Sunday, January 29, 2012

What it's really like to have urban chickens - Part 2 - The tweens and empty nest syndrome


Abby the Chicken Dog
At 3-4 weeks the girls outgrew their double wide storage containers. We borrowed a collapsable indoor dog playpen and set it up in our sunroom. Newspaper for flooring worked just fine. I found a cardboard box that would work well for a "coop," placed it on it's side and put some branches in it for roosting. There were also a couple of branches in the pen area for roosting. We used a screen door for the roof. 
Nap time or play time?
During the day I'd let them run around our sunroom or on nice days take the playpen outside so they could get some real sun and forage on the lawn. Their individual personalities, likes and dislikes were coming out and they entertained us for hours. Chickens are the funniest animals on the planet!

Chick Days
I didn't know when our chicks should "fly the coop" and move into their own digs. I bought a couple of books on raising chickens, my favorite being Chick Days, An Absolute Beginner's Guide written by Jenna Woginrich, published by Storey Publishing.  It's not only extremely informative but has lots of great photos and lots of fun to read. It's a piece of art. All my resources told me that chickens could move into their own housing when they were fully feathered so they can stay warm at night, roughly 5 weeks of age. Babies are covered with a fuzz that has little insulating effect. Fully feathered chickens have down plus a layer of feathers and are well prepared for cold weather.

Chicken run and a late spring snow
We decided to place the chicken coop and run against the south-facing back of our house. The area under our apple tree turned out to be the perfect spot. It was sheltered on the north by our house and the west by our sunroom, which meant some protection from the worst of our snowstorms and wind. The apple tree would provide shade in the summer. We built our run 9' x 9' x 3' high. My husband framed it out with 2"x4"s and then used a strong wire mesh for the sides and top. We needed something that had stronger and smaller holes than chicken wire to keep out the foxes, coyotes and raccoons that frequent our neighborhood. We buried the mesh 4-6" into the ground and added a row of large paver blocks around the outside to discourage predators from digging a way in. We let the girls hang out in the chicken run for a few hours every day and brought them back in the sunroom at night to sleep in their box and play pen.

We still had to figure out what to do for a chicken coop, the little house where they sleep and eventually lay eggs, safe from the elements and predators. One day we were in Murdoch's and saw the perfect coop: It was the right size for our flock, looked great and had conveniently located doors. It fit perfectly on the concrete between the run and our sun room, and was the perfect height for the run. Made by Precision Pet . We had to assemble it, but it was so well cut and had such perfect instructions that my husband took the time to write to the manufacturer thanking them for their fine work! We were able to find locking hooks and eyes at Ace to secure the coop roof to the run and the laying box roof. We filled the main compartment with pine shavings, the laying box with straw, and clamped a heat lamp in for cooler nights. We bought a larger feeder at Murdoch's, heated water bowl at Walmart and put added those to the run. The feeder is filled with chicken pellets and chicken crushed oyster shell (for calcium) and chicken scratch is tossed on the ground so they could dig around. I also give them salad, spinach or other greens so they could get their omegas. We also give them dinner scraps. Chickens are omnivores and need variety in their diet for good nutrition. WARNING: Avocados can be toxic to birds. Keep that in mind when sharing leftovers.

Finally finished!

The chickens were happy in their new housing for oh, about a week, and then decided they wanted out. Feeling that it would be safe them roam during the day, we would let them forage the back yard. Chickens really can't fly. The first time before we let ours loose in the back yard, I trimmed their flight feathers. Turns out, it wasn't necessary. They can JUMP higher than they can fly. We have a 6' privacy fence around our back yard and the chickens don't even think about scaling it. Our vegetable garden has a 4' picket fence around it and the chickens have tried but can't get in--unless they first jump up on a bench near the fence. Good luck if you want to have any potted plants where chickens roam. They eat just about everything, and love to take dirt baths in the pots.
These once had plants in them!
Every planter in our back yard was emptied quickly and the dirt relished and kicked in all directions. Not that I'm complaining -- it means less watering for me. But as a warning: chickens eat just about everything they can reach. They jump to eat grapes off vines; cherries; apples; tomatoes; flowers and the lawn as well. They eat grass and thatch the lawn. They eat flowers. Any vegetable plants they can reach through our picket fence. Bugs. Dirt. Mice. Anything that can't get away from them. They've even tried to eat my shoes, socks and clothes. Take care with fertilizers and do not use weed killers. Actually they produce fertilizer so you probably don't need any extra!

Chickens are really fun!
At dusk the girls are ready to call it a night and go into their coop without even being asked. Since they tend to only sleep and lay eggs in the coop, it doesn't need to be cleaned all that often during the summer. My routine now is to put on some waterproof gloves and just scoop the poop out of the coop and put it in a composter. If the pine shavings are getting low I add some more. That takes me about 10 minutes. Once a week (or even two) I remove all the shavings and start fresh. That takes about 1/2 hour. Easy.

At about the age of 6 months, the girls started laying eggs. Somehow they know that the laying box is for laying eggs. They climb into the box, go into a trance and after a while lay an egg. When they come out, they announce very loudly that they've laid an egg, eat some food and go back to life as normal. The first eggs were very small, and some didn't even have shells. No worries, it's just their bodies learning how to do things right. Unfortunately they got into eating the shell-less eggs. An internet tip suggested I buy a couple of wood eggs at Michael's and paint them to match our eggs (in our case, a cocoa brown). Once in nest, the chickens peck at the decoys, learn that they are not edible, and decide eggs are not food. Problem solved.

Free range chicken eggs are so healthy and delicious! Look forward (?!?) to a rant by me on declining food quality some time in the future. All day, free range chickens eat plants, bugs, whatever, and their eggs are high in Omega 3's and protein, which our bodies need and love. You won't believe how orange the yolks are! We save the shells, crush them when they're dry and add them to the chicken feed so they can recover some of the calcium they lose during egg production.

At night we make sure the girls are locked up and safe. Their feeder is filled and their water freshened. And all is well. Goodnight moon!

Next time: Part 3: Weather forecast--Winter!

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