Rest well, sweet girls…

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My wife Abbey and I have been raising chickens for almost three years. Two days before New Year’s I went out to let them out of the coop in the morning, a favorite part of my morning routine. I’m used to hearing the clucking and flapping in anticipation as soon as I get near the door, but instead there was silence. Something had gotten in during the night, and killed them all.

There was a hole chewed through the floorboards, not even big enough to put half my hand in. The leading suspect is weasel, there’s not much else that could have fit in through a hole that small. We’ve lost individuals before, but to have the whole group wiped out at once was devastating. We loved our little cluckers, and did everything we knew to do to keep them safe at night.

I’m not sure yet what we’ll do next. For the moment, though, I’m a writer, and one of the things I do when I have strong feelings is write it out. This may not be interesting to anyone besides Abbey and I, but I want to remember our chicken adventure, and all the joys, heartbreaks, and learning that came with it.

Abbey had wanted always wanted chickens, but for most of our life together we were urban apartment-dwellers, so it wasn’t possible. When we moved to our mountain home on two acres in Lincoln, Vermont that changed. Other projects took priority for a while, but in the spring of 2016 an opportunity came up to get a coop and four chicks for free. And we were off!

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We’ve both always been animal lovers, and grew up with cats and dogs at various points. Together, Abbey and I have had our cats Sasha and Jinks since we lived in San Francisco in 2009, and in early 2016 we added Bean the dog to our family as well. So it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the addition of weird, ungainly little dinosaurs.

At first we kept the tiny peepers in a fenced-off run attached to the coop. They were pretty happy with this for a while, since they had plenty of greens to eat, and compost to dig through.

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But it was always our intention to free-range them eventually. We know it’s not a perfectly safe life but it is, for them, a very happy one- foraging for fresh greens in the yard, digging through the dirt, hunting for bugs. And in any case, they started to stage jail-breaks. So out they came!

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When the yard got buried by winter, that didn’t phase them either.

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This was our first group of girls. We named the red Bertha, aka Big Bertha, because she was the boldest and quickly emerged as the flock-leader. The golden girl was Dolly, and the two black and white hens, who we couldn’t always totally tell apart, were Parton and Madison. They absolutely loved to roam all over the yard. Spotting them here and there as I went about my business during the day became one of my favorite things:

As was finding them lounging in the little dirt baths they dug throughout the yard:

Or seeing them run out to greet us when we got home:

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Probably because they knew we often had treats:

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In search of which they would even come up into the car!

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And they gave back as well! We actually got our first eggs in November 2016, literally just before the election, so it was kind of like, “Well, it seems like the end of days, but at least we have eggs!” Very rapidly we were overflowing, so much so that Abbey coined the term EMMIE “Every Meal Must Include Eggs”.

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We loved our four girls, and it was a joy to share our living space with them.

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But, as with all joys, there were some sorrows. The first came when one of the black-and-white Brahmas, Parton, became immobile. She hunkered down in the coop, glassy-eyed, and wouldn’t move. At first we thought she must be sick, but online chicken forum research revealed that she was actually broody. This is when a laying hen is determined to hatch her eggs (fertilized or not), and basically won’t move from sitting on them.

Besides just waiting for it to pass (they usually get mobile again after 20-something days, which is the period it takes an egg to hatch), there are various things you can do to get a chicken to overcome their broodiness. We tried them, and eventually she got up and moving again. And then, one day early in late spring, she didn’t come back to the coop at night. We searched all over the yard for days, but there was no sign of her.

One of the things we love about where we live is being close to nature. Over the years on or near our property we’ve seen bear, beaver, deer, foxes, a moose, raccoons, skunks, and woodchucks. While predators are usually pretty shy during the day, we were philosophical that we couldn’t both free range and have it be 100% safe. After several weeks with no sign of Parton, we assumed that something had gotten her.

Until one day when I heard a cacophony of clucking on the porch, and emerged to find…

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It turned out that she had been hunkered down in an overgrown spot in the yard, not even that far from the deck, with a brood of eggs. That’s right, we had a chicken missing in our yard for almost a month who went undiscovered despite frequent searches. Nature is weird! Sister was looking (and smelling) pretty ragged at first.

