A topic that is never easy.
This past spring I had added a few new team members in the form of chickens to my team. Growing up, my parents had chickens and I was always taken with how busy they kept and just how cute they were. There was also the added bonus that they paid for their rent in eggs. Naturally my mother always had a surplus because she kept way more chickens than she needed, but the company was so pleasant.
This year was the first time I was able to raise chickens of my own. I believe in the ideals of Kaizen, continious small changes as opposed to a singular massive change. I had purchased a total of eight chicks, in which four turned out to be roosters but I did not love them any less. Every morning when the chickens were just fluff balls I would remove their cover of their indoor container to refresh their water. Within five seconds of removal, a winged fluff ball would appear on the corner of the container to gaze upon an unknown world. I would pick this tiny chick up, hold it in my hands and whisper soft chirps into its ears. I would set it down and work my way down the line of birds, repeating the same affection. Eventually, I would take the future rooster (who would jump onto the ledge) and place him on my shoulder, like a pirate, and have him join me while I walked downstairs to refill the water.
The weather became warm enough to now move the flock outdoors to their new coop. During the day I would let the chickens free roam under supervision and then try and corral them back into the coop. Eventually I would let them out for longer stints with less supervision. When the sun began to set, there was a particular tree the birds would climb up just out of my reach to roost for the evening, despite having a very nice coop of their own. The first few times this happened it worried me because they were fully exposed to not only the elements but potential predators. Out of luck, they were not bothered by anything and in the morning I would see them out in the yard foraging for bugs, worms and the like. I would try to get home to put them away before the sun sat but sometimes it was too late.
One Evening my dog, Angus, woke abruptly and starting sounding off, at this point he was still a puppy and getting him to sleep was a bit of a choir and the sound of passing cars would set him off. Though thourghly riled, I had gotten him back to sleep. The following morning all seemed to be normal, I saw the chickens pecking around outside but had an early phone call so my focus was trained on that. Right after the call was over, I noticed my nieghbor was waiting at the edge of my property and said that the other neighbor called them because they believed something got to a few of my chickens.
I instantly felt sick to my stomach. I walked with the neighbor with a heightened sense and could only hear a blur of words as we approached a tuft of feathers in the middle of the field. The entire time I was hoping it was a something else and my chickens were just lost at the moment.
No. They were not lost but in the neighbors yard in three different places and only their feathers remained. I felt so horrible because I let this happen on my watch. If I had only gotten out of bed when the dog was going off I could have saved maybe two or, at the very least, one. I collected the feathers in silence and disbelief. Shortly after this incident, I cut that tree down.
At this point I now had three roosters and two hens; pretty much the scenario at any of the bars on a Friday night in The Berkshires - get it?
As nature would have it, a Barred Cross rooster had now risen to the top as the alpha and was a real handful. Many times I would be out feeding the chickens or simply working in the yard and would (out of no where) feel a strong impact on the back of my leg. I would turn and see this this over protective lunatic rooster next to me. After a while I got wise to his antics and could tell when he was going to make a talon first lunge at me and move to the side, only for him to fall on his bottom and (hopefully) feel like a fool. I haven’t named any of my livestock animals after raising pigs a few years back, but this rooster became known as “trouble”. Coincidentally he was the same rooster that I would bring on my shoulder to get water.
A month or so went by and the chickens found a new tree to have their evening roost in so therefore, I cut down every tree in my yard to avoid any further headache - no, thats not true but the thought did cross my mind. Ultimately the dying sumac did come down but not before i put my rusty yoga poses to good use collecting the stubborn chickens from the branches.
One evening I got home from work and realized Trouble was missing. Hoping he was roosted in a tree, I secured the family for the evening, Sure enough, His remains were across the road in the neighbors yard - again, just a pile of feathers. This was hard.
What was I to do? I could keep the chickens inside of their coop all day but that would not be in line with my beliefs about giving the animal the free reign to be able to live its life. The chickens caused no harm to my neighbors yards or my own and they were infinitely more happy being outdoors.
I kept the chickens and the now 2 roosters inside their coop for a few days while I decided the next plan for the future, In the meantime I had to think about the chickens and the whole reason as to why I got them - the eggs and moving in the direction of producing our own eggs for Heirloom Fire.
