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Monday, February 10, 2014

Chickens: Pirate Moves Out. Then Back In. (And in between makes a personal declaration.)

Yes, it is true, I finally got the courage to move Pirate out to the coop.  I moved him out, then back into the garage, then back out to the coop, then back into the garage.  While I was moving him around, he took a few minutes to declare his sex.

The turning point in moving past my paranoia happened when I purchased a rabbit cage.  It is a perfect size for one chicken living part time and has wire all around so Pirate can dodge the pesky beaks of The Ladies.  (Yes, they still take any opportunity to beat up on him.)

For the first week I put the rabbit cage into the chicken run and kept the cage door closed.  Pirate had lots of free ranging time in the yard (during which he kept a close eye out for approaching hens and bolted when necessary) so when it was time to rest, he was quite happy in the cage.  The Ladies tried to peck him but the wire did its job; he was allowed to eat and drink in peace.  During this time, I would come out at night and place him inside the coop, behind a screen of chicken wire so he could get used to sleeping with The Ladies without getting hurt.

The second week I left the cage door open and Pirate would venture out on occasion only to be chased back into the cage.  After a few days, JJ and Goldie Hen decided the rabbit cage would be a great nesting spot; they chased Pirate out and set about laying their eggs.  Out in the open, poor Pirate was losing feathers daily, often to the digestive tract of Dom.

Then a deep freeze blew into Colorado and rescued Pirate from these hellish days.  The temperature was so cold (zero to 10 degrees during the day and well below zero at night) I decided to lock The Ladies into the heated coop (otherwise the crazy ladies would walk around the pen tucking one foot up into their down then the other in an attempt to keep their feet from freezing.)  But I knew they wouldn’t let Pirate eat or drink if I put him inside the coop with them so I moved Pirate and his rabbit cage into the garage.

Upon waking the next morning, we flipped the garage light on and within a few minutes, Pirate began a teenage-boy-sounding creaky, “Cock-a-errrr-doodle---ack.”  Pirate declared himself a rooster; you can watch him chime his morning routine here:

After the cold days, I moved Pirate and the rabbit cage back into the run. 

One morning, feeling a bit nauseous at what beatings might be occurring down in the pen, I went out to see how things were going.  Pirate was out of the cage and, as soon as I walked into the run, he flew up to the top of my head.  I brought him down into my arms and discovered the raw, bloody wounds that The (Not So Much) Ladies had left on his back. 

Pecking order I understand, but when Pirate hides his head in a corner, not fighting back, and they continue to peck and tear at him, I just can’t take it.

So Pirate is now sharing his days free-ranging in the yard or safely away from dogs and hens in the Tractor; he spends his nights in the rabbit cage in the garage.  And yes, I walk him to and fro each morning and each evening. 

We are hoping that, given his newly identifiable sex, he will become more aggressive quickly and at least be willing to fight back.  I have long talks with The Ladies telling them they might want to consider the future a bit before they beat up Pirate too much; he will want something from them someday and I think he has a good memory.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chickens: Ode to Buffy

John Hutto in his book, My Life as a Turkey, mentions that raising wild turkeys taught him to live in the moment.  I can’t say that about raising my chickens.  In fact, I am quite sure that Pirate lives in complete fear of his future.  But what I have learned is to trust my instincts.  A week ago I came in the house and told Alan that I thought Buffy would die soon; she died yesterday.

As was true for the last couple of days, Buffy wanted no more than to sit in my arms and be petted.  But with a snow storm moving in, I had a list of chores to get done.  True to the crazy Colorado weather, yesterday was a gorgeous, warm day so when JJ interrupted my cleaning of the coop to lay an egg, I sat in the sunny yard holding Pirate.  Soon the other ladies came over to see me, Buffy walking more slowly than the rest.  When Buffy was close, much to the surprise of Pirate, I put him aside and placed Buffy on my lap.  She snuggled down for more petting.

When JJ was done I put the Buffster down to finish my chores.  Walking across the yard about two hours later, I noticed her lying in the dirt with JJ pecking (gently for once) at her back.  Not being a stranger to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Bath, I hoped against hope that she was having a good one.  But as I got closer, I could see her eyes did not have the drugged-out, glazed-over look of a chicken enjoying a good dirt bath.  I picked her up.

She nestled into my arms and we went and sat in my favorite garden chair.  Soon she went into convulsions at the end of which she looked up at me.  In her eyes I did not see fear or pain, but bewilderment.  Something like, “What the hell is happening to me?”

So as my tears raced unabated down her soft back, I stroked her gently and told her she was dying.  I apologized for not being strong enough to end it more quickly but I promised to hold her until it was over.  I thanked her for her few eggs and then began to talk about Chicken Heaven.  I was quite sure, I told her, that there would be an endless supply of meal worms and not the dried ones the humans gave her but live, fresh, juicy ones that wriggled as you pecked them.  I also imagined that there was an option about whether or not you wanted to lay an egg (having seen the look in their eyes as they return to the nesting box to lay, I am not sure it is something they enjoy very much.  Suffice it to say, if the look were on a human face, it would sell a lot of Pepto Bismol.)

