In a mad frenzy of enthusiasm - that's how we seem to dive into the world of raising chickens. It is so exciting – and scary! For most of us first came the idea, then the research. Questions, answers (sometimes conflicting), ideas and visions consume us. Then comes the big day. Chicks are chosen, brooders set up, and when those little peepers arrive it is all we can do to keep from hovering over them with big smiles on our faces.
I was no different. I plunged in, less prepared than some but with the same eagerness to begin this journey. When my first batch finally arrived I fussed, I worried, I panicked more than a few times, and because of my care (sometimes despite it) they grew and thrived.
Have you seen the Luv’s commercials – you know, first kid vs second kid? Yeah, it was like that. The first batch was raised indoors under strict supervision with a heat lamp in the house. By the time they were 5 weeks old, I had to get them out. They were messy. They were noisy all night long. They were dusty – and so was everything else within 2 miles of them. I evicted them to their still-unfinished coop. It was them or me. That was my first really tough call.
The second batch of chicks was kept a couple of days in the house to make sure they were sound and healthy, then out they went. A wire pen was set up within the run, and these chicks (and every subsequent batch) was raised out there in full view of the rest of the flock, using Mama Heating Pad. This was a pretty radical way to raise them. Temperatures were still cold – in the twenties dipping into the teens – yet those little stinkers absolutely thrived. That was another tough call, but a good one.
We sometimes ended up with a surplus of roosters. From time to time we’d have an older bird who just wasn’t comfortable or “happy” anymore. We had a couple of girls who just weren’t all that we’d hoped they would be. They’d grown up to be poor layers, or extremely temperamental…..not at all what we wanted in a peaceful and productive flock. And more often that I’d like to admit, chicken math got the best of me and we overcrowded our space and abilities. Those were the times when the need for a little flock management became essential and the tough call to do some culling came into play.
Fast forward a few years and several batches of outdoor-raised chicks. Hubby Ken had advanced in his position so that what was once a few trips a year became a few trips per month. Our best chicken sitter, granddaughter Katie, and her family were moving from across the street to a new house on the other side of town. It wouldn’t be easy for her to come and care for them while we were gone because that meant her mom having to pack up Katie’s little sister, drive her and Katie over, then sit and wait while Katie did chores before loading Kendra back up and taking the girls home. Twice a day. Yeah, that wasn’t happening. And my personal health began to deteriorate. It was harder and harder for me to take care of them. More of that work was being dropped on Ken, and he was still recovering from shoulder surgery for much of that time. It was time for another tough call - and I didn't want to make it.
I sat on the deck watching my chickens free-range…Silkies and Easter Eggers, Andalusians and Red Sex Links, Orpingtons and one affectionate Brahma named Tank. They were busy doing what they loved to do. The sun hit their little bodies and reflected back in their glowing feathers. They were fat, sassy, laying great, and absolute pictures of health as they waddled around. I looked over at their coop/run. It needed a good deep clean, although even if it had been at its worst it was still a setup I would be proud to have anyone see. But signs of neglect were creeping in around the hidden corners. I could see it, Ken could see it, but we were still at the point where no one else would see it – yet. As I sat there, good old Agatha, one of my original flock, left the yard and went into the coop to lay her almost daily egg. The door to the coop was open and from where I sat I could see her make a beeline for her favorite nest, climb in, and settle down. And it dawned on me – they deserved better. They weren’t being neglected, they were well cared for, strong, active and healthy, but for how much longer? At what point would getting out there to do what had to be done…when going out there just to spend a little time with them and enjoying them…might become so difficult that chores for that day were put off? And the next day, and the day after that? And worst of all, would I reach the point where I began to resent the responsibility of caring for them? No, it was time.
A little free-range time.
So the final and toughest call was made. After a few weeks of talking, trying to come up with alternate plans that meant we could continue to enjoy our chickens without them beginning to suffer, we finally came to the realization that we simply had to rehome them. Most of them were still pretty young and still had good years of production and life in them, although we still had our special “old ladies”. Would it be right or fair to wait until they weren’t thriving anymore? We had to decide what to do, and the solution fell into our laps.
A friend of Ken’s mentioned his flock while he and Ken were driving to a meeting, and casually said that with his newly expanded setup he wouldn’t mind getting more birds. Ken explained our situation and his friend said he’d be happy to come and look at ours. He did, and he wanted them all. So late one evening when they’d all settled down to roost, he and his wife came over with several dog crates. One by one I plucked them off the roosts, gave them a final pounce of dusting powder just in case, and put them into the crates. Then I stood in the street and watched the tail lights on that pickup full of chickens get smaller and smaller.
Those chickens taught us so much. They helped Katie learn new coping mechanisms to deal with her mild Autism, gave her a sense of purpose, and boosted her confidence and sense of empathy. Kendra learned to carry eggs in her red basket on her lap in her wheelchair (and wonder of wonders, walking back in her braces with her basket), happily learning that she can help too. And me? I learned about raising disabled kids and chickens together, raising chicks outdoors with Mama Heating Pad, and how to help others learn the same. Along the way I made friends. I often said that I didn’t love my chickens….that I saved that emotion for the special people in my life. Well, I lied.
Kendra carrying in eggs - walking out there for the first time.
As those chickens were caught one at a time....as I whispered each one’s name, dusted, and put him or her into the crates bound for their new home...I learned one final and valuable lesson. It’s okay to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” It’s not only okay, it’s essential. There comes a time for each of us when we have to understand that it’s not only about fuzzy chicks, first eggs, and seeing a rainbow of chickens puttering around the yard. It’s also about recognizing that those garden-digging, egg-song singing, annoyingly loud crowing, time consuming critters deserve more than mediocre. It’s not a crime to make the toughest call of all. You just have to have the courage and compassion to make it.
Thank you, you silly looking, quirky little birds.