Chicken Math

When I moved in with Slava (after several years of marriage. btw), we decided to get chickens. I mean, why not? I had friend/neighbors in Boston who kept them (somewhat illegally). When I was about to move, my neighbor asked if I could take his rooster. It was supposed to be a hen but….these things happen. They’d been trying for some time to give him away, but no luck. If you want to keep illegal chickens, you definitely can’t keep a rooster because it will annoy the neighbors when it crows loudly at 4am. If nobody complains about your illegal chickens, you’re fine. In our neighborhood, we had bigger problems, but they still didn’t want to take any chances.

So I said yes to the rooster. Slava and I had been talking about getting chickens, and I figured actually having one would kick our ass into gear. I took him to my car in a cat carrier. I ran into my pals, the kids who lived across the street and said hey, I just got a rooster! They said, we didn’t know you had a rooster! I let them name him. First they said Chick! I said no. Then they said Luke! I figured like Luke Cage or Luke Skywalker, and our first chicken was named.

He watched me from the passenger seat the whole 2.5 hour ride to his new home. He lived on our screened-in porch for a while, pooping wherever he pleased.

Slava got to work building an enclosed run and bought an inexpensive little coop from someone on craigslist. He bought a few hens from a farmer, and our first flock was started. He chose some beat-up pullets (young hens) who looked like they needed a home, and we found ourselves with Hopey (Plymouth Rock Barred), Maggie (Rhode Island Red, RIP) – they were named for my fave Love & Rockets characters, and Lucy (a small, feisty Leghorn).

Luke was our first casualty. He died in the line of duty, protecting the hens from a hawk. It was really upsetting, even though he routinely attacked me!

Maggie, my favorite, was the next to go. She got sick and we didn’t realize what was wrong with her until it was too late (sour or impacted crop). We kept her apart from the others in case she was contagious, but then decided to keep Hopey with her so she wouldn’t be lonely. Hopey was clearly heartbroken when Maggie left, but she re-adjusted after a few days.

We upgraded to a bigger coop, and couldn’t believe our chickens had lived in the little one for a whole year. It was a like a dollhouse in comparison. I found a new, free rooster on a FB chicken forum, a beautiful, young Americauna we named Valentino. We got four new pullets as well, from a local farm. The new gang got along pretty well. We lost another girl for unknown reasons; of course she was my favorite, the wry-tailed Josephine.

Last year we discovered Hopey had been hiding eggs in the yard during her free-range time. She couldn’t hatch them because she couldn’t sit on them for long. This year, I neglected to take the eggs from the coop for a day or two, and she got broody! A broody hen REALLY wants to hatch eggs. She got VERY fluffy – she curled her feathers so they got really big, and pulled out her chest feathers so she could keep eggs warm against her skin. We decided to let nature take its course, even though it hadn’t been our plan. She stayed on the nest and moved some of the others girls’ eggs to her nest box so she could hatch them.

I calculated the incubation period, but was surprised when they arrived a few days early! I opened the coop door and there were some babies! She sat on 13 and hatched 9, which was an impressive ratio. I didn’t get involved. Some hen owners get involved early, but I wanted to let her do her thing without me. She did fine, of course! After a few days of keeping the chicks in the coop, our boss Lucy started pecking at them, so I made the new family a safe space in the run with the old coop away from the rest of the flock.

It was difficult to get anything done, since all I wanted to do was watch the chicks. They were so cute! And mama Hopey was doing an incredible job parenting. She was perfect. So protective, keeping them under her when it got chilly, teaching them to eat, to drink, to climb the ladder to the coop. Fortunately, I was under-employed and had a lot of time to sit around watching them.

The chicks are 5 weeks now. They no longer have their enclosure; now they sleep with everyone in the coop! I still keep them in a pen outside the run; free-ranging seems too scary since we have hawks nesting in the woods. Yesterday they started fighting and I got one of them to sit on my shoulder. Since we’re not hand-raising them, they won’t be as easy to deal with as motherless chicks. I’m doing what I can.

They get very excited when they see me. They think I’m either going to let them out of the run, or I’m going to bring them treats. They are right!

