Notes from a hardened chicken farmer – Top 10 lessons learned

It’s been over a year since my last confession. I mean, chicken blog entry.

Two years ago, ten one week old débutantes were presented to my brand new followers of this blog, loyal friends who agreed to read my stories. I dedicated myself to sharing my adventures as a middle-aged budding chicken farmer. From cardboard box to newly constructed coop, I chronicled the magical and frequently devastating events in the lives of these young birds.

Since then, the number of chickens in our flock has divided from ten to five. Just last night, we lost our second Nugget. To those readers who haven’t read about the comical naming exercise we went through with the chicks’ arrival, the word “Nugget” refers to the name of all five of the California Whites provided by my husband when I insisted that the chicks needed names. After all, they were pets, right?

With only three Nuggets, Piggy the Buff Orpington and Springsteen the Ameraucana remaining, we decided to push our chips into the middle of the table with both hands tonight and rebuild the flock.

The new chicks arrived today

The 4 week-old chicks arrived today

 

Here’s what I’ve learned about chicken husbandry in the last two years:

  • We will lose at least one of the adorable chicks shown above. Maybe even in the next week if the first time around is any indication
  • Many common human expressions are completely founded. Like “pecking order” or “flying the coop”
  • Suspending food and water in the coop is the way to go. Less poop, fewer varmints
  • Electrolytes are miraculous when used to perk up chickens who are stressed or too warm
  • Moulting is totally bizarre and unpredictable. There is no “season”
  • Chickens will deprive another of food and water or peck it to death because of true or perceived illness. They are truly Mean Girls
  • Despite what people say when you gift them your fresh eggs, they DO get freaked out if there is any trace of poop on them. Warning:  They might be destroying them and not telling you
  • You will get attached to one hen in particular
  • You may despise one hen in particular

And the most important thing of all that this self-appointed chicken farmer has learned is to not name them until they show signs of survival around sixteen weeks. Perhaps not even then until they have integrated successfully with the flock. I’ll hold off for now.

Until tomorrow morning.

 

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Me, Myself and Irene

The brush our flock was having with illness was not over yet.

Soon after Copine and Amelia’s exit, the droopy Rhode Island Red chick got sick. While devouring all of the content I could get my hands on about chick maladies, I read about “droopy”. The word described this beautiful red growing hen perfectly. From the beginning, she stood apart from the others, her wings resting away from her neck and held a bit behind her. If you watched her carefully, you would see her sway a bit. And, not that sleepy narcotic-haze-type rocking babies are famous for, but something different. Soon, her bottom was as messy as the two other gals’ had been.

She was extracted from the communal box and placed in a large moving box I re-assembled from our last move, where she would remain for over a month. The first few days, I dreaded the morning check because I was convinced I would find her barely clinging to life and might need to take on the role of executioner again.

More reading online followed. More electrolytes. And blueberries…

Blueberries?

Did any of the backyard chicken hobbyists out there know that these berries contain something that relieves pain, similar to what aspirin does for humans? Since Irene was screaming every time she strained to defectate, I needed a solution. Why I didn’t just cull her, I’m not sure. Maybe the residual guilt I felt about what I had done to Copine. I wasn’t going overboard or anything by feeding blueberries to a juvenile chicken, right? (Hubs disagreed, of course). At times, I fancied myself a hardened farmer after the euthanization task but I had to, at times, actively push away the thought that I had mistakenly inserted myself in the middle of nature’s path. What a sad place to be, just weeks into a persons’ first chick raising experience.

The weeks went by with Irene lagging behind in size and flair and we had started a ritual that became known as her “walkabouts”. The other ladies were now established in the coop an acre away, despite an attempt to re-introduce Piggy, a nugget and Irene during a sleepover the first night in the coop (see photo journal image of the three of them the afternoon of the event). Irene would wait for me, usually in the now hot late afternoon, to pick her up from her box in the garage and take her outside to forage and dust bathe. I was hoping that her feathers were unkept and sparse because of mites, so encouraged her to dig in the dirt.

The question still was: What the heck was this mystery poultry disease?

