Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
This morning, the chicken watering vessels were torn apart and scattered across the floor, with extension cords barely attached. The feeders were flipped over, feathers and dust lay everywhere, and on each little red face was a perfect expression of exasperation. My chickens are in the grips of late winter Cabin Fever!
The turkeys with their long, scaly legs smash down the fresh snow each morning without a care, while the chickens glare at the rising snowdrift just outside their little door with their beady orange-rimmed eyes. It’s just not fair. Chickens weren’t made with long enough legs, and they’re not as immune to the cold as their knobby-necked neighbors.
The days are growing longer—but the progress is not fast enough for the chickens. Each morning, they wait for me to open their door, hoping…hoping…hoping… Nope, it’s still white out there. Buggers. These descendents of subtropical birds huff in disgust and fly up to their roots to grumble amongst themselves over their lot.
Meanwhile, I have those disassembled waterers to pick up, thaw under hot water, reassemble, and return filled with only a little grudging thanks as my reward. Oh, well, the other reward might be a half frozen egg in the corner (if I’m lucky) or a clutch of warm ones beneath an armed and dangerous lady who puffs up three times her size as I draw near (if I dare).
Being so cooped up with such fuss and feathers means the notorious dust produced by chickens has collected in the corners, on the cobwebs, and along fencing partitions in the coop until it dangles like Spanish Moss from the limbs of live oak trees. So, to keep the ladies from thinking that they live in little more than a pig sty, today I brought out the shop-vac.
Yes, you know you’re on a farm run by women when they vacuum out the chicken coop! Up on the ladder and armed with the black and red nozzled device, I was determined to conquer the dust, but the sudden varooooom sent the whole flock into convulsions of fear—pelting into corners or nesting boxes and staring with wide-eyed terror, their tails smashed flat against the back wall. It’s a monster! It’s going to pull off all my feathers! The sky is falling!
But no, only the dust was falling, and after a while the ladies calmed their fears and watched my shop-vac antics with half amusement. At least it was a bit of entertainment for the day, which was more than they had to occupy themselves with most wintery afternoons. These days, even a chunk of suet gets boring.
Sometimes, as I approach the chicken coop in the morning, I can hear a tap-a-tap sound like an army of miniature hammers at the walls of the chicken coop. Now in unison, now tapping askew of each other. Are the chickens trying to escape—breaking down the walls of the Bastille? I open the creaky door to find fluffy golden hens all in a row pecking heartily at the frost that has built up on the insides of the walls from the cold—frozen condensed chicken breath. Only, to them, it seems more like chicken ice-cream. Eventually, the peck indentations will circumference the coop, reaching as high as the feathery neck can stretch.
We have too many laying hens to house them all in one coop for the winter, so part of the crew holds over in our smaller hoop house, which stands close behind our home. During the day, the solar energy keeps them warm as they luxuriate in their sauna dust baths—leaving the floor a virtual moonscape of miniature craters filled with lazy-eyed featherballs. But the greenhouse has trouble staying warm at night, so I run a few heat lamps to give the ladies a break from the chill.
Dusk falls, and the high tunnel glows a soft golden-orange. But wait, it’s now the chicken shadow show! Our cat Pumpkin perches by the window, watching gargantuan black chicken shadows strut across the screen like an exotic paper puppet show. Do the chickens know they are on parade? Do the chickens notice their own shadows as well?
And then the Silver-laced Wyandotte rooster starts crowing at 2:00 in the morning, and we wonder why we thought it was such a grand idea to keep the chickens so close to the house…
Admittedly, it was in part to help ease the burden of chores during the dark phase of the year. While there are not as many chores to accomplish during the winter months as there is in the summertime, what chores are still necessary are often made harder by winter’s temperament. The ground heaves and doors no longer want to shut or stay shut. Water faucets freeze. Paths must be either trounces or shoveled across the barnyard. Door knobs and locks are coated with ice and won’t turn or unlock. And a sudden thaw sends a chicken coop from being a nice, frozen pack of bedding to a veritable swamp in need of immediate cleaning.
But the ice is the worst. I recall one day of slipping and sliding about with feed and water, chipping away ice from door sills and thawing out of the unplugged turkey waterer. My hands were freezing, and my feet were numb. The chickens huddled on their roosts as puffy balls of fluff without any toes to be seen. Finally, I had my ice-cream bucket full of eggs, and I was heading back to the house! Enough of this cold, I was ready to curl up by the wood stove and thaw myself out! As I went teetering along the path down the gentle slope to our house, the ice had the last laugh.
Falling can be something you don’t notice until it’s too late. I remember looking up as my arms flew skyward, and there was the bucket going up…and up…and up… The eggs were spreading outward like a multi-colored firework display in slow motions. And then I hit the ice with a great bump on my rump and tried desperately to cover myself as the sounds of percussive splat-splat-splat pelted down all around me.
The poor ladies. They would have surely read me the poultry riot act if they had known the fate of their day’s labors. We took out our scoop shovels and cleaned up as much of the runny yellow mess as we could, much to the delight of the pigs (and the dogs, who cleaned up the rest quite happily). It was a sore moment, in more ways than one.
But there was no falling on the ice today as I wrapped up the cord on the shop-vac and climbed down from the ladder. A black-and-white rooster pranced for a hen, with one wing fanned and tail plumed. A lady from her nest crooned softly and re-arranged the pile of eggs beneath her, while a second looked impatient for her turn to have a nesting spot. Still, despite the return of normal chicken routine, I could sense the chicken cabin fever lurking beneath the surface. I can only imagine that at night they dream of grass and slugs and the deliciousness of summer…for a chicken.
I just hope that they haven’t knocked over all their waterers again by morning. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café.