Search This Blog

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Spring Chickens

From the Coop Dept.: Against all odds, we still have two of the Rhode Island Reds we acquired eight years ago. Otherwise, the brood is a mix of breeds, with a handsome rooster who is as friendly as his never-eaten predecessor was mean. Here's a piece from seven years ago that explains it.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I ENJOY CAESAR SALAD and live on a farm, so it seemed logical to get chickens. We’ve been told to avoid those raw-egg dishes like the classic dressing for that salad – not to mention egg nog, boeuf à la tartare and most morning-after concoctions – because of salmonella danger.

That’s also why we’re exhorted to clean any prep or body surface that touches raw chicken meat. This isn’t because chickens are inherently disease ridden. It’s because the chicken-processing industry raises the beasts in such horrific conditions that they spend most of their brief, antibiotic-laced lives mired in ordure.

So why not turn some of my acreage over to a flock of them? We’d have fresh eggs, which are significantly better than store-bought, and we could kill and dress our own birds for dinner.

All I’d have to do is build a coop, and that’s easy. My neighbor Dave, who lives in a house that’s enviably off the NiMo grid, showed me the portable coop in which his chickens roost: A simple affair that required no carpentry degree, complete with a flap that allowed access to the nests from the outside.

To force my hand, Dave met me at a local Agway last spring, in time to choose from the chicks peeping away under the heat lamps. “I’ll lend you my incubator,” Dave said. The critters were kittenishly cute, roly-poly balls of fluff bumping into one another as they hopped around with no seeming sense of direction. As I would learn, this is as intelligent as they ever will get. My six-year-old daughter, going on the theory that you can’t dine on an animal you’ve named, named one of them “Fern.”

The incubator was a stout metal cage with a thermostatically controlled heat lamp at one end. A meshwork floor allowed the poop to pile on a removable tray. My eagerness to begin this project overcame the nascent realization that somebody frequently would have to clean this, and if that somebody weren’t me, it would be a grumpy wife.

Still, it was exciting to have a cellar full of chicks. And impressive to learn how far the squawks of 18 of them carried through the house. And daunting to realize that, from the day we brought them home, they grew. Which meant I’d have to get that coop built soon.

Dave dropped off some books that offered guides. All I needed was an enclosed structure with room enough for nest boxes, which the hens would share. I needed egg-collecting access. Most importantly, I needed to protect the birds from predators. “Chicken seems to be the favorite dish of the carnivore kingdom,” Dave told me. “I once saw where a raccoon got hold of chicken right through the wire of the cage and dragged it, piece by piece, through the holes in that wire.”

My yard teems with wildlife. Raccoons, of course, but also coyote, foxes, skunks, owls – suddenly it seemed exceedingly hostile out there. Only something safe and sturdy would do, and I found plans for it on an agricultural college’s website. What was supposed to have been a weekend project built from found material blossomed into much more. We hauled in two by fours and plywood. An experienced friend helped me frame the structure, an eight by eight floor built on skids, rising to eight feet at its peak. I found some windows and a door and framed the openings accordingly. We ran electricity to the coop. Dave stopped by and viewed the structure with dismay. “What’s next?” he asked. “A jacuzzi?”


THE CONCEPT OF DOG training is unknown in my village, but you’re talking about a place where the major cultural event is a Saturday night at the Fonda Speedway. So I built a pen alongside the coop to keep the birds safe, by day, from the neighborhood curs.

By the end of April, the stench from the cellar wafted through the entire house. The birds had long since stopped being cute, and stumbled like hunchbacks in the incubator. I hurried the coop to an almost-finished state and moved them.

We were worried they might not survive the still-chilly nights; we needn’t have worried. And they seemed to grow even more quickly with all the room they now enjoyed. We had nine Rhode Island Reds, considered a dual-use (eggs and meat) bird, and nine White Leghorns, specially bred to be fat. Although chicken sexing is something of a science, whoever signed off on our chicks let a rooster get through. One of the Reds developed the fancy coxcomb and the nasty disposition.

