmonella reporting is just a bunch of hype or a serious issue to be addressed, is that some good common sense when it comes to keeping chickens is always a good idea.

Here are some key takeaways from both the reports and from people who have kept chickens for years:

1. Just wash your hands.

Really, anytime you’ve had contact with your chickens, it’s good to wash up. It’s a good habit to get into, though it can be tough to get kids into this habit. I know our little boy often forgets, and I have to stay on him. I can see why young children have the highest risk of contracting salmonella.

2. Use different shoes for visiting your chickens.

This is something we really have to work on in our house. Thankfully, we don’t have babies crawling around on the floor anymore, but, if we did, this would be a bigger issue for us. We really should wear different shoes out to visit the chickens.

3. Be aware that keeping chickens in your house is going to make things tougher.

Of course, the CDC says to never keep a chicken in your house, but people do it. Plus, even though I’m not a house chicken kind of chicken lady, I ended up having to keep a chicken in our house because the baby was sick and needed care. But it’s a risk. I think we have to know that.

4. Finally, don’t kiss your chickens–if you can help it.

I always forget about this one, and I realize that I’m never going to stop snuggling my chickens as the CDC recommends. But, if I forget and kiss a chicken, I clean up. And, after I snuggle a chicken, I never wear those same clothes to cook meals in.

I honestly think it’s ridiculous to expect people not to snuggle their chickens, but I also think that maybe there’s some good points behind all the hype. I’m going to try to be more careful, just in case.

But I’ve also had a chicken give me a hug, so I’m always going to keep chickens.

On Tragedy, Tom Petty, and a Chicken Named Mary Jane

I’ve tried many times in my life to be a vegetarian. I’ve failed every time. One time, I did make it about 9 months, but I gave into the best cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten.

But I don’t like the way our food industry treats animals, so my husband and I started our own little backyard homestead, where we raise the biggest vegetable garden we can manage, chickens for eggs, and, yes, chickens for meat. That last part is hard on our hearts–always.

October 2, 2017 was the biggest day of chicken processing we’ve ever had. It takes a lot to get ready for it, and you have get ready for it mentally as well. For me, it’s a day when I start thinking a whole lot about death, what it means to be human, the ethics of eating meat, and my own mortality.

So when we woke up early that morning to the news about the tragedy in Las Vegas, I wondered if I would be able to hold up. For me, the worst part of the mass shooting is I have no hope that our country is ever going to do anything to try to stop this, so that hopelessness, which hurts so badly, kicks in and wears me out.

But there’s so much prep that goes into chicken processing I knew we had to proceed and that I would have to suck it up and be tough. I feel everything so deeply (not something that I like about myself because life is not fun this way for sure), but I can be tough when I have to be. I knew I would need to be tough. It would be much worse to put off processing the chickens.

It always starts the same. It’s easier at first. My husband, Ron, is careful, quick, and kind, and the chickens don’t know what’s going on. But, as their numbers start to dwindle, the chickens get suspicious. It gets harder to catch them. They fight against being caught–and rightly so. And, so my mind turns to heavy thoughts, and I start wanting to keep some chickens, even though I completely understand that the chickens we’re processing are a type of chicken that may not have a long normal chicken life.

But, still, it’s always the same. I start hinting around about saving some of the last ones, keeping some, the ones who have made it. People can say what they want, but I know the chickens know what’s going on, at least on some level, even though we try to hide it from them. My husband always makes me be practical. We don’t have the room. Meat birds don’t live very long lives anyway, usually.

But October 2 would be different.

While my husband worked on the next chicken, I had a few minutes for a break, so I went to my computer and checked Facebook. It was then I discovered Tom Petty had passed away. I just stared for a long time, and then the tears came. It was too much for one day, I thought. I loved Tom Petty. My husband did too. I went out to tell him.

“Tom Petty died today,” I said.

“What?!” he asked.

“I just read online that Tom Petty died today.”

There was a long silence as my husband continued his work. I knew he was sad, and I felt heartbroken, but we continued our work. I can’t even tell you how much I loved my husband in that moment. My heart was so broken, and I could tell he was really sad too. He got it. He got how important Tom Petty was, and my husband would become even more awesome to me that afternoon.

After a while, the conversation came up. We had just a couple of chickens left, and the last one was a little girl. She had eluded capture all day, and she was worried for sure. I hinted that we could really use another layer, and, that day, my husband agreed. I heard him ask our son, should we save this last one to be a layer? He’s eight, so, of course, he said yes. I was happy. And I really needed some happy that day.

Mary Jane
This is our Mary Jane hanging out with our sweet rooster, Rooster. She’s doing a pretty good job of fitting into the flock, even though she’s still kind of an outsider. I think Rooster loves her though.

