A long time dream of mine was to own some chickens. The idea of having a little bit of self-sufficiency that didn’t require ending another beings life appealed to me. I could have these happy, well cared for birds that would give me eggs! I wouldn’t have to worry that my morning eggs were from chickens that were long suffering in some factory farm marketing a ‘cage free’ environment though they’d never seen a blade of grass or had the opportunity to catch a worm.
A year ago with my husband’s encouragement I fulfilled this dream and brought home 6 baby chicks from a local hatchery. We chose four different breeds so we’d have a variety of birds roaming our yard. And secretly I knew it would be easier to name them if I could easily distinguish them from another.
Don’t get me wrong by the title of this story, its been a heck of a lot of fun. Watching them grow, getting them to eat out of my hand and run toward me instead of run away. I enjoy taking care of them and learning about chickens by observing and reading. Even in the dead of an Upstate New York Winter, I didn’t mind the treks out to give them water, food and something to do in the form of a scattering of meal worms or or scratch. Seeing them scratch and peck their way unfettered around the woods of our property has been particularly satisfying. No problem eating these eggs. These are happy birds with full lives!
When our Ursula turned out to be a rooster I loved to watch him learn to crow and get so excited about it his whole body would tremble and jerk just before a crow. I observed how the little guy instinctively tried to protect his girls from perceived threats. We were concerned about the neighbors complaining even though we could barely hear his crow in our bedroom with the windows closed in the middle of our 8 acres. So I called a couple of local sanctuaries but they were full and couldn’t take my rooster. I tried the rooster rehoming page on Facebook without luck. One day I messaged my cousin who has lots of birds and told her my predicament and asked if she’d like another rooster. Instead of the “No thanks lol” I expcected to get back she said Sure! What a relief! My prized Ursula would be safe and well cared for by an expert! I moved on with 5 birds instead of 6.
Certain things surprised me about chickens. They are very active. I thought they spent a lot of time lounging around and popping out eggs. But these ladies are busy! They will scratch and forage all day long. They run (at least for a chicken) between cover. If they are on one side of the yard where there are trees and they want to get to the other, they will race across the open area to the safety of woods. Chickens are very social. They don’t like being away from the flock. They call out looking for their friends if they’ve been away laying their eggs. They naturally return to their coop at dusk. No need to go looking for them they put themselves to bed with the reliability of a Timex watch.
We had bought one of those chicken coop kits that said it was big enough for 8-10 chickens. It seemed tiny but my research told me that I didn’t want a coop too big or the chickens would have a harder time keeping warm in the winter. We made sure they had a completely predator proof coop and run. We attached hardware cloth to the bottom of 4×4’s and attached those to the coop and run and added reinforced latches to all doors. We added an automatic door so I wouldn’t have to worry about them when we were out of town. I studied the PVC my husband used to make their waterer to make sure it was food grade. I read that chickens prefer a wide perch to roost on at night, a minimum of 4″. So we convert the coop to have one long wide perch and sacrifice one and a half of the three nesting boxes. I had read that we would need 1 nesting box per 3-5 chickens so I think we should be ok. I add in roosting boards to catch the poop while the chickens sleep which makes the coop so much easier to keep clean. I was already using sand in the coop and run instead of pine shavings or straw which are messy.
I’ve worried over these birds. I buy them snacks and toys. They get the best organic food available. We trained the dogs to be chicken friendly and I enjoy being able to let the chickens free range when we are home knowing the dogs are outside protecting against predators just by their presence. My husband ran electricity to the coop so they could have their water heated for the winter and after a few especially cold nights I caved and put a radiant heater in their coop as well.
Last summer Bula started showing up without feathers on her back. Then a bald very red butt. I researched and studied the birds for mites, lice and disease. I could find no evidence of any. And it didn’t make sense when not all the birds presented these contagious issues anyway. I read about protein deficiencies and that chickens might be eating feathers because they were lacking protein. So additional mealworms were added to their daily menu. I bought Bula a chicken apron which is a misnomer because they actually attach around their wings and lay on the chicken’s back, more like a cape. She wore it without it seeming to bother her and I periodically checked the status of her feathers under the cape. Then Ginger was missing feathers on her back and soon she had a cape too.
That left Penny, Wilma and Edith looking incriminating with their beautiful fully feathered bodies. Edith was my late bloomer and not laying eggs into late fall early winter. Her comb had been a very pale pink and her waddle non-existent. So I knew she hadn’t hit puberty yet otherwise her comb would be a nice red and her waddle would have grown. Sometime over the winter I had my first 5 egg day, meaning everyone had laid an egg that day and suddenly when I looked at Edith she had a red comb and waddle. My girls were all grown up. Then Edith also began to show up missing feathers and a third cape was purchased and applied.