Valentino was fine for months, but eventually he got very protective of the hens, and he was regularly attacking me. He was rough on the hens, and they lost all their back feathers. I got little jackets for them. (Ok, technically they’re called “chicken saddles,” and many people sell them on Etsy.) At some point, I realized I just couldn’t take the rooster attacks anymore. We listed him for free on the local backyard chickens FB page, the local FB buy/sell page, and craigstlist. I gave up hope. I was ready to (unwillingly) kill him, when someone on the chicken page contacted me with a solution. Slava & I drove him to his new home en route to my parents’ house this past Friday. It’s the perfect chicken paradise! This artist/ bird whisperer at Fowl Weather Farm, keeps chickens, turkeys, peahens and peacocks, ducks, and a few pigeons! We had no reservations about leaving Valentino, and hope he enjoys his new life on a farm with tougher birds than him.

the hens hate their little coats

UPDATE: So, I never posted this and now things have really changed.

After re-homing Valentino, it was really hot and humid for a few weeks. We opened the second window in the coop, which we’d never opened before. I didn’t think about the fact that it just had a screen, not wire mesh like the other window. I went out one morning to check on the chickens and 7 of our 9 babies were dead. Some were eaten, others just killed. This was probably the work of a Fisher or a Weasel, meanies who kill without really needing to (just like humans!). I can’t tell you how upsetting it is to lose pet chickens and be at fault. It’s bad enough when a hawk gets one, but to lose seven in one day because of a weak spot in the coop – well it was rough. I also am mad that anyone would build a coop with a window like that! I mean it’s like they never kept chickens before. Everything Slava built for the chickens is predator-proof.

Of course the survivors were both roosters. I liked these roosters a lot, and we decided to try to keep them. I taught them to jump for peanuts. They were best buddies, which was good since the hens were not interested in hanging out with them. I let them out during the day so they wouldn’t harass the girls too much, one of whom was still traumatized from Valentino. One rooster was white with a few brown feathers (son of Lucy), and the other was a giant red rooster, son of one of the NH Reds. Big Red had huge claws, and when his hormones kicked in and he started mounting the hens, he tore ALL the back feathers off one of them. I immediately put jackets on the hens, which they hated, but they were protected from the talons.

BFF survivors! so cute

Hopey decided she wanted babies again. Since we wound up with no new hens from her previous brood, I was game. The roosters weren’t providing fertilized eggs yet, so we got a dozen (probably) fertilized eggs from a friend. Hopey was glad to have them, and in due course in October she provided us with 6 chicks (3 DOA). Again I was fully distracted. I knew right away at least one was a roo – some breeds are sex-linked, which means they are colored in a way that you can sex them when they are chicks.

Again, Hopey was a wonderful mom. I don’t know why anyone would want to raise chicks in an incubator, when hens are such good moms. She taught them to eat, to drink to scratch for bugs, to eat grit, how to climb the ladder into the coop, and to go under her at night to stay warm. As before, at a certain point I had to separate them from the older chickens for their safety (and so they could eat different food). I had a chicken-wire enclosure so they could have space and sleep in the little coop (which is fine for a mom and babies). I insulated it with straw, which Hopey liked to kick around. She had lost some feathers on her back due to the roosters, and when the new feathers started coming in and the chicks wanted to sit on her back, she got mad because new feathers (pin feathers) are painful when touched. It’s so cute when they sit on her, but I understand why she kicks them off.

I had an outdoor space for them too. With the first brood, I made an extensive, covered, temporary run that I could move around the yard. The walls were wire fencing and the roof was old sheets. It gave them relative safety and shade from the summer sun, and a lot of space. With the second brood, I just gave them two dog crates stuck together and let them out on their own when they got big enough. Both architectures worked.

It’s January now, and we have 4 roosters (one of whom jumps for peanuts)! I was worried about what we would do with them, but someone on the FB chicken page will take them in a few days. I’m not as attached to these roosters as I was to Big Red and Lil’ Whitey, but I still have bad dreams about giving them away.

UPDATE: the roos went to a good home, all together. I wish them well! I was definitely more attached to our previous pair of boys, but it’s always sad to see them go.

Keeping your own chickens is an expensive way to make sure you’re getting cruelty-free, healthy eggs, but if you also think of them as pets, it’s worth it. The downside of that, of course, is they die. If you name them, you feel worse when they die.

Bottom line, in 2020, Hopey hatched 15 chicks and we wound up with two hens.

Lucy, aka THE BOSS

look at her cute hat!

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