Friday, November 25, 2011

Chicken Drama

Well, I promised an update on the chickens so I guess I need to get to work.  A lot has gone on in the past eight months so there is a lot to tell.

To catch up those of you who have not followed my blog for long, I will give a brief history.  (You can also go to the list of labels on the left and click on "chickens".) In April of 2008 we bought eight days-old pullets at the local feed store.  We raised them in a dog crate in the basement until they were old enough to go out to the coop, a bedraggled structure behind the house that was built by the previous owners.  We free-ranged the girls in the afternoons and they put themselves to bed each night.  All eight did splendidly, even our one-eyed chicken named Honey, and by September they were laying eggs.

The original eight, around 3 weeks old
All eight chickens made it through that first winter in that drafty, damp coop, but the following spring and summer we lost three of the hens to various ailments.  That autumn we decided to build a new coop, one that was insulated, structurally sound and had a bigger pen.  The following spring, 2010, we purchased four more pullets from the feed store, raised them in the basement and moved them to the old coop until they were big enough to introduce to the older hens.  Halfway through the summer we started hearing odd noises from the new girls.  Turns out two of them where not hens but roosters.  This was of course a problem--one rooster was OK but we couldn't keep two.  Luckily a friend had a friend who was looking for a rooster, so we sent one fellow off to a new brood and kept the other as he seemed less aggressive.  The remaining three chickens were introduced to the older hens late that summer and while the older girls were not real keen on having a young cock in their midst, they all got on fairly well.

Rhodie as a gangly adolescent--look at those legs!

So that brings us to this year.

At the start of this year we had eight chickens--seven hens and a rooster.  From our first brood we had Sister Joan, a Jersey Giant; Fancy, a bearded Americana; Marty and Emily, both Golden Comets; and Honey, some sort of mixed breed.  The new chickens consisted of Rhodie, our Rhode Island Red rooster; Maryanne, a Golden-laced Wyandotte; and Ethel, a small Americana.

Egg laying had dropped way off over the winter.  Chickens molt in the fall and do not produce eggs while they are growing new feathers. This year the older girls didn't produce at all, even after their molt.  But by April they were finally starting to lay again, with Honey leading the way.

Honey had become something of a pet to me.  She was blind in one eye, the result of an injury when she was a chick.  She was picked on by the other hens, and perhaps because of this she learned I provided some safety.  We would cuddle in the coop, me squatting and her scrunching between my knees, and I would rub her under her wings and stroke her head. She would follow me around the yard and was always the first one in line for treats.  A real mamma's girl.

The relative calm we had experienced as chicken owners was about to be broken.  The family that lives to our north, over a wooded ridge, got a bird dog, a German Short-haired Pointer, and I had seen the dog in our yard on a few occasions.  I never got around to approaching the owners about it, and I should have, though I doubt it would have done much good.  One afternoon in late April I heard an awful squawking from the back yard. At first I thought it was one of the chickens picking on Honey, but when the sound didn't stop I knew something else was up.  I went charging up the hill in my rubber boots and carrying a pick ax, to see the neighbor's dog with Honey in his mouth.  I screamed, and he ran up the hill, carrying her for a few steps before dropping her and running home.  I scooped her up and followed.  While she gasped her last breaths I berated the flustered woman who came to the door and swore I would call the cops or shoot the dog if I ever saw it on my property again.  Then I had to break Honey's neck.

Needless to say that was one of my worst days.

Emily had not been doing well for several weeks, acting very lethargic, always poofed up, and she began to decline shortly after this.  Within a few weeks we had to end her life.  I won't go into the details.

We decided at this point to get four more chicks, but we wanted specific breeds, larger breeds that could handle our now large rooster.  So in mid-May we found a "farm" in the area and purchased four chicks, two Barred Rocks and two Rhode Island Reds. We should never have bought birds from this woman.  The place was filthy, the chicks crammed into tiny incubators, and I saw one chicken in a nearby cage with conjunctivitis.  By the time we got them home they were lethargic, an a day later were blowing snot bubbles.  We put them on antibiotics for a week and they seemed to improve. We kept them quarantined in the old coop, away from the healthy birds.

