On Grief for My Poe

Today, it has been seven days since I lost my Poe. It’s not been easy, but I cry a little less each day. It’s the little things that get to me, like finding the rest of her grapes (Poe loved grapes) in the back of the refrigerator last night. When I saw the grapes, I closed the refrigerator door, sat down in the kitchen floor, and decided to cry my eyes out all over again.

Part of me feels strange and kind of guilty for indulging in my grief over Poe. Many people would say, “It’s just a chicken,” but, of course, I’m not “many people.” I’ve always been a highly empathetic person (which is no fun I am telling you), and I’ve always been able to connect to animals.

Somehow, however, I had one of the deepest connections I have ever felt with an animal to Poe. Losing her feels very much like when I lost my best dog and best friend of 13 years in 2009. I was inconsolable. I feel similarly now.

I thought the mornings would be the hardest part, but they are not. I was in the habit during the last two weeks of Poe’s care of waking up each morning to see if she was still alive. It was stressful. I would always find her alive, sometimes surprised about that fact, but it was stressful and took a toll on me over the two weeks she was in the house with us. I do not miss that, that fear.

It’s the evenings that are the hardest for me. Each night, after I finished my work, I would scoop Poe up from her little basket and snuggle her until her bed time. I just tried to bond with her as much as I could with the time I had. In the first nights, I read her poem to her, several times, and each time I would get to the ending about Poe flying with the raven, through my tears, I would tell Poe it was okay to let go.

But a few days before she passed, I thought she might actually be making some progress. My husband mentioned that Poe’s theme poem should be “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight,” so I read that one to her. The night before she died, I had the audacity to ask her not to let go, to try to stay with me. But, as we all know, the universe can be both wonderful and cruel.

Our little family had a small service for Poe the day she passed. My husband dug a grave for her and found a good stone. I painted and lacquered the stone, and my kind neighbor brought a bouquet of flowers for Poe from her garden. My husband read Poe’s poem, and we said goodbye to her amidst the mosquitoes (it’s been a really tough year for mosquitoes here in Maine).

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Part of me had this urge to figure out some way to make the pain of the loss go away. My husband was experiencing it too, so that helped. Yet I still wanted to just feel better. The grief was running deep, more than I have ever felt for any of our chickens. Poe was super special to me. We just connected.

I have been devastated the last three summers because every Poe egg we hatched under a broody hen or in an incubator was a boy, and we don’t have a large enough flock for two roosters. Thankfully, I found all of the boys good homes because Poe’s babies were just so special. Still, I really, really wanted a hen from her, to keep her line going. Each summer, I would be hopeful for the longest time because Easter Eggers as a breed (Poe was an Easter Egger chicken) are difficult to sex. With our other chickens, I can tell at about a week or so if we have hens or roos, but I couldn’t sex Poe’s babies until later. Maybe some of it was denial, now than I think about it.

But I would be so sad every time I would realize we had a little Poe boy, and I would have to find him a home. So I had this urge to contact one of people who took Poe’s boy and ask them for a fertilized egg. I figured it might make me feel less sad if I had one of Poe’s grandbabies.

I realized, however, that I just needed to let myself grieve for Poe. It was painful losing her, and I needed to feel the pain in order to more properly heal. I have dealt with pain in the past by pretending it wasn’t there and doing things to divert my attention from it. It never works out well in the long run.

And then I read this quote by author Martin Precthel, which affirmed my thinking on my grief: “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

In this way, I could see that my grief for Poe was important, necessary, and beautiful.

Additionally, after sharing the obituary I wrote for Poe on my site, I was surprised by the outpouring of support I received. It did my heart so much good to know so many people were reading about Poe. My post went a little viral, and I am more thankful than I can express that thousands of people from all over the world were able to read Poe’s story and know her a little.

I received so many messages and comments that have helped me so much. I had people write to tell me they see chickens differently now. That’s the best I could hope for with my writing, I think.

