A Volunteer Rooster and a Missed Opportunity

For weeks I have been lamenting that the lucky chickens of my flock – the ones that have an incredible, new, well appointed coop – have refused to venture inside in any way on their own. Ladies and gentlemen, I have said to this group (among them, unfortunately, are two roosters and one silkie whose gender is questionable).  Ladies and gentlemen, I said to them when it poured a few days ago: I know it took a long time, I know you were stuck underneath the coop for weeks when it was not yet ready, I appreciate your patience. But you are welcome to go in now!

This crew – the silkies, black copper marans, d’uccles and mixes — prefers the great outdoors. Even in the rain, even at night. At least they no longer huddle right next to the fence where a sneaky raccoon could bite another one’s head half off. Instead they gather about dead center in the run, looking like they drew straws to see who would get the safer, warmer middle and who would have to be on the outside edge of the huddle (perhaps that white one on the right is kind of a loner anyway?). Tonight the moon is rising and the stars are out and once again, together they sleep en masse, not under the coop, not in the coop, but instead, camping!

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Apparently I have the stargazing sort of chickens. It’s summertime. It’s warm. It’s all good. I’ll let it go. For now.

For the record, this other set of chickens, the ones in the old coop, and all chickens I’ve had for seven years, go in their coop at night, stand on their roosting poles, and stay there till morning. Whether (and how) they actually sleep I cannot say, and one could debate whether or not they need their beauty sleep. These hens do not look like they are sleeping but maybe they were disturbed by someone who came along with a flash camera…

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Old Gray, standing behind, has clearly lost her position of dominance.

The only time we have had chickens in the new coop – night or day — is when we cornered them, grabbed them and put them in there. So imagine my surprise when I walked toward them (and it’s a dry day, no less) and saw a volunteer standing inside. I was so excited to see this, I ran up to take a picture.

This is my first picture, before I got up close. Look! Look! A chicken in the coop!

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I was so excited to see this chicken in the coop, so hopeful that the other chickens would take note of the example and come in as well, so fixated on getting good pictures, that I failed to see, failed to hear (even when he crowed! even when I tried to capture that crow on a video!) that this is a rooster!

Utterly failed to register!

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Yes, this is a rooster. He walked around the inside, slowly, as if he were checking it out to give a report to the others. He walked around on the wire flooring, did not seem bothered by it. He looked for food to eat (hey, maybe I should put food in there!). He climbed the very cool ladder to the roosting pole.

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He hopped up on the roosting pole and I got a picture from the outside.

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This is a rooster! How did I miss that?! This is one of the impossible-to catch d’uccle roosters that has to go away anyway, has to be (as the brahma roosters were) “relocated” to some remote place where nature can and will take its course.

I missed my chance! I had him in a small, confined space (still clean and not disgusting to enter). I could have rid myself of one more crower. (They don’t do themselves any favors starting in with the crowing at 530 in the morning!)

But no. This rooster’s bravery eclipsed all other thoughts I might have had. He came into the coop first, came in voluntarily, did the grand tour and finally posed his silly self in the frame of the egg door before hopping out.

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His bravery saved him (for today anyway)! We’ll see what tomorrow brings…

The Building of a Chicken Fort

I am not a builder. I can help with building. I can get the ball rolling, draw designs on paper, put a bunch of screws in (or take them out), tell you if a board is level or hold something in place when an extra set of hands makes it easier. I can tidy up, move things from one place to another, order supplies, and suggest we stop if people look exhausted. During this project I became familiar with the chop saw and the cordless drill and screwdriver. That was new territory for me and I felt quite pleased about it, but I am a novice in this arena. I very much appreciate the people with woodworking skills who understand joinery and aren’t afraid of table saws. I know my limitations, but at the same time I know what I can do.

I can dig!

