When The Chickens Flew The Coop
I was a veteran chicken catcher, by the time my five chicks flew the coop one-by-one, thanks to both being raised on a ranch, and a certain adult adventure that began with a wild chicken ride.
The grown-up escapade began in the front seat of a beat-up 1/2 ton Toyota, flying over dust choked roads, unsure whether we were still in ye-haw Texas, or kidnapped to Mexico. Somehow, each of us had failed to pick up on the fact, that our wild-eyed Mexican driver, was already drunk when he got behind the wheel.
Sitting four to a small truck bench seat, my head was already bouncing off the headliner, being that I was perched on my six-foot-five foot bulky husband's lap. His buddy, was clinging to the passenger door and hand-strap -- clearly braced for the crash that seemed inevitable. Certain of a sinister outcome, our fears seemed confirmed when the probable hostage taker/robber, suddenly made a sharp left off-road turn, slamming us against him inside the cab of the truck. He jerked the truck to a near face-crumbling stop and hopped out, seeming to urgently grab something from the back of the pickup.
Quickly, my husband shoved me off his lap, yanking me out the other side of the truck with him, when his buddy opened the door leading to our escape, or eventual murder. All of us were thinking the same worried and frantic thoughts. As if in slow motion, we were poised to run into the unknown desert, when we heard the first popping sound -- not of a gun, but of the opening of another beer. Seems our host, needed a re-fueling.
For The Serious Newbie Poultry Keeper
- Spend time with your birds
- Remember you are their provider of food, water, and protection
- Give them good food
- Give them clean water
- Make sure nothing can get into their sleeping quarters that could kill them
- Keep them warm in the winter
- Keep them dry in the rain, sleet, or snow
- Learn all you can about chickens
- Join a poultry club and be active
- Learn the chicken lingo
- Hatch and raise some chicks
- Learn the parts of a bird, including the feathers
- Attend poultry shows and talk to breeders and judges
- Buy good birds from breeders, not from feed stores
Lord What Am I Doing Here?
Four beers later, with nothing around for miles, except perhaps darkness and rattlesnakes, and no clue where we were -- we had no choice, but to get back into the truck. Reluctantly, with echos of Larry Verne's 1960s version of Please Mr. Custer -- I found myself half crazy wondering "What am I doing here?"
If we had died that night, it would have been my fault, as I was the one who had negotiated with our host -- to take what I thought would be a short drive, to his home. He was an exotic chicken breeder, and had some of the finest large breed exotic chickens and roosters, I've ever seen.
We were on the last leg of a buying trip/vacation. We travelled in an old custom van, already filled with such treasures as a Rock-ola juke box, an antique cigar store front Indian, and 1950s era boat motors. Stumbling upon this border town open air flea market had been an exciting find. Unlike many U.S. flea markets, this was primarily a Hispanic speaking market, where everything, even weapons were being sold openly.
Before came across this breeder, I had spent exhausting hours negotiating the price of an unusually exquisite example of a Mexican boot pistol, from the early 1800s. At the time, my husband and his friend did not speak Spanish, so part of my exhaustion was translating between them and the sellers. By the end of that day, he had his prized pistol.
That was when I spotted this breeder packing up his unsold roosters and hens. With visions of being the envy of all of our West Virginia neighbors, being the only ones to have such fine birds -- I convinced the seller to take us to his home to see a wider selection. What we didn't understand leaving that market, was that he lived about fifty miles away, in the middle of no-where and he was very drunk.
How Much Space Is Needed to Raise Chickens
If you are going to become a backyard chicken keeper, there are some simple guidelines in terms of space required for raising chickens. These are:
- Making sure that there are no ordinances against you keeping poultry in your neighborhood
- Allow one square foot per bird, in the chicken run (for exercise), if you are going to cage them
- Larger breeds need more room than smaller breeds
- A nice beginning size for most new poultry keepers, is building a minimum run of about twenty square feet (four hens) which equals to five feet x four feet
- For housing, allow the same one square foot per bird
We don't know if he was lost or just buying time, before he came home to a very angry wife (who had at least ten children). Once he handed over the day's earnings though, her screaming ceased and they were two love birds eager to show us their brood of fine chickens and roosters. Clearly, a large part of the business was selling fighting cocks, so in my mind buying a few extra roosters was "saving their lives."