But my favorite comment came on my blog post. One person wrote that I should look for Poe, that I would see her. I wrote back that I told Poe I would do this. I told Poe to find me, that I would be looking for her.

The day after Poe died, I was taking my son to cellos lessons. As we pulled out of our long, gravel driveway, I looked up at the trees and said to myself, “If Poe is with me, I will see a raven.”

I should explain the raven. In Poe’s poem, at the end, our Poe, the chicken who wants to fly so badly, ends up flying with a raven. I should add that we have only rarely seen a raven in our neighborhood. I think four times in the last three to four years.

As I drove down the road with my son, we made it about a quarter mile when a huge, magnificent raven flew out of the trees, flew above the car, back to one side and then back over the car to the trees on the other side of the road. I was so shocked and moved that I had to pull over.

My son wondered what was going on. “What’s wrong, mama?” he asked while I cried. So I told him what I had just said to myself.

He said, “Mama, either that’s the biggest coincidence in the world, or Poe is with you.”

 

On Poe: An Obituary

Poe Sands

 

April 2016 – July 2019

Easter Egger Chicken, Grape Eater, Intelligent and Curious Soul, Dear Friend

Poe passed away today from complications related to ovarian cancer, a cancer common in laying hens who have been bred to be heavy layers, but Poe was much more than a good layer of beautiful light-green eggs; she was a highly intelligent, proud chicken who marched to the beat of her own drum; she was an independent thinker; she was a helper in the garden; she was a care taker for all misfit chickens on Sands End farm; and she was a good friend to our family.

Poe came to live with us via the United States Postal Service. She came to our family early in 2016 as a “surprise” chicken in an order of Ranger chickens. She was a little black fuzzball in a sea of brown and cream, so she was special from the first day we met her.

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For many months after she arrived, Poe’s breed was unknown, but she stood out as an unusual hen early on. When other chickens came along who needed someone with them, as chickens shouldn’t be raised alone, Poe was our go-to hen for babysitting new babies or anyone who was injured and had to be temporarily separated from the coop. In fact, Poe helped raise our Welsummer rooster, Rooster, who just so happens to be awesome as well. In the moments of Poe’s death, Rooster crowed and crowed, loudly and sorrowfully, though he could not see her.

Poe came to be known for her quest for flight. She could fly higher and longer than any other chickens on the farm, and, as such, she came and went as she pleased for most of her life. Poe could be found in the garden helping dad by eating the grubs, in the backyard scoping out grubs and bugs, or in the duck area, eating the ducks’ food while they quacked and complained. Sometimes, Poe would fly out of her very large chicken yard, just to visit and hang out–or ask for some grapes, her favorite food. Poe would never say no to a grape, even in the end. Interestingly, even though Poe could have, she never left our farm. She seemed too intelligent to leave the safety of her home.

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In the last year of her life, as flying became more difficult, I would let her out of the chicken area in the morning, so she could have her alone time. Poe would fly back to the chicken area when she was ready. But Poe was always a bit different and a bit of a loner in the flock.

Poe’s major accomplishments included eating almost the entire row of broccoli plants in our garden in 2018, being the mother of four baby boys, who have turned out to be good roosters, and having a poem written about her, which was published in 2017. It is the best poem in the history of chicken poems, and I would argue one of the best children’s poems ever written. It captured the spirit of our Poe, and what a monumental task that was!

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In the last week of her life, Poe decided she didn’t want to be alone. She moved into the garage where she decided to be a squatter in the crate with our broody hen, Nugget, who didn’t seem to mind having a roommate while she sat on her eggs. When the babies hatched, Poe came to live in the house permanently.

In the last few days of her life, Poe fought valiantly to live, having some good days and bad days but, overall, doing all that was in her power to live longer. Three days before she died, she ate and drank almost normally and got to spend some time in the garden. But she could walk just a little, scratch just a little, and tired quickly. Still, that night, as she was being put to bed, she held her beautiful tail up straight and proud, something she had not been able to do in quite some time. For a moment, I had some hope that Poe may recover, but it was not meant to be. Despite her powerful will to live, her little body was sick and very tired.

