I’m excited to introduce you all to Joy and Blake and their flock! Here is Joy’s chicken raising journey in her own words. I know you are going to enjoy it! Thank you for sharing with us, Joy!
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After five years of (semi-) retirement, Blake and I agreed it was time to add Chicken Caretaker to our resumes. My husband designed and constructed a sturdy coop with help from our oldest son. Three grandsons applied the dark green paint inside and out. We poured over books, magazines, and hatchery catalogs. Our oldest grandson had been raising chickens for a while, so he and his dad shared much good information and advice with us. In late March, we ordered chicks at Myer Hatchery in nearby Ohio. No Buff Orpingtons were available. We ordered five extra chicks and a freebee poulet to save most of the $50 shipping cost. Unwise! Feed costs soon ate up those savings.
(By the way, Hoover’s Hatchery 2021 Catalog and Reference Guide has a truly helpful reference section in the back. It lists about seventy chicken breeds, their temperament, egg color, cold/heat hardy, broodiness, and other important facts, all on four pages.)
On July 1, 2021, we picked up the cardboard treasure chest of chicks at our Post Office. Myers had vaccinated each bird against Marek’s disease, a herpes virus-based condition with no known cure for chickens. The hatchery included a packet of newborn chick starter feed.
Once home, we were thrilled to place the cheeping puffballs in their temporary enclosure. Two had not survived the hot July trip. We immediately called Myers. Without hesitation, they agreed to replace the lost chicks or refund their cost. They will send no fewer than three chicks at a time. So, we ordered a Black Jersey Giant, a Golden Buff hybrid, and a White Plymouth Rock. These arrived within a week. We bonded with these precious, skittish creatures for the next three weeks. When they started flying out of their large nursery, it was time to transfer them to their beautiful coop.
MOVIN’ ON UP
The growing chicks were sleeping fitfully in their homemade enclosure. Blake gently snatched the nearest bird. As Keeper of the Gate, I opened the dog carrier door. Blake slipped the first poulet inside. I waved her toward the back with a paper bag. Seamlessly, we transferred the remaining puffballs into the carrier. Rufous, the cockerel, protested his incarceration the loudest. We trudged up the hill and behind the faded tobacco barn with our squawking load; I now as Keeper of the Flashlight.
Once in their new coop, the residents cowered within the open carrier. Finally, a Delaware pullet gingerly crept out. The other sixteen followed and hunkered down behind a corner log. We turned on a battery-powered lantern to help the newcomers view their homes better. That changed everything! With Rufous leading the charge up and over the log, the chicks raced to decimate the unsuspecting moth population.
Before returning to our snug home, we prayed for God’s protection over our young charges from hungry coyotes, opossums, snakes, wildcats, raccoons, and owls.
The gangly birds could squeeze through the 2″ x 4″ fencing around their yard, so we reinforced the fence with chicken wire. I sat on a stool in the coop daily to enjoy their antics and feed them vegetable and fruit treats.
Then, one morning, we discovered that Juliette, the Jersey Giant, and Regina, the Green Queen, had been pecked on their backsides. Juliette’s condition was dire! We quickly returned them to the shop nursery. I raced to Tractor Supply and pumped an associate for advice. He suggested evil-smelling purple Pick-No-More Lotion, a bottle of Poultry Wound Spray, and Hen Healer Multi-Purpose Ointment. When I arrived home, Regina was lying across a dead Juliette. We sprayed Regina’s wound, then applied the thick purple liquid. After a spell, we returned her to the coop. The vile odor of Pick-No-More kept the pickers away. Regina has recovered physically, but even after two years, she is a bit of an outcast. If treats are offered, she scrounges the leftovers elsewhere.
LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL
Blake usually kept the metal feeder full, which he hung underneath the coop. He mixed food-grade diatomaceous earth, sandbox sand, a touch of ground oyster and clam shells, and some wheat seed into their grit bowl. He also sprinkled the food-grade diatomaceous earth underneath the heavy-duty shower curtain on the coop floor to deter insects, which he then covered with pine or poplar chips.
I, however, got to relax in the poultry yard, feeding eager chickens zucchini or apple treats. They crowded around, perching on my arms, lap, and shoulders. Michelle liked to balance on my head. I wore long falconry gloves to protect my arms from clawed feet.