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But after a few dirt baths and nights back in the coop, she eventually cleaned up pretty well, and was soon back in the fold.

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Parton had gotten a taste for wild living, though, and often decided not to come home at night. I got to know where a lot of her hiding places were, and whenever I could find her, I’d scoop her up at dusk and put her back in the coop. I couldn’t always find her though. One of those rebel nights out, she pushed her luck too far, and in the morning I found the yard full of white feathers and then eventually discovered her body.

We buried her near one of her favorite outside spots.

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This happened in August 2017, the morning we were leaving for a weekend trip. My wife’s mother lives with us, so she often keeps watch of the little cluckers while we’re gone. When we returned, she told us that our golden girl, Dolly, didn’t come home one evening. We searched all over, but never found any sign of her. This kind of daytime smash and grab was probably a bold fox trying to feed kits, or maybe a hawk.

It was pretty hard losing two of them in one weekend, but we still had Bertha and Madison to take care of. And since two chickens does not a flock make, after a month or two…

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We named one Boots due to feathery fluffy feet, and the other Daisy, because she just seemed like a Daisy. Research revealed that, when introducing new chicks to an existing flock, you first have to keep them totally separate for 30 days in case they have any diseases or infections, and also keep them warm until their down is replaced by real feathers. So Boots and Daisy spent a month in the downstairs bathtub.

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The next step is to bring them into a space near your existing chickens so they can get used to each other, but still separate until the new chicks are a few months old, and can hold their own in the inevitable “pecking order” dominance tussle with the established chickens. For this phase, we put up an internal partition in the coop, and made a side door through which they could go to their own fenced-off run.

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We hadn’t quite extended our partition all the way to the ceiling, figuring that would be fine until they got a lot bigger. Not so much!

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And so, before too long, Boots and Daisy joined the outside world. (For those who might wonder, Bean never showed any sign of aggression toward the chickens. Some dogs certainly will, and we never left him alone outside with them. But his interest was pretty much confined to following them around so he could get their yummy, yummy poops.)

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As mentioned above, when you mix chickens together, there will be a period of them sorting out dominance. This is appropriately called “pecking order”, because one of its prominent features is the more dominant chickens giving a good swift peck to their underlings and chasing them around. For example…

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It can be kind of nerve-wracking to watch, but they usually sort it out within 10 days or so. In our case, our new and old flock got into a new equilibrium pretty quickly.

 

As those of you who are familiar with chickens may have already detected in the above pictures, however, we did have a situation. Boots turned out to be not so much a hen, and more a rooster.

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At first, this seemed fine. More or less! He was loud. He was sometimes aggressive toward us, as roosters will get when the testosterone starts to hit. But he was bonding with his ladies, and since we had losses from predators that past summer, having a rooster on the premises didn’t seem like the worst idea.

Things began to unravel when, over Christmas and New Year’s, we had a bout of extremely cold weather. One thing we’ve learned is that chickens do just fine in “normal” winter weather as long as their coop is somewhat insulated and drafts are kept out. This, however, was about ten days in a row of double-digit subzero temperatures, which our lightly winterized coop wasn’t up to.

So we did what any sensible couple would do, and set up a temporary run in the basement for them. While this required frequent cleanings, they did very well. Until, almost the very last day before it got warm enough to bring them back out again, I came down at night to turn off the light for them (aka “basement chicken sunset”) and found our Brahma Madison in a corner, badly mauled.

Chickens, particularly stir-crazy chickens, will peck at each other, and roosters will also tear up hens a little when initiating mating, which Boots was starting to do. But this was way beyond that, she had deep gashes in her neck and back, and the back of her head was split open. We really thought she was probably done for, but decided to see what could be done.

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As it turns out, the recuperative powers of chickens are pretty amazing! The vet cleaned out the gashes, stitched the head wound, and gave us a course of antibiotics to put in her water. After a few days in bathtub rehab, she was squawking, eating, and even laying eggs. We were pretty sure Boots was the culprit, so once she was ready to go back out we set up a cage in the coop and a fenced-off separate run to ease them back into proximity.

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The problem with this was that, even after taking weeks to let them interact through the fence, anytime they were directly exposed to each other, Boots would attack Madison on sight. He even got into the run at one point and re-mauled her, though not as badly as the first time. This time we were able to stop the bleeding with cornstarch (another tip learned from chicken forums!) and put her back on antibiotics for a few days.

