Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Pecking Order: Our First Flock of Chickens

The sheer number of phrases describing human interaction in chicken terms indicates the closeness and longevity of human domestication of chickens.  Even if you have never seen a live chicken, you surely recognize, and perhaps even use, terms such as “all cooped up,”  “walking on egg shells,” “pecking order,” “cock of the walk,” and even “bird brained.”


The first domesticated chickens evolved from jungle fowl in Southeast Asia.  The earliest dates  vary, according to advocates for one country or another, but at least 2500 BCE.  Surprisingly (to me), it was the fighting roosters, or cocks, that moved the practice of semi-domestication to India, and then, along the silk roads, to the Middle East, and then Rome, decades and even centuries before egg laying hens seemed like a good an idea!


The coop, the run, and the 6 chickens. Predator wire in front
We raised chickens for the first time this summer and loved it.  Their beauty and distinctive personalities made our six chickens fun pets, and their ravenous appetite for weeds, bugs, and garbage rendered them productive and valuable yard workers, as well.  Alas, we experienced with them a tragedy and some other surprises, too.  Below is a short version of our experience and a recommendation to others to consider raising chickens, if your neighborhood allow it.

We flew up to our Alaska cabin late this year – late June, far beyond when most people sell baby chicks.  However, we were able to find a farmer in Palmer, AK who would sell us six pullets (teenage females) likely to lay eggs for us before winter.  My husband visited her vast barn in which she raised hundreds of chickens, separated by age.  She gathered together a mixed group for us, each beautiful in her own way.  Since my husband neglected to ascertain the breeds upon purchase, my assumptions are based on picture research.


Having been raised in a barn, these 3-5 month old girls were terrified by the car, the float plane and the jostling cage that transported them to their new little green coop.  They rushed inside, where we left them to recover in peace for three days, with plenty of water and corn based food designed for future laying hens. 


Sancho, Dot, and Braveheart
The third day, we opened up the door to the fenced and roofed run, and after we had surveyed the lack of interest by any raptors (like eagles here), we let them free range throughout the yard.  As they roamed and interacted with each other and us, we got to know and name them. 

The one that ventured out first and farthest on every occasion, the explorer and adventurer of the group, we named Braveheart, a tall, yellow-white Buff Orpington with big yellow feet.  Her best friend was Sancho (for Sancho Panza, the Quixote’s best friend).  She was small and orange, with legs the color of a sunset.  She wasn’t as brave as Braveheart, but she was invariably nearby, perhaps under the coop or under a fern, watching her friend.  They slept next to each other on the roost, and later, squeezed into the same nesting box.  Dot was the showiest beauty.  Cascading down from her white head to her white body was a profusion of long black and white feathers, repeated in her plumy tail.  She even had feathers on her feet.  She was a stunning Light Brahma.  Dot was a very wary bird, particularly afraid of sounds up above, like planes and birds, and she tended to mutter to herself as she wandered around, scratching at the ground, turning over leaves to see what lay beneath them.  When she rustled her voluminous plumage in fear and half ran, half flew to safe cover, all the others noticed and followed immediately.  So if Braveheart was the “scout”, Dot was the “rear guard.” 

Two ruddy Rhode Island Reds were indistinguishable except by temperament.  One was so pushy and obnoxious that we named her Bossy; she constantly picked on others, tried to take their food away, and bumped chests in a “you want a piece of me” sort of way!  Since Dot and Braveheart paid her no mind, she finally had to decide whether to be their follower or the leader of the more passive hens.  Such a dilemma for a bully.  Rather than name her sister “Passive” or “Subservient”, we just called the more amiable sibling Rusty.  The final one was Blacky.  She was as reticent as Rusty so the two were often together, ignored by the others.  Her legs were an intriguing blue-ish black, and as she aged, you noticed a gorgeous iridescent teal provocatively suggested behind and between her black feathers.   Perhaps because these two were invariably behind the others when we tossed food out to them, they were actually the most adventuresome eaters, trying foods that the others ignored.


For all of them, the favorite wild foods were fresh ferns, seed heads of low grasses and bugs they found by scratching in the dirt.  Among supplementary snack foods they loved any corn products, such as fresh or frozen corn, popcorn, corn bread, and bird seed.  I was surprised to find that they also loved the following soft foods:  yogurt, soft cheeses, oatmeal, hummus, and meat.  Perhaps because they had been previously raised on prepared foods, these chickens were wholly uninterested in a lot of my salad leftovers.  When I threw mixed vegetables into the yard, they’d single out the corn and leave the carrots and peas, just like children!  


One night, around 3 am, we were awakened to a very dark world by a horrible scream.  Imagine the adrenalin rush and the confusion about the sound, the direction, and the cause!  Probably by our noisy response, we scared the predator away, but by the time my husband crept outside in his longjohns with his gun and a headlamp to peer into the chicken coop, all was silent and several chickens were dead.  Needless to say, we didn’t sleep the rest of the night.  When the sun arose, early in an Alaskan July, he surveyed the damage.  A weasel had evidently dug in under the corner of the run and  gotten into the coop, which I had left unlatched.  Imagine the guilt! From the arrangement of the birds, we presume the following:


Braveheart, hearing the noise had ventured forth first (as always) toward the burrowing hunter.  She lay near the entrance hole where the weasel had chomped on her neck.  Upon hearing the other chickens in the coop, the weasel had left her and run forward.  Blackie fell off the roost and the weasel broke her neck right there.  Bossy and Rusty tried to fly out – clawing at the window screens, then escaping into the run, where their necks were wrung.  Only Dot and Sancho remained on the roost, clinging to the spot in the remote end away from the run, and by doing so, either the weasel couldn’t climb up to get them or our noisy response prompted the weasel’s retreat in time to save them.   


