I was carrying a load of laundry out from the garage, which is where the dryer is, across the yard to the house. As I came out the door, with the basket of fresh fluffy laundry filling my arms, I startled the chickens that were scratching around just outside the door. Actually they startled me more because they are not usually lurking in the more high traffic areas of our yard.
“Shoo! Shoo now.” I called and they graciously moved a few inches over to let me through, scratching around for bugs and keeping one eye on each other to see if they had better luck then she. It was my favorite time of day.(or night?) It was dusk and that’s usually when I let the hens out to roam and find bugs. They tuck themselves in to bed when it gets dark so I don’t have to worry about rounding them up. Their little heads are down, their fluffy butts up and if you are quiet you can hear them rip off bits of grass to eat as they make soft little happy sounds of contentment.
Over the years people have asked us about raising chickens. “Is it zoned for our area?” “Is it hard to set up?” “Do you need a rooster?” etc. Yes, you probably can have hens, but not as many as we do. You need to check your city. OR take your chances, depending on if you have amicable neighbors, like we do. It takes some time to set up but they are not very demanding pets and they do pay you back. No, you do not need a rooster to get eggs. And no, you are not saving money on eggs. It is far cheaper to get Costco slave eggs. But not nearly as healthy for you or as fun to collect.
We have had a few batches of chickens. The first time we used a large old wooden box a car engine had been shipped in, converted into a coop of sorts. (After spending a few years as a time machine). We just ran chicken wire around 2 large trees we had and left the part attached to the fence to where we could get in and out. Of course they soon figured out how to get in and out too, even as stupid as they are.
This current run has 2 parts. Hubby built a movable run with chicken wire, that is on the right. There is a wooden platform for the food and nesting box and that end has fiberglass sides and roof fr shelter from the rain. (funny, but when it does rain, you can look out and see their little yellow claw feet from under the fiberglass wall.) Both ends opened up and the roofs lifted up. But then Phil built a regular enclosed coop for them to sleep in (our flock was growing). He had never built anything before and did a great job. The roof lifts up, the floors come out to clean, there is a little ramp inside for them to use to get into the “loft” for sleeping, the loft has a screened in window, even a little wooden ledge for the to perch on while they sleep. The side wall swings out so we can clean it out or collect eggs. Then we just fenced in the rest of that side of the yard. Its looking a little ramshackled by now, with the fence sagging here and there and extra boxes around for Chicky-doodles, who is a banty and doesn’t sleep with the others. But it is still working just fine. We are even using an old pet carrier for a nesting area. I like to give them options. So they lay in the box, or the crate or the coop or under to coop. I have a fake egg in one box. Then they might look at it and think “Ooo, that looks like a safe place to lay my egg too!”
We do not have predator issues here too much. We have seen plenty of possums and have heard about raccoons nearby, but so far our cats and the dog seem to keep them at bay. Once our neighbors pit bull jumped the fence and killed 2 hens before we got to him. The neighbors are an older couple whose son had left the dog with them and they felt awful about it. They have an aviary themselves and love birds of all kinds. But things happen.
Then there is the hawk story.
But first here are some websites dedicated to learning about back yard chickens. http://www.backyardchickens.com/ is the one I started learning on.
http://urbanchickens.org/ is another one.
We have the book “Barnyard in your back yard” edited by Gail Damerow and it has a smattering of information.
Most of what I learned was from my old book “Chickens in my Backyard” that I bought back when I was about 20 years old. (I guess you could say I have always had a yearnin’ for chicken raising.) Plus experience is the best teacher, especially since none of the books were written by people in Southern California.
It seems everyone’s chicken raising experience is a bit different and that’s what makes it so fun. What we have in common is the love of watching a flock of hens scratch and coo and cluck as they look for bugs in the grass. Or finding a hidden cache of eggs.
oh yeah, the hawk story.
So, one day Dave was up in the office, above the garage. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a streak come down from the sky and just like that he heard screeches and squawks from our flock! He jumped to the window and saw a hawk trying to carry off Nervous Nellie, our skinny Leghorn. He yelled and went storming down the stairs still yelling and exploding out the door to see the hawk flying away…with nothing.
Another time Dave was just coming out the back door in time to see the hawk come sailing just inches off the ground through our yard, up and out! Still, no hens taken.
At least twice I have seen him sitting on the telephone pole out back of the properties here, just sitting there in top of the pole, eyeing the flock. But so far, so good. I have not seen him lately. Maybe he gave up and went on to easier prey. Our chicken run has a huge hibiscus tree covering most of it to give it shade and the girls protection. I think after all that hawk business, they were all nervous nellies. We named the one that because she was the one that would not let us pick her up, the one we could never catch because she was so fast and small enough to get in and out of anywhere you did not want her.
We once had a couple young banties, which are smaller hens, that we somehow picked up at the feed store. But before they were even 5 months old, which is about egg laying time, a sickness ran through our flock. One by one a hen would start to limp and stumble, eventually loosing use of her legs and finally dying. We would try to hand feed and water them, keep them warm. We saved a couple from chicken deaths door. One of these was the banty. Before she was sick, she was very skittish and wild. After we nursed her back to health, she would linger at the back door always trying to get in. We could easily pick her up and hold her.
One day we could not find her. Not anywhere. Finally I thought to look in Jacks dog house. There she was! She was sleeping in the doghouse with Jack. And the long-suffering dog just put up with it. I know I took a picture somewhere, if I can find it, I will post it. So I renamed her Woodstock. I don’t remember her original name anyway now.
But one day she disappeared for real. No feathers. No body. She just…dissapeared. We never found her again. Her sister had died during “the plague”. The Golden sisters, Goldie and Yenta had also died when this disease swept through the flock. And then it was gone. We went without any extra hens, other than Betty-Boop for the rest of the year. The next spring Phil purchased 6 new chicks and we raised them with no problems.
Then he went off to New Zealand and missed their first eggs. What kind of a dad would do that?
I was baffled during this time. At least 6 hens, in their first year, should be very productive. I had found a few eggs, so I knew they were producing. But I was only finding one or two a day. I would lecture them, scold them, bribe them.
Then one day I saw an egg laying there. You see, the coop is several inches above the ground. There is chicken wire going around the base of the coop, except the one side where the ramp leading into the coop was. The egg I saw was on the inside of this fenced in area. A lightbulb went on. Ah-ha! I swung opened the side wall, lifted the flooring and what did I find???
37 eggs, in about 4 different colors!
Brown and pink ones, white and pale green ones! The Motherload! It almost covered the entire ground under the coop.
It is pretty exciting stuff to find a ‘cache’ of eggs. I have found them behind the garage hiding behind some boards. And behind car parts, behind old bicycles, in potted plants. It is much easier when they are all locked up in one area. Like I said, I like to give them some laying options, but not the whole darn yard.
Give them food, water and a little shelter. Keep them safe from predators and they will reward you with eggs (except during their hiatus in the short winter months) and lots of poop (oh, excuse me…fertilizer) all over the yard. Your grass will be green, your egg cartons will be full and you will buy fly traps by the case load.
Watching them will lower your blood pressure and they make great conversation topics when the friends are over.
The eggs are lower in cholesterol, or so I have heard, and they actually have flavor. I do not wash them until it is time to use them, as they come with a protective film over them that keeps bacteria out. This allows them to stay fresh at room temp for up to a month! Although I still refrigerate them when I collect them. But if you find a ‘cache’ of them hidden somewhere, most likely they are still good. We have found an occasional egg hidden someplace by itself that we don’t know how it got there or how long its been. That we do throw away. The hens like to set in one area so she can get a good collection for hatching. She lays one there every day or so and if her nesting instinct kicks in, she will suddenly go “broody” on you and sit on them. This is not a desirable thing. First off, with no rooster around, they will never hatch. Then she stops laying during this time. She will be mean and growl at you and try to peck at you if you let any fingers get near her. She will barely leave them long enough to eat or drink. You need to be a little hard-hearted about it. Push or lift her off the eggs and take them. That, unfortunately will not be enough to stop her. She will lay on nothing even once she is broody. You need to try to keep her from that spot every day until she snaps out of it.
If you do get a hen that goes broody and you want more chicks, this is what you do. You let her be broody for about 2 or 3 weeks. Then you go to the feed store and buy some new baby chicks. You go out at night with a flashlight, sneak the babies under her while she sleeps. In the morning, voila! All is good. Mama comes proudly out with her brood, followed by the babies. She will teach them everything they need to know, will keep them warm, give them warning calls when she thinks they are threatened, which makes them all run under her for cover. (and this gets pretty funny when they get almost as big as her and you see them try to hide under her, lifting her up off the ground.)
Anyway, this, I can tell, could go on forever. I have lots of stories. I didn’t tell you about when this all started. How a friend of a friend was moving away, selling their home and had to quickly relocate a dozen hens. I moved fast, picked up 4, brought them home and then thought, “now what?” Impulsiveness like this can get one into trouble sometimes.
Or the chicken-foot pasta story. But I think that is posted somewhere else. And I am very tired. I am a morning person, like the chickens. So I hope this will whet your appetite for having some hens of your own. At least 2 or 3, which is more what you might be zoned for, unless you live in a rural area.