During this time JJ hopped up on the arm of the chair and Goldie Hen came closer than she ever has, standing near my feet and looking up at Buffy.  They chortled a few chicken sounds but eventually moved away to continue hunting.

Fifteen minutes later, Buffy closed her eyes for the last time.

I’d like to say we looked around for the perfect grave site for her, but we didn’t have a lot of choice.  The cold winter had frozen much of our topsoil but we found a sunny spot that had thawed during the day.   We laid her in, said a few words, covered her with dirt and then piled on some rocks to deter the local fox (and, of course, The Noses.) 

Overnight Nature covered her with a fresh white blanket.


Monday, December 23, 2013

Chickens - Never Say Never

During the last few weeks I did two things I said I would never do:  I took a chicken to the vet (pictured above); and I actually purchased a vegetable with the sole purpose of feeding it to the chickens.  Just when I thought I had gone over the deep end, I watched “My Life as a Turkey” on the Nature channel and I didn’t feel so alone.  Or so odd.  (Incredible story, I highly recommend it.)

I last left off with Dom living in the Tractor and Pirate in the brooder box both inside the heated garage.  That was weeks ago and just yesterday Dom moved back into the Coop.   During her convalescence I let her free range with the other Ladies (and now I use that name very lightly) only to find that JJ would continue to peck and tear at Dom’s wound opening it up again and again.  So Dom spent a few days and nights in the Tractor with no contact in order to get a good scab on her cuts.  (With me rinsing the wound in the bathroom with hydrogen peroxide.)  Just yesterday I moved her back into the coop after watching them free-range for a few days together; JJ still tries to get to Dom but now Dom moves away instead of just sitting there and taking it.

But all this trauma isn’t why I took a chicken to the vet.  Buffy, the Buff Orpington, wouldn’t come out of the coop for four days.  She would just sit up on the roost day after day after day barely drinking and not eating at all.  Knowing that this breed tends toward broodiness, I read up the indications of broodiness.  But her behavior didn’t fit with broody:  She wasn’t sitting in the nest; she hadn’t laid an egg in five days; and she was far from being protective.  She was the opposite, completely passive.

I said I would never take a chicken to vet but when something you care about is clearly in distress, the fact that you paid $1.99 for it doesn't really enter the equation.  Buffy was part of the family now and fearing that she might have a disease, I loaded her into a box and took her to the local vet.  She was a big hit; they hardly ever get to see chickens in person and being such a sweet-heart she was pet and cuddled for the entire hour that we were there.

The vet thought perhaps she had come down with a respiratory infection due to our huge fluctuations in weather (daytimes in the 40’s and nights well below zero) and provided me with some banana flavored antibiotics.  He gave her the first dose and I paid close attention as Alan and I would have to do this alone for a few days.  I brought her home and set her up in a small area in my office.  The vet wanted her to be kept warm and to have her where we could monitor the food and water intake. 

If you are keeping count, that makes three chickens living inside the house and two outside in the coop.  This wasn’t boding well for a long, cold winter.

During this time, with only JJ and Goldie Hen out in the run, one of my greatest fears came to light:  The Pullet Shut coop door closed right on time one evening but left JJ and Goldie waiting on the wrong side of the door.  Apparently, they didn't want to go to bed without Buffy.  Naturally I immediately ran outside, opened the door and lifted them inside the coop; it wasn't easy, they really didn't want to stay in there alone.  

Buffy clearly missed them too, becoming more and more quiet as she waited in my office.  So after a couple of days, we let her back out and she slowly began to eat.   Alan and I managed to get two doses of antibiotics down her throat (easier than you think with a chicken used to being held—all that cuddling as chicks has really paid off) but since the doctor wasn’t sure she needed it and she seemed livelier without the medication, we stopped giving it to her.  Now, two weeks later, she is putting weight back on and hunting and pecking around with the best of them.

So we are back to just Pirate in the Tractor in the garage.  He free-ranges with the Ladies but gives them a wide berth.  In trying to get Pirate and I used to the idea of him moving in to the coop, I sometimes sit in the run with him and the Ladies.  Inevitably one or more of them will box him into a corner and peck away at him while he shivers and shakes and screeches.  I tell you, I just can’t take it.  I understand showing him his lowly place in the pecking order, but once he becomes submissive can’t they back off?

I always interrupt and rescue him and he always looks up at me with incredible relief as he flies up to my arm and we exit the run.

Somehow I will have to get passed it all and move him to the coop.  Alan and I would like to go on vacation and it is one thing to find someone who can keep an eye on the coop, food and water and it is another to find someone to sing a Pirate to sleep in the garage.


PS:  I did, in fact, purchase some kale for the sole purpose of feeding it to the Ladies.  I also made some extra rice one night and they dined on that the following day; all in an effort to bulk Buffy back up to her normal size.  But there is no need to pay for their veggies:  Our local grocer bags slightly older vegetables and fruit and provides them to me at no cost.  All organic, of course.