The missing feathers and red, bloody spots continued through the winter. I’d spray their bare spots with Blukote like I read to do. I began to refer to them as the Walking Dead and my husband and I talked about what to do. I was convinced we did not have enough space and that was the cause of this pecking issue. That tiny coop and run that was supposed to house 8-10 chickens was not big enough for our 5 birds. We already had plans to buy a shed and turn a piece of it into a bigger coop but the problem was only getting worse and Spring seemed far off. We knew it was best to remove the bully rather than the one being bullied. Otherwise the bullies grow in strength and the weak get weaker. So I setup two large dog crates in the basement and moved Wilma and Penny inside. I presumed they were the bad asses since they still had all their feathers. I kept them inside for two days in a chicken time out and returned them to the flock hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
I’d never seen any drama and I thought that if they were free ranging every day rather than locked in their tiny coop and run that the problem would disappear. I had already surmised they needed more space. Now that I’d taught Penny and Wilma a lesson I convinced myself it was better to live free and die a quick death by stray dog, fox or hawk rather than live trapped in a tiny run with a bunch of other chickens that wanted to peck you to death slowly. So one Monday a few weeks ago I left the girls out to free range while we worked.
I worried all day and was relieved when they all greeted me in the driveway that night. Everyone made it through the day! I confided to my husband that I didn’t think I’d be able to continue with free ranging because I was a basket case all day long. While I’m doing my chicken chores that night I notice that Edith is roosting in the coop while everyone else was still off doing their chicken things. It was highly unusual to find someone roosting when the door was open. After my chores I grabbed the mealworms to lure everyone else in for the night so I wouldn’t have to come back out and lock up. Edith heads out of the coop to get her mealworms and then I notice she is missing a golf ball size piece of flesh from her back! It looked horrible and painful and I nearly vomit.
Edith would never willingly let me handle her. I went back to the coop after dark and grabbed her off the roost. I took her into the basement and examined the wound more closely. It looked like something took a big bite out of her. I spray the wound and surrounding bare skin with Vetrycin and put her into the dog crate I’d arranged for her.
I’d take Edith out twice a day for the next few days and examine and spray her wound. She seemed to adapt to the crate just fine and she finally began to heal. I had given her a cardboard box with a nesting pad and she continued to lay regularly in the crate. I covered the bottom of the crate with a doggie pee pad and threw some pine shavings with mealworms and grain mixed in for her to forage through. I bought her a parrot toy from the toy store and kept one of their treat balls filled with worms for her to peck at. Over the next two weeks Edith begins to let me stroke her feathers. She even begins to squat for me and I can pick her up and handle her without loud screeching and flapping. It almost feels worth it to have a fourth bird that I can handle when needed.
Joe and I talk about what might have happened to Edith. He’s convinced the other chickens did it to her. I am not so sure. I’d not seen them get so aggressive before and they had been out free ranging all day for the first time by themselves. I thought they would be too busy to pick on each other. But I also believed that if a dog, fox or hawk had gotten a hold of Edith well enough to make that big a hole she would not be alive. So I wavered between the chickens being the culprit and an outside force.
After a couple weeks I decided she was healed enough to reintroduce her to the flock. This past Saturday I brought her outside and let the other girls out to free range. Everyone but Penny came out and there was lots of talking back and forth. Wilma halfheartedly chased Edith who scampers out of the way. Surprising me, Bula, the worst of the Walking Dead, aggressively went after Edith and I stepped in between them and scolded her like I would a dog. I wondered if Bula is fighting to stay off the bottom. Penny pops out of the coop and Edith sees her and clucks and chortles and runs over to Penny in the run. They talk back and forth like two old friends commiserating and run off outside shoulder to shoulder talking the whole way. Penny and Edith are friends? I thought Penny was one of the bad guys.
I start cleaning the coop and pretty soon Edith comes in to use a nest box. She is still very talkative. Bula is right on her tail and follows her in. Edith occupies the nest box and Bula stands there and glares at Edith. I decide to let them work it out, that there’s not much I can do at this point. I leave to go inside and get some supplies I come back to find Edith in the nest box with Penny standing on her back and Bula glaring at Edith. I wonder what oddness is going on here! I watch a while longer and they seem to just be hanging out. I leave and the next time I come back Edith is in the nest box still but I can hardly make her out. She still has Penny on top of her and now Ginger and Bula are also squeezed into the nest box and on top of Edith and Wilma is standing there staring at this spectacle.
