My first year with chickens.

A year ago, I got 15, cute, fuzzy chicks in the mail.  How they all survived is beyond me.  How did the USPS not kill them in transport? How can day old chicks live without food and water being exposed to all different temperatures when they are supposed to be kept at 95 degrees the first few days of life?

I wanted to start with 8, egg laying chicks, but Ryan said, “You will probably kill half, if not all of them, you should get more”.  The minimum order turned out to be 15, so I ordered 5 Barred Rock, 5 Buff Orpington, and 5 of a variety pack of brown egg layers.  Both the Barred Rock and the Buff Orpington are supposed to be cold hardy and docile.  Cold hardy is important in NH because, well, it’s NH.  And “docile”, because Ryan is fearful of chickens, so I figured we could ease into chickens with “nice” birds to start.  No roosters, all hens, or so we hoped.  

A year has past and sadly we have lost 3 of the original 15 birds.  One, this winter when we left the property with the dogs for longer than expected and we think a fox took her out.  Then, this spring we had a hawk attack that I interrupted as I was trying to head to the vet to get porcupine quills out of Chewy’s mouth.  The hen that was attacked lived, but another one disappeared that day as well. Maybe the same hawk? And most recently, another hen was run over on the side of our driveway.  Maybe she didn’t notice the vehicle moving because it was electric?  Who knows.  This one hit me especially hard.  I’m not sure why because it’s one that I threatened many times with becoming a soup chicken. Most likely it’s because I arrived home to find her on the side of the driveway and was not notified prior to finding her. Her image is seared into my brain and I keep seeing her pale face and the state of her body in my head.  

What have I learned?  

I have learned that chickens poop a lot.  And I mean A LOT!

I learned that chicks can drown in their water bowls. Luckily this did not happen to mine. 

I learned that chicks can die if they get pasty butt.  Basically, poop cakes up on their vent and blocks them from eliminating waste.  So, if you see they have pasty butt, you have to bathe them carefully as to not pull out their intestines (yet another way to kill them). 

I made the mistake of trying to socialized the chicks to create “friendly” chickens. They seemed to like me so much that one flew up to perch on my shoulder and scratched me across my cheek with her nails. Call me “Scar Face”. My newest chickens, raised by Mama hen, are more on the wild side and very nervous around me. Time will tell which version is better, the overly friendly ones or the ones with a healthy fear of humans.

Chickens have super interesting calls.  The “I just laid an egg” song.  The “Hurry up and get out of my nesting box” call. The sweet “come over here, there is food” call a mother hen makes to her babies. The “Get in your place” call (pecking orders are real). 

Broody hens are like little dinosaurs.  A broody hen is often in a nesting box, puffed up, and almost growling when you come near her. She so badly wants to protect the eggs she is sitting on.  Seeing that I don’t have a rooster, my first broody hen really wanted to hatch some eggs, so I bought some fertilized eggs from a neighbor who has a rooster. I put 6 eggs under her and she hatched 3.  I thought of it as an interesting experiment.  I learned how to candle eggs to see if they were developing at day 8 and day 14. I learned that broody hens only leave the nest one or two times a day to eat, drink, dust bathe, and relieve themselves in one massive, stinky poop, and they run around with a crazy burst of energy, flapping their wings, and sound like they are possessed.  I learned that sometimes broody hens lose a ton of weight, may get mites (which mine did), and may not leave the nest to eat and drink.  I started removing her from the nest 1-2x / day to make sure she was drinking and eating.  I think she lost 1/3 of her body weight. I learned that broody hens will kick out eggs if they are not viable.  I also learned that rotten eggs can explode.  Luckily, this did not happen to me.  I learned that some broody hens eat the chicks as they hatch and some abandon them after just a few days or weeks.  My broody hen, initially named, “Poopy Butt” as she often has soiled butt feathers, was an excellent mom and actually continued to play the role of mother hen until the chicks were 9 weeks old.  

I discovered that I love watching the chickens.  I call it “Chicken TV”.  Chewy joins me at times for “Chewy Chicken Time”.  Apparently he enjoys sharing the chicken treats and keeping me company when I observe them.  

Chickens love to be exactly where you don’t want them.  Over the last several months I have heard Ryan yell, “CHICKEN!” In a loud, distinctive pitch while shooing them off the sawmill, freshly milled lumber, the porch, the GEM,  or out of the shipping container.  He has trained Chewy to assist in the chasing of the chickens from unwanted locations.

I have learned that chickens are not a fan of snow and like a shoveled pathway to get outside and explore. I learned that chickens don’t always have the sense to get out of the cold or freezing rain and should be put away to keep them from getting frost bite. A few of mine got a touch of frost bite on their combs this winter before I learned that I should lock them in the coop as they are not smart enough to seek shelter in these conditions.

I have learned that a lot of chickens do not lay eggs through the winter. Some people add artificial light to trick the chickens into laying throughout the winter, but it’s best to let their bodies rest. We were lucky to get several eggs / day throughout their first winter. I am not very hopeful for winter #2.

Chickens molt once a year. Basically losing most of their feathers and growing new ones. They stop laying eggs during the molt and often look like freakish creatures. The areas where their new feathers are coming in uncomfortable / painful to the touch. Mine have not gone through their first molt, but I like learning what to expect ahead of time.

I have learned how to identify and treat Northern poultry mites in the flock.  Not a great experience when it’s cold and snowy out, but I was able to get it done. 

I learned how to treat a chicken who is egg bound.  One of my hens was acting off and I figured it was due to being egg bound. I gave her a 20 minute, warm, epsom salt soak, toweled her dry, and blew her dry with a hair dryer.  First of all, I thought she would absolutely freak out, but nope, she seemed to actually love the “spa treatment”.  She was placed in a dog kennel, in the dark for several hours to “relax”.  Low and behold, she pooped and laid an egg.  That evening, she was back to her old self.  

I have learned that chickens seem to have a defense mechanism of an explosion of feathers when they are attacked.  I have witnessed two of my hens being attacked. One from a dog and one from the hawk I mentioned earlier.  Both times, there was a plume of feathers and I thought for sure they were dead.  In both cases, they were mostly ok.  Besides being partially bald, only one of the two had a small puncture wound that healed right up.  

I have learned to set up and move electric poultry netting. First of all, the shock is NOT pleasant. Second of all, my arms get an amazing workout moving and setting up the fencing.  I used it last year when we left the property for several weeks and I didn’t want the birds being attacked by predators while we were gone.  They have been free range since then until now.  Unfortunately with our recent losses, we decided to once again contain them with the electric netting. Ryan is also tired of stepping in chicken poop or finding it in his pockets.  How he got chicken poop in his pocket is beyond me, but it happened. They currently are not happy birds as they were super used to free ranging 15-20 acres.  Oh well, it is what it is.  

After a year, I still have 15 birds, two of which I believe are roosters (see below).  Time will tell if one of the roosters ends up going to freezer camp.  

Time will tell if they get used to being confined by electric netting with access to new ground every week or two.  

Time will tell if chicken math is real.  Check back with me in a year and see how many chickens I have.  

There is so much more to learn about chickens.  I am confident I will lean a lot more in the coming year. Until then, I will continue to enjoy pasture raised, farm fresh eggs, AKA Butt Nuggets.


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