July 24, 2021 - chicken carnage disaster starts
This is about the chicken carnage disaster. Let’s call it one more “learning experience” in what seems to be an ongoing series of “learning experiences” (read: disaster) as we try to be real-farmers-who-have-chickens-and-sell-eggs.
How long was the chicken disaster? About 21 days. We lost maybe more than a quarter of our flock (20 chickens). I was away in Maine and Needham from July 5-19 - first doing a tree fodder workshop, then working on the garden in Needham with Jenna, our workawayer for July, then visiting Mark in the hospital after he broke his hip (did I mention disasters?). Abby and Charlotte were taking care of the chickens. Somewhere in there, maybe around the 10th, Abby called me and said she had found three dead chickens, and that it looked like there was some cannibalism going on. She thought maybe it was an illness. Charlotte took over and instituted a sanitation protocol, with gloves and raingear as protection. She also added cider, garlic, and hot pepper to their water and told me to get a vet appointment. Chickens kept dying one or two a day and getting half eaten.
On Monday, the 19th, I came back and when I entered the coop, there was a corpse hanging from the top of the hoophouse, half dragged through the wire netting, and one in the nest boxes. It stank. It was sad. The corpse in the top of the hoophouse suggested maybe a predator, but I was pretty sure of the security of our coop so I pooh-poohed it as the cause of the other deaths.
The next few days I went to the coop every couple of hours to see what was going on. I noticed the chickens were not sleeping on their roost anymore. Otherwise, they seemed their usual selves. Wednesday morning, I found another dead chicken on the ground. It looked like cannibalism to me, because our older chickens do have a horrible pecking habit since we kept too many roosters (earlier disaster, that’s another story). Research on the internet confirmed cannibalism (and murder) in 15% of flocks… I managed to get hold of the vet also, and he said to bring the dead chicken on over and he’d look at her. Meantime, based on the cannibalism hunch, Charlotte, Cori and I spent the afternoon quickly jerry-rigging the new (still under construction) hoop house so we could bring the young chickens there, who have not yet learned pecking.
End of the afternoon, the vet called. He had looked at the hen and said, no chicken can do that to another chicken; you have a predator! Maybe a raccoon or a fisher cat (I have heard fisher cats here at night, quite eerie) He knows my hoop house setup, and he told me you need to make them a secure coop to protect them at night. Which was sound advice of course, but my heart sank at the thought of another big building project and of giving up on my clever hoop house.
In any case, separating the young and the old chickens would not do a jot of good, except to reduce the number of chickens who would eventually get eaten. OK, more work! Jennalyn and I postponed our dinner and spent a couple of hours as the sun set scouring the old hoop house for any holes. We did find a couple and plugged them, and also thought that coming in through the top of the roof was likely as the critter could climb down a cattle panel hoop that was standing there. It could also climb up the roost. So we also cut off the bottom half of the roost so it started 4’ off the ground and suspended it up from the roof.
It is now Friday. Since Wednesday, I have gone to the coop after dark, and made sure all the chickens are high up in the roost or on the top support bars of the hoop house - sleeping up high to stay safe from predators, just like their ancestors in Asia. First night after Jenna and I had changed their world around, I found six in odd places, like on the dog crate, or walking around on the ground, kind of lost. I picked these unwise folks up and put them high up on the roost - which they seemed to appreciate. The second night everyone was up high. So far, we have had no further deaths! Hooray!!
It may be too early to celebrate, but if it works, then what I like about this outcome is that it makes use of a chicken’s natural instinct (to roost up high), rather than me, the human, building something big. We did fix the holes, remove the hoop that was a possible way down from the roof, and we did remove the bottom of the roost, so we reduced the predator pressure for sure. And that’s okay. We work a little to make life safer for the chickens, but we also rely on and utilize what comes naturally to them. I like it. Call it lazy Big Foot farming. It’s not that I think I am doing terribly clever things - traditional farmers use animals’ natural tendencies all the time to make work easier, and, as I mentioned, this whole enterprise has been one disaster after the other - but I do feel that little by little I am gaining small insights. So this one is that we can use chickens’ roosting tendency to our advantage to reduce our workload, and maybe the chickens like it too.
July 28, 2021 - I’m not so smart after all.
Chicken update: roosting is not foolproof because chickens come down early in the day, when some predators are also out and about. A couple of days ago I came into the chicken hoop house to find white feathers spread all over the place and a big hole in the back corner of the coop.
July 31, 2021 - The Big Chicken Move
These are really Big Foot letters to my father, who takes a boundless and gracious interest in the goings on with the hens and the roosters and the sheep and the trees and the house building - how it is progressing, and how I’m thinking about it. He suggested I write it down, and so I am, instead of visiting him in Finland - where the coronavirus is precluding entry of foreigners without quarantine. I am listening to Vaugh Williams, music from my home continent, Europe, to which I remain tied, a tie that often feels like nostalgia and loss. In any case, that is what Big Foot thinks about sometimes, in her new house overlooking a small field of ferns, mugwort and little white asters, with the copses of sumacs, birches, and black locusts across the road gradually filling in the field of goldenrod there.
Yesterday evening, Charlotte and I did the Great Chicken Move from the hoop house. We could not manage to keep safe from the predator - I believe it waited for them to come down from their roosts at dawn to catch them and it got quite good at finding places to squeeze through the fencing. The new hoop house is closer to the house, and in a field so that we can easily put an electric fence around it. Nearer the house we will also feel safer letting the chickens free roam during the day.
Charlotte was in a fun mood and we had a good time. We began the move at dusk but at this time of day, the chickens are still quite active and difficult to grab. We caught some by tossing down a bucket of food scraps and picking the hens up as they were eating (which felt a little mean). They went into a giant dog crate we had purchased in Somerville last summer during the corona virus lockdown (we never used it for Luna but it has come in quite handy for chicken transport). After that first load, Charlotte said “We should go and eat ice cream and wait for dark”. So we got Mark to come on his crutches and made an outing to nearby Turners Falls. Lots of people out on the little park and in line for ice cream, and at the little tables, eating ice cream. Fun. Then we went and got the chickens. Me on a ladder, picking them off the roosts (10 feet up) and handing them to Charlotte who put them in the dog crate. In total we did four more loads, and by the time we were done we were working by the light of the stars. 61 chickens were asleep in their new home on their new roosts. Here is a picture of their new home before we brought all of them over.
The old hoop house is now very quiet and forlorn. No more treats for the fisher cat. We had fun building it, it was a good project last year, 2020; Charlotte and I would come out here 2 or 3 days at a time on deserted highways, and stay at Phillips street. We often had fights, but they passed and we had more good times. It was a real triumph to put this structure up. Mark, Josephine, and Robin (Charlotte’s beau) also helped. We will use it for something - either move the hoops over to the house side, or keep it as a proper greenhouse for a farmer some day. It is important not to get too nostalgic about the emptiness where there used to be all this chicken life and where we went through so many of our initial chicken adventures (first eggs for delivery, cold winter, broody hens in spring, introducing young pullets to the flock, the lambs that were born there etc). The chickens are in their new house, and we will have new adventures with that one, and this old hoop house too, will have a new life.