Still I decide to leave them to figure this out. No one was pecking anyone, they were in some sort of standoff. I leave them to do their chicken thing and periodically I check on them throughout the day. Later they are foraging and Edith apart from everyone else, like always, but near the flock. At one point late in the day I decide to get everyone in. Everyone but Edith responds to the mealworm shaking bag and follows me to the coop. Edith wants no part of it. Every step I take toward her she moves further into the woods clucking as she goes. I give up and let the rest of the chickens back out. Later I step outside and see Edith on the perch in the run. I walk over and immediately see that her wound is completely opened up again and bleeding. I grab her and take her back into the dog crate. That failed.
Sunday and today I start researching again. Everything I find reinforces that I have a space issue. In a search about chickens piling into a nest box I stumble on an article that reminds me of Temple Grandin. Dr Grandin is an autistic woman renown for her work in animal welfare. Namely around slaughter houses and factory farms. She has made an impact in creating better environments for even these animals. I highly recommend if you do not know who Temple Grandin is you first watch the movie about her life. It reinforces my feelings that she knows something we don’t and makes her advice feel more impactful.
I download the Audible version of her Animals Make Us Human and jump to the chapter on chickens first. Its all good stuff and then she talks about a study by scientist, Ian Duncan, around what is important to a chicken. They took a doggie door and weighted it down. Then one by one they placed things that a chicken might find important behind that doggie door. The idea was that things behind the doggie door would be deemed very important to the chicken if they would be willing to lift the weight of the door to get to that chicken thing. The study found that dust baths were not that important to chickens. They were nice to have luxuries but they were not willing to work too hard for them. The study also found that a nesting box was just as important to a chicken as food was after they had been starved for 30 hours. The chicken would lift the weighted door to get to the nesting box. Repeat nesting boxes are as important to chickens as food!
I remember Edith in that nesting box, refusing to leave even though these other chickens were very clearly telling her that they were not going to let her use it in peace. Edith held her ground and would not give up. My heart breaks and I feel like I’ve failed my birds. I have left them to fight amongst themselves over a single nesting box. Its clear to me that this is at least a part of the reason for the unrest in my coop. I had read extensively and not gotten the impression till now that nesting boxes were so important to chickens. It was mentioned casually and mathematically how many nesting boxes to have. I did not understand the emotional requirement for a chicken to have a safe, dark place to lay their eggs or that the pecking order might play a role in if the chicken were allowed to use a nesting box or the lengths a chicken might go to to use the box.
Another item of note is the importance of Seeking. Seeking amounts to the feeling of anticipation while an animal or human works toward something that is for pleasure. I might seek out an ice cream cone for instance. Seeking is the working toward an ice cream cone not eating it. A dog might seek out a tennis ball for a game of fetch. For the dog the Seeking is the finding of the tennis ball and presenting it to a human to throw. Foraging is a chicken’s Seeking. Foraging involves scratching around dirt, leaves, grass, poop you name it for that extra special tidbit. It doesn’t have be free ranging. It could be leaves and pine bark thrown in their run for them to scratch around in and find stuff in. Maybe some special treats thrown in the mess to hunt out and find. This is what chickens want, not a run filled with sand and clean of debris. That would be what the human wants.
Dr Grandin talks about creating places in the chicken’s environment where they can hide and get away from other chickens that might be picking on them. Maybe a partition to hide behind from an aggressor. Or some extra perches that they can use in various areas of their run to avoid higher level chickens. We’d already had plans for this, on my husband’s suggestion, in our new setup but this reinforces our plans.
For now Edith will heal in our basement and I hope she will continue to learn to like me. I will enlist my husband’s help to rearrange the tiny coop again so that we can free up the other nesting boxes to be used for nesting by the other chickens while we wait for the arrival of our shed. Once the shed arrives and gets setup for chickens, Edith will be the first resident of the new coop. We will place the old coop so that the other chickens can see her in there. I hope to let her settle in there and then as the other chickens get introduced in they will become guests in Edith’s house. Hopefully Edith will be more benevolent host towards them than they were to her.
Tonight at dinner I relay what I have learned from Temple Grandin about nesting boxes to my husband and I grandly declare we will have a nest box for every chicken with a name plaque on each one. He jokes that we can buy little electric collars for each chicken and put electric doors on their nesting boxes that only open for the owner of that nesting box and lock behind them. I giggle at the picture of Edith enjoying her private nest box behind a locked door but secretly I wonder, could we?