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Poe passed away this morning, July 21, in my arms, showered in my tears, and surrounded by our family, who also shed many tears for such a special chicken. In the end, she knew she was deeply loved.

Poe will be forever remembered for making only rooster babies (not one single baby girl), for her flying, for inspiring poetry, and for teaching this human just how very intelligent chickens are. In my years of keeping chickens, I have met many intelligent birds, and they all have their own ways of being intelligent. But there was something special about Poe with her curiosity that seemed, to this human, to be so very human like. We were able to connect with one another. She was like my familiar, and I loved her.

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Poe will always be remembered by me as the one who taught me more than, perhaps, I wanted to know. Poe changed things, and I will never be the same. Poe was also, then, a great teacher.

Poe will be laid to rest with a stone marker on the Sands End farm. A small service will be held in her honor, and poetry will be read for her.

In lieu of flowers and donations, to honor Poe, please buy humanely-raised eggs. “Cage free” means nothing, so please look for the humanely-raised label on your eggs. Better yet, if possible, buy your eggs from a local farmer. You will pay a little more, for sure, but chickens are beautiful, intelligent, complex little beings and deserve good lives while they are here. Poe would want you to know that.

                                                 She wasn’t quite just a chicken,

                                                and maybe more than a crow,

                                                but it’s said she’s been seen with a raven,

                                                the flying black chicken named Poe.

~from “The Black Chicken Named Poe”

by R. James Sands

in Why the Moon Tumbled Out of Sky

 

On Molting: Tips to Help You and Your Chickens Make It Through the Molt

It’s that time of year when chicken owners of older flocks are telling sad stories about how they aren’t getting any eggs because their hens are molting.

I am one of those people.

Most of my girls are going on four years old, are molting like crazy—and not laying eggs. We have 27 hens, 20 who are laying age, and, some days, we get 3 eggs. It’s enough to make this chicken mama cry.

Photo credit: Christina Siracusa, Unsplash

Before I got chickens, I didn’t even know that chickens molted. Many new chicken owners may not know that during the fall months, most chickens, who are over a year old, will molt. This means they lose many of their feathers and replace their feathers with fresh new ones.

Although a good hard molt can look both comical and sad and the same time, molting is actually a healthy and important part of a chicken’s life cycle. Your chickens get new, sturdy feathers just in time for winter. And the break they take from egg laying may be good for them as well.

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This is my majestic Poe coming out of a hard molt. She looks a little rough still. Thankfully, she has her tail back at this point. She looked so sad without her tail feathers!

But if you’re like me and love to eat and share farm fresh eggs, you may find yourself giving your girls pep talks at night when you close them up—and, eventually, those pep talks will turn into begging. “Girls, let’s please aim for just six eggs tomorrow. Six. You can do it!”

When the begging doesn’t work, take heart. You are not alone, and there are some things you can do to help make the molt a little easier on your hens and yourself.

1. Keep in mind that your hens will not lay during the molt, and this is perfectly normal. Their little bodies are too busy making feathers to lay eggs. Be prepared for fewer eggs for some time. The time it takes for a hen to molt will vary. Sources say it can take anywhere between 10 and 16 weeks. I have found that most of my girls take closer to the longer end of that range. Fun!

2. Your chickens will first lose their feathers and then grow new ones. When the new ones are coming in, these pin feathers can be uncomfortable to the touch for your chickens. If you are a chicken snuggler, it’s best to give your chickens a break from snuggling when those pin feathers are coming in. You may even find that your chickens are grumpier when their pin feathers are coming in. I know this has been the case with our chickens.

3. Do not put chicken sweaters on your chickens when they are molting. You may feel so worried about how cold they are, but you do not want to put pressure on the feathers when those pin feathers come in. Sweaters at this stage would be painful for your chickens.