Her name is Mary Jane, and she’s a beautiful, wild, mistrustful little hen. It’s been a little over two weeks, and just this week, she started coming for treats with the rest of the chickens. I love her already, and I am so thankful for Mary Jane and that little bit of happiness that came at the end of such a tough day.

Mary Jane doesn’t know it (But maybe she does. After all, who am I to say?), but she’s going to have the best little chicken life a chicken can have. She doesn’t let me pet her yet, but I’ll keep working on that.

Mary Jane’s last dance will, hopefully, be many years from now. Tom Petty’s music touched so many people’s lives in so many ways, and on the day he died, he touched our family so much that Mary Jane lived.

On Preparing Your Chickens for Winter

It’s that time of year. This chicken water froze last night, and our hens are laying fewer eggs than before. There’s some molting going on, and the days are getting shorter. I saw a post on a chicken Facebook forum that read “Let the freeloading begin.”

I had to giggle. Thinking about our girls as little freeloaders. I mean, they’re 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 fall and fewer eggs is a good reminder that we have to get our flock ready for the winter, and after making it through three winters so far with our backyard flock, I have some helpful tips from the lessons we learned based on both experience and lots of research online and in books.

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Our Rhode Island Reds were a little worried about their very first snow. They had a lot of hesitation, but, pretty soon, they were having a great time playing. We’ve since learned that putting down leaves from the fall helps so much!

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. Protein is good, and sunflower seeds are a nice treat and can help their little bodies as they go through the molt.

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, be aware that light supplementation means your hens won’t get the rest that their bodies need. We used to supplement with light, but we will not anymore. In my three years of keeping chickens, I’m learning just how hard egg laying is on their little bodies. Sure, chickens were evolved to lay eggs but not so many. That’s human intervention. So our girls are getting a rest, but if you need to supplement with light for food or financial reasons, be sure to use safe lighting, just a 25 watt bulb and keep that bulb away from feathers and bedding.

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 last 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. We did this last year, and it was wonderful. 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.

But you can also give your chickens different kinds of treats to keep them busy. 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, as we head into fall, 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 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 below. It would be great to hear your tips as well!

And, remember, stay warm, my chicken friends!

On Dogs, Chickens, and Property Lines: How to Avoid Tragedy

chickens inside fence

I read about this kind of issue all the time in chicken forums online. Chickens and dogs do not understand property boundaries, which makes for some stressful situations for both chicken and dog owners.

Newspapers around the country are reporting today that a man in Massachusetts shot a young Golden Retriever five times after the dog reportedly killed one of his chickens. The owners of the dog were letting their dogs run on their nine acre property when one of their dogs made his way to the neighbors and apparently killed a chicken.

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Good fences make good neighbors, or so said Frost, especially when dogs and chickens are involved. Photo credit: Rowan S., Unsplash.

Dogs, especially younger dogs, and chickens often do not mix well. We have two Livestock Guardian dogs, and both of them had to be taught very carefully and thoroughly not to chase and hurt the chickens. Our dogs now understand and guard our hens, but, when they were puppies, our chickens running and flapping from them was just too tempting. We had to stay on the dogs every minute for several months, so it’s easy for me to see how a young dog could so easily get caught up in the moment and kill a chicken.

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This is our Great Pyrenees, Gus. It took many months and lots of attention before he could be trusted with our chickens. Young dogs are just drawn to the quick movements of our backyard flock.

It’s no doubt a tragedy of epic proportions for the family who lost their beloved pet, but as a chicken mama, I’ve seen how hard it can be on people when they lose their chickens, especially when they lose them violently. A criminal investigation is under way in the case of the Massachusetts man, but this story has me thinking a lot about what I would do if a young dog were attacking my chickens. Honestly, I can’t imagine killing a dog for killing my chickens, though I love my chickens so much. I would be very angry at the dog owners, but there are so many things I think I would try before I resorted to killing.

But this story also has me thinking about we can all do, as both chicken and dog owners, to help avoid these kinds of tragedies.

As owners of both chickens and dogs, it seems the most obvious answer is for all of us to work so hard to make sure our animals stay on our property.

Of course, I do realize things happen. Chickens get creative and can suddenly fly. Dogs take off. One time, a neighbor little boy left our back door open, and I didn’t see it. Within minutes, our hound was roaming the neighborhood, so I understand things happen. But that’s my first tip. We have to make this our number one goal! If your dog gets out, there is a real possibility it could hurt someone or someone’s chickens. You have to stay on top of your animals, first and foremost!

If you have chickens and free range them, you have to know the risks.

I think most chicken owners do. If it’s not the neighbor’s dog, it could be a fox, a raccoon, a large cat. There are so many potential predators out there. It really is best to keep them inside a fence if you can. Before my husband built our fence, we let our chickens free range, and I knew it was risky. We were outside counting those chickens about 15 times a day!

