A Few Hens About the Place…

There is something very satisfying having a few hens about the place…
John Brooks,  A Country Garden

My newly arrived chicks – 37 strong – in their shipping box. Just before hatching the young birds reabsorb the remaining yolk, allowing them to survive without food or water for up to two days. In nature, this would allow the first born to wait for the last (the hen won't lead the chicks to food until all the viable chicks have emerged.) But for our purposes, this provides an ideal window for shipping from the hatchery.

This morning I stepped with no small trepidation back into the world of chickens. I’ve had chicks here before, many times in fact, over the last 20 years, but the last two occasions proved disastrous: weasels got into the chicken enclosure, and murdered each and every hen over a single night. The first time this happened, I was mystified, as I couldn’t imagine what could have caused such an awful slaughter. Then an old chicken hand (my father) delivered the bad news: weasels, which had been long eradicated in these parts, were undoubtedly the culprit. (They were ID’ed by their method of killing: they bite the throats of the chickens and suck their blood, leaving the lifeless carcasses lying about like diseased corpses in a some bad sci-fi flick.) With the decline of local farming and varmint eradicating farmers, weasels, like many other of their fellow predators – coyotes, foxes, fishercats – have returned to their former haunts in droves, and have found much more sympathetic quarters in the backyards of suburbia.

Death in a small package: the weasel

Thinking I would outfox the weasels (yes, I know, I couldn’t resist) I decided to fortify the coop itself. This indeed worked, until one night I forgot to close the coop, and the weasels squirmed under the 6 foot fence that encloses the chicken area, and again murdered each and every hen. (Chickens, truth be told, are stupid, much like the proverbial dumb blond at the beach. Unlike the ducks and geese that at least put up a semblance of self-defense, chickens prefer the “If I just sit here silently, nothing will hurt me ” mode. While this may have worked for the chicken’s ancestor in some wild copse eons ago, the strategy is distinctly less successful in the confines of a small coop. Short story: no more chickens

For two years now, I have been chickenless, but to tell the truth, I have missed them. No more crowing from the coop (which I love), no more crazy antics in the yard, and worst of all, no more eggs – I’ve been buying mine from my friend and local police chief Jane Moran, who did a far better job of patrolling her coop than I did, as she still has several hens from the last batch we ordered together. But this spring I had a change of heart. Rather than being beaten by some carnivorous rodent (well not technically a rodent, but definitely a rat), I decided to fortify the entire 75′ x 50′ enclosure. I bought enough hardware cloth to go beneath the 6′ fence surrounding the coop, and sealed up every chink and cranny I could find. (Weasels, I’m told, can fit through a hole the size of the quarter.) I also plan to install lights and motion sensors around the coop itself, and I’m tempted to purchase the latest chicken coop security measure: an automatic coop door closer.

Soon, I will have a chicken Fort Knox. Or so I hope.

But will all this techno-gadgetry deter the ancient foe? That remains to be seen.

For those of you, who before reading this article, might have been predisposed to try a few hens and are now reconsidering after reading this tale of avian terror, rest assured that normally raising chickens isn’t this much work. I just seem to be located in a predator-filled zone. All you really need is some intruder proof housing, and the ability (and memory) to close your chickens up at night. One caution though: if you value your beds and borders, you can’t let your chickens roam about the yard, as I recently saw advocated in a local newspaper. Chickens, in the normal course of things, scratch and claw the ground in search of bugs and other tasty bits. While this is a handy habit when you want to clear falls from an orchard, or rid a field of ticks, it can be distinctly unpleasant in a more cultivated environment. Here’s Helena Rutherford Ely, in her typical understated witty style, from her classic 1903 guide, A Woman’s Hardy Garden:

Living on a farm, of course there have always been hens and chickens. These creatures were provided with houses and yards and fences, and given every inducement to remain where they belonged; yet with diabolical ingenuity they would escape from their quarters, dig under the fence, fly over it, or some one would leave a door or a gate open, and then, with one accord, all the flock would make for the gardens and scratch and roll in the borders. This sort of thing happened repeatedly, until I felt there must be a league between the farmer’s wife and the hens. But the limit of endurance was reached when, one afternoon, coming out to look at a bed of several dozen Chrysanthemums set out in the morning, I found the poor plants all scratched out of the ground, broken and wilted. Then in wrath the fiat went forth, “No more hens on this farm, those on hand to be eaten at once.” For days a patient family had hen soup, hen croquettes, hen salad and hen fricassee, until the last culprit came to her end.

While this may sound a little severe, I can attest to the sentiment: one morning a few years back the hens got loose just before filming an episode of the Victory Garden here at the house. The entire newly planted annual garden, the subject of the day’s program and lovingly planted just the night before by Kip, was unearthed in an hour’s scratching. If I hadn’t restrained my dear hatch-bearing friend, I too would have been eating roast hen for weeks on end.

Suffice it to say, chickens and gardens don’t mix. But John Brooks is right: There IS something very satisfying about having some hens about the place.

So, today the adventure begins anew:

Stay tuned.


A Few Hens About the Place… — 2 Comments

  1. Sigh. Calgary, AB is in the middle of a protracted war within the city about urban chickens. At the moment they are not allowed within city limits. Of course the local chapter of CLUCK is formed and fighting for the rights to food. So all I can do is gaze enviously at people who have chickens and wish. Realistically though it seems I want a hobby farm just outside the city – I’m in love with raising and growing food. Which incidentally is also impossible in Calgary due to asinine land zoning laws.

  2. The chicks are very cute (and suddenly brought me back to first grade, when my classroom raised some together) but the weasel drama is too hideous to contemplate. I am amazed you had the energy and determination to try again. I hope you have read the classic book, The Egg and I, by the author of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle?

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