This project, start to finish, included no fewer than 50 holes, some of which had to be 18 or 20” deep, to say nothing of the digging for the bricked entrance area or the terracing of the slope. Most of the holes were for the posts for the fencing around the run; 18 were for plantings to ornament the berm that came later (still, they were holes). We had decided to enlarge the old run considerably, and I was anxious to move along with it even before the old supports were completely removed. Sandy did skilled work – continued with the framing of the new coop, building tresses for its roof and the egg boxes out the front (and clearly took more pictures than I did). I dug. I happily dug. This I can do.

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I emphasize this point because sometimes it’s easy to think about or focus on what we can’t do, and put on the brakes and not accomplish goals. I know that my contributions are in the category of what a teenage apprentice could do, but that’s ok. All the grunt work has to be done too, and I like feeling useful.

It’s not only that. I’m old enough now that there are things I can no longer do. Cartwheels, for instance. And I am nowhere near as strong as I used to be. It’s maddening at times but there are people who, for all kinds of reasons, could never do cartwheels, or never were strong. I was and am one of the lucky ones. So even though I can’t do cartwheels any more, and am aggravated at my own weakness, I don’t take for granted that I can get out of bed in the morning. There will come a day when I can no longer participate in projects like this, but until I can’t, I will.

Putting cedar poles in the ground with cement feels so, well, concrete, so permanent, so long lasting. Like you better do it right because a long time from now someone is going to come along and look at your work and be impressed, or not. We decided that every post needed cement. In retrospect this is a good thing because the chickens love to dig around the posts!

Once the cement is in, it has to harden up before you can do anything else, like stapling chicken wire to it. So you dig some more holes. You fill them with cement. You wait. You clean up that mess on the side.

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One step at a time, one more hole dug, one more pole planted, one more concrete base. Notice in the photo below that the posts used near the old coop are pressure-treated 4x4s. This made sense because of the framing that was needed for the shed roof. Later we will use 4x4s for the door framing as well.

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Once the posts were in place and the cement dried, the roof panels could be put back and the fencing could be started. It was beginning to feel like it could be a home for chickens again after all. One screw at a time.

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And one shovelful at a time. There were a lot of posts to get in so they would be prepared for the wire fencing that would be stretched and attached horizontally starting at the bottom.

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The lower band of fencing we chose to use is not standard chicken wire, which we found during the last go-round to degrade in a few short years and become too easy for foxes, raccoons and other unwanteds to snap it with their teeth or claws and get through. We chose a heavier gauge fencing you can see here. For some reason I want to call it rabbit wire.

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The rabbit wire will hopefully serve well at the level most predators will try to get through. It comes 36” wide, allowing for the part that has to go into the ground. Notice also that since the ground slopes toward the woods, we needed horizontal 2x4s from post to post at ground level, which meant more digging, then angling and notching the wood to fit around the irregularly shaped cedar posts and around the concrete in the ground.

Getting back to the part of the fence that has to go in the ground, there’s good reason for that. Imagine what tasty snacks chickens must be to foxes. And fox mothers have families to feed. Right around this time we noticed that one resourceful mother had used the culvert at the end of the driveway as a den in which to have her babies. I caught sight of this cutie coming home one day. We do well to protect the birds as best as we can. If we’re smart, we’ll create not a chicken coop, but a chicken FORT!

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Sinking the fencing into the ground requires a trench about 12” down and about the same distance away from the outer edge of each post. You dig it such that you can press that fencing in there, cover it back up with dirt, and know that when predators try to dig, they will hit this and be unable to tunnel under it. This is the trench around the edge.

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A little closer up, you can see some of the annoying roots that were in the way. I did get help with these any number of times. We have a very heavy, slender, iron pole that has a sharp edge on one end and a round flat knob on the other end. I can barely lift it, but when someone stronger than I am jams it into the ground against a fat root, it’s quite effective in chopping through it. My gratitude for these moments of assistance was huge.

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This is what the wire looks like when it is in the ground.