4. If you have a hen who went broody, raised chicks, and molted, she will not do another molt in the fall.

5. Although you do not want to keep your chickens on feed that is too high in protein for too long, switching to a good quality, high protein feed during the molt can help with the feather regrowth. We choose not to do this and just opt for high-protein treats instead, as our chickens never seem to molt at the same times.

6. In terms of treats, think high protein. Meal worms are great, as are black oil sunflower seeds.

7. Some people add some light to their coops to during the short days of winter, which will impact molting and overall egg production. Some, however, argue against adding light and that the rest for your hens is best. If you do choose to add light, do it gradually and in the morning. You should set your lights on a timer and should add just 15 minutes of light per week. Just be sure that your chickens still get some dark and rest at night. We used to add light but do not anymore. You can read about our decision to stop adding light in my post from last year.

Ultimately, I have found that the molt seems harder on us than it is on our chickens. It’s a normal, healthy process for them, though those pin feathers do not look fun. But our chickens end up with new, strong feathers, which will help them through the cold winter.

The shortage of eggs, however, makes me sad every day. I’m way too spoiled! Thankfully, so far this year, I have been able to avoid the “walk of shame” when chicken keepers have to purchase eggs at the grocery store and stare sadly at the carton of eggs all the way to the check out.

But I’ve been there!

10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Got My Chickens

I did my very best research before we became chicken owners. I had wanted chickens for years, so I had plenty of time to read books and research online. Mostly, all the information out there is the same, and some of it’s really good.

But there are so many things I wish I had known going in. I wouldn’t change a thing about being a chicken mama, of course. Getting chickens has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life, and they give me hope for our family during tough times.

Still, I think there’s a lot of information that seasoned chicken farmers forget to tell us when we’re just starting out. Even after just 3 years with our chickens, I’m already thinking of things I’ve learned and then forgetting to tell others about them.

But, for the end of 2017 and the end of my third year as a chicken mama, I wanted to put together a list of lessons I’ve learned—some of them hard lessons. My hope is that it can help others who are considering chickens or who have recently become chicken farmers.

  1. Getting chickens that are awesome layers can come with some costs.

When you’re researching breeds, sources often do not tell how you much variation there can be within a breed. And, if you’re like me, when you’re researching a chicken breed for egg-laying potential, you are really just thinking about egg laying potential. While some people do keep chickens just as pets, most people who raise chickens are also in it for the eggs. They’re extremely nutritious, and chickens are very generous to us.

However, what I didn’t know is that chicken breeds that have been bred to be extreme layers also sometimes come with health problems associated with being a layer who can lay at commercial levels. Even within a breed, such as Rhode Island Reds, the hens we started with, there can be great variation. I wish I would have looked for a heritage version of the RIR. Our girls have laid like commercial layers, and they’ve struggled with some genetic issues as a result.

  1. It may be better not to add light and extend the day for your hens during the winter.

If you live in a northern climate like I do, one way to keep your hens from really slowing down on the egg laying in the winter is to add light to the coop in the mornings to help extend the day and the daylight. It takes about 14 hours of light to make an egg, we started out adding a little light to our coop each winter to extend the day and keep our girls from taking a break.

After three years, much research, and making connections to some farmers who are a little more “old school,” we decided not to light the coop this winter. The rest can be really good for them.

Of course, for families who can’t afford to be without the food or income from the eggs, lighting the coop may be essential. But if it’s not essential for you, I would recommend letting them rest. Others will disagree, and I honestly don’t care. I’m a careful study of my birds, and I believe letting the girls take a break if you can is a good thing.

  1. Chickens hide their health problems.

Chickens are very easy to care for—until they’re not. And the issues come from the fact that chickens will hide their health problems. They don’t want to get picked off by a predator, so they’re extremely stoic. This can make it difficult to diagnose health issues in your chickens.

