Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
For most people, one of the first steps into self sufficiency is the aquisition of chickens. It was no different for us; within a few months of moving to our place in the country, we had 27 little birdies peeping away in our basement. Everyone ooo-ed and ahhh-ed over them, spending time sitting with them watching them go about their little chicken business. We were just tickled to be on our way down the homesteading path, and now we had our first animals to show for it.
We ordered 25 day old birds, 13 Buff Orpington and 12 Barred Plymouth Rocks, and the hatchery shipped two extras in case one died during shipping. Both Orpingtons and Rocks are heritage egg laying breeds that are touted as having great personalities, as well as being able to hatch their own eggs. Check, check and check, I go down my list of chicken traits that I want. These two breeds fit the bill well (see what I did there? Fit the bill...some foreshadowing for my dear readers).
Within 24 hours many of their little behinds began to get matted with poo, and I began hitting keys on my computer trying to discover what I was doing wrong. I find that the problem is endearingly called "pasty butt". It is caused by stress, and is relatively common in shipped birds. Nearly every person you ask will give you a different treatment idea, from apple cider vinegar in their water to oatmeal in their food. Of course there will also be the often seen advice of "Kill it, It's weak, I cull heavily, I'll tolerate no illness in my animals, Who cares about a three dollar bird, It's not worth my time", etc. etc., blah blah blah. I ignore those folks. Seems to me if you are trying to produce your own food, or sell what you are growing, it only makes sense to try to save every animal; a grown chicken will produce FAR more than three bucks worth of eggs in it's lifetime. If I saw three dollars on the ground, I'd darn sure pick it up. But I digress.
The only cure for pasty butt is to clean their little rear ends several times a day until it passes, because if you don't it forms a crust that prevents them from eliminating waste, and they die. Not a pleasant way to go. I've had to battle pasty butt with every species of bird brought here from hatcheries or farm supply stores, including guineas. Not so for my ducks. Never had one incident of poopy behinds with my ducklings.
After the chickens were grown and had been in their coop for several months, I noticed the scales on their legs looked odd, kind of rough and raised. Tappity tappity tap, I start looking on The Internet. My chickens have leg mites, which requires catching each bird and slathering their legs with vaseline. How did my birds get leg mites? Was it from the wild bird population that pops around eating chicken scratch? Who knows, but my ducks have never gotten them.
My first rooster was a Barred Rock that was an accident, shipped with my original flock of what was supposed to be all hens. That's okay, I decided, it will allow me to constantly resupply my own flock! HA! This rooster was the meanest creature I have EVER encountered. I would have sworn he was mean just for the fun of it, except chickens have tiny brains and they don't do fun things. He tore up the backs of my hens, making them featherless (clickity click, what to do about this? Buy chicken saddles, of course!), even though there were 26 of them, which is more than enough for one rooster. We had to carry weapons into the coop just to let them all out in the morning, a chore which the children could no longer do for fear of losing an eye. Going into the chicken yard was no longer a pleasant Little House on the Prairie experience; this dumb bird would come at you with murder in his beady little eyes. I couldn't let my birds free range, because my rooster saw every person on the property as a threat. My poor sister threw her coffee at him when he came after her while she was just trying to get from the barn to the house, and he just kept coming even after she threw the cup at him, too. The solution? Off with his head! My male ducks have never tried to kill me.
So now I need to find another rooster, a grown bird that is known to be pleasant to hens and humans alike. I am lucky enough to find one a couple of hours away, and although he is not pure bred (he is mostly Barred Rock, and is very pretty), after the horror of the pure Barred Rock that I had, I'm thinking that I no longer care about breed as much as I do about disposition. I pick up the new rooster, bring him home and introduce him to his new lady friends. The hens are happy with their rooster, the rooster is happy with his hens, and I am happy that peace has been restored and my children can now wander amongst the birds without fear. I am honestly still amazed at how evil that bird was. However, my chicken utopia was not to last.
Being relatively new to chickens and their issues, I did not know enough to check the new rooster for parasites before I brought him home. I found out the hard way that he carried lice as well as feather mites. My enire flock was now infested, and it took me several months of cleaning and re-cleaning the coop and dusting and re-dusting my chickens to win the war. My ducks share the coop with my chickens, and guess what? My ducks never became infested. They are more parasite resistant with their tightly interlocking feathers.
This winter was brutally cold, and with the first bitter cold my rooster's comb cracked and bled with frostbite, despite my efforts to keep it coated with vaseline to protect it. Once the hens saw a drop of blood, they went after him. I sprayed him with Blu-Kote, which stains an injury blue to keep the hens from recognizing the wound. And so began another season long battle, this one an effort to keep my hens from eating the rooster alive and treating the rooster with vaseline and Blu-Kote, which finally culminated in my hens chewing on my rooster to the point that he had blood streaming down his beak. He is now quarantined until spring, when he will be fullly healed and his comb will no longer suffer injury from the cold. Large combs will suffer in cold weather, and chickens are cannibals. Ducks? They have no combs, they tolerate the cold better in general, and they don't eat each other, either.
Chickens also kill my plants, create bare dirt spots in the yard, kill their own young if they hatch too late, and some even eat the eggs. Ducks don't, don't, don't and don't.
Yes, ducks are messier, they require water in which to swim and clear their beaks and that water becomes filthy and needs to be changed frequently, and even the best egg laying breeds don't lay as often as their chicken counterparts. In my opinion, however, those things are far outweighed by the disposition and personality of ducks as compared to chickens. Duck eggs are better for baking, too, and many people who cannot tolerate chicken eggs can eat duck eggs. And there is nothing in this world that is more adorable than a duckling.
This process of moving from city life to country life and learning through experience has taught me that chickens are brutal little feathered dinosaurs, and I don't like them one bit. Ducks, on the other hand, sound like they are laughing, all day long, and I adore them. You just can't ask for a more pleasant addition to the homestead. As a result, we are selling all of our chickens, turning our chicken coop into a duck house, and populating our farm with happy-go-lucky ducks. Anyone want to buy a chicken?
Tina Elliott is the owner/operator of Billy Joe's Food Farm, along with her husband and children. They raise poultry and dairy animals, with the help of many rescued cats and working dogs. www.facebook.com/BillyJoesFoodFarm