Then in June, when Lori and I were in Petoskey for a school presentation, Lisa called to tell us that the dog had come again, killed Maryanne (one of our newer girls) and had chased Rhodie down the road, pulling all of his tail feathers out but not catching him.  We are pretty sure Rhodie was leading the dog away from the hens.  Lisa chased the dog home, then made the owner and his two sons dispose of the dead chicken and help search for the rest of the scattered flock.  They swore they would keep their dog in their yard.  Lisa didn't call the Sheriff so I did when I got home two days later.  It was too late for them to do anything but the officer did stop by and have a chat with the dog's owner.

By this time our other Golden Comet, Marty, was also not doing well, and we eventually had to put her down.  That's four chickens dead in less than two months. We had also stopped letting the girls out every day, worried of course for their safety.  But I hate having animals in cages, and while the coop and pen are spacious, it's still a cage, so the girls did continue to go out when someone was home.  I was trusting that the dog's owner would keep his word.

We had a show up north over the 4th of July and my mother was house sitting.  She let the hens out that evening, and near dusk heard an awful sound from behind the house.  By the time she got there, there was nothing to see but a pile of feathers, and Sister Joan was missing.  She accused the neighbor's dog of course but he swore the dog was never out of his sight. When we got home a few days later we looked for the bird but never found her.  We did find a trail of feathers, but they did not lead toward the neighbor's house.  We learned later that there was a fox den to the north of our neighbor's property, and his kids had seen kits.  We suspected Mama Fox killed Sister Joan.

At this point we were down to two hens, Fancy and Ethel, and Rhodie, with four still sick chicks in the old coop.  We had to get new antibiotics, and give the poor things shots in their breasts or thighs.  We worried about Fancy and Ethel stuck with Rhodie--they say you should have eight hens for every rooster.  We cut their outdoor time back again, and decided to try hard to be out with them to keep watch.


Again I was out of town when I got a call from Lori.  It was late July. She had been sitting on the back deck with a rifle on her lap (for the woodchuck who was digging under my studio) when the chickens walked past and down to the front of the house.  Moments later Rhodie and Ethel came running up the stairs and hid.  Fancy was no where to be found.  It was several days later as I was mowing the paths that I came across a pile of her feathers--another victim of the fox.  And so in three months we lost all five of our original brood--Fancy was the last of our original eight, and her loss was especially hard as she was a beauty of a bird and one of our best layers.

Now we had a dilemma.  One hen and one rooster was not going to work.  The new brood was getting bigger and mostly healed of their respiratory ailment, so we decided to separate Rhodie, put him in the old coop, and put the new chickens in with Ethel.  Within a week Rhodie was sick, and within three weeks so was Ethel.  Not only that, but we began hearing crowing from the new chickens, who were, we had been assured, all females.


As it turned out, three of the four new chickens where roosters.  I can't begin to describe how angry I was.  We spent a lot of time and money making these birds healthy.  The woman who we had gotten them from said if any where roos that we could bring them back for a refund.  We had way more than $5.00 a bird into them but we knew we couldn't keep them.  Rhodie was staying, there was no doubt about that, so we decided to slaughter the young roos and keep their meat.

This was an amazingly difficult thing to do. I had raised these birds, nursed them back to health. They were my friends, in the way that all pets become your friends. But we really didn't have much choice, so we pulled the birds from the coop one by one, and I thanked them, and cried, and we ended their lives. I never took any pictures of them--I must have known--but Lisa took this with her iPhone, me covered with chickens.

Me with the doomed brood #3.  Both Rocks and the Rhode Island Red in my hand were roosters.

So now we were back down to two hens--one less than four months old--and a large rooster.  I got on Craig's list and found a woman nearby who was moving and needed to give up a bunch of her birds.  These were full-grown, which by late August was really the only way to go.  We ended up buying six birds, four Barred Rocks and two Isa Browns, the latter really for the bird's benefit rather than ours.  These were some of the most bedraggled looking birds I had ever seen, and they reeked.  The house and yard were a mess, and while the birds were currently free, they had clearly been kept in very close and filthy quarters, as some of her birds still were.  They were filthy and smelled terrible.  Come to find out that she was good friends with the woman who had sold us the sick chicks back in May.  Surprise surprise.

