Noodle, contemplating scratching, Pepper, armpit deep in a hole, and Salt, who has just found something that needs excavation.
The Ignorant Gal’s Guide to Things No Sane Person Would Tell You about Chickens
By Mad Woman of the West
If you’re thinking about purchasing or adopting chickens, of course you should spend time on Backyardchickens.com, but you should also read everything you can get your hands on, talk to experienced people, and hang out with someone who has chickens. Let’s face it, though, there are some things you won’t learn any other way than either personal experience or talking to someone like me, who has no shame.
Thus, for your reading pleasure, here are 10 ridiculous things I’ve learned that will hopefully make your transition into chicken keeping a less harrowing proposition.
- My rooster is not epileptic. He just likes the girls and he’s trying to show it. When I saw my first rooster, Chicken Florentine, doing the rooster dance (renamed the “man dance” at my house), I thought he’d developed an exotic kind of epilepsy. What else would make him tremble, squat down, stand up, shake his wings, weave his head side to side, and not stop until Pepper, my mottled D’Uccle lead hen, pecked him on top of the head? Florie, a ½-Cochin, ½-Silkie accidental roo, had the fluffiest pantaloons you’ve ever seen, and he would shake those things like it was going to save his life. The inventors of Youtube probably didn’t foresee that they’d save me thousands of dollars in vet bills, but this is definitely an instance in which typing “rooster dance” into a search bar saved my bank account. It probably saved my vet’s life, too, because he would have laughed himself to death when I re-enacted the problem.
- Just because I can’t find the eggs doesn’t mean that my hens aren’t laying. All of my chickens are cast-offs from someone else’s flock in our area. They are all cross-beaked, funny-patterned, long-legged extras, and they all but one grew up in cages. Free ranging in my yard was brand new to all but one of them (my new rooster, Limp Noodle, is still highly suspicious of grass), but they took to it nonetheless. They especially like the euonymous bushes, which grow snug to the ground. I can’t get my own hand under those bushes, but they are now constantly chicken infested. Beautiful new nest boxes in the coop? Check! Solid, comfy, protected, dark nest boxes on the patio? Check! Nests under every godforsaken bush in the yard? Check! Now that molting is over for the fall, I’m armpit deep in a bush with my knees in the mud every afternoon. If you are not yet a religious or at least deeply philosophical person, chickens will almost immediately cause you to contemplate your place in the universe.
- Cecal poop will not come off door mats or white shirts, no matter how hard you scrub. Assuming you don’t have chickens yet, let me tell you about cecal poop (pronounced “bleeeeeeeeeeeep!-now-I-have-to-buy-another-white-shirt!”). It’s a combination of rust stain, dinosaur gall bladders, chewing gum, and sulphur that chickens cook up when your back is turned. Even your dogs won’t eat it, and you will never, ever get it off your door mat. The winter sun shines in my sliding glass door, right across the outdoor mat that was intended for boot wiping, but actually keeps my flock’s tootsies warm as they bask in the rays. We tried – really, really tried – to get them to choose another place to warm themselves, but in the end it was easier to use a different door to get into the house from the yard. Please do not tell my mother this. She’s suspicious enough of the whole chicken thing as it is.
- Hawks know where I live, even if I live in the city. On Belgian rooster Noodle’s second day in the yard, he had followed the girls over to the roots of the umbrella catalpa. He didn’t understand the whole scratching thing yet, but he was watching with interest, looking at what the girls found and raising an eyebrow at the idea that they ate it instead of walking over to the coop where the recognizable food was. I was standing 10 feet away, sanding the edge of the new nest boxes, talking to my peeps. Suddenly, Salt, the only one of my girls with hawk experience, freaked out, shot straight up into the air, and hit the ground circling like a tornado. I jumped about as high as she did just as a hawk hit the ground right in the middle of where my flock had been standing. Luckily, Salt’s panic had made the rest of the chickens scatter and run under the table where I was standing. By the time I had my hand over my pounding heart, the hawk was headed off into the air again without a chicken in its talons. Now that the leaves are off all of the trees, it’s easier to see into my yard, but it’s also easier for Salt to see the hawks. When I first got her, I thought she was a BIG mistake, because she is bat crap crazy, but it turns out she’s an asset in disguise.
- 75% of the pullet chicks I buy will turn out to be roosters. I’m beginning to think I’m cursed. I have even purchased two “girls” from sexed batches who turned out to be roos. The first two I had to give away. They were too noisy, but my gorgeous Noodle only crows first thing in the morning while still inside his coop, or if I’m cleaning the coop and he wants in. His crow is hoarse, quiet, and not complete (more like “cock-a-cough-a-choke-a-doo!”), which makes my neighbors much happier. Florie’s crow was LOUD and any time he was elevated off the ground in the least, he’d let fly. He crowed all day and all night. My second accidental roo, a Modern Game mix named Custard, was re-homed before he started crowing because he talked loudly to himself 24 hours a day. I was terrified that he’d start to crow and it would be insanely loud and he’d do it all day and night. I live in a city that shall not be named where chickens are forbidden in back yards. All I need is a neighbor reporting me.
- My flower beds need a lot more holes than I had previously thought. I knew chickens would dig, but I misunderstood exactly how much. My flock is out in the yard from dawn to dusk every day and they spend approximately 239% of that time digging. I just raked all the bark back into my flower beds again today. It’s great exercise, and my plants look like a million bucks, even in the midst of winter, but I’m beginning to be a bit disheartened by my girls’ ability to fixate on a spot and not let it go. I filled in a hole today that was ten inches deep and about twelve inches across. Two weeks ago, I caught two hens in adjacent holes attempting to conduct medieval torture on each other. They were each neck deep in an excavation, pitching dirt in on top of the other. If I hadn’t intervened, they would have either died of exhaustion or buried each other alive.
- Even the brain damaged ones can be lovely. One of my hens, a quail D’Anvers named Reeses, was extremely ill when she was small. We dropper-fed her for two weeks while she recovered. Though the diarrhea eventually stopped and she perked up and started to act mostly like a chicken, she walks funny and doesn’t seem to have proper depth perception. She runs crooked and with strange leg movement, holds her head tilted, sneezes every time she drinks because she’s constantly near-drowning herself, and takes two or three tries to get up onto a perch. Even her cluck is a gooselike “SKONK.” On the other hand, though she’s at the bottom of the pecking order, she’s not really bright enough to notice. She’s happy all the time, and as long as you conform to the routines she’s learned, you’d never know that she’s not quite right. Her feathers are the most gorgeous deep, shiny peanut butter and chocolate colors, and she chuckles to herself when you give her a scribble on the neck.
- That chick has not just dropped dead when hit by the first rays of the sun. When Reeses was finally well, we put her out into the yard in a jerry-rigged tractor so she could get some sun and socialize with the other chickens. I set her in the sunshine, she took two steps, and fell over on her side with one leg and one wing stiff and her neck skewed over. My college-age daughter, who had shared the two weeks of all-night dropper feedings, burst into tears. Comfort the daughter. Open the tractor. Pick up the chicken, who looks at me as if I’ve just lost my mind. Put the chicken back in the tractor and watch it fall over on its side. Go get the computer. Turns out this is normal and not just Reeses being brain damaged, or worse, incipiently dead. Yet again, Backyard Chickens saves my sanity.
- My dogs are not as tough as they seem. I was worried about free-ranging my chickens because I have a terrier and a greyhound who are experienced at killing doves and robins. I know, I know. I can hear you rolling your eyes and thinking that I’m an idiot. Well, neener-neener-neener, because I purchased a mottled black and white D’Uccle lead hen named Pepper who perceives herself as a large, angry tattooed gang member. The first time I let my flock out into the yard, my dogs were standing right with me. Pepper hopped into the grass, the terrier gingerly leaned forward to sniff her, and Pepper leapt to the attack. She took a chunk out of the dog’s left eyebrow and both dogs headed for the house screaming. Pepper looked calmly back into the coop at the other chickens as if to say, “Well? Are you coming?” Everybody else trooped out after her and I haven’t had a single bit of trouble with my dogs since. In fact, it took a loooooooong time to get those dogs back out into the yard while Pepper was out there. That was six months ago and they still have a healthy respect for her.
- Warm oatmeal with a little cat food and some fruit scraps causes violence in chickens. I’ve read a lot about what to feed chickens, and my flock has what you might call a varied diet. They always have regular chicken food available, but they also have whatever they can scratch – or dig – up in the yard, a little bit of cracked corn scratch, black oil sunflower seeds, homemade chicken treats made with the Chicken Chick’s recipe, flax seeds, oatmeal, greens of all sorts, kitchen scraps, canned pears, a teeny bit of cat food, and all sorts of other random things that cross my household’s food needs. Their favorite thing by far, however, is when I take ½ a canned pear, a handful of oatmeal, a handful of chicken feed, a little bit of their treats, a little hard cat food, a little scratch, some cut up spinach, and a handful of sprouted wheat, and mix it with hot water. They will drive off the dogs to get to that bowl. If I’ve had to carry the bowl outside to put in the chicken feed because I forgot to take it inside with me, my mille fleur D’Uccle sisters Crème and Caramel have developed a special growling sound they use only in this situation that lets me know that I’m taking too bleeping long to put the bowl on the ground.
If you, too, are willing to start with no sense of shame, a deep willingness to embrace the ridiculous, and a high tolerance for standing in place shaking your head in wonderment, by all means, get chickens. And a rake.