We ended up being only too glad overnight guests (thinking he'd be sober by the return trip). Our accommodations were on old blankets under the stars in the back of his pickup bed (once the trash was swept out). His wife, an American woman, went all out feeding us, both a magnificent dinner and breakfast before we left the next day.
In all, we bought twenty-four hens and seven roosters. Mind you, these roosters were not cheap, in all I spent several hundred dollars, still quite delusional that I was going to have the best-of-the best, in a new exotic breed chicken operation back at our farm. I was going to make a lot of money re-selling the off-springs of these find breeding birds to the locals, who had never seen such glorious birds.
Why Free Range Chickens?
- Superior food source (more Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Vitamin A, and most importantly, less fat)
- Superior flavor (there is no comparison)
- Lower cost in keeping chickens (require less feed, get more exercise, less building materials in housing)
- Good for environment (chickens naturally spread manure/fertilizer) without intensive labor or cost
- Best Management Practice (in terms of insect control and weed control)
- Free range hens do not wander too far from their night-time housing
Two Thousand and Fifty-Five Miles Later
With the addition of all of the wooden chicken crates to our other purchases, there was barely room for the three of us in that old van. We had over two thousand miles to drive back. Over the course of the next few days, the closer we got to West Virginia and the northeastern United States -- naturally the colder the weather got.
Near Cincinnati, and still nearly four hundred miles from home, the day time temperatures dropped below zero, about the same time as our van's heater gave out. Used to living in the backwoods of West Virginia, out came several layers of clothing, coats, gloves, and even ski caps. Somewhere in the late hours, we decided to get a motel and get warmed up. We were definitely afraid the chickens would all die, so soon found ourselves sneaking crates of chickens into our motel room. LOL
Warmed up and revived the next morning, off we went into the refrigerated icy roads heading towards West Virginia. It was just as cold as the day before, and soon the chickens weren't doing very well. My husband's buddy was driving, when I asked dearly beloved to check on all of the chickens and roosters. Maybe it was the mind numbing cold, but as he unfastened each of the wooden crates, he neglected to refasten the wire locks on several of them.
Before we knew it, our van was filled with about a dozen loose chickens intent on flying the coop, as we sped down the road. Because of all of our purchases, we couldn't catch them, as they defiantly perched themselves out of reach. So, we persevered on the long road home, looking very much like the Beverly Hill Billys (West Virginia style). Truckers and cars alike were honking and laughing, when they spied chickens hanging out in the back windows. We contributed nothing that day to the image of people from West Virginia.
Basically, the two most important things to know about raising chickens is that they need to be sheltered from both weather and predators. Housing for chickens can be as elaborate or simple, as you desire as long as they meet those needs. Housing for chickens need not be expensive.
There are three ways to house chickens:
- Day Ranging - The oldest, least expensive, and most popular way to raise chickens. You shelter them in locked door housing and release them during the day. In a short time they will return to roost in their house on their own, as soon as it gets dark or the weather becomes bad.
- Free Ranging - Relatively new concept accepted in the last century where you provide a fenced area surrounding your chicken housing.
- Movable Pasture Pens or Chicken Tractors -- These are bottomless pens that hold the chickens and moved on wheels daily to give them fresh pasture or grass. Usually they are ten feet wide by twelve feet long and two feet high. This size can accommodate about seventy-five mature chickens. The roofs of these are partly sheltered, the rest of the structure is covered in metal chicken fencing.
Back in the Coop Only to Escape Again
As luck would have it, my husband was immediately called back out on his railroad freight job, and I was left with the task of hurriedly building chicken accommodations for the thirty-one new residents. I spend three days building chicken coops, ending up quite proud of my accomplishments in chicken wire, plywood, and two-by-fours. Before moving them into their new chicken houses, I even gave them a fancy left-over paint job to help the structures withstand our weather.
Having been around chickens for most of my life, I had been careful to keep each rooster separate from the others, with his own little harem. Once released into their houses and chicken runs, I even proudly took many photos of the hens, roosters, and my pen building skills.
The next morning, I went out to see at the bottom of the hill, what looked like a large black plastic trash bag. Strange, in West Virginia, you burn your trash or bury it, as the county doesn't pick up trash when you live two miles from your nearest neighbor, six miles from the nearest paved road. I didn't own any trash bags.
Walking down, to my horror -- two of the roosters had escaped and fought themselves to the bloody death, in an apparently bitter battle over hens and territory. In the days to come, the remaining roosters would find ways to escape that defied imagination.