 

You can read more about dust bathing here

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Building a chicken coop: a photo journal

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After we identified the site for the coop, we carefully measured where we would build the foundation, hammered batter boards into the ground and marked holes for digging.

We rented an auger and drilled where we had marked the holes from the staking, string and dongle exercise. Yes, I now know what a dongle is!

We rented an auger and drilled where we had marked the holes from the staking exercise.

With ready-mix bags cleared from site and concrete set, pressure treated posts bolted into concrete forms. Mixing the concrete was actually kind of fun, except for the massage therapy bill that followed.

With ready-mix bags cleared from site and concrete set, pressure treated posts bolted into concrete forms. Mixing the concrete was actually kind of fun, except for the massage therapy bill that followed.

The young ladies made fine use out of one of the leftover concrete forms. A week or so after this, they were too heavy, but it was perfect then.

The young ladies made fine use out of one of the leftover concrete forms. A week or so after this, they were too heavy, but it was perfect then. I joked that it was their “conversation circle”

B's family  happened to be in town from Alberta, Canada and father and son hung siding. It was a nice break for me, since it was only the two of us the rest of the project.

B’s family happened to be in town from Alberta, Canada and father and son hung siding. It was a nice break for me, since it was only the two of us the rest of the project.

One of the hardest parts of the project was lifting up the main rafter we had constructed on the ground. With just two of us and two ladders we managed to not break our necks getting it placed on top of the walls...

One of the hardest parts of the project was lifting up the main rafter we had constructed on the ground. With just two of us and two ladders we managed to not break our necks getting it placed on top of the walls…

I remember this moment well because Brad was on an errand to get more lumber and I sat on the ladder inside the coop and admired our work so far and thought of the great home this would make for the chickens

I remember this moment well because hubs was on an errand to get more lumber and I sat on the ladder inside the coop and admired our work so far and thought of the great home this would make for the chickens. It’s hard to remember to stop and take time during a big job to feel good about what you’re doing.

Fortunately, we had a fairly dry and warm spring in the PNW but this moment was critical because the roof wasn't yet on and we had to pull a giant blue tarp over the structure at night if we thought it might rain. And, of course, organize all of those tools and carry them back to the garage...

Fortunately, we had a fairly dry and warm spring in the PNW but this moment was critical because the roof wasn’t yet on and we had to pull a giant blue tarp over the structure at night if we thought it might rain. And, of course, organize all of those tools and carry them back to the garage…

Funny enough, the best solution after much research was linoleum over the OSB flooring. We bought a cheap remnant at HD and nailed it to the floor. So far, so good (as I type this, the chickens have been in for weeks)

Funny enough, the best solution after much research was linoleum over the OSB flooring. We bought a cheap remnant at HD and nailed it to the floor. So far, so good (as I type this, the chickens have been in for weeks).

At this point in the project, I really wanted to get those chickens in, as they were starting to fight in the box. This part was super slow going. Flashing, fascia board, roof boards seemed to take FOREVER.

At this point in the project, I really wanted to get those chickens in, as they were starting to fight in the box. This part was super slow going. Flashing, fascia board, roof boards seemed to take FOREVER.

With just the first course down for the roof but the doors on, I pushed B to let me get them in there. The weather forecast looked good and roofing would get done the next day or two and I was dying to spread that pine bedding and get them moved in

With just the first course down for the roof but the doors on, I pushed B to let me get them in there. The weather forecast looked good and roofing would get done the next day or two and I was dying to spread that pine bedding and get them moved in.

I got this hung right away for them, even though I knew they wouldn't be able to jump up on it yet. Just a simple 2x4.

I got this hung right away for them, even though I knew they wouldn’t be able to jump up on it yet. Just a simple 2×4.

The gals seemed super excited to stretch their legs and explore the new home. I wasn't able to get them outside for another week but I know they were happy. This was the first sunlight they saw, too and it was a riot how they would spread out a wing and lay on their side when they felt it. It literally stopped them in their tracks when I would open the door!