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We found out that it works. Some weeks later, the very first night after putting the silkies and their friends in the newly finished run, something dug and clawed until it reached the underground fencing, then apparently stopped. It’s hard to see that 10-12” of dirt had been forcibly removed, but it had. We replaced the dirt and then put the cinder blocks along the edge until we could get some rocks. Rocks will just look nicer.

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The negative of this rabbit wire fencing is that if your chickens are young and stupid, they might try putting their head through the fence, making it easy for an animal with sharp teeth on the other side. Yes, we lost one this way. The predator got only a bite, but it was enough of a bite. You will have to imagine the rest of that gory scene because I did not take a picture of it.

The ground level rabbit wire overlaps the next band of regular chicken wire. In the following two photos you can see them both, overlapped, plus, if you look carefully, the wire we wove through the top and bottom of where they overlap just in case something should try to squeeze between the two layers. The chicken wire came in 6’ width, which doesn’t go all the way to ground level, but close, and let’s hope it’s enough. It was stretched pole to pole and then a plastic-coated wire was woven through its upper edge and tightened as best as we could. Thank you, Chris, thank you, Fred, for helping with unrolling and stretching the wire out, stapling it onto the posts, weaving the support and connecting wires and being really good sports about the whole thing.

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Foxes and raccoons will try to dig, thus the ground level fortifications. But owls and hawks come from overhead and would love a tasty morsel just as well. Leftover from the construction of the vegetable garden fence six years ago was a length of lightweight but very strong deer netting that we hope will keep out the flyers. We attached the deer netting to the chicken wire using cable ties, lots of cable ties. It ends up looking like an aviary.

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We nearly ran out of deer netting. This one section of the “ceiling” is a patchwork. Not trying to win any prizes here – if it keeps the big birds with their sharp talons out, I’m happy.

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One last thing about the fencing. You might have noticed that there are two sets of chickens. This goes back to when they were itty bitty chicks and there were just too many of them so we had two separate enclosures in the basement. We had kept the brahmas, cinnamon queens and Rhode Island reds (the Bigs) apart from the silkies, d’uccles, black copper marans and their various mixed breed friends (the Smalls). We took a chance allowing the Bigs to invade the gray Ameraucana’s lonely space of the old coop; she was the holdover/sole survivor from the last batch we had. The Bigs were half the size you see in the above photo when they joined her, but when she tried her dominating tricks, they outnumbered her and were too fast. The stress caused her to stop laying for weeks, poor thing, but she got used to them eventually and is giving greenish eggs once again.

Still, combining the Bigs (plus Old Gray) with the Smalls did not seem wise, considering not only the size difference but also the murderous pecking order demonstrations we have witnessed in the past. The recent predator biting half the head off a chick (the one who foolishly stuck her head out the fence) is enough of a crime scene for this year. So we put a barrier between the two sets of chickens, between their respective runs. This did require the digging of two additional holes, but only chicken wire top to bottom, and no trench, no wire in the ground.

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At the same time as all this fencing work was taking place, Sandy was working on the new coop little by little. From those YouTube videos at the start of this project, a lot of good ideas came. Maybe someone will get good ideas from these posts too.

The Berm Works and the Chickens Prove the Size of their Brains

I woke to the sound of a rain that made me think about the windows being open in the living room, and … uh-oh, might the wood floor be a puddle? It was the kind of a rain that resembles the sound of a feisty wind going through the leaves. I listened – if saying I listened both carefully and drowsily makes any sense – and couldn’t quite tell. Is that rain or is that wind?

