Monday, May 26, 2008

Eunice Arrives!

After Cora left in August I wanted to get another hen to fill out our small family of four. By September both Althea and Beatrice were laying and the eggs were wonderful so I was anxious to contine this steady source of eggs. There was no way to know when Delores would begin laying and that meant only two hens and no more than two eggs a day. Getting another hen seemed a natural solution.

The Topsfield Fair holds a poultry auction the weekend after the fair closes and I'd decided to get a hen there. I had no idea what I was getting into... My daughter and her family wanted chicks so along with chicken sitter friend Martha we all headed to Topsfield. The Essex Aggie FFA sponsers this event and all manner of poultry are offered for sale. It's not like a furniture auction where you view the items before the sale - at the poultry auction each item is brought out and auctioned off so there's no way to know what's behind the barn door. Therefore, the first few single hens came and went before I realized I'd better start bidding if I wanted to be sure of getting one. I bid a couple of times but lost and then panic began to set in - what if there were no more single birds? There were plenty of pairs, dozens of chicks, ducks, and turkeys along with other assorted fowl. I decided to go after the next single hen and so I paid $15 for a Silver Campine - a breed I'd never heard of - but a pretty silver bird with a black tail. I later found out this is an ornamental breed from Belgium. Ornamental! What was I thinking? I needed a good sturdy hen with lots of feathers for the cold winter nights.

I now had a 'pullet' (young hen) to add to the family and I knew only the basics of integrating her with the others. We named our new girl 'Eunice' and in taking the advice of an old timer at the fair, placed her in the coop with the other hens after dark knowing that by morning they'd all be friends. Ha! It might have been quiet all night in the coop but when I opened the coop's sliding door in the morning all hell broke loose. It's like going to bed as a kid and waking up to find your parents have adopted another child! You're going to be mad!

Eunice was attacked by all the hens, especially Althea, who seemed most upset by her prescence. It was really very painful to watch the girls go after Eunice who had nowhere to escape. She flew to the top of the coop where she stayed for days. At least she was safe as the other hens wouldn't fly up there. I literally had to put Eunice inside the coop with the others every night just to have her fly out the next morning to her safe spot. Nights were quiet and the days were tense. I tried everything from letting them all out in the yard together (big mistake, Eunice ran off two houses away and had to be cornered in a soccer goal net where I grabbed her) to keeping them in the run for several days with no yard time (another mistake..they went stir crazy) to spraying them with lemon juice at night so they'd all smell the same. Nothing eased the fighting and the best I got was an uneasy truce. Meanwhile, I gave Eunice her own water and food in her perch and prayed a lot.

But this story does have a happy ending. About 3 weeks after Eunice arrived, just when I was considering giving her up, my son-in-law showed up one Sunday morning to start running electricity out to the coop (my birthday present). I came back from church to find Bill digging a trench and four happy hens playing in the yard. No fighting, no blood, just an occasional squawk from Eunice who now tagged along with the others. The fighting was over and Eunice was part of the group. She never went back to her perch above the coop and she went inside with the others every night. It was an amazing transformation. I won't pretend it was completely peaceful after that as Althea had to assert herself as boss and did so with the occasional nip but Eunice obliged by following her everywhere probably to Althea's annoyance.

Since this rather unpleasant period I have since learned there are better ways to introduce a new bird and many folks agree that new birds should be kept in separate cages for up to a month to prevent the introduction of disease to the existing flock - something I'd never even considered! That gives them time to adjust without getting too close so that when they're allowed to mix it isn't quite so scarey. I do know that mixing new and old can have serious consequences and sometimes the birds can be quite cruel with devestating affects. All in all, I was quite lucky in my ignorance....

We now have our full complement of four hens - everyone's laying, they're happy and healthy, and they've certainly enriched my life!

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Girls Spring Break - 2008

Just to skip ahead a bit, this spring vacation Naomi and I went to South Carolina for 10 days. Our usual chicken sitter, Martha, was unavailable so we engaged some of the neighborhood kids to take care of the girls. As low maintenance as chickens are you just can't leave them without some basic care when you live it town.

Their normal routine is to be let out of the coop every morning. This means sliding the door that opens from the coop into the enclosed run. The water must be changed and food provided. Since I use a 3 gallon metal feeder for food I only have to fill it every couple of weeks. But water is another thing and chickens require access to fresh water, especially in the warm weather. At night it's just the opposite - shut them in the coop to ensure that predators don't break into the run. I don't know that every coop has to be closed but I always shut mine. I am very aware that the local racoons and skunks would love a chicken dinner so it's just part of the girls' normal care that the coop be closed tightly. Once it gets dark chickens will normally go back to their roost which makes the bedtime routine very easy.

I live in a great neighborhood with lots of kids and I've had many offers of help in the past year. It was nice to be able to have some of the older kids take care of the chickens while we were gone. Between Darcy, Jake, and Lauren we worked out a schedule for morning and evening coverage and the kids did a great job. Darcy has had previous sitting experience with the girls so she was able to let them out in the yard for some evening foraging before dark which they really love.

I think gathering the eggs was one of the high points for the kids. It really is wonderful getting fresh eggs every day and nothing in the supermarket compares to them for taste. I'm amazed by the daily miracle of the egg and since each girl has a distinctive style I can pretty much tell who is laying when. We get up to 4 eggs a day..

It was a big relief knowing the chickens were well cared for - we had a great vacation and I think they did too.

So if you're considering getting chickens and concerned about leaving them don't hesitate to involve the local kids. It's great for them and great for the chickens. It's not too much work and there are always parents to help out in an emergency, like a loose chicken! My girls see me coming and pace inside the run, hoping to be let out.

I really think that having chickens has been very positive for this neighborhood. If nothing else, heads turn when the girls are out front or in the driveway, and we're now a regular stop for some of the local moms pushing carriages. I would love to see a few more families start raising hens! It's a very manageable activity and something everyone in the family can participate in. The chickens are no more work than any other pet once the coop is built. Coops can be as elaborate or simple as you want - built from recycled materials, expanded dog houses, more complex buildings, or purchased ready made. Here's a great design that requires no building skills - the Eglu is already assembled -

Haven't conviced you yet? How about fresh eggs higher in omega-3 and lower in cholesterol than typical storebrand eggs? How about getting rid of bugs in your yard? How about a free source of garden compost (once it's aged)? And best of all, chicken TV...they are just plain fun to watch! I also know that I'm raising hens in a humane way and that they have a very good life. I'm also a lot closer to my food source, just like when I grow my own vegetables. I am surprised how much I've enjoyed having chickens in the past year - it's really had a huge influence on my life. Just ask Naomi! But I promised her no goats! (-: