For the birds: a backyard chicken update on molting and broodiness…

There was a recent movement in our sister-city of Moorhead, MN, to pass an ordinance allowing each household/homeowner to be able to have maximum of 5 hens in their backyard. Seems kind of like a no-brainer, but — misunderstanding and misinformation on chickens, their care, and their bodily odors still abound. Alas, the motion was not passed. One of the councilmembers felt that, to paraphrase, there just was not enough of a buzz about chickens. They hadn’t heard of anyone supporting it – or even talking about it. … I suppose it depends on who you talk to. But, that is a stumbling block. People thing of chickens as noisy and smelly, but they are likely thinking of the factory-farm equivalent of chicken-ry — which is noisy, and smelly (not to mention bad for the birds).

I thought that the group, “Moorhead Citizens for Urban Chickens”, had a good idea, though. They hosted a screening of “Mad City Chickens” and the Public Library, and invited enthusiasts or those curious (or even those opposed, I suppose) to come and talk together and learn.

They now have the option to circulate a petition, and gain 1900 signatures, to bring the issue to a vote. I wish them luck (and really had hoped to attend the event a couple weeks back, but didn’t get there. The documentary looked absolutely cool!).

Our own backyard hens have greatly contributed to learning, both for me and my husband, and our boys. Even my two-year old is comfortable (and amazingly adept) at sneaking up on a chicken and grabbing it (gently….gently….GENTLY, PLEASE!).

One thing we’ve learned about is what happens, and how to respond, when a chicken is broody. A broody hen wants to hatch eggs. And while that would be pleasant to have chicks, most neighbors in the city don’t find a rooster crowing to be pleasant. We’re just in a bit too close of quarters. Our own ‘surprise rooster’ was pretty loud, even for us, and he was a bantam silky – its not the size of the rooster that determines the size of the crow.

A broody hen also doesn’t lay eggs. Why would she? She is an expectant mother. She doesn’t need to focus her energy in more chick production. But, for those who enjoy scrambled eggs, this presents a problem.

We have had two of our three hens have multiple broody periods, and have found that gently taking her off her next several times a day, and, in fact, blocking the entrance to the nesting box, usually solves the problem — but not overnight. I think the shortest it has taken to “break” a broody hen has been a month! That’s a long time, to me, who likes omelets. And what’s more, when they do start laying again, you have tiny marble eggs for around a week, just like when they first started laying.

Another issue that recently freaked us out: molting! I was greeted by a fluff of feathers blowing at my flip-flopped feet one morning as I went to re-fill their food and water. Was one of them sick? Was there an animal attack? Nope – its purely normal and natural. The length of days decrease, and in nature, that would signal the chickens to line their nest with comfy warm feathers, while growing new feathers, also comfy and warm. While they’re molting, they look a little goofy and patchy – but, they’ll recover. They’re beautiful birds, patchy or not.

These two learning experience (as well as others!) have made me appreciate the complexity of a chicken, and the gift of how they were made. As much as we think of keeping chickens, or even gardening, for that matter, as ‘natural’, ‘back to the land’ type stuff, we’re tampering with the structure of nature, so I always want to tread carefully, and learn as I go.

Thousands and Thousands of Words….

Please enjoy this slideshow of what’s going on in my backyarden — veggie starts plants, herbs growing, a single strawberry (or maybe 3 to harvest this year!), raspberries forming aplenty, new perennials, and of course, the Three Sisters. They are oh-so-photogenic…

Consider this post many thousands of words long!

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Found: Chicken Daycare

I haven’t written a lot about my chickens, but they are a perfect example of ‘local’ food – eggs from our backyard! When my buddy Roxane profiled me in the local paper, I was hesitant to let the ‘birds out of the cage’ – call me paranoid, but I really didn’t want to have people potentially knocking on my back door, or worse, breaking into the coop, to peek at what may be some of Fargo’s only backyard birds.

Now that I’ve hosted a recent Wildtree party, and introduced many children and their parents to the birds, its safe to say the word is out, and, being the proud ‘mother hen’ that I am, I can’t resist now posting and sharing some photos of my three sweet Ameracauna hens. Goldie Chest, Red Hen, and ….Goldie Chest, Jr. (I thought at some point we’d give them more creative names, but these have stuck. We do sometimes call Red Hen “Flapper” because…well…she is just extra ‘flappy’. Must be something about being handled by eager children.

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Our birds were adopted in a unique situation. They were hatched, then given away. More than that I cannot blog, but not only is it possible to have chickens in Fargo (with a few restrictions of course) but its also possible to get them free o’ charge. Wish I could say the same for their coop and feed. But I do have many willing helpers to tend the flock (which I do technically have. A flock = 3 or more).

We started out with 7 cotton balls. One we discovered almost right away was a rooster. He and two of his ‘girls’ were given to a friend on a farm outside of town. We kept four. Nice, round number – 4 eggs a day, maybe? That’d be a dozen and a half a week, give or take a few! Nice! Well — imagine our surprise when, while drinking morning coffee and gazing out the window on our tiny coop, we heard a Cock-a-doodle-doo! Skittish, our fluffy blue-grey Silkie “hen”, had showed herself to be a himself — which made sense, actually – we noticed this bird to be aggressive, very dominant, and had started to be nipped by him.  We just failed to notice his cockscomb developing under all the girly plumage. This bird went to another friend of our family, also on a farm (we hear reports from time to time that he is a true cock of the walk.).

But, why chickens in the  first place? Well – we like eggs. Plus, its kind of a unique, quirky, self-sufficienty thing to do. I had done quite a bit of reading about chickens, and thought they’d be a fun project that I could lump into our ‘homeschool experience’, making myself look slightly less crazy for having farm animals 4 blocks away from the Bismarck Tavern.

It has been a GREAT experiment. I truly do like these birds, and if I had a little more space, I would have more. Other varieties I’d consider would be pigeons or Japanese quail. I had been also considering rabbits, but honestly, I just don’t think I could kill a rabbit. And just using their poo for fertilizer wouldn’t justify the expense of keeping them….anywho, back to the birds.

They were housed in the garage over the winter, with a small door to an outside run, which they quite quickly turned into a bare patch of earth. We thought it would be neat to make them a movable pen (which you can see in the slideshow) so they could mow the little grass we have left in the backyard, dig for bugs and worms, and get their own grit from the soil. They have enjoyed it.

Now, here you may REALLY think I’m crazy, but they are LEARNING, people. Their pea-sized brains are taking it in, and remembering. They now know what the word ‘outside’ means, and they make a special questioning kind of noise when they want to be let out to their chicken daycare pen. I am totally not kidding you. At all. *cough*

The pen was cheap to build – I think the pvc pipe and connectors totaled about $7, and then the netting was $18 (would have been free, but we accidentally curbed the remaining netting, and forgot to rescue it. Someone else is building a chicken daycare as we read, I’m sure of it.). The zip ties we had, though I did have to buy a few more. We used colored duct-tape left over from the kids wallet-making-fiesta, so no cost there. Grand project total was in the neighborhood of $25, and Hub’band built it in roughly 2 hours. Yay!

The most time intensive part was picking out pipe fittings while our kids terrorized other customers in our local Fleet Farm. Second most time intensive was snipping the hex netting without making too many gashes in one’s skin. We made a top flap that can be opened, but the whole thing is so light-weight, that we usually just lift it up to let the birds in and out.

We’re pleased with the results, and the happy hens are, too.