Concern for the floor got me up. Dry. Good. Rain poured straight down, not in, not a lick of breeze. She wasn’t going to like this. The dog, I mean. This dog. This is her happy pug face on a sunny day, her cushy spot — not that anyone here brought that towel outside for her to have a soft bed to lay on during the construction of the coop…

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This dog hates the rain, and it was raining hard. At a quarter to 6am it was light enough for me to see whether or not she was doing the thing(s) she must go out to do before she gets her breakfast every day. First order of business she managed quickly.  You might think she would know by now, going on nine years old, that people can count, and we all know that one order of business does not make two. She thinks — every time it rains, every time we go through this routine — that she can scoot to the front door after half of the business is done, and we will let her back in. During the less-than-five minutes that we stood in the rain today, she got totally soaked, and predictably scooted, but this did not fool me any more than it has in the past. I picked her up and tossed her in the grass admonishingly. I wonder if she says to herself: One of these days, if I just keep trying, I might get away with that!

Coco finally complied, though not nearly as quickly as you would think – why can’t dogs just squat and go and be done with it? Why do they sniff and search and reject perfectly good spot after perfectly good spot? Surely she then thought (if she thinks, and that’s a leap) that this early morning torture was over, but no. I played her game now, the delay-for-no-apparent-reason game.

I meandered on the driveway (wet through already, what did it matter?). Wait, I can imagine her saying. That’s not the way this works. I do my thing(s) and we go back in. It’s raining!!!

Actually I wanted to check out the berm.

My property slopes gently toward the woods on the southeastern side. Having spent a great deal of time on the chicken coop construction site over the last few months, we could see the tendency of heavy rainwater to come down the driveway and wash through the mulch I had laboriously spread on the upside of the site. This was not okay. Water will flow downhill, yes, but it might submit to some redirecting. Thus we had constructed the berm along the driveway…

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…and ornamented it with 18 Rudbeckia plants last week. The long, low mound of a berm, we hoped, would be just high enough to keep the water on the driveway side. Once past the coop area, it could find its own path to the woods.

Sure enough! Not only did the water not wash over the coop area, it made itself a lovely winding path toward the woods, helped ever so slightly by me, raking the edges in the pouring rain. How perfect that this little volunteer stream found its own unboring path!

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In my dreams the area through which this little stream flows is a woodland garden. The stream bed is carved out a bit more intentionally (by me, when the urge to play with dirt strikes again) and lined with stones that are big enough to stay in place but small enough to walk on when it’s not raining. Maybe there’s a little footbridge. All around there are various perennials that of course the deer will leave alone, and which will bring color and interest throughout the growing season. My friend Louisa said she has some shady plants, some kind of pachysandra she has too much of and is willing to share, and there’s mountain pink and foxglove and primrose and other abundant growth I can move from the raised beds in the other garden. We’ll see…

You have doubtlessly noticed the ridiculous birds in the above photo. Until now, as far as I know, they have not ventured into their primo home on their own. There, in the early morning pouring rain, I had found them huddled under the coop, wet and bedraggled, having obviously wandered out from under the shelter throughout the night. (Apparently we got five inches of rain last night, and it’s not done yet.)

By the time it was light enough for this photo, some had left the shelter and the huddle, but still not made their way up their designer ladder. Is this chicken playing the sympathy card or am I misreading her face? (The top of her head is supposed to be fluffy!)

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I thought maybe they needed a little encouragement, so I tried catching some of them to put them in the dry space. I managed four, then gave up. Let these four, clearly too slow or not clever enough to evade me, be an example to the others. That’s wishful thinking of course – an hour or so later three remained in the dry, no others had followed suit, and one had hopped back out into the wet. At least I got the first photo of the view through the front window:

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Chicken on roosting pole inside! That’s the idea! The two others are trying to figure out what they are walking on and maybe sending secret signals to their compatriots that this is a whole different surface than wet mulch under the feet and must be carefully considered.

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The bottom line today is that these birds get no credit for brains. After all this work, if they don’t like their house, if they can’t figure out how to climb up the stairs and go through the door in the rain… All right, we figured out how to get the water to go where we wanted it to. Maybe there’s hope for chickens?

In the meantime, Coco found a blanket to snuggle into. She is no doubt dreaming of sunshine.

