In spring of 2020, I was an actor in a chicken drama involving a deadly predator, some ill-fated chickens, and the joyful work of nurturing new chicks. Through helping out with my girlfriend’s chickens, I learned some basic lessons about small-scale animal husbandry, which I share here for those who are new to the work of keeping chickens.
Last spring, nature, red in tooth and claw, came hunting. My girlfriend, Amanda, keeps a small flock of egg-laying hens in a makeshift coop on the side of an old barn. One cool evening, I went out with her to lock up the coop for the night. Our approach startled an animal, which ran in a panic out of the coop and into the chicken yard, slamming against the wire fencing and racing back and forth. I immediately went inside the barn and closed the door to the chicken yard, then we tried to locate the animal. It was gone.
The next day we surmised that the animal had escaped the chicken yard via a large grapevine at the far end, the thick vine serving as a kind of ladder up to the top of the wire enclosure. Footprints suggested a fisher. In the coop, we found only a broken egg beneath the roost. It seems the fisher had stolen an egg, but dropped it upon noticing the fat hens on the roost. Our approach scared it off before it could try to make a kill. Thanks to our fortuitous timing, our little flock was lucky that night.
For a while, there was no more sign of the fisher. The event faded in our minds. The hens seemed safe up on the roost, and they had a young rooster with them to sound the alarm and fight any intruder. Then, one morning we found that the fisher had forced its way into the coop and killed two hens. It was not pretty. I buried the remains.
If you are thinking about keeping chickens, you need to know that there are so many animals out there that would love a chicken dinner. Not just humans, but foxes, hawks, fishers, bears, and so on.
To protect the remaining hens (and rooster), Amanda and I checked for loose boards and blocked up points of entry into the coop. We even barricaded the chicken-yard door with a cinder block each night, until we could properly reinforce the door from the inside.
The previous summer, Amanda had ordered six chicks from a farm supply business, and one had turned out to be a rooster. We named him Aragorn. He was a nervous and confused rooster, especially after the fisher attack. Although I had known him since he was a chick, he decided that I was a threat and would charge me, slamming against my legs. He did this every time I came near him. He picked fights with me even when I was busy with something far away.
Aragorn’s excessive amorous activities toward the five hens of breeding age caused them to lose feathers from their backs and necks. Some were even losing wing feathers. There was no way to isolate him, so we put chicken saddles on the hens, but the problem persisted. The fisher attack left Aragorn with only three hens of breeding age (and two older hens). Amanda and I hoped that Aragorn would at least––despite his faults––defend the remaining hens, should the fisher return.
Humans are not the only animals that can be cruel to members of their own species. The younger chickens began to bully Segrun, an older hen who was no longer laying, pecking her in the head until she was bleeding. It looked like they would kill her. Amanda let her out of the coop to get away from the others, and she gladly ranged freely around the yard during the day. At night she roosted in a room of the barn, next to the coop.
Segrun’s wounds healed and her feathers grew back. She seemed the happiest of hens. We offered her opportunities to rejoin the flock, but she wanted to be free. She was very social with humans. If someone was outside doing yard work, Segrun would come strutting over and cluck in conversation while pecking at things in the grass. She made friends with all the neighbors.
Meanwhile, Aragorn was abusing one of the young hens to the point that we decided to give her a break, too. She joined Segrun in ranging freely during the day and sleeping locked up in the barn at night. Time passed, wounds healed. Then disaster struck: the fisher found a way into the room with Segrun and the young hen, killing them both. I buried two more carcasses.
The fisher had left tracks by a ladder leaned against the far wall. There was a hole in the ceiling. We had thought the room was fully sealed off from the rest of the barn, but it was not.
Knowing that the fisher would be back, we again sprang into action, shoring up any weak points around the coop. Amanda’s coop is repurposed from a storage room in a barn, so it lacks some of the security features of a dedicated coop. It has a dirt floor and crude wooden boards serving as walls. I had to climb up to the dusty storage area above the coop to fix a hole in the ceiling. I installed a higher roost, about two meters above the ground. The chickens used it immediately.
Fisher tracks appeared outside the coop for a while. The animal even tried to dig tunnels from the chicken yard. We filled these each morning when opening the chicken-yard door to let the girls out. Our reinforcements held. After a while, the fisher gave up.
With her flock reduced to just two laying hens, one old hen, and one rooster, Amanda decided to get more chicks. There is a season for this. When the farm supply announced availability, she drove over to get some chicks, but came back empty handed. By the time she arrived, there had been no chicks left! The pandemic caused a surge in demand for chicks.
Eventually, Amanda was able to obtain six Buff Orpington chicks. Chicks are delicate in their early days, needing just the right amount of heat. We nurtured them in a brooder made from a plastic tub lined with newspaper and wood chips, a heat lamp shining down on them. They stayed in the safety of the apartment, raising dust all over the bathroom.
Having just faced the shock of death and loss, we cherished those little lives. We handled the chicks regularly. They seemed to genuinely enjoy being lifted out of the box and carried around the apartment. I would reach my hand into their tub, palm up, and the first to climb aboard would get to come out for a visit. They would contend to be that lucky one.
In our world of modern industrial agriculture, most chickens are orphans, never having the opportunity to learn from a mother hen that which a mother hen might teach. Let that sink in for a moment. We are quick to judge the poor intelligence of a chicken, but human children treated like this, generation after generation, likely would not express their full potentials, either.
When they were big enough, the chicks were given time outside during the day and brought in at night. We constructed a run for them with wire fencing next to the chicken yard, covering it with more fencing to keep predators out. One section had a makeshift roof to protect them from sun and rain.
We read up on what plants they can eat and what plants are poisonous, so that my daughter could safely feed them things from the yard. It turns out that chickens cannot eat just anything.
Chicks soon become pullets, adolescent chickens. Toward late summer, our pullets were starting to look like hens.
Our rooster showed no sign of reforming. He charged people when given the opportunity and he continued to over-mate the remaining adult hens, leaving their backs bare of feathers and sunburned. We worried that the loss of wing feathers could interfere with their ability to fly up to the high roost and stay safe from predators.
Amanda keeps hens for eggs and considers them pets. She could not bring herself to kill Aragorn, but it was clear that he was too much trouble. Her landlady finally made the decision for her: “The rooster has to go.”
Amanda tried all summer to find someone from the local chicken groups to give him a new home, but many other people also had a rooster needing a home. This is a common problem, because the sexing of chicks is sometimes inaccurate and roosters can slip into a batch of hens. Amanda jokingly refers to this as “winning the Pullet Surprise.” Obvious sex differences do not appear until the chicks grow up.
Finally, a neighbor said a friend had expressed enthusiastic interest in our rooster. Aragorn was taken away and ended up in a cooking pot. It was a sad outcome, but with autumn coming and the pullets needing to join the hens, Aragorn’s tyranny had to come to an end.
Amanda and I eat a mostly vegetarian diet and care about the animals in our lives. Keeping animals entails grappling with moral quandaries of life and death. There are no easy answers.
The Buff Orpingtons joined the remaining three hens and spent the winter in the better-secured coop. With eight laying hens and one retiree, Amanda gets about six eggs a day, sometimes eight.
When I stop by the chicken yard to throw in some grass or just visit, the Buff Orpingtons come running over, looking at me with those strange avian eyes. Their eyes can see far more clearly than my own, but hens are quite helpless in the dark.
Each afternoon at dusk, when the hens have retired to the coop for the night, Amanda secures their little chicken-yard door from the inside. Do these chickens know how hard we must work to keep them safe? In addition to giving us eggs these chickens remind us of the fragility of life, helping us to be more mindful of the advantages we enjoy as humans.