Luckily, I work with a really great farm called Climbing tree (who we get all of our pigs from). I was on a visit at the farm one day and noticed a flock of Golden Buff Orpington Hens. I asked about them, and was informed by the farmer, Schuyler, that they had gotten too many. I asked if I could purchase 7 chickens to add to my flock, as these chickens were around the same age and would start producing around the same time.
The phrase “pecking order” exists for a reason but I had no idea to what extent. I had a feeling there would be some hen pecking but it was too much for my (seemingly} fragile spirit. The original hens that were so docile and submissive had now become full on bullies that would aggressive pursue these slightly younger hens to the point of blood shed. I called my local tractor supply to see about acquiring another small coop to keep the girls separate until they could hopefully settle their differences, peacefully. I reserved a smaller coop for the hens to be picked up the next day thought I needed to build a sort of make shift coop for the evening. Not having any issues for a while, I decided on using a collapsable play pen (formally the property of my dog when he was a puppy) to extend around the front of the existing coop and covered the top with lattice that was left over from the previous owners of my house. I tucked the chickens in and went to bed.
Angus, out of a dead sleep, start flipping out. I awake and, for a slight moment, think
that nothing is wrong. After remembering the last episode I head straight outside, hook my dog up to his lead and head to the chickens with my phone light engaged. As a approach the chicken coop, I see a collection of bloody feathers outside of the play pen with a decapitated chicken on the other. The make-shift roof was knocked off and there was one chicken inside looking quite frightened. My adrenaline is coursing through my veins and I am so, so angry.
I hear a shifting in the weeds behind me. What do I see? A fat raccoon making its way, slowly, up a tree. Not knowing fully what to do I grab a few of my recently grown experimental 989 squashes from Row 7 Seeds and begin whipping them at the raccoon. After he’s out of sight and not moving I begin to look around for the rest of the chickens. Four were on the roof of the coop and one other was missing. My dog starting sounding off on his lead and thankfully, the last chicken had made its way by the house out of panic. I put grabbed her and put the rest of the chickens in the coop for the night, I thought a few pecks would be much better than decapitation. The following day I assembled the coop and all was right in the world. We were now down to two roosters and eight chickens.
At the end of the following nights one rooster would retire with some of the hens in one coop and the remaining hens would go with the other rooster. This routine conitued for a month or so until all the chickens set their differences aside and thought it better to live under one roof during the cold winter months. Everything was fine for the rest of the summer and into this winter.
It was a very nice thing to know that when I would come home the chickens would have already tucked themselves in, just needing me to lock up for the evening. Each night I would get home and head out to the coop to make sure everyone was in. I would open all the doors and just like when they were chicks, touch everyone, thank them and tell them I love them.
A week or so ago I had noticed when looking outside that there was a hawk in the trees. Having recently taken a falconry lesson I knew that they watch their prey to study their movements before attacking. I ran outside and yelled at the bird hoping to put the kibosh to any further ideas of my beautiful birds on its dinner plate.
A week later after coming home one of the roosters was not in the coop. After a brief look around the hope, again, was that he was in some unknown tree and would resurface the following morning.
The morning came but the rooster did not. A morning rescue search was on and sadly, again, the flock had been whittled down. In the bushes behind the coop lie the body of a rooster who (I can only imagine) laid his life down to protect his ladies. This time around the body was intact sans the neck. I stood in silence not believing that this could happen again. Its not like I live in the middle of a the forrest but close to a main road. I am of a split mind on this; its hard to be mad when we build around nature and they are just doing their best to survive, however, it doesn't make the pain any less potent. Again, I wondered if it was best to just keep the chickens in their coop.
I needed to honor the rooster. I carried him to a clearing in front of the coops for the chickens to pay their last respects. As the day was ending, I collected the rooster, placed him into a bag and brought him to the shop. My intention was to cremate him in charcoal chamber. After splitting the wood into kindling and loading the furnace I gently placed the rooster into the charcoal container. While I waited for the wood to catch, I stood with my hand on the rooster assuring him I would return him to his family. After thanking him for his service and asking him to get the coop ready for the rest of the flock in the next life, I slowly lowered him into the furnace.
I stood watching as the fire raged.
I returning this morning to collect the remains of Henry. He will come home with me and return to his family. Although his duty of protecting his hens is over his job will now be to fertilize the earth and look over the new crops that we will grow for the 2019 season.
Thank you, Henry, I will see you soon.