The gals seemed super excited to stretch their legs and explore the new home. I wasn’t able to get them outside for another week but I know they were happy. This was the first sunlight they saw, too and it was a riot how they would spread out a wing and lay on their side when they felt it. It literally stopped them in their tracks when I would open the door!

A shot of the gals inside the coop with the roof finished. Next up: the run and getting them outside.

A shot of the gals inside the coop with the roof finished. Next up: the run and getting them outside.

Pretty grueling, but we got started with the run by measuring and digging holes for pressure treated posts. See previous comment about massage therapy bill...

Pretty grueling, but we got started with the run by measuring and digging holes for pressure treated posts. See previous comment about massage therapy bill…

I was happy to see that B was relaxing some of his super strict criteria around leveling and perfection for the run. Saved us a ton of time and it still looks great. P.S. We were SO over the project at this point

I was happy to see that B was relaxing some of his super strict criteria around leveling and perfection for the run. Saved us a ton of time and it still looks great. P.S. We were SO over the project at this point

So, at this point in the story, the gals had not yet touched dirt or grass or walked outside. They were quite hesitant and didn't come out for a half a day. Now they can't wait for the sound of our footsteps coming to let them out into their "yard"

So, at this point in the story, the gals had not yet touched dirt or grass or walked outside. They were quite hesitant and didn’t come out for a half a day. Now they can’t wait for the sound of our footsteps coming to let them out into their “yard”.

The uniform square shape and color of the coop tends to stand out in the landscape, so had pre-planned to do some landscaping around it. Grapes should be great to trail on the sides of the coop and I'm sure the ladies won't mind if one or two rolls into the run from time to time in years to come.

The uniform square shape and color of the coop tends to stand out in the landscape, so had pre-planned to do some landscaping around it. Grapes should be great to trail on the sides of the coop and I’m sure the ladies won’t mind if one or two rolls into the run from time to time in years to come.

The end of Amelia and Copine

At this point in the story about raising these ten baby chickens this spring, it was obvious to me that Amelia would not going to fit in with the other girls. I was certain of this because of the loosely collected facts from read articles, phone and text consultations with veteran chicken owners, as well as careful observation when I tried to reintroduce her. Up went a post on Facebook about trying to find a home for an ostracized chick.

Within hours, great news arrived through this fabulously effective social media channel from my friend Kelly (mentioned in earlier post). She is the owner of a small flock of Silkies, and had agreed to take Amelia. In discussing logistics with her, I made a stunning discovery. Apparently, one of her hens had become broody and Kelly’s thought was that Amelia could be snuck in over night and the hen might awaken with the discovery that her hard work hovering over her eggs had actually paid off. Oh, the cunning trickery! What we also might have going for us was, in addition to the fact that her gal wasn’t very bright, Silkies are reportedly known for adopting other chicks quite well.

After returning home from delivering Amelia to Kelly, I returned her infirmary buddy to the box that was now once again a single compartment. I had little fear about the mild mannered buff chick fitting back in since she hadn’t been picked on by the others in trial reintroductions. That night, I rested comfortably for the first time in weeks hoping that the two chicks would find their way back to the simple task of growing without being killed.

The next morning, I popped out to the garage feeling like it was a fresh start. I had been thinking as I fell asleep the night before that I should clean the box right away to decrease the likelihood that any bad bacteria or viruses would lessen our chances of successly raising these chicks. When I had called the feed store where I got the chicks to ask if they had been vaccinated for Merek’s (“indeed they have”, was the indignant reply), I was quizzed about my poultry husbandry. Was the lamp positioned so they weren’t huddling? You bet. How about fresh water? Duh. Happen to try Save a Chick electrolyte supplement? Yep. And apple cider vinegar, P.S.

As I gently scooped out the litter and droppings, I shooed the chicks to the side, so I could lift the waste out with the flat shovel we used to clean the box. My breath caught for an instant when I saw the limp body of the buff chick get trampled by her sisters. And then, when they passed to the corner, I believe I saw her struggle to right herself but one of her feet was curled up on her side and her head bobbed back and forth. This was not good at all.