If a dog does come after your chickens, consider all safe possibilities before resorting to a gun.

Can you safely intervene? Can you get help getting your chickens put away? Can you do something to distract the dog? If you are faced with a pack of dogs, this is something very different. You should never put yourself at risk, even for your chickens you love so much. Call 911 to get some help.

If your dog is responsible for harming chickens on someone else’s property, in addition to offering your apologies and condolences, you should offer to pay for the damages and the chickens.

Chickens are a valuable resource and mean food for families.

If a dog harms or kills your chickens, before you resort to “tit for tat,” try talking to the owners.

See if they are willing to do something about the problem. If that doesn’t work, getting the authorities involved is your best bet.

It’s never easy to deal with something like this. Our animals do not understand our property boundaries unless we put up fences. If you’re unable to put up fencing for your dogs or your chickens, it’s so important to be diligent and make sure your animals stay on your property. It’s the best way to avoid a terrible tragedy like the one in Massachusetts.

On What Happens When a Bear Visits Your Chicken Coop

It finally happened. We live in the woods of Maine and have seen bear poop in our yard many times. I’ve always been worried about bears, and every time one leaves evidence of having visited our yard, I start bringing out the pots and pans and banging them when our dogs go outside.

As a chicken mama, I’ve been especially worried about our chickens. Of course, I worry about all predators, but since our neighbor has been seeing a brave black bear all summer, I figured it was just a matter of time before the bear paid us a visit. Yesterday, we finally had that visit, but it came in a way that I didn’t imagine at all.

We had just finished lunch, and I heard a commotion outside. I heard a strange noise and thought it was the strangest chicken noise I had ever heard. When I looked out the window, at first, all I could see was chickens huddled against the fence in full freak-out mode. And then my eyes moved toward our mobile chicken coop.

There, standing in the red coop, up on his hind legs, was a black bear. My brain wasn’t even sure what I was seeing, but when I got the words out that we had a bear in our yard, my husband was up and out the door. I followed him out to find the bear still standing over our coop. It looked like he was trying to pick up chickens, and my heart was broken thinking of those poor chickens being hurt by the bear.

Bear Pic
In all of the chaos, I didn’t get a picture of our bear, but he was pretty cute. Photo credit: Pixabay

It wasn’t a big bear. I mean, it was big enough to make me really worried, but it was a young bear. It was also a brave bear. When my husband ran out toward the coop, the bear just kind of casually got down out of the coop and slowly started walking around the fenced area he had just jumped into.

I have to admit that the bear was really adorable, and even though I was on the phone trying to get in touch with the game warden, I was also wishing I could get a picture of this whole ordeal, especially after I realized all of our chickens were safe.

It turns out the bear was just eating the chicken food and must have been just trying to shoo away the chickens when I saw him waving his arms at the chickens.

After speaking to the game warden, I learned that no one was going to come and relocate the bear. This was a surprise to me, but bear visits this time of year are quite common. It’s been dry, and yearling bears, like the one who visited our coop, are hungry. Apparently, they are also brave.

“I can’t believe the bear was just out there in the chicken coop in the middle of the afternoon,” I said to the game warden.

“If a bear’s hungry, he doesn’t care what time of day it is,” he replied.

Good point, I thought.

The game warden said there was a good chance our bear would be back before the late berry season kicked it. He explained that it has been such a dry summer here in Maine that the poor bears were hungry. Of course, the “poor” in that last sentence was my addition. But our bear never game back. I swear, he totally had this look on his face like “Geez, what’s the big deal here, people?” He probably didn’t want to be bothered by us again.

But what should you do if a bear visits your coop? My talk with the game warden inspired a little research.

The best thing you can do is try to prevent a bear being lured into your yard. It’s been a dry summer, so if you live in bear country, it’s best to remove your bird feeders. You should also keep your trash put away and never leave chicken food out at night or exposed. The smell of the chicken food is a big attractant.

If you do have to feed animals outside, be sure to always clean up throughout the day and especially at night. If you have bird feeder, bring it in at night and rake up any extra seeds on the ground.

Keep your animals and food secured within a fence if you can.

If you still see a bear like we did, make a lot of noise to try to scare it away. Banging pots and pans is supposed to work. Our bear was pretty nonchalant about the noise we were making, but I think black bears are supposed to be pretty shy in general. And, still, even our chill bear wanted away from us and took off across the street and back into the woods as soon as he could.

If a bear keeps coming around or if you encounter an aggressive bear, call 911.

Apparently, it’s very expensive and time consuming—and not even that effective—to try to relocate a bear, so that is done only in extreme cases. And, of course, the hope is to not have to hurt a bear who is “just trying to make a living,” as my husband puts it, so the best way to deal with bears is to do your best to avoid attracting them to your property.

Thankfully, no chickens were harmed in the making of this story.