A day to remember! The birds were gathered by the Northwest fence. Curious, I looked to see the reason for their deserting me. Staring back at me through the foliage was a magnificent antlered buck. We examined each other for some minutes. Then, he gracefully stepped out of the bushes. Ignoring his silent watchers, this King of the Forest browsed his way up the hill. Charlie, our loving, mixed-breed dog, barked. The stag vanished among the black locust, sassafras, and poplar trees.
SHOCK AND AWE
As I stood on the coop steps another day, a feathered friend flew onto my right shoulder. With lightning speed, she snatched a small, round earring from my right ear. Her surgical attack left the back of the earring still clinging to the back of my lobe. I searched the ground, hoping my dear bird hadn’t swallowed the metal orb. No luck! I watched her anxiously for a day or two, but she continues in good health today. I no longer wear earrings to the chicken yard.
TIME AND CHICKENS FLY
We replaced the birds’ starter grower feed with layer feed at about sixteen weeks. Soon after, the hens laid their first eggs. Blake had built four nest boxes within the coop. Egg colors ranged from the dark brown from the Marans to others’ speckled brown, tan, cream, and pale green. Blake repurposed the other two since the hens insisted on using only two boxes.
As the chickens grew larger and stronger, some flew over the four-foot fence. Certain hens continued to escape into possible danger. Blake caught and bravely held the freedom fliers. I nervously scissored off their flight feathers on one side. This slowed their escape episodes. One miscreant still “flew the coop.” But when she tried to rejoin her friends, her unbalanced efforts trapped her near the top of the wire fence. Blake rescued her. We then trimmed her flight feathers on the other side.
My husband constructed a chicken tractor to allow our poultry to graze new pastures. Hoping to save money, he used logs cut from our land instead of lighter PVC pipes. Then, he purchased sturdy wheels for mobility. He installed the extra nest boxes at one end, covered the entire tractor with wire, and placed a tarp for shade on one section. But the birds refused to go into this newfangled contraption. So, Blake gathered them one by one from the coop in the early hours and put them in the tractor. They were most unhappy there. Some even managed to slip under the bottom wire. We did find another surprising use for the tractor—a grandchildren’s playhouse!
Blake now shepherds our flock to greener pastures. He guides them around our large, grassy yard using two long sticks. They vigorously snatch insects, tasty seeds, and greenery. Our four and our seven-year-old grandsons are superb under-shepherds.
With autumnal frost closing down our roomy vegetable garden, my spouse cut a mini-door between the chicken yard and the garden. As soon as we let the birds out each morning, they charge through the opening to their happy place. They scratch to their hearts’ content and deposit abundant manure fertilizer on the soil.
Chickens dislike snow and ice. Scattered logs provided them with dryer resting spots.
We needed to reduce our bird feed costs; meanwhile, our oldest grandson hoped to increase his flock. So, we donated five of our birds to him, an almost win-win situation. The hard part was choosing which of our family to give away. Parting was bittersweet but yielded us a manageable flock.
That left us with ten hens and a feisty rooster:
- 2 Blue Cuckoo Marans, Michelle and Misty (a splurge)
- 1 Delaware, Della
- 1 Golden Buff, Goldie
- 1 Green Queen, Regina, an Easter egger
- 1 Rhode Island Red, Rosie
- 2 Silver Laced Wyandottes, Laila and Lily
- 2 Welsummers, Autumn and Summer
- 1 New Hampshire Red male, Rufous
I unlock the small chicken door most mornings. Goldie and Michelle often emerge first. Rufous used to let the other ladies precede him, fussing at them to skedaddle. But now, he often barges through after the initial two. The remaining hens exit cautiously, waiting to locate the rooster. As long as the hens stay in the doorway or on the steps, he won’t attack. But as soon as they hit the ground, Rufous runs after them! Their goal is to make it under the coop, where he seldom plays the mating game.
One morning, when my husband was away, I was scheduled to substitute teach in a middle school. I rose before dawn and headed uphill in the dark. Hearing the frenzied barking of a coyote pack, I backtracked to the kitchen. There, I snatched a sturdy giant umbrella with its metal shaft. As a former college fencer, I figured I might duel the dogs to their deaths if necessary. Fortunately, their yipping had ceased by the time I reached the weathered smokehouse. Good news for me, maybe not for a deer.