I didn’t need to think too hard about what was coming as I scooped fresh shavings into the original small box I had used to transport the chicks home. I placed her still body into the box and stroked her with a finger while I thought about what to do next.

As you read, you might remember that I had never been able to name either of the two Buff Orpingtons. As I fussed over what I knew in my heart could be the last few hours of this one’s life and raised a small dish to her beak to see if she would drink, it came to me. Because she was the only pal to Amelia and because she was so sweet, I decided on Copine. French for girlfriend.

I didn’t know what else to do but give her the day and observe her. Water and food remained untouched and when night fell, I received a sad update from Kelly. Amelia had died because the flock of Silkies had rejected her like mine and attempted to cull her. Kelly noticed what was happening and pulled the exhausted chick from the run and kept her comfortable until she died.

With a sick feeling I couldn’t shake, I tried to distract myself with other chores that day but knew what I had to do. But how would I find the courage and how would I do it? Axe? Hammer? Yikes. I poked around online and thought about this true initiation into being a farmer. I didn’t want to rely on my husband to do it because I knew that this was part of raising livestock. Even though he was way better suited to the task, as he had killed many animals in his years on his childhood farm. Things way bigger than chicks, like cattle. I knew I needed to toughen up.

Some people who have almost drowned report a peaceful feeling right before the end. I have always thought myself that this would be the least terrifying way to die. So, knowing that chicks love to be warm, I filled a bucket with body temperature water. In a trance, I performed the task, praying in a soft voice for this creature’s little bird soul. I don’t need to get into the details of how it happened, because I’d like to spare anyone reading this the graphic memory of her last moments. Dying is rarely peaceful. I dug a hole for her under a Japanese maple in our garden and fought back tears as I buried her and gently placed three smooth cobblestones on top of her grave. It started to rain just as I finished.

I believe that I will, like most animal owners who have euthanized a pet, wonder if Copine could have miraculously rebounded. So much smaller than the others from the start, what would her life have looked like if she had? I comfort myself mostly with the question of who would want to eat the eggs of a chicken who carried the Herpes virus. It also helps me to remember that two flocks had attempted to cull Amelia and that is normal chick attrition. Attrition is such a rough word but I was getting tougher by the day as a farm gal. As tough as B is, I am guessing he was relieved that night that he only had to come home from work and hear the sad story being told…

Trouble in paradise: pasty butt and merek’s

Within days of the chicks’ arrival, I noticed that Amelia had something strange going on with her. She now stood aside from the other chicks and a mass of white and brown stuff had collected around her tail feathers. Crap! No, seriously. It was crap.

A quick search online didn’t provide an easy answer but in the few forums the search results yielded, like those on Backyard Chickens, enthusiasts talked about something called Pasty Butt. What butt? Medical term or colloquial? What I was seeing kind of looked like paste and it was starting to appear that sometimes, this can be a cause of chick mortality if not addressed. Even after reading, I was still not sure if it was a sign of infection or just a case of a bad back up but I treated with a warm cloth and a little antibiotic ointment. And isolation, as recommended. In came a slat in the big box, separating Amelia from her friends. Resulting in the need for another lamp for her own area because it couldn’t be rigged to safely heat both sections.

Determined to keep this chicken project as affordable as possible and because it was a Sunday and the feed store was closed, I ventured to a pet store, where I discovered that the lamps and bulbs used for reptiles are the same as those for poultry. Except the price tag, of course. Evidently, reptile owners must have three times more disposable income than chicken farmers. But, on this Sunday, a tiny life was at stake, so I slapped down my debit card.

Amelia was miserable being separated, her peeping becoming high pitched, constant shrieks we could hear all the way in the house. The only thing that would soothe her was me sticking my hand in her section of the box and she would nuzzle and circle underneath it as long as I kept it in there. I knew I had to get her back in with her avian sisters and when she looked better the next day, I pulled out the divider so she could join the others.

The next morning, before work, I was shocked to discover that Amelia had become bloodied over night. When I cleared the blood from her behind, I saw that her vent (where the egg comes from) was not only bleeding but swollen. She had been attacked repeatedly, poor girl.

