Monday, June 11, 2012


Our chickens are over a year old now, but I still worry about them.

It's not the same worries as when they were little chicks. I don't fear for their mobility like I did when their legs weren't working or their hardiness when they were croaking from the cold. I'm also fairly certain none of them are going to undergo any sort of sexual reassignment at this point.

But they still cause me concern. And yeah, at the risk of sounding dramatic, sometimes it has to do with life and death.

This is because we also have a dog.

Notice how Buddy's staring at them
About 4 or 5 months ago we decided to take the leap and let the girls wander around the yard during the day. That's right folks, our chickens became free-range sometime in February. Boy, was it satisfying. The rye grass had gotten nice and tall and thick, and they just pranced around the back making their super contented chicken clucks.

Laugh all you want, but chickens produce a variety of noises, and I have to say that I'm fairly good at interpreting them at this point.

And while I find them very endearing, I'm sad to report that none of them translate to, "I love you, dear owner, and I am grateful for all you do." That's the kind of affection you look for in a dog. Chickens are more like cats, but without the cute purring. "Where's my food, don't get too close to me, I don't really care whether you exist or not," is a better summation of their standoffish attitude.

But no matter. After a few days of letting them roam free all day I grow to really love how they'll come running toward me when I enter the back yard. And they'll follow me back to the coop for a fresh feeding in the evenings, sometimes even squatting down to let me pick them up (which I've mentioned is related to their wanting to mate, but I'll pretend it's affection). I pick them up and pet them, then shut the door and let them slowly and safely amble up to the roost for bedtime.

Well, all that ended the day Buddy decided they looked tasty. Or fun. Or like they had too many feathers.
Our party animal at New Year's, apparently resolving to change his diet for the year
I returned home from an errand late in the morning to find the coop door shut, all 4 chickens inside. Brilliant me, my thought was, "How did the wind shut the door and all the chickens manage to also be inside?" Then I got a good look at Gertie. Dude, she looked rough. She was totally soaked. I've never seen such a wet chicken, not even in a rain storm. They're somehow good at staying relatively dry even in a total deluge.

                                         This is Glennie in a rain storm, not half as bad as Gertie looked that day

So I just...let them out again. And I didn't think anything of it until later in the afternoon when I heard the unmistakable Chicken Distress Squawk through the thin pane of the bathroom window. I looked out and saw Buddy down in the grass, Glennie's fluffy yellow butt pinned between his paws.

That's an unmistakable fluffy butt
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I threw the window open and yelled as much from the house. He looked up at me in a flurry of feathers. I tore through the house, flung myself through the back door and toward the rear of the yard, visions of gory chicken remnants flashing before my eyes.

My killer dog trotted sweetly over to me, buttery golden feathers all over his face like a damn cartoon. He was wagging his tail and seemed super proud of himself. I gathered up my resolve and looked over toward the scene of the crime. Glennie was...standing up. She fluffed herself a few times and then walked away, nonchalantly.

Don't question me on this--chickens can do things nonchalantly.

I got a closer look at her and did not see the grisly punctures and damage I expected.

But I DID see the scene of the day's previous crime. Gertie's feathers had been scattered over about 10 square feet back by the coop. A huge swathe of the lovely rye grass had been rolled out and her little gray feathers lay among it. And later when my neighbor saw me walking Buddy down the block, she ran after me and asked, "Um, Shannon, is it normal for Buddy to, uh, play with the chickens?"

Oh lord. That's why Gertie had looked so wet. She'd been chewed on for awhile.

Apparently neighbor had been in her garden (which backs up to our rear fence) when she heard, "a terrible squawk," (see, I told you that sound was unmistakable) and she looked over the fence to see Buddy "tossing" one of the chickens around in the air.

God bless her, she ran all the way around the block to our back yard, put Buddy on a leash to restrain him, and ushered all the chickens in to their coop...a perfectly safe haven from which I promptly released them later that morning.

Of course it hadn't been wind and chance that had trapped all 4 of them in their coop. It was Buddy and instinct and a thoughtful neighbor.

Ugh, so now the chickens are not so free-range.

That's right, back into the coop you go
Thankfully they're all still alive, but we only let them out when we're home and can listen for them. Which is probably for the best, because they get sneaky when they're out all day and start hiding their eggs.

You heard me right. One day they just found a different spot in the yard and started laying there. It took 2 days of no eggs and plenty of worrying on my part before I told Husband that we ought to start looking around for their stash, because there wasn't any way they could go that long without getting sick from an infected stuck egg.

He found it after a careful walk around the yard's perimeter--it was under some pieces of wood leaning up against the fence. They'd made a new little nest and were laying their eggs there. Sneaky chickens.

And then recently the twins--that's Ruby and Lemon, now indistinguishable from one another--stopped laying, or at least stopped laying as much. There was a brown egg every other day or so, if that, and of course I started to worry again.

Did they have a stash? Where was it? Did they have an infected stuck egg? Was I going to have to get some latex gloves and play chicken butt proctologist?

Thankfully I didn't have to answer that question, (and I'm sure you're glad you didn't have to read about it) because I began to notice their black and brown feathers all over the yard. But not in scary dog crime scene situations--just a few feathers all over the yard.

Ah. Molting. This is what they do when it gets hot, and they don't lay as much when they're doing it.

Fabulous. We've learned so much. Now we can find their stash when they nest all over the yard and we can diagnose different feather-loss situations. Many feathers in a pile of messed-up grass=dog attack. A few feathers all over the place=no eggs right now. And no eggs at all means they're nesting somewhere secret.

Okay. It's not entirely straightforward, this chicken-raising. I mean, we can't even listen for the Chicken Distress Squawk as easily anymore, because Husband himself has been nesting. He's added insulation and double-pane windows to the whole back side of the house. This makes it blessedly cool and silent inside, but also makes it pretty doggone difficult to hear if Budbud's suddenly gotten a case of the munchies.
In nature a nesting husband will insulate his home before the arrival of offspring
So we open a window when we tempt fate in our little ecosystem out back, and it's come in handy, because I've had to rescue Glennie once again from Buddy's deadly jaws. Seriously, I don't understand why they don't stay away from him. He's killed a couple of doves out back in recent months, and he does a good job of doing that business right in front of the four of them.

They just stare at him with that uppity chicken attitude of theirs as he scatters unfortunate dove bits all over the place.

I tell them that they ought to learn from these situations, but they don't seem to pay attention. They're probably plotting where next to hide their eggs. Sneaky chickens.