How to make it in Chickenville

As you know, Chickenville is a hard place to live. As they say on a popular TV show, “one day you are in, and the next day, you are out.”

After the last restructuring, we were left with four chickens: Black Chicken, White Chicken, Twister, and Kiwi. Of those, Twister was the “pet” chicken; she was sweet, let the kids play with her, and even got to go to my kid’s school for “farm day”. Needless to say, even if she stopped laying, she would get to stay around forever.

Twister. Despite her name, she's the normal one. Lays like clockwork, an egg a day with a break on Sunday. She is a regular boring Rhode Island Red chicken.

Twister. The “nice chicken”.

The other three, well, they knew its “do or die”. And while Black and White were regularly producing their “egg-a-day keeps Natty and the sharp knife away”, Kiwi was slacking. She molted months ago, and still no green eggs were in sight. The only thing that was keeping her alive was being small, not really worth the trouble to cull her. Still, there was muttering heard about “getting a free pass around here”.

Kiwi. The "cool" Americauna. Likes to stare down dogs. Lays green eggs, but only when she feels like it.

You want me to lay green eggs? Well, look, there’s some green lettuce for you. Would that do?

A few weeks ago, Twister got sick and died quite suddenly. We were sad. The kid didn’t have a “petting” chicken. So after two days of “I waaaaaaaant tooooo peeeeeeeeet aaaaaaa chiiiiiiiiiickeeeeeeeeeen”, I gave up, went into the chicken pen and caught one least likely to cause me bodily harm. Given that Black Chicken tried to kill me every time I get near her, and White Chicken can run faster than the Roadrunner, that left Kiwi.

And what do you know, she settled right in my lap and endured all sorts of rough handling by the three year old. Yeah, guess who gets to stay around forever, eggs or no eggs!

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You let me into the house! I never have to lay another egg again!

When chickens explode

Fall is here. Trees are turning yellow.

 

A few last tomatoes still cling to the dying plants.

Fallen leaves decorate the lawn.

Fallen leaves and fallen… features? A few here.

A few more there.

And soon, the chicken yard looks like someone got into a fight with a pillow.

Every fall, chickens go through a molt to discard old feathers and grow a new plumage. Some molt slowly, drop a few feathers here, a few there, for months on end.

Dude! Where’s my tail feathers?
I don’t know, dude, probably same place where half of mine are. Gah! This itches!

Others drop lots of feathers at once, and look bedraggled for a while.

So I look a little moth-eaten. I am still boss chicken! Don’t mess with me!

And then there’s chickens that explode. Their feathers come out in giant clumps, leaving patches of bare skin behind. They look so pathetic you cannot help but laugh, although you have to feel a little sorry for the poor naked things.

This is just sad, White Chicken!
I will turn my back so you stop taking pictures of me! Wait, no, that’s the worst part!

The only one who’s not molting yet is Twister. She’s next. She’s also a heavy molter, even worse than White Chicken.

I refuse to answer any questions about the status of my feathers.

Some of you may wonder what happened to Nekkid’s little egg eating habit. Well, it’s currently not a problem since chickens do not lay in the fall and winter due to molting and short daylight hours. So for now, she has an amnesty. Although, I am talking to a guy who is happy to take her “no questions asked”. I may take him up on the offer, but for now, I am going to go rake some leaves. And some feathers.

The Case of the Broken Eggs

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been finding broken eggs in The Girls’ nesting box. A broken egg now and then is not unusual, but I was getting one almost every day. Chickens are omnivores and will happily eat the inside of an egg that’s been cracked, but they generally avoid breaking the eggs themselves (natural selection is a wonderful thing!) Sometimes, however, one of them discovers that a quick peck at the egg leads to the delicious contents inside, and then you have a problem.

The Crime. A broken and partially eaten egg.

 

Another crime. This is Twister’s egg, she sometimes does her thing outside the box.

I am pretty lenient about my chickens’ performance. Pretty Chicken hasn’t laid an egg in almost 6 months, yet I still keep her around. However, egg breaking is not an acceptable behavior in my coop. The hunt for the culprit was on.

To find out whodunit, I constructed the Solitary Confinement Pen. Suspects would go in one by one and stay until an egg was produced. Guilt or innocence would be proved by the state of the egg.

The solitary confinement pen.

First one in was Twister. Now, she is probably my favorite bird. She is gentle, lets herself be caught without any drama, and lays well. But her eggs were the ones I was finding broken most often, so she was the Most Obvious Suspect.

I’m innocent, innocent I tell you!

Next day, a perfectly intact Twister egg was in the pen. Interestingly, the nesting box in the coop had no broken eggs either. The plot thickens!

I told you I was innocent! Sheesh! The indignity!

Taking the egg as proof of Twister’s innocence, I let her back out to join the others in the coop. My next suspect was Nekkid. Now, I admit, this was a bit of a case of chicken profiling. Nekkid is a mean bird. Nekkid is greedy. Nekkid beats up other birds, steals their food, and then beats them up some more. So it was reasonable to assume that she could be the one eating eggs. So, in solitary with Nekkid.

I do not like this. I hate you. I hate everyone.

Several days passed with no results. Not a trace of egg or eggshell in the pen, but also no broken eggs in the coop. Not enough information for a guilty verdict, but also no proof of innocence. In fact, I thought Nekkid stopped laying from the stress of being separated from the flock. I even felt a little bad. And then…

Uh oh! Busted!