In daylight, we let Dot and Sancho out.  They ran up to our cabin and hid underneath it, but later in the afternoon, they seemed unfazed, digging body shaped holes in the dirt from which they gave themselves dust baths.   Meanwhile, we removed the dead chickens and hay that we thought might retain scents of weasel or blood which could scare Dot and Sancho.  I realized that I couldn’t eat the chickens I had named and personalized.  My husband put them in the freezer on the chance that I would change my mind, but I didn’t.  I realize that I am a hypocritical meat eater who prefers my chicken anonymously wrapped in plastic bags.  No arguments about “better raised or better fed” prevailed.  I knew their faces and personalities.  I didn’t even want to eat Bossy. 


However, while cleaning up the run, we discovered that Braveheart was alive!   She was lying on her side, not moving, but her eyes were open.  With a little advice from Internet research and friends who raise chickens, we separated her from the others, moving her in a hay softened transportation cage to recover in the shower house.  For three days, she remained on her side, not moving.  We had to lift her to hand feed her water and soft food, like oatmeal and yogurt.  We poured hydrogen peroxide on her bloody neck wounds and that was clearly painful to her.  Over the course of a week, to our relief, she slowly recovered, first becoming more aware and attentive and then by eating more avidly, and finally by moving a bit on her own.  In addition to her savage neck wounds, it appeared that her left wing or hip had been broken.  When she tried to stand, or turn to eat, she would fall over, and the exertion was so much that she would lie where she was, even in the water bowl, so we watched her carefully and fed/watered her often throughout the day.Finally, it appeared that she would survive her wounds.  We pulled her cage out to the porch where she had more to engage her attention, and we started offering her favorite ferns and grasses.  


The next test was to acclimatize her to reintegration into the now smaller flock.  Chickens have a tendency to harm lower members of the pecking order, to the point that some actually starve to death because they are kept away from food.  In this case, we worried that Dot and Sancho might peck at Braveheart’s wounds, which can sometimes lead to actual cannibalization.  At first we put Braveheart in the run for two days while we let the others out of the coop through another door.  The third day, we put Braveheart in the coop.  The other two flew out as though they had seen a ghost, as indeed they may have thought!  They weren’t too enthused about sleeping in the roost with her for two nights either, except that she couldn’t fly up to it.  She crawled backwards into a corner nesting box, where, perhaps, they warily watched each other.


Once they started spending time together, Sancho seemed to peck occasionally at Braveheart but since it didn’t seem to hurt the latter, we think she was removing parasites, rather than digging at the wound.   Faster than we expected, the three became a friendly trio.  Dot assumed a leadership role while Braveheart’s wounds slowed her down, but soon they had a series of altercations in which Braveheart was the winner.  She was taller and braver.  Braveheart would stare Dot down, and Dot would lower her head, subservient.  Soon Braveheart was able to jump up on our back porch, where we kept chicken snacks.  She was the only one we were ever able to hand feed and she comfortably followed us around the yard as we worked on various projects.  The other two would follow, more tentatively, when they saw that Braveheart had found something tasty to eat, like wild raspberries or broccoli that had bolted, yielding tasty yellow flowers.  As Braveheart recovered from her wounds, her walking and running gaits sped up and she was able to flutter for short distances above ground.   She was my favorite. 


Another month went by and no one laid any eggs, even after I put fake eggs in the nest boxes.  We attributed this to the traumatic experience they had suffered until Dot started to crow.  All of a sudden, one day, she let out a clarion call that awakened us at an unseemly hour.  Bryan opened the coop for the other two who were very eager to escape the noise.  I read that sometimes, in a flock without a rooster, one or more hens may assert themselves in a rooster like role.  Dot was clearly not the dominant member of the group, but she certainly was a very fine crower, and although both males and females have combs and wattles, hers were becoming noticeable.  Was Dot really a Dan?   A few weeks later, Braveheart started crowing too, though rather pathetically.  Whether that was from her neck wounds or not, I don’t know.  On the other hand, she (he?) had long had the best developed comb and wattles of any of them.   Then we noticed that she (or he) started chasing Dot around the yard, like two boys at recess, during which time little Sancho would just hide under the cabin until they got whatever it was out of their system. 


No flock can sustain two roosters.  They won’t get along.  In our case, we planned to leave for the winter and had arranged to give our chickens to a family in Wasilla that raises chickens and rabbits.  So the gender switch of Dot and Braveheart likely harkens a brief future, or, as one man put it, “most roosters are destined for Chicken McNuggets.”   We flew them back in the float plane to Anchorage, and they made a smooth transition, we hear, to the other flock.  What has happened since, I’ve been reluctant to ask.    


In retrospect, the only chicken we knew for a fact to be a female was Blackie, because she was a sex linked hybrid, which means that all the females are black and all the males are a different color.  As to the rest, we don’t know whether the gender was a mystery to the farmer or if we were suckers to whom she gave several roosters.


Overall, I love having the chickens and I would recommend quiet hens as pets and yard cleaners, and perhaps some eggs as well.


1 comment:

  1. What a great story. Braveheart was so appropriately named and truly brought out the brave heart in you and Bryan. Amazing you created the chicken hospital so deftly and effectively. Bowing and hat taken off...Victoria