Our backyard has gone to the birds. Because we live near a stand of woods, there are plenty of native species nearby, from the common robin to the majestic raptors. But what our space actually revolves around is your standard urban chicken.
Right now we have five. This number has fluctuated a bit since spring of last year, when Laura first decided to just dive in and order some chicks. Those initial four came and lasted about a week. Our then-canine companion Luca broke into the room they were in downstairs and made short work of them. (Just for fun I guess… she didn’t actually eat them.) That was our first awakening to the realities of dipping our toe in the farm life.
We ordered four small chirping replacements and Laura raised them up last summer. The boys grew along with them, and by the time the birds started laying eggs, Isaac was fond of his new pets. Finley now loves chasing them around the yard as well, and gets frustrated that he can’t catch one and pick it up like his brother can. In the summer the coop is at the bottom of the yard and has handles for mobility, while in the winter it was right up against the house and we could open a basement window to grab the eggs. For when we’re gone and can’t leave them outside overnight, Laura built an indoor motel for them in the garage. And thankfully we have a neighbor close by who also has chickens, so we can trade feeding duties during extended time away.
There have been some accidents, though. Our dog was the first predator, not the last.
The four chickens who made it to adulthood with us were dubbed Alice, Bianca, Charmaine, and Delilah. Sadly, Alice met her end earlier this year at the talons of a hawk. The chickens had been free-ranging daily and we had seen hawks circling, and then one finally made its move. The body was torn up but still largely intact, so we were able to show Isaac what happened and explain, as best we could, what had occurred. Isaac now knows “hawks eat chickens.” We were down to three hens now, still enough to give us daily eggs (about one egg per day per hen) but not enough to have much for backup or to give away to family.
Another top predator is the crafty raccoon, which Laura calls trash puppies. These have long prowled our perimeter, often exploring the run and coop and leaving their grubby paw marks. One night, on a rare occasion when Laura and I were home without the kids, we stayed up too late and shirked our nightly routine. By the time we went out to put the chickens away it was already dark, and there was a coon in the coop.
I heard Laura’s scream and ran out back. We had dealt with them before in nearby trees and even right up close in our trash can, though this was the first time we were aware of a direct attack. The run was covered with chicken wire, which is enough to keep chickens in… but not strong enough to keep other critters out. The beast had made a hole and squeezed through, then Laura surprised it just in time to send it scurrying up into the coop. In the process, it flung Charmaine weirdly to the ground. We chased the raccoon out and back into the woods, but Charmaine was worse for wear.
It took her several days to get back on track. Something happened around her neck region and she had a hard time bending down enough to peck the ground. Laura had to feed her by hand a few times and make sure she had water at head level. We’re happy to report though that after a few weeks of trauma recovery, she’s laying again! She’s still shaped kind of funny but seems to have made it through with some internal scarring as a souvenir.
In the meantime, Laura had ordered two more chickens to bring our numbers back up. Currently, Eleanor and Florence live in their own small cage because they need to eat slightly different food and the other hens need to accept them into the flock. Bianca is a bully and chases them around and pecks them, so we’re still working that out. The two newbies are well into their teenage stage, so soon enough we’ll have to just toss them in with the others and see what happens with the pecking order.
Something is up with Eleanor though: Laura thinks it’s very possible that Eleanor is actually an Eli. Time will tell soon enough, but certain comb and feather signs are there. We may end up with a rooster without necessarily planning to. But I’m told a rooster can keep the hens happy (it’s biology or somesuch). We just hope he won’t be too loud.
That would get us back to four layers, with not only the same number of eggs we had gotten used to at one point, but the potential for chicks down the line. Just have to watch out for those hawks and raccoons, not to mention owls. We saw one perched close the other night when we had again waited just a bit too long to properly lock up the chickens before dark. I’ve even seen a house cat prowling down at the bottom of the yard. It’s a hard life for a hen out there. But we reinforced their home with more durable fencing wire, so as long as they are inside with the doors shut the only way in would be to dig under. That, too, might be something we eventually remedy.
And those projects are not too hard because my wife is a talented coop constructor. She built the very first A-frame that we still use, and has since designed, built, and sold two additional coop/run structures that she experimented with. They are super impressive and comfortably accommodate four backyard birds! (Not ten, like online coop ads would have you believe… that’s just sales talk that simply isn’t true.) Now she is dropping the roost area of her original coop to expand it vertically so it will accommodate all five adults soon, as well as removing its handles and giving it a permanent home in the yard.
Somehow, I’ve come around to the fact that when I step out onto our back patio on a summer day there’s a decent chance my toes may touch some chicken poop. It’s not necessarily an aspect of life I had been planning for, but here we are. I at least get to pick up a chicken when I feel like it and throw it while shouting “go chicken, goooooo.” It’s strangely satisfying.
Now just to take a deep breath to prepare for the day I get home from work and Laura has a pair of goats waiting to say hi.