I woke up early enough to see a partially eaten egg in the pen. The inside was already gone. Over the next hour I watched as Nekkid decimated the eggshell and ate every last piece. No wonder I wasn’t finding any of her eggs, she was eating them completely!

So I did it! So what? And I am going to do it again! Just try and stop me!

So, the criminal was identified and in custody. What to do now? Nekkid is going to go through a rigorous reeducation program. Apparently, taking an egg shell and filling it with mustard can stop a chicken from pecking its own eggs. I am curious if that actually works. Because if it doesn’t there’s only one way to go from there.

Welcome to ChickenVille

Here’s our first post from Natty, the ChickenKeeper.  For folks interested in urban farming, radical homemaking, or an on-going dramatic thread involving chickens, this is the gal to watch.

 

These are The Girls. They make noise. And my breakfast.

Got treats?

It all started with an egg (and here, in one fell swoop, I solve the age-old question! Stay tuned for next week, when I offer my opinion on chickens and roads). The egg I’m talking about is in the photo below.  I got it from my neighbor so I could make muffins. It’s the one with the dark orange yolk, as compared to its counterpart, the “regular egg.”  Now, the regular egg is actually a super-expensive, free-range, vegetarian, sung-to-every-night, (insert many other adjectives here) expensive egg from Whole Foods. And yet you can still see the difference.

Just as I was about to beat both eggs and erase any evidence of their difference, The Greek walked in and said:

“What’s this?”
“Eggs.”
“Why does that one look different? It looks like a Greek egg. We have the best eggs in Greece. The yolks are orange and they are way tastier than American eggs. I can never get good eggs in this country.”

Turns out the egg was not, in fact, from Greece. It was from a backyard chicken raised by my neighbor. Two weeks later, we had set up our own chicken coop so that “we could get good eggs in this country.”

Backyard or urban chickens are all the rage. The other day, a friend was walking around in San Francisco, and there was a rogue chicken running around on Market Street downtown. As chickens do not spontaneously generate in urban environments, it’s obvious that people are keeping them for a reason.  And while I won’t get into the whole factory-farmed vs. free-range chicken debate that keeps flaming on the Internets, that seems to be one of the driving forces behind the backyard chicken explosion.

For me, I like the fresh eggs, and I think the birds look cool in my yard. They are not pets. I am not particularly attached to them, and when the time comes and they stop laying, I will probably “do the deed.” They are kind of like Koi fish, but without the pond. About as messy too. But with eggs.

Currently, we have seven chickens. First, there’s the management team consisting of Black Chicken and White Chicken:

Black Chicken. Not a rooster, but about as badass. Lays white eggs.
White Chicken is an Americauna-Leghorn cross. The idea was to create create a mellow chicken that is a good layer: the egg production of a Leghorn and temperament of an Americauna. It didn’t seem to work, as this one is batshit crazy and impossible to catch. Lays nice white eggs though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, we have “the exotics”:

Nekkid. No she is not sick. No she didn’t pluck her feathers out. She is a breed called “Naked Neck” or “Turken”. She’s a mean bird that always steals everyone’s food, but she lays a brown egg almost every day, so I keep her.
Kiwi. The “cool” Americauna. Likes to stare down dogs. Lays green eggs, but only when she feels like it.

In additions to “the exotics” we have a special needs chicken:

Original. She is special. She has a crossed beak, which means she can only eat chicken pellets and never gets any snacks. Despite this little limitation, she’s fat as can be. Lays tiny little brown eggs.

And finally, we have just, you know, chickens:

Twister. Despite her name, she’s the normal one. Lays like clockwork, an egg a day with a break on Sunday. She is a regular boring Rhode Island Red chicken.
Pretty Chicken. She’s pretty, but of unknown breed. Used to lay brown eggs, but has been slacking off recently. Uh oh.

As far as chicken accommodations go, mine are mid-range. Looking online (which is how everyone learns about urban chicken keeping these days), you can find setups in every price range: from the minimalist  (rebar posts strung with chicken wire) to the McMansion (custom-built coops with porches, windows, shutters, on wheels, and electronic raccoon-repelling doors.) The Girls have small coop (about the size of a large dog crate) and a 10×15 foot run fenced run in a shady corner of my yard.

Sometimes, when I feel like it, I let them run in the back yard.  I usually regret it because they get into the vegetable garden, or poop on the deck, or dig large holes in my kid’s sandbox. Mostly they spend time in their run. They eat chicken pellets and whatever random kitchen scraps I feel like throwing at them. Yesterday they got a pound of raw hamburger than was past expiration date. It was a big hit — I think they thought it was a really large fat worm.

For all that trouble, they give me 3-4 eggs a day. That’s actually not a lot; chickens are supposed to lay almost an egg a day in their “prime”. But most of my hens are pretty old, and the one that’s young is a cool breed that is not very productive, but lays green eggs. 3-4 eggs a day is still more than we can possibly eat, so I give away the extra eggs as gifts. Around here, that makes me really popular.  (In other places people bring flowers, or chocolate, or zucchini bread when they are invited for dinner. I bring a half dozen eggs and people love me for it.)

Easter Basket from a ChickenKeeper. Is this cool, or what.

So there you have it. Backyard chickens. About as complicated to keep as goldfish.