In the end, I had two of the original roosters remaining alive, one alpha very large one, and one scrawny juvenile who knew when to run, rather than fight. Once we arrived at this point, there was no need to lock them in separate accommodations, except at night and every one of those exotic wild chickens ended up roosting in trees and wherever they felt like it, whenever they felt like it. Teaching me some very valuable lessons about who flies the coop and when to just take it in stride, when chickens decide for them, the right time to fly.
Anatomy Parts of a Hen or Pullet
Raising Baby Chicks
Most birds can be air dried in a warm climate or summer (not in the sun, or in front of a heater), some breeds of loose feathered birds such as Cochins, Silkies, and Orpingtons should best be dried by using a blow dryers.
Tightly feathered chickens, such as Old English, Modern Game, etc. are best dried by allowing to air dry on their own.
If You'd Like to Know More!
- BackYardChickens.com - Raise Chickens, Build Chicken Coops, Hatch Eggs
- Chicken Coop Building Instructions by Dennis Harison-Noonan from the February/March, 2006 issue of B
- Chicken Coop Plans - Build Your Own Chicken Coop
- Chicken Coop Designs - Back Yard Chickens
- FREE CHICKEN COOP PLANS
- How to build a chicken coop introductory page
- Movable Chicken Tractor Coop #1 by Bill Dreger from the February/March, 2007 issue of Backyard Poult
- Portable stealth chicken coop
- The City Biddy Hen House Building Plans Book | UBuilder Plans
At the Chicken Spa
Many poultry raisers will never give their birds a bath, especially old timers, unless involved in county fairs and other competitions. However, in today's world it can sometimes be a good idea to bathe your chickens a few times a year. The reasons for doing so can be:
- You have small children who will be interacting with the birds regularly
- Chickens can get quite messy, and this can lead to diseased birds
- You end up with excess birds and want to sell some of them (just like anything else, clean sells)
- Some of your chickens have become more pet, than living pantry stock
Note: When your birds need a bath, the first thing you need to remember is that it takes about three days for a bird to be fully dry and work it's natural oil back into it's feathers. Secondly, birds can get colds and sick easily if chilled. Don't bathe birds in cold conditions.
Proper supplies for bathing a bird:
- Toothbrush to scrub shanks, feet, toes, and toenails
- Vinegar to rinse shampoo out of feathers (1/2 cup per tub of water)
- Baby shampoo to clean feathers
- Blow dryer to dry loose feathered birds
- Towels to dry the birds
- Nail clippers for clipping toenails
- Emery board for the beak
- Sponge to wash the birds head
- Cotton balls and blood stop stick, in-case you should cut the toenails too short
- Baby oil to rub on the shanks
- Hair conditioner for final rinse in the bath process
- Three tubs of warm water to bathe the chickens in
- Start with three separate tubs of warm water
- First tub - for bathing
- Second tub - for rinsing, adding 1/4 cup of vinegar for every gallon of water
- Third tub - for final rinse, adding 1 tablespoon of hair conditioner for every gallon of water in the tub
- Hold bird with its breast resting in your palm
- Lower into first tub for a few seconds to allow the bird to get used to it
- Most chickens will relax (some will even go to sleep)
- Never allow the bird's head to go under water
- Put a small amount of shampoo on the dirtiest part of the bird first, starting with the vent, the legs and the feet
- While these parts are soaking, shampoo the rest of the chicken -- slowly and gently
- Do not damage feathers by rubbing them backwards!
- Rinse as much of the shampoo out of the feathers as you can in the bathing tub
- Place bird in second tub with vinegar and rinse thoroughly, then rinse again -- making sure there is no shampoo left on the feathers
- Wrap bird in a towel, leaving the head out and feet out
- While wrapped wash face, wattles, and comb with sponge
- Trim the top beak (if necessary) so that it is even with the bottom
- Use emery board to smooth the edges
- Using toothbrush, give legs, feet, and toenails a good scrubbing
- Rinse them afterwards in running water
- Clip the nails, being careful (just like you would with a dog) to not get into the vein (in most chickens it is fairly easy to see)
- If you can't see the vein, clip only small portions of the nail at a time, checking after each clip
- If the nail does bleed, use blood stop stick, and a cotton ball to control the bleeding
Raising Organic Chickens
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