With this realization, these little “babies” began to change before my eyes. I now could see the sharpness of their beaks, watched their cute fingernails morph into talons, and was able to now see a coldness in their little eyes. It was astounding to me how these appearingly benign, fluffy creatures, who made the most disarming little peep could, at their young age, elicit some of the most common expressions we have adopted as humans. Over the next few days, I tried to heal and then reintroduce her under careful observation. As I watched, I thought about the term pecking order. It took on a whole new light. Not only was Amelia being denied food, but she was so far down on a social rung that they were brutalizing her. I decided to call in the experts and picked up the phone to call my mother-in-law. What she told me shocked and terrified me.

Chickens are cannibals. Even the small, fluffy ones. My husband’s mom told me that once she came out and found one of her chickens completely eviscerated overnight. This couldn’t be happening to me with these sweet chicks, could it? I took in the information and then kept looking online after the phone call, where I also witnessed the heavy use of the word cull by chicken owners in similar situations. I had used the word in business settings to talk about isolating specific pieces of information. But cull = kill in the chicken world. And the chickens apparently did it systematically when a flock-mate was sick or sometimes even simply a different color. Humans did it, as well, when they noticed weaker birds. I wondered if it the nuggets were the racist cannibals or if Springsteen, Irene and the buffs were joining in? Of course, I was quick to blame those generic white ladies even though I couldn’t fully determine if they were instigating.

I also couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying to cull Amelia or if they were they simply curious about her swollen vent. Or, had they identified a problematic social concern? I desperately hoped for the first scenario because then I could heal her and get them back together. After days of trying to get it back under control, it was still swollen and now looked like it was protruding. I knew I would never get clearance from my husband to call a vet, nor did I necessarily want to because I reminded myself that these were livestock, not pets. Both Amelia and I were miserable. She, because she was lonely and me, because I was unable to let them kill her nor could I heal her. It was almost a relief when I discovered that the smaller buff chick was showing the same symptoms as Amelia. At least now she had a buddy in her compartment and the two of them didn’t seem to be picking on one another.

This went on for a few weeks, having the barrier in the box. Everyone was still eating and growing, although the two ladies were way smaller than the others. I continued to read about possible causes as the two ladies’ vents got more swollen and I had to keep them clean from time to time. I tried to put them back in and they weren’t picking on the buff but would attack Amelia right away. And my research showed that it was very hard to reintroduce them once separated. My research also pointed me to what happened to the herpes virus when it enters a chicken’s bloodstream. It became lethal in most cases (where vaccination hadn’t occurred) and was called Merek’s disease. It would cause lesions that could begin to do many awful things internally to the birds, including pushing against external organs, causing blindness or protruded vents.

What was supposed to be a fun project where I could nurture some young cute babies had now become a daily stressor. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy, getting chicks? Give them heat, food and water and the rest should follow. Some of the experts and novices whose words I read online, felt you should instantly cull a chicken that was picked on, was sick or didn’t fit in.

But, regardless of the maladie, I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Now, for some names

Already having established that B wasn’t interested in naming his five anything but The Nuggets, I moved on to finding the right fit for the rest of the gals. The first one came terribly easily. The more flashy Ameraucana strutted around the box upon arrival, at times herding the other chicks or pushing them out of the way at the feeder. Being a child of the 80s, it came to me swiftly. Springsteen. After Bruce, the Boss. Pleased with the choice, I watched the other chicks that first day or two and even deliberated with neighborhood children, Carson and Anna (who we later discovered are apt chicken sitters). The two Buff Orpingtons were so similar in color that it seemed they could have a name combo. “Like cream and puff”, said Carson. Interesting idea but I was on to him. This is the family who named their two Yorkies Flash and Gordon. Clever, but I instantly rejected the idea because these names needed to be more refined. Because naming poultry is a sophisticated exercise, after all.

During that very conversation, my eyes shifted to the petite Rhode Island Red in the scene. Ever see Me, Myself and Irene with Jim Carrey and Renée Zellweger? I was especially fond of the movie not just because I find it to be hilarious, but since one of my favorite folk artists Ellis Paul had one of his first hits on the soundtrack. Irene. Definitely Irene.

