BLOG: How to not pick chickens and other random winter thoughts
By MEG B.
As the weather this week turns from blistering cold to frigid, I start to reminisce about our first winter at The Farm. Or as I like to think of it, the year we tried not to kill each other because the ground is too hard to bury a body.
We weren’t used to the unbelievable amount of wind that comes off of Blue Mountain and batters the place or the games of chance with the water hydrants. “Please don’t be frozen, please don’t be frozen,” became our motto. Looking back now, I can chuckle but it wasn’t remotely funny trying to thaw out water hoses in the bathtub or blanketing horses in a wind squall. But you suck it up and move on because winter can be dangerous to the health of your animals if you’re not prepared. I will take potential frostbite over the loss of an animal any day. And I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge while trying to avoid grave bodily harm.
The horses weren’t the only animals relying on us to navigate the cold months. I had taken it upon myself to surprise my parents with some new animals at the farm. I’m allowed to bring animals to the farm. It’s my sworn right and duty to make sure that we are on our way to “zoo status”.
That first year I bought our first gang of chickens. I’m not sure what in the world I was thinking but clearly I wasn’t. Thinking that is. I was at Tractor Supply when I spotted the galvanized troughs filled with the most adorable little chicks. And they had already been separated into hens and roosters. How helpful! I grabbed five hens, already envisioning the fresh eggs that would soon be overflowing from our chicken house. I did manage to grab a small bag of chick feed because that’s all they need – right? I had gone through the “How to Pick a Chicken” checklist in my head. Cute? Check. Making adorable peep sounds? Check. Fuzzy? Check. Checklist complete.
The parents weren’t exactly thrilled that I had brought home chickens but I thought they were exaggerating about the difficulties of raising chickens. They tend to be a bit dramatic (wait until the post on the loose rampaging cow of destruction) so I rolled my eyes and went to settle in the new chicks. I did know that the little ones couldn’t be kept in the chicken house because the weather was way too cold for their super cuteness to survive. Dad Villa (named for his ability to solve any issue with a woodscrew and vise-grips) constructed a small wooden box for the chicks to live in our backroom/washroom. They were all set with a heat lamp and bedding. The peep sounds were cute for a while and the small chicks were fairly easy to catch when we needed to change bedding or adjust their living quarters.
The chicks grew into “teenage” chickens within a few weeks and began to fly out of the box. What a mess! Poo and feathers everywhere and the constant question, “where are the chickens?”. Realizing that we needed to start adjusting them to the real chicken world, we built our first chicken tractor. It’s just like a training center for fledgling chickens. They learn how to peck the ground for insects and roost.
Not roast. Roost.
As the spring months turned to summer months, it became evident that Tractor Supply does not know how to tell a rooster from a hen. Four out of the five “she” chickens were “he” chickens. And because we like to name animals in our family, the “hens” had been given the names of myself and four sisters. It was common to hear Mama Hen (my mom, the chicken whisperer) calling out girl names for the boy chickens. The roosters were extremely aggressive towards each other and the single hen. But we were also fair game in their beady little eyes. You would hear a scramble of chicken feet on the stone drive just before you became the next victim. It was like the “Jaws” music, just add in a few clucks.
We ended up giving away three of the roosters because it was becoming an effort to watch our backs and carry around some sort of self-defense weapon. I preferred the shovel.
The remaining rooster met a tragic end when he tried to take on two horses in a pasture. When the neighbor found him in a woodpile beside his home, he was nice enough to peacefully ring his neck and end his life. The neighbor offered the rooster to us for dinner. Mama Hen (she is quite the chicken lover now) declined and buried him instead. But that just meant that Mama Hen and Dad Villa were able to select a new flock of chickens and give them all names like Delaware and Dutch.
Currently, we have a mixed flock of 25 Plymouth Rock Barred, Rhode Island Red, and Buff Orpington hens. And, if I do say so myself, a broader knowledge base on chicken rearing. The chickens we currently have are much more people friendly and very hardy in the winter. And they are all hens.