Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I’ve just come to the end of my first year with chickens and I’m feeling reflective. I’m also feeling bold enough to say I have some wisdom to share with the new would-be chicken wranglers out there.
I’m not going to get into skills or techniques or the myriad benefits to having chickens around the home. Look through any issue of Mother Earth News and you’ll get all the info you need, from pro-chickeners more wizened than me.
What I want to share are some bigger realizations that I came to over the course of this first year. They strike me as being pretty important to a successful start with chickens.
Let’s get the cheerleading out of the way: Chickens are super cool. Can you dig it?
Most of us have only experienced birds from a distance. We experience them as flashes of motion and color. But then you own chickens and you're up close to everything that is "bird". You hold them, you smell them, you see them in complete detail. You can watch them for hours doing all of their bird things and are able to see patterns emerge. They are not like dogs or cats or people. The experience is new, it is different and it is truly fascinating.
And don’t get me started on how cool their eggs are. Just because you’ve been buying cartons of eggs in the grocery store your whole life doesn’t mean you have any idea what “an egg” really is. The biological building process an egg goes through from ovary to exit is astounding. And did you know that fresh eggs can stay fresh for around 8 weeks without refrigeration? Like I said: don’t get me started.
The take away: Get excited about owning chickens. Your level of enthusiasm will determine what you’re able to achieve in the first year. It can even be the make-or-break factor.
Chickens Are Tough
That basket full of cute little yellow chicks waiting to be snuggled?
Spend even a little time in the chicken run and you realize it's "Honey, I shrunk the dinosaurs".
Chickens don't mess around. They go after bugs, reptiles and even baby mice like any true predator. They go after each other to establish and maintain the pecking order. And sometimes for no obvious reason whatsoever.
According to the books, chickens are not raptors… but have you seen the talons and beaks on these things? I've received more incidental scratches than I can count and even been pecked square in the eye. Thankfully, I’m not wearing an eye patch. But I've been on guard ever since.
Chickens can withstand negative temps during the winter. They can make it through a day if their water freezes. They can be hit with frostbite and still keep laying eggs. They can eat foam insulation with no ill effect (don’t ask).
The take away: Chickens do require a distinct level of care and consideration to be kept healthy and happy. But don't underestimate the toughness and resiliency of your birds.
Read as much as you can about chickens in as many different aspects as possible. Learn as much as you can from as many different people as possible. But always remember: at some point, you just have to do it.
You have to learn about your own chickens and make your own decisions. There is no “5 Step Plan” that guarantees success.
Paying attention to your birds is the key. Do that, and you’ll figure out everything you need to know.
You’ll figure out things like apples are their favorite food. But they won't pick through the skin to eat them. And the white Speckled Sussex was the last bird to lay an egg but is the bossiest one in the group. On the other hand, your Rhode Island Red is a workhorse with egg production even though she is lowest in the pecking order.
You'll figure out how to keep your chickens from flying out of their run. They're not actually trying to escape; they just don't have enough room. So when they squabble and try to get away from each other, they go in the only direction they can: up… and over the fence. Let them have free run of the garden for even 30 minutes a day and the problem is solved.
You'll figure out how to get your chickens through the winter low-tech style. The coop design and the plan for wintering the birds without additional heat sure seemed clever in the Fall. Not so much in the dead of Winter. But you’ll figure out the birds are actually doing okay: they're still laying eggs and they’re still active. You give them tap-hot water every morning and it's like coffee. The chickens get frostbite. But you’ll also figure out how to manage the injury, heal them, and actually have all your birds lay an egg on the same day for the first time.
By paying attention, you can figure out which chickens are ready to lay, which just laid, and which bird laid the blood-streaked egg and needs to be kept under a watchful eye. You’ll figure out that the blood-streaked egg might not be a big deal after all because it happened only once and -- honestly -- pushing something that big out your butt could cause a little bleeding occasionally. The take away: These are all things I learned about my particular birds. They may or may not have anything to do with your birds. But if you're paying attention, you'll know what works for your chickens. You will make good decisions.
Bad Things Are Going to Happen
Unfortunately, the story of my first year with chickens does not have a happy ending. Right as we started turning the corner into Spring, a weasel got into the coop and killed all of my birds.
Almost every chicken owner I know has been a victim of predators. As a friend said: "Farming is hard… I am very sad every time I lose a critter." It is simply a reality of owning chickens.
As is frostbite. And chickens escaping. And picking on each other to the point of drawing blood. And eating foam insulation (don't ask).
It would be easy to beat myself up about the weasel attack: I could have done things differently. But I could also say that about any of the other bad things that happened.
The take away: It's not a matter of "if" bad things are going to happen, it's all about how you handle them when they do. You won't have all the best answers or make all the right decisions this first time around. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in the coop.
I have plans for eight new chickens and I’m redesigning the coop once again.
My second year with chickens is moving forward.