According to the books, chickens tend to keel over and die for no apparent reason, and one of the Leghorns did just that. “That wasn’t Fern,” my daughter declared. “Fern is a red one.”

We buried it with the kind of ceremony dead pets typically get when there are kids involved, although, by the time the next one died, the burial thing seemed tiresome. Without alerting my daughter, I tossed the carcass into the woods for the coyotes to feast on – and feast they did. Nothing was left the following day.

In September the first eggs appeared – little pullet eggs, slightly larger than what quail produce. But within days there were more and they were growing larger. By the following month, we were averaging eight eggs a day, enough to start a small side business selling them to friends.

The birds were eating a commercial mash from a local feed store, but Dave pointed out that you can’t have organic eggs coming out without organic stuff going in. A farmer near Cobleskill produces organic mash, so Dave formed a consortium of area chicken hobbyists to buy the stuff by the pallet. Although it still meant paying $11 per 50 lbs., as opposed to the $7 for the same amount of commercial stuff, we figured it was worth the expense – which we (somewhat) defray through egg sales.

At least that was the plan, but it was scuttled last winter when the first of those frigid nights hit in January. I put a heat lamp in the coop and the birds huddled near it; what few eggs they produced usually were frozen by the time I got to them. But the birds also ate far less during that period.

Not until mid-February did eggs begin to appear with regularity, reaching the usual level of eight to ten per day by April. Each hen is supposed to produce about an egg per day during summer, which means that a few of our birds don’t fully understand the schedule. Egg-laying is tied in with daylight, and decreases as the winter draws on. Some chicken farmers use artificial light to fool the hens into increased production. We tried it last fall, and it seemed to work, but the timer froze to death in January.

Maintenance, now that the weather is reasonable, is fairly easy. I top off their food and water, and every week or so change the straw in the coop. We’ve got some pretty hot compost brewing in a back field. And it’s worth sticking around when the hens get back into the coop to inspect their newly-thatched nests. They act as if they’ve never seen the place before.

Compared to commercial birds, they’re living the life of Riley. They have sunlight and plenty of space, and they’re free to move around. They’re also very amusing to watch: “chicken television,” Dave calls it, and it’s got more intelligence behind it than any broadcast reality show.

Each hen is a factory, and can lay up to ten times her body weight in eggs each year. You’re supposed to get about two good years out of a bird, possibly up to four or five. With our rooster busily doing his roosterly stuff, we’re looking to isolate some eggs to hatch for inexpensive hen replacement. Meanwhile, none of our hens has yet met the dinner plate.

It’s surprising to discover what visitors don’t know about hen husbandry. Do you need a rooster to get eggs? No – you only need the guy if you want fertilized eggs and a noisy backyard. How does he fertilize the eggs? He doesn’t. He’s not a fish. He fertilizes the hen, an amusing sight to behold.

And, as he matured, he decided I was an enemy and took to attacking me whenever I’d enter the coop, forcing me to rig special doors that I can operate from outside. I lure the flock into their pen by tossing in the day’s table scraps, then drop the doors, enter the coop and grab the eggs. And still the rooster charges me when I get near the wire.

Because of my grumblings about him and threats to turn him into dinner, my daughter took the only logical course: she named him. “He’s called Cock,” she declared with a mixture of righteousness and innocence. “So nobody is going to eat Cock in this house.”

At least we have plenty of eggs.

Metroland Magazine, May 27, 2004


Harry Minot said...

Hey, that's an OLD photograph, from before the coop was fully-painted. And before your enhancements to the fenced-in area. Hope all of the feathered girls are well. And that noisy guy, too.

B. A. Nilsson said...

Just got an anonymous comment that read, in part: "I was curious if you ever thought of changing the layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 images. Maybe you could space it out better?" To which I respond: If you love what I have to say, why worry about these mythical others? Can't you enjoy your own enjoyment?

But then the comment finished with a link to a website about chicken coops that was badly formatted and, once you clicked on any of its blog entries, hawked a how-to book. Never mind!