Late afternoons, I take my wire egg basket and a Blue Bunny oval ice cream carton filled with bits of vegetables and fruit. Eleven birds race to the fence. They wait while I collect my
“Rufous stick” from the barn. Then, over the fence, go the goodies. I zip through the gate, unhook the latch at the top of the people door and push aside the two bent nails holding the middle and bottom shut. Depending on the season, I quickly collect the eggs—anywhere from one to ten. After fluffing the nest bedding, I locate Rufous. Hopefully, the treats will keep him busy. On one occasion, he trapped me on the steps, jumping up, flapping his mighty wings, raising his plumage, and crowing non-stop. Do not think you are safe if he turns and walks under the coop! This cunning rooster has been known to execute a sneak attack from behind as I run the few feet to the gate. If he’s not in sight, I hold my wooden stick out behind me for protection.
That said, Rufous is a gorgeous bird! He’s truly magnificent when the sun shines on his golden orange hackle and his back and the sun’s rays shimmer off his green sickle feathers. He is also a keen flock guardian. When a hawk swoops overhead, or another predator appears, he warns the hens, who flee under the coop. He also politely lets the hens have first dibs on treats, standing guard while they start to eat.
Speaking of predators, I opened the large coop door one afternoon to collect eggs. Under the nest boxes rested a lengthy snake bulging in two or three places. “Blake!” I yelled. He came to the rescue and guided the five-and-one-half-foot rat snake out of the coop and the chicken yard with a trusty long stick. The creature slithered into the barn.
A year passed. Last week, my husband went to tuck the birds in. (Yes, he does.) He wondered why Goldie and Michelle were sitting in the small doorway. By dark, they are usually resting on the perches. Strangely, most of the birds were scrunched on the close end of a long perch. Blake’s flashlight revealed another four-foot rat snake partly curled around the far end of the perch, with the rest of him hanging to the floor. Once again, my husband nudged the reptile out the door and through the gate. We are thankful that, so far, only non-poisonous snakes have sneaked in through the chicken door, which is closed and locked sometime after dark.
Aside from the two chick deaths in transit and Juliette’s sad demise, we have lost no chickens in two years.
The two biggest drawbacks to our new hobby are the cost in funds and the sacrifice of travel time. While selling eggs would bring in money, we really don’t enjoy those transactions. Instead, we share our eggs with neighbors, church friends, family members, and their neighbors. People are most thoughtful to return cartons. Also, we are concerned about the legal result of selling imperfect eggs. I know they can be handled, but that is not something we want to get into.
The other issue is being able to get away from our property for a few days or a week. With no electricity or water up by the barn and coop, automatic feeding, watering, and opening and shutting the coop doors are impossible. Our two middle sons have graciously taken turns driving a distance to mind the flock while we visited our fourth son in Alaska and our family in South Carolina. If necessary, we take turns traveling elsewhere. We counted the cost in away time before we started this journey. And we feel blessed by God to have these delightful family members. Charlie and our cat Mazie like them, too!
BROODINESS— WHAT’S THAT?
We found that out when Misty refused to get out of the nest box. Day after day, she sat in the coop. We’d throw her out, and she’d scoot back in. We’d put her outside the yard, and she’d fly over the fence. Egg collection proceeded as usual, despite Misty’s squawks. Just like the books said, she emerged from isolation after three weeks.
After two years of hunkering down under the coop to re-supply the hanging feeder, Blake decided to rearrange matters. Besides a sore back, he was a target for Rufous’ attacks. He built a sturdy lean-to against the coop and roofed it with leftover tin supported by tree logs. Then, he chained the feeder to the perfect height for the birds. Our ridge-top property brings pummeling rain and fierce winds. He enclosed two-and-a-half sides with an untreated cotton canvas drop cloth. That keeps out most of the rain and lets him refill the feeder easily and safely.
We would like to have Guinea fowl around to reduce our overwhelming tick population. However, they would likely ravage our and our friendly neighbors’ vegetation. Besides, we aren’t looking forward to a new aviary project anytime soon.
Perhaps we and our chickens will simply grow young at heart together. Then we’ll fly on the Wings of the Morning to that great Celestial Home up yonder.
PS You’re invited to my website at www.joygodbold.com.