Ethel, from brood #2
While Rhodie was segregated in the old coop we had yet another incident.  Shortly after a heavy rain had cleared out one evening, Lisa was in the kitchen and heard what she described as a baby wailing.  She went running out the door with a broom, no idea what she would find.  I was upstairs and followed a few seconds behind.  What Lisa saw was Rhodie thrashing around in the mud of the pen, then she saw the weasel that was on his back, its reddish fur blending in with Rhodie's red feathers.  It had him by the neck.  She flung the door open and the weasel let go, then ran around the pen a few times looking for the hole through which it had entered.  I arrived in time to see it scamper out.  Rhodie lay in the dirt, on his stomach, head extended, motionless.  

We stood with our hearts sinking when suddenly he lept up, bolted out of the pen, across the back yard, down the stairs and across the road into our neighbor's yard where he hid in a tangle of autumn olive, grape vine and dead branches.  We tried to coax him out but he was having none of it.  Covered in mud and blood we had no idea how badly he may have been hurt, but we had to leave him in the the shrubbery.  After dinner and nearly dark I went back to the coop to see if he had returned.  I peered inside but did not see him, but I heard a sound off to my right.  I looked around and finally spotted him perched on top of the the pen, bedraggled but apparently OK.  He let me lift him down and put him in the pen, and look him over briefly.  Except for some scratches on his comb he was intact, and he nervously entered the coop and we shut him in for the night.  We never saw the weasel again.

We are back to nine birds--the six new birds, (who haven't even all been named yet), Acorn, the lone hen from the chicks we got this spring, and Ethel and Rhodie, from last year's brood.  We introduced Rhodie after letting the new girls get acclimated, and he seems happy to have a brood to watch over again. We have seen no sign of the fox, so we have decided to let them out occasionally, but only when we're home and able to check on them frequently.  We did add on about 100 square feet of pen to the back of the coop so I feel better about it when they can't get out and range.

We had one more run in with the neighbor's dog just a few weeks ago.  Lisa looked up to see Rhodie running for his life down the driveway, wings flapping.  Once outside she saw the dog, right behind him.  I was making dinner, and Lori, who had gone to fetch Lisa, came in out of breath to tell me about the dog--she had no idea if he'd gotten any of the hens.  I went tearing out of the house and up the hill.  Lisa had chased the dog home, and was already ripping the young man at the door a new one, so I added my two cents--or more like ten bucks worth. Oh, the profanity! I think we finally put the fear of God--or the crazed artists over the hill--into these boys.  We eventually found all the hens, and once again I am pretty sure Rhodie was leading the dog away from the girls.

Three of the new Barred Rocks with Rhodie

So this afternoon I went out to get some photos of the new flock, who were in the garden eating bugs and broccoli.  While I watched, Rhodie gave his alarm call, an odd purring sound, high and urgent.  I looked up and saw a Cooper's Hawk pass over head. 

That is one bird who is dedicated to his flock.

My hero.


  1. Thank you for a heartbreaking story! Sniff! I grew so angry at the dog's owners while reading this. Those poor hens. I certainly hope that you can keep your hens alive now. That's really a brave rooster you've got! Cheers to Rhodie! It's amazing how sensible animals can react.

  2. What a story, so sorry for all the heartache. Yes, that's an amazing rooster. Their physical size and abilities limit them somewhat while their brains and intuitive sense are their best defense. Sort of the opposite of humans.

  3. It was quite a rough summer, a lot of stress at a time when we're at our busiest around here. But the birds are really amazing, so much of what they do and how they behave is innate. Watching chicks take a dust bath or preen not ever having seen another bird do such a thing kinda blows my mind. They know which animals pose a threat and those who don't. Not was wise as those wild turkeys, to be sure, but they do possess instinctual knowledge that is wonderful to behold.

  4. I agree, quite amazing. So much more going on in their heads than most people give them credit for.