It took an extra day to name the more awkward Ameraucauna. She was the less-than-fluffy black and white striped gal (refer to picture in other post) and as she was more curious than the others about the strange fleshly, hairless objects that kept appearing in the box from the heavens, she ended up getting quite a bit of handling. While being held, she threatened flight much more than the other chicks, flapping and stretching her featherless nubs. A female flyer? Amelia she was.

The two buff chicks still needed names but I still struggled those first days with the chickens to find something, since chick behavior at this age seemed to be limited to a few actions: being pushy, trying to escape being held, sleeping, scratching and pecking. Besides, we were just at the beginning of a long relationship and like a great many things in life, naming chickens just couldn’t be rushed.

Now, knowing how the story unfolds, I hope I enjoyed the first few days where all I had to do was name them and they all lived together in one space.

Bigger box, same tiny chicks

Here is what I knew when we arrived at home with the cardboard box and our supplies: The chicks needed to stay warm and they were going to live in the garage until we built a coop somewhere on our land. And that they were probably still all ladies and we would probably get some eggs from most of them at some point.

Upon arrival, we carried all of our stuff into the garage and I began to assess the situation. Ideally, we would have had a place ready for them but B seemed confident that he knew exactly what he was doing. Due to his many years of chicken raising on that farm in Alberta, of course… After resolving some mild frustration around the state of our garage, we sprung into action. We had only moved into our house a few months prior and had no area for storage yet, making our garage a giant repository for anything that didn’t find a home in the house or was a tool of some sort.

First up, the box. Out come a few 2x4s, a box of screws, a tape measure, the drill and a large sheet of OSB. This was getting exciting! Not only did he have all the tools for the job but he seemed to have a plan and supreme focus. That didn’t stop the flood of questions that came out of my mouth as he began measuring and cutting the plywood. How fast would they grow? Was the box he was building big enough or would they feel lost in it? Would we need a box in between this one and the four walls that would house them on the land? B grunted in response and if someone were watching the scene from the outside, it might have seemed that I didn’t care that the conversation was mostly one-way.

Suddenly satisfied that we were on the right track, I left him alone and attempted to clear a space for the box. Not being good at math and not getting much feedback, I wasn’t exactly sure how big it would be but with a glance up to the rafters of the garage, spied the perfect spot to suspend a light over a box. I started moving things away from underneath that spot and soon enough, the box was built and we shoved it into the center of the garage. OSB is way heavier than it looks, by the way.

We managed to tear into the tightly packed brick of pine shavings we had purchased and in came the bedding, the plastic waterer and the feeder. And, in came 10 chicks. They wandered around peeping and I was amazed at how quickly they discovered the water and food. They bent over the waterer, then lifted their tiny heads high to allow the water to slide down their gullets. I watched in amazement as they scratched and pecked like veterans and immediately discovered where the lamp was casting the most heat. I was finally able to stop worrying and relax as I watched them adopt their new space.

By this point in the story, I had fretted about many things. Was the OSB getting too wet while we cut it outside and what if the chicks were too cold or too hot while we built it? The brooder lamp had been positioned above the cardboard box while we built the bigger box, dwarfing it, and I hoped they weren’t roasting. I fixated on whether or not they would suffocate each other, because that can happen if you don’t nail the heat settings.

At the end of the day, with brooder lamp appropriately suspended above the 4′ X 4′ box with its walls that still seemed a bit too high and hearing the sound of contended peeping of warm chicks, I was able to close the door to the detached garage and know that I would make it at least 2 hours without checking on them again.

It started with a box of chicks

Ten chicks, one box

Ten chicks, one box

It was a typical cold and rainy day in the Pacific Northwest and we were experiencing what felt like a normal level of apprehension for the errand we were about to run. Well, I was. Because, after all, my husband grew up on a farm where chickens had been raised. Every spring, they got boxes and boxes of the little birds. This must have been totally normal, because, as we drove to the feed store, I observed that the normal amount of angst that would be associated with acquiring numerous pets wasn’t present in his attitude. This is the same man who swore he would never have an animal in the house and who despite allowing the rescue cat to stay in our home, will probably never let me get the dog I so desperately want.

