my late grandfather was a chicken man. he passed away while i was still quite young and i only vaguely remember the flocks he had later in life. apparently, though, the chicken gene runs true, because i am absolutely smitten with fowl. for years i said “when i have chickens” (in the same way, now, that i say “when i have bees”), but never did much about it. i didn’t have the time, didn’t have the room, next year, next year, maybe next year. then one evening, fate took a hand and brought a lone, bedraggled yellow hen into my life. she came wandering out of the wilderness like she owned the place, took us all on a wild-chicken chase through the woods, and ended the day in an old wire rabbit cage instead of inside of a fox. we named her felicity and i found she had lit the fire under my butt to start keeping chickens properly.
that summer, i retrofitted the old storage shed beside our house which was half full of property from the former homeowner and half full of plant pots and other gardening debris. a friend scrounged sheets of particle board, some other friends donated some windows and random lumber from their garage renovation, and we picked up a lovely steel door after our neighbours were burglarized and had to replace their front door. i cobbled smashing nest boxes from a heap of old plastic milk crates; learned to use a circular saw; measured twice, cut once, and still messed it up more often than not; and had a pretty good time, all in all.
meanwhile, i ordered fifteen sexed pullets in various breeds from mypetchicken.com. they arrived at the crack of dawn one morning and were plopped into a fantastically retrofitted enormous rubbermaid tote, the kind with wheels on. and there they grew as the coop took shape outside. by the time they’d seriously outgrown the brooder, the coop was ready for chickens. i was immensely proud of the vaguely jagged results, the amount of human space, the simple workmanlike nature of the little space. my hen, fourteen pullets, and one obnoxiously nosy, cocky little rhode island red rooster, moved right in.
the next summer, i ordered another dozen chicks: six layers and six silkies, the latter mini-flock with one rooster. my one planned silkie rooster became two unplanned silkie roosters. knowing the devilish nature of bob the rhode island red, an enormous and cocky individual who spent his days being loudly indignant over not being allowed to be a total asshole, i started making plans early for my silkies. i decided to halve the human space in the coop and build a dedicated pen for the little fluffy muppets. they were out of the brooder and in their own pen for only a few short months before war broke out. ozzer, the primary rooster, hated the very face of his brother, maladict. the warring got so heated that i finally decided to put mal in with the big hens and let him take his chances with bob. suprisingly, bob let him live. mal became the secondary rooster of the flock for a while until bob went blind. he then took over and treated his old boss pretty well.
the main problem with this otherwise harmonious set-up was winter and water. the main coop has a metal fount with a heater. the heater sits under the fount and elements welded to the bottom keep the water from freezing. the silkie pen wasn’t big enough for a metal fount, the smallest of which i’ve found is three gallons. the silkie fount was made of plastic and therefore couldn’t be heated. this meant daily water changes which meant chicken debris in my bathtub every day and small, crabby chickens who were thirsty a lot. only, you know. not when there was actually liquid water. the base of the waterer was cracked from my over-enthusiastic ice smashing, but still serviceable and i persevered.
this past spring, one of my silkie hens, polly, went broody. this happens pretty much all the time. silkies want nothing so much in this world as to sit on eggs basically forever. on a whim, i took eggs from her sister hens for a week (she’d already stopped laying) and let her set. i was anticipating the joy of watching a hen raise a little flock. i was not prepared for the fact that this hen is basically the worst mother ever. true, she sat on those four eggs until three had hatched and there wasn’t any chance that the fourth one would. she taught her babies everything they needed to know about being a chicken. but she didn’t seem to care if they, for example, got eaten. she had no problem with leaving them alone while she went to find something nice to eat and her response to a bad cat leaping into her brood was to squawk and run. for the safety of the biddies, i set them up in a calf hutch that i’d converted into a predator-resistant chicken tractor.
about the same time i decided that they were getting too big to be cooped up, it became apparent that two of the three were cockerels. i melded my silkie flocks, hoping to give ozzer time to establish dominance before his kids got old enough to want to challenge it. some of the hens were a trifle mean to the little ones, but they worked out a pecking order and things were mostly back to normal.
momentarily drunk with my success, i considered combining my two flocks permanently, but quickly decided against it. true, not having to slave over that stupid water would be blissful, but bob was definitely going downhill and i didn’t want to create an enormous rooster war. oz and mal had gotten so into their fights of old that not even a stream from the hose would deter them from their battles. the last thing i needed was for one pet to kill another one. gross.
then one windy, rainy evening i went out to do chores and found that the door to the silkie pen had blown down sometime during the day. the flocks were mixed, the silkies were all soaked as though they’d been loose most of the day (they don’t seem to mind getting wet, unlike the big girls), and all the roosters were hanging out pretty companionably. i put them together that night and watched them for a few days. it all went pretty well, so i dismantled the silkie pen and went about business as usual.
so, it’s been a month or so. oz and mal occasionally decide that the face of the other is too awful to be ignored, but lola, the puppy, goes dashing in between their dinosaur battles and scatters them. by the time they get the ground under their feet again, they’ve forgotten what they were doing. bob spends most of his time in the coop, muttering and hiding his face to keep hens from pecking it off. he does okay, not much different than before the mix.
the problem is the hens. they’re all a bunch of prima donnas. felicity, who has never met a rooster she liked (can’t say whether she’s a militant radical feminist hen or straight up gay), has been trying to move out to the hay shed. i wouldn’t actually mind her roosting out there except that she tries to roost on the floor, where chickens would be eaten by roving predators. never mind the ten or twenty surfaces above five feet high where she could roost safely. she’s determined that the floor is a great place to sleep. so i have to schlep out there every evening and tote her home, while she wiggles and bitches.
meanwhile, bob has been banished from the roost and a half dozen hens of various ages and breeds have abandoned it willingly. never mind that only one silkie hen has taken to using it. she apparently has nuclear cooties. there’s a huge barred rock who tries to roost on the fount, which is cold metal. i have to kick her off every night lest she crap down the side and into the trough at the bottom. bob and blind gloria roost right on the floor in a warm corner. a wyandotte, a welsummer, and two barred rocks are scattered around on the ramp to the roost and on the concrete blocks under the nest boxes. meanwhile, the silkies have discovered that nest boxes are warm, soft, lovely beds. and then they crap in them all night long. if i evict them, they wait until i’ve gone and crawl back in, darkness bedamned. then there’s the one silkie hen who sleeps jammed up next to the chicken wire as close to her old pen as she can physically get….
i’m not sure the happiness of liquid water all winter is enough of a trade-off to deal with all of the hen drama. time will tell.