  1. Winters can be tough on your flock, but it’s not as bad as you might think.

If you live in the north, all you have to do is get breeds that do well in the winter. You don’t have to heat the coop, and you don’t have to keep them cooped up and never let them outside. In fact, never going outside is what makes winter so difficult for your chickens. They’ll start to go stir crazy. I’ve seen this on blizzard-like days here in Maine. When the girls can’t go out, it’s hard on them mentally. So we shovel the snow and get the outside as soon as we can.

If your chickens don’t like walking on the snow, put down leaves for them to walk on and scratch around in.

Key problems in winter are ventilation issues, coop fires, and chickens hurting each other from being literally “cooped up.” I know there’s an urge to “baby” our chickens. I feel the same way, but I’ve seen what works best for our girls. They have tough feet and thick feathers. According to my research, most chickens can handle temperatures down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

  1. Predators are going to stress you out.

Predators are an issue, and they come from overhead and on the ground. Neighborhood dogs are also a serious issue for many backyard flocks. Keep your chickens in a fence with plenty of space to run around if you can.

  1. Chickens are wicked smart and very social.

I figured chickens were smart, but I had no idea how smart. They are social, interactive, have friends, and have chickens they don’t like. They solve problems and know people. If you’ve never had chickens and are thinking of getting some, you’re going to be highly impressed—and highly entertained. They’re also downright funny.

  1. No matter how many chickens you start with, you will want more.

This is just a reality. Start preparing for it. We really need a second coop.

  1. It’s difficult to research care for chickens because even the “experts” disagree.

I’ve seen people have knock-down drag-out fights on chicken forums over the best ways to care for chickens. Even the “experts” will disagree quite a lot to the point of having completely opposite opinions. It’s also tough to find research on the web about chickens because so much of the research focuses on chickens as a part of the food industry. Find someone you can trust who’s been raising chickens for a long time. It’s my best advice.

  1. Genetics are important, so hatchery chickens you order online can be risky.

I’ll never order online from a big hatchery again, though I know this is how a lot of people get started. It’s how we got started, but I quickly saw genetic issues coming up. I’ve learned that it’s best to buy your chickens locally from someone who has a good reputation for breeding for the healthiest birds. The best way to do this, if you’re new and don’t know any chicken breeders, is to join online chicken groups on Facebook in your state or area.

  1. You’ll fall in love with your chickens in ways you can’t imagine and will learn so much about animals and nature that it may change you as a human.

I knew I wanted chickens, but I had no idea how much I was going to love them and how much I was going to learn from them. Being close to my chickens has made me a better person. I’m kinder and more open minded. I’m thankful to them for the food—and the wisdom.

Lucy and Poe Baby Day 1
This is Lucy and her first baby. Watching Lucy raise babies this summer taught me so much about chickens and about myself as a mom.

 

Final Thoughts

I know I have so much more to learn, but I’m making progress. I hope you find this advice helpful to you or someone you know. Others will disagree and that’s okay. See number 8. But I hope my list will at least help start a conversation.

What do you wish you had known before you became a chicken person?

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 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 still 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 five 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.

Screen Shot 2016-10-14 at 11.07.16 AM

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. Feed with extra protein can help, 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 may need. 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, every morning, we do get up early and bust out the ice and put in fresh water. We don’t mind too much though. It’s our ritual. I think the key thing is 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 within a fenced 3/4 acre giant chicken yard to only having their coop, a run, and some paths my husband and I shovel because the snow really stacks up here in Maine. 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. We are religious about shoveling out their run area and some paths around the chicken yard, and the best advice I have for this is to save your leaves right now. Then, after you shovel out the snow, put down the leaves, so your chickens have something to walk on and play in. This is the most genius plan I think we’ve ever had in terms of winter prep. It gives a great use for your leaves and will really help your chickens stay sane in the coming winter.

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. Ventilation 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 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. Never use a heat lamp. They are just too dangerous. Every single year, the news is full of barn and coop fires from heat lamps.

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 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.