Thursday, April 05, 2007

What came first, the chicken, the egg or the snake?

We love our chickens--they're fun to watch, and many are calm enough for the kids to hold and pet. They follow us around the yard because they always assume we have some food for them, even when we don't.

We first started keeping hens (barred rocks) in 2002, buying pullets (females about 8 wks old) from a local person, but the original dozen were quickly taken back by nature in the form of a bear. The bear tipped over the chicken tractor we had them in, in the middle of the night when it was raining and we couldn't hear anything. The chickens scattered and some were eaten by the bear, some by other opportunists like raccoons, possums and foxes. In the morning we were devastated by the loss. Luckily, one lone hen had survived in the woods overnight. She quickly was named Gwenevere by our daughter, and became more of a pet. The hens hadn't even started laying eggs yet, so we waited and waited for Gwenny's first egg. That was a really exciting day for us, when we found that egg!

This was our first chicken tractor.

After the bear disaster, we quickly ordered day-old chicks from Murray McMurray, more barred rocks, 26 in fact. This was a straight-run order, so we would receive unsexed chicks. We ended up with about 14 roosters and 12 hens. So we settled in for a 22-week wait for the female chicks to start laying. They were really cute, but they also create quite the dust when you keep them inside. We used our (former) tool room, which quickly became covered in a fine layer of dust. Finally, they were large enough to put outside without an extra heat source, and we built a second chicken tractor for all of them.
Once they became accustomed to our yard, let them out during the day to have more freedom.

Roosters are usually more attractive than hens, and the feathers are slightly different in shape as well. But, one does not need 14 roosters! We ended up butchering the roosters, which was very educational for me and the kids. Eddie has been a hunter most of his life, so he led the process for us, with Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens as a guide. We ate some of the roosters and fed our dog the rest. We hadn't done the best job plucking, so they were a little unappetizing in appearance. I'm sure we'd have gotten used to it after a while, but I just wasn't ready to wait for that. :) The dog was most appreciative.

Once the hens started laying, we were able to sell the extra eggs to friends. Hens lay an egg a day on average, skipping a day every week or so. So we had about a dozen eggs to collect each day. We are big egg-eaters, but this was a bit much even for us! Over time, we lost a hen to predators. The bear returned a couple times, but didn't ever get into the chicken tractors. But raccoons, fox and opossums did, when the ground wasn't touching the bottom of the tractor frame, or they would dig a small hole.

We ordered more chicks in 2003. This time we wanted to try a variety of other breeds, so we ordered female ameraucanas (blue egg layers), light brahmas (with feathered feed), Rhode Island reds, black australorps, and buff orpingtons--all of those are brown egg layers, and heavy breeds, which tend to be a lot less skittish and easier to handle, same as the barred rocks. Murray McMurray threw in a "rare exotic" chick for free with the order, and we also qualified for 2 straight run (unsexed) partridge rocks.

Blue egg and smaller brown egg. The brown one is smaller just because the hen is a lot younger. Eggs get larger as the hen gets older, but then she also lays fewer eggs.

Again in 2004 we ordered more--this time breeds we were familiar with, the black australorps, ameraucanas, light brahmas, and a new one, dominiques, which are very similar to the barred rocks. We used Ideal Poultry for this order. We also decided we'd had enough of moving the chicken tractors, so Eddie built a coop for storage and attached the tractors to the sides. We also fenced a large area for the chickens and added a protective bird netting across the entire thing to help keep predators out. Some still get in once in a while, or a hen will stay out overnight, but we're losing a lot fewer hens now. We normally open the gates on their yard and they roam all over the place, but if we go away for a few days, or a month like when we went to Italy, we don't have to worry that they'll all be gone when we return.

In August 2005, we noticed we were missing eggs.
We only collect in the evening, and apparently we were going a bit too late, and a snake was enticed by the smell of all those beautiful eggs just lying there waiting for him/her. We had found a five foot-long snake skin outside the house near our bedroom window, so we figured this belonged to the snake eating our eggs. We were proven to be right when we saw this. To the right, the enticing eggs. Below, "Salazar" caught in the act.

Then I think we skipped a year ordered more chicks in 2006, all Rhode Island reds (left, in a nesting box with the door open), but they threw in a "rare exotic" which turned out to be a golden laced wyandotte rooster. He's beautiful, but he's a bit aggressive, so right now he's kept away from the hens and the people in a small yard just for him. He's not as happy as he was when he got to mingle with the "girls." But they were pecking the feathers off his neck, and he was destroying their back feathers. We hope he'll be fully feathered by the time the Albemarle County Fair rolls around in July.
This is the inside of the coop. We collect rain water from the gutters, which drains into the barrel, which then leads to small watering cups on the inside of the attached chicken tractors. The feed is stored in the trash can. You can see where the nest boxes are on both sides, with some eggs showing.

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Stephanie said...

So cool! It looks like fun. You ought to write something up for the VaHomeschoolers newsletter about your experience and what you have learned!