We never really got a good explanation for Boots’ behavior. The closest match we found was that sometimes, if a hen refuses mating, a rooster will become hostile to her, and treat her like a rival rooster. Whatever the cause, it was clear after weeks-on-end of this that one of them had to go, or else we would have to keep one or the other fenced off forever. We hated to pull Boots away from Daisy, and Bertha who he was bonding with, but poor Madison was one of our original chickens, and had never done anything wrong.

And so…

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In late March 2018, after some time looking for a new home for him, Boots went to live on a chicken farm that needed a stud. For the first time in almost three months, Madison no longer needed to be kept separate! After a brief period of pecking to reestablish who was who, she pretty quickly re-integrated with Bertha and Daisy.

And speaking of Daisy, once spring rolled around she started laying! Full-grown she was only about 2/3 the size of the others, and her eggs followed suit:

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We were already thinking of getting a few more hens after Boots turned out to be a rooster, since he wouldn’t be in the laying game. We figured we would do it in the spring, and with the flock now down to three after his re-homing, it seemed like the time to go ahead. And so, in May 2018, our bathtub welcomed this new crew of peepers:

They needed to be kept inside for five weeks, both for quarantine purposes, and until their feathers were in and they didn’t need the heat lamp anymore. If you’ve never had a shower stall-full of chicks peeping, digging and generally bashing about, I recommend it. It’s quite entertaining, and also good for freaking-out your cats and dog!

At first, they were pretty hard to tell apart, but as they matured, two became reddish and two were more golden. In chicken breed parlance, the reds were New Hampshire Reds, and the golds were Buff Orphingtons.

They also started to develop some serious personality!

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Unfortunately, while we were waiting for them to be big enough to emerge, we suffered a loss in the outside world. When I opened up the coop one morning, I found Bertha dead inside. There was absolutely no sign of attack or injury, and the other two in the coop with her were fine. And she hadn’t seemed sick or in any way unwell the day before.

I’ve learned from online forums that this kind of thing isn’t totally uncommon, and all kinds of things could be the culprit. Whatever the cause, it was very sad. She was the bestest girl, full of personality, and very social with her people.

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Just to be safe, I cleaned out the coop, and boosted their water with some things to fight parasites in case that’s what it was. Meanwhile, two hens was definitely too small to make a flock, even though Daisy and Madison did enjoy nesting and patrolling the forest together:

So we went ahead with the plan to introduce the post-quarantine peepers to the flock. The first step was to provide them with their own separate enclosure within the coop:

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Which they quickly got the hang of:

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After spending a night getting used to their new digs, they emerged the next day through their side door to their private fenced-off run:

This separation was designed to get them used to being outside, and the other chickens used to seeing them around, until they were big enough to hold their own in the pecking order. At first, it worked very well:

However, this new mini-flock proved to be much flappier and jumpier than any of our previous chickens. It wasn’t long until they were staging jailbreaks:

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Eventually, our attempts to raise the barriers around their run literally collapsed:

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So out into the world them came!

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There was the usual pecking and chasing to establish dominance, but they got pretty good at staying out of the older girls’ way. They even went back through their side door into their separate cage at night. Until, one night when I went to close the coop I found…

So that was that! Starting in August 2018, everyone was together in one coop. At first the new four and the older two seemed to flock separately:

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They did get around, though! While our previous chickens had done all kinds of foraging around our two acres, this new batch added some innovations. Like the blueberry bush they would jump up into to pluck berries from the lower branches (gratuitous dog shot added free of charge):

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Eventually, though, although Madison continued to refuse to share feeder space with them, they all got the hang of flocking together:

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The transition to fall didn’t bother them at all:

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And at least one of the new girls started laying:

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A lot of chicken joy was had by all over the next few months.

Finding them all gone that morning was horrible. Eight weeks later, I still regularly have a lump in my throat about it. But mostly, I remember them happy and healthy, free-ranging around their yard like this:

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I feel like I’ve only just started to talk about all the laughs, love, things worried about, things learned. These feathery little friends brought a lot of joy into our lives over the last three years, and we miss them. Rest well, sweet girls.

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