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!

On Oatmeal: Is It Good or Bad for Our Chickens?

Do you remember when all the nutritionists said that butter was bad for us and that the whipped margarine stuff was so much better? Well, I do. I ate that whipped crap for my entire childhood, only to learn as an adult that the nutritionists were wrong.

“Oops,” they said.

And this was neither the first nor the last time we would be led astray by the experts and nutritionists telling us that something humans had been eating for thousands of years was bad for us.

If you’ve read anything written by Michael Pollan, you know that you have to be very careful of nutritional fads and trends. It seems the wisest way to eat is to remember to look to our human culture and history and be careful of fads and trends.

Today, much to my surprise, I read in a blog post that oatmeal is bad for my chickens, even though I had read so many experts recommend it. I give my chickens oatmeal with blueberries as a special treat every couple of weeks in the winter, usually on the worst days, the days of the “deep freeze” here in Maine.

oatmeal

So I read with great intent to try to learn what I was doing wrong and why oatmeal was so harmful when so many people, including some multi-generational farmers, use it as snacks for their chickens.

After reading through the post that included testimony from a nutritionist from Purina, I felt much better about my decision to feed oatmeal with blueberries as a treat in the winter treat. I would never want to contradict anyone’s beliefs about chicken raising, as I have learned over the years that there is very little reliable research out there on chickens and that the experts disagree ALL THE TIME.

If you’re like me, this can leave you feeling a little lost, stuck, and confused. But I’ve been studying writing and rhetoric longer than I’ve studied chickens (I have a PhD in Rhetoric), and I do know a few things we should all be aware of when it comes to discerning reliability and credibility in the “chicken literature” that’s out there on the web.

Here are some tips for you to consider any time you’re reading articles, blog posts, and the like:

1. Be wary of people who use click-bait-like headlines or titles. As bloggers, we all have to try to write engaging headlines that get your attention. We want you to read our stuff. But, if you feel like a headline or title is sensationalistic, it should be a red flag.

2. Be careful of experts who have strong bias one way or another. Experts who are being paid by companies may be letting business bias them; in fact, history has taught us that this is most likely the case. We all have biases, but some are bigger and more obvious–and should give us pause.

3. Read carefully. Sometimes, writers will mislead readers with headlines and opening paragraphs but then address things more honestly quickly, kind of in the fine print. After reading the piece about oatmeal carefully (as well as the comments, including comments by the author) I realized that I don’t know a single chicken keeper who is using oatmeal for entire meals.

Everyone I know uses oatmeal as a treat, and that seems to be the best bet with anything and everything that is a treat. You have to give it in moderation. So how relevant is this expert information anyway? How many chicken farmers are actually using oatmeal as a big part of their chickens’ diets? Probably not many.

In the end, I like to go back to the basics of our culture. Humans domesticated chickens 8,000 years ago. They didn’t have layer pellets back then. My great grandmother kept chickens for decades, and her chickens ate scraps and free ranged. She didn’t buy feed in a bag.

Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to buy feed in a bag. I do it myself, but I’m skeptical of any company that tells me I don’t need to use anything but their products. That’s just a big worry to me.

So, when all the dust had settled today, and I read through more information, including tips from Lisa Steele at Fresh Eggs Daily, a fifth-generation chicken keeper here in Maine, as well as the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, I realized that I’m probably just fine using oatmeal as an occasional treat in the winter. The University of Maine site actually lists oatmeal as an acceptable treat.

Now, of course, no one is saying you want to run out and feed your chickens oatmeal for their meals every day. But as long as you’re maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet, treats are acceptable.

And, remember, everything in moderation, including “research” from “experts” who work for a company that will benefit from said “research.”

On Chickens and Salmonella: Are the CDC Warnings Real or Hype?

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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. “It’s all a conspiracy” was the gist of the comments.

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.

Most 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 is 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. 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 are 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 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 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.

chickens inside fence
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.

Gus
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.