When we walked into the room with the many boxes illuminated by brooder lamps, I was immediately overwhelmed. How do you pick them? Color, attitude, size? Is there some sort of Apgar scoring for chicks? I desperately craved a metric… Trying to process the scene while looking like I knew exactly what I was doing, I settled into the flow of room with the children, adults, store attendants and wandered from box to box as the peeps and voices became white noise. I had a vague understanding of what chickens were good egg producers. “They’re called layers”, I heard someone say.

Since I have a research addiction, I permitted myself to look online for a few breeds that seemed to possess the perfect combination of docile behavior and high egg production. In tandem with a lower likelihood of being “broody”. Whatever the heck that meant. In the moment, all I was able to remember was something about rocks or reds…

Thankfully, a friend of ours who happens to be an avid chicken gal and owner of Grateful Pine, agreed to meet us there. She explained the difference between straight run and pullet to me. For you fellow backyard chicken newbies out there, a pullet is a chicken that has a high probability of being a gal rather than a guy, according to some voodoo science that is applied to determining the sex per breed. We knew we wanted hens, so that was valuable information to have.

She also helped us figure out what basic supplies we needed. It appeared that a heat lamp and red bulb, a feeder, a waterer, some medicated chick feed and wood shavings were all that was required to get started. Seemed simple enough, right? I applied my newly formed zen attitude in the situation to the selection process. The only chick I really chose was the gorgeous one you will later know as Springsteen, if you continue following the story. The others were handed to me by the chick handlers when I finally confessed that I had no idea how to choose them. While I chose what I felt were the prettiest breeds, my husband had already decided he only wanted generic white hens and came back to me laboring over my decision with 5 adorable pale yellow fluffy peeps. “How did you pick them?”, I asked. He shrugged and I instantly knew that he had walked up and asked them to give him 5.

At this point in the story, I have to disclose that making a collective decision on the breeds was not as simple as it just appeared to be (for him). He was adamant that chickens should be white, while I was looking for a blend of colors and attitudes. And, optimally, a variety of egg colors and sizes. Upon the realization that we weren’t going to agree, we knew that if we each selected an equal number of chicks, a possible solution was to challenge one another to an “egg off” with our respective teams. We would prepare eggs of our chickens the same way and do a blind taste test to determine a winner. Now that was a fine idea. If only we could resolve all of our disagreements like this. We’d have a restaurant off, a movie off, a…

But, back to the moment of settling into the car for the ride home with a back seat full of chick gear. As much as I tried to steel myself for the inevitable disappointment and attrition that occurs when you raise chickens from chicks, I was riding high. I would beat the odds and we would have 10 laying hens providing us with eggs for eggs offs, baking with, hard boiling, and giving to neighbors and colleagues. I was well on my way to being a chicken whisperer.

As we drove home and I closely examined each of them as they sat in the cardboard box on my lap, I knew that they weren’t going to be the type of pet I was used to. The type of animal that slept in the house, purred, or fetched balls and at all costs, would be saved by a vet if required. I knew that this would be a different journey.

They called me bird girl

When I was in grade school, a small bird fell from a tree. Surely, knocked out unceremoniously by one of our huntress cats, as the baby’s mother fled the nest. There was nothing else for this young girl to do but try and save it. A shoebox turned into an empty aquarium, eye-droppers were purchased and slurry was mixed. It gets fuzzy after this point but I know I had to bring the aquarium and heating pad to school, so I could feed the bird during the day. I managed to keep it alive for a few days and along the way,  accumulated a nickname from a schoolmate.

Today, as I tied the last bit of bird netting to the top of the fence of the run for my new flock of chickens, I remembered my nickname from so many years ago. Bird girl. With that name in the front of my mind, I will need to back up a few steps to tell the story of how the back corner of the land we bought last year now houses a brand new coop, chicken run and 7 hens. And how I became a middle-aged first time chicken lady.