In the spring of 2013, my husband Mat built a small coop in our backyard as a present for my 9 1/4 unbirthday. He then found two old hens to roost in it for a bargain on craigslist.
I had never tended chickens before, and had no knowledge of their respective breeds. Mat’s sister, an experienced chicken tender, clued us in on their breed names. We had scored a Buff Brahma and a Silver Laced Wyandotte.
Since our family began calling them “the white one” and “the black one,” I thought it imperative to give them both names that would make us sound not-at-all racist if we were ever overheard chatting about our two mischievous free ranging chickens in public. I dubbed our Brahma boss hen Magda, and my son Sage named the gentle Wyandotte Greta.
Our first two hens squatted out 6 eggs a week like clockwork; not bad for two old hens, or so we thought. Then one morning, we found old Greta had fallen off her roosting bar in the middle of the night–her claws coiled toward heaven. Maggie became the loneliest chicken. But we still got our 6 eggs a week. Not bad for one old hen.
Magda had her run of the yard for a couple months, but too often she wandered off to our neighbors’ coop to harass their hens. In the summer of 2014, we decided to get some chicks to keep her company. First, we built an extension to the existing coop in order to keep the young chickens separate from Maggie during their introduction. We then ordered three chicks (2 Easter Eggers and 1 Black Australorp) to be hand-delivered from Dare2DreamFarms. While awaiting their arrival, I found a rare breed Russian Orloff near us (that my parents kindly picked up for me on their way to visit). Mags was not pleased to see another chicken in her inner sanctum.
We named our new little chick Sacha Baron Orloff. Both regal and comical, she resembled a hawk, chirped like a quail and extended her neck like E.T. She was just 3 months old, but she took on Mags like a warrior the few times I allowed them to cross paths. Integration was looking futile.
Maggie got pinched on the 4th of July. Her tendency to sleep on a perch leaning against the fence was too enticing to a raccoon, bobcat or coyote. Whatever it was, it tried to pull her through the 3-inch holes of the coop extension fence. She let out a primal yelp and frightened that predator away. But she was broken. Her body looked forever wrenched into an uncomfortable pose; she ceased to lay eggs. We gave her mercy. It was just as well; she never took to the role of coop mama the way Sacha did with Jane Australorp and the Egger sisters, Fluffy & Naomi.
Our young chicks grew to be happy plump pullets. They each began to lay in early fall, or so we thought. Poor Jane Australorp died in winter, egg bound. My attempts at home remedies (both long warm baths and what I laughingly call “getting to know your chicken” were entirely unsuccessful at delaying her truly inevitable demise).
The remaining trio fared well through the spring and summer. Fluffy took the prize for best layer (going 12 days straight once, averaging 6 extra large olive eggs per week), Naomi was usually neck-and-neck with Fluffy’s rate of lay, but hers were medium/large minty green. Sacha, while never in contention for best layer (averaging 4 medium brown eggs per week), was always on the lookout for predators while in the yard, and was the first chicken to fling herself repeatedly at the coop door when predators prowled nearby at night. She would do whatever it took to protect her flock.
Last fall, we were offered free chickens to add to our coop. Sure, why not? We thought it would be easy. Our two newer hens, a Rhode Island Red we named Red and a Buff Orpington we named Blondie, stomped into the coop like overfed bullies. They squawked relentlessly, and were vicious about establishing themselves as the new top hens in the coop (they were twice the size of the older residents). Good thing we still had the coop divider. Integration did not go well. So we separated them into their separate flocks.
Within a day of their arrival, while trying to herd her back into our yard, I frightened Red right into part of an old metal bunk bed frame that had been repurposed as a fence. None of my other chickens had tried this feat. They’d stick their heads through, then back away knowing they were too fat to get through. Then along came this new chicken, twice as fat as the rest of them–frightened and lost–she ran headlong into the fence, got stuck and then cackled and wiggled her way out moments later. I thought she would die on the spot, which would have been a better end that what actually happened to her. We did not grant her mercy. She appeared sorta okay, at first.
A couple days after Red’s fence squeeze out, I saw half an eggshell clinging to her bottom feathers. This was the first sign that mercy was still possible. A day later, she was oozing raw eggs. A day after that, her ass looked like Carrie on prom night. She was a mess. The other chickens avoided her, and a swarm of flies taunted her into a wild frenzy wherever she went. I wanted to put her in a box for slow mercy; a moment’s peace from those dang flies for that poor chicken. A moment’s breath without that infernal buzz! I just didn’t want to have to touch her, to become enmeshed in that fly swarm. I just couldn’t do it. So I paid the price, later on…
Red died overnight in the coop, and I scooped her up before the flies could wake up and resume their swarming feast. The blood she spread throughout the yard likely enticed one raccoon to try and try again. A couple months later, we awoke to plaintive chicken cries. Instead of the usual Sacha warrior beating her chest against the door, there were only cries from inside the coop. We found a raccoon desperately trying to run away, leaving behind its fresh kill. Sacha lay head down on the ground, not a drop of blood on her. I imagine she put up a good fight.
Not long after, we awoke to find a hole in the side of the coop and a missing chicken. Our best layer, Fluffy, was MIA. We were down to two chickens, and suddenly Blondie was back to the bully she and Red had been on their first day in the coop. She kicked Naomi out of the box at night, even on rainy nights. We knew we were in need of a coop rebuild and a restocking. We also considered giving mercy to Blondie, who was eating 20-60% of all eggs (not a good use-value chicken).
By the time Blondie moved into the new coop (uphill, right), she stopped her egg-pecking ways. I guess talking to your chickens about their use-value helps. She understood that early retirement was on the horizon if she kept up with that cannibalistic grubbing.
For the past 3 weeks, we’ve had these chirpy chicks in our house. The two largest and eldest (our new Easter Eggers, l-r: Athena & Cuckoo), are outgrowing this double-sided brooder and need to move on out to the coop. The four smaller chicks (Lola, on the box, a Black Sexlink; Mystery, a possible Speckled Sussex; & 2 Wyandottes, Opal & Pee-wee) will join them sometime next week.
Jesse couldn’t be more thrilled with keeping track of their whereabouts at all times.