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Dismantling the Old Coop Run

I live in the woods, surrounded by giants. I always guessed that the oaks were about a hundred feet tall, which is deemed “somewhat tall” by tree standards. A hundred feet is in fact the average height for a mature white oak. Watch them sway in a strong windstorm and somehow they feel even taller. Mixed in with the oaks are beautiful beech trees, some also gigantic in my estimation, and cedars with their beautiful purplish wood.  As happens in the real world, the strong crowd out the weak, blocking the sun, hogging the nutrients, leaving the struggling underlings often spindly or dead. One can ponder the parallels to our human existence while at the same time noting Hey, that dead cedar would make a good pole!

Thus the poles for the project were acquired, trimmed, propped up off the ground, and left waiting for their new useful purpose. If a tree could have preferences, I like to think it would rather be a pole for a chicken run than left to rot on the forest floor.

While in this early stage, I could not help but notice (and begin to accept the implications of the fact) that the project necessarily involved replacing the old coop’s run with a new run. This is the coop four years ago before the chicken wire became brittle and predators got in and we had to cover the lower half with lattice to protect the birds. Bradley and Lincoln had used oak they milled from trees on the property to build it, and I loved every aspect of it, but time and weather and bugs do their thing.

That’s Rise toddling toward it, seems like ages ago.

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When you are going to build something, you have to ask yourself: How big do you want it? After some experience in these matters, you know that there are two questions you don’t want to ask yourself when it’s done: 1. Why didn’t I make it bigger? and 2. What was I thinking!? So I took some logs and 2x4s and roughly laid out the dimensions of the new coop and runs.

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My ambitions were kept in check (thankfully) by the fact that the new run – to be attached to the old coop, to be attached to another new run and the new coop — is adjacent to the forest with its giant unmovable trees that defined the space. I am grateful that some decisions are not up to me.

So that we have our terms straight, the coop is the wooden building that houses the chickens at night and where they go to lay their eggs. This assumes the chickens are smart enough to go inside at night, which is debatable sometimes. In any case the run is the area that extends from the building, a partly sheltered enclosure that gives the birds space to move around in the fresh air, scratch for bugs, dust themselves, look busy. The run has to be enemy-proof, i.e. fox-proof, hawk-proof, raccoon-proof, owl-proof, coyote-proof, even nasty-neighbor’s-dog-proof. A run is essentially poles surrounded by wire fencing, but predators also have claws so you have to dig a trench and sink the wire into the ground so they can’t tunnel underneath. We’ll come back to that fun part.

By the way, if you have not seen a chicken dust herself, come visit sometime. It’s part of the entertainment here.

The poles and the layout were as far as we had gotten by the time we got the chicks in March. Remember how cute they were? (Your decision if I mean the little chicks or the little girls!)

So the old coop would remain but the old run with its sheltering roof had to be entirely dismantled. The supports were badly rotted, though I did not know the extent of the rot till later, so I climbed up there and, with a great deal of encouragement, got familiar with this tool and unscrewed the metal roofing.

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Roofs that sit under a forest canopy get dirtier than you think. Seven years of leaves and sticks falling on it, plus some decomposition, growth of moss, etc. make it not so pretty. I have to say I quite enjoyed this task though because in no time at all…

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…look how shiny! Metal roofing is amazing! It was like brand new after its scrubdown and rinse.

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In the meantime Sandy was taking the old framework down.

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It’s probably good I didn’t know how rotted these boards were when I was up on top. But down they came. Good call to replace them, wouldn’t you say? Surprisingly, some of them came in handy later.

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The documentation of this project makes me realize how involved it was. Once the old run was gone, we had hardly begun!

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A New Coop There Must Be

All I wanted was to have fresh eggs again. Just a few hens, enough eggs to keep up my supply and have a few to give away. The remaining three birds from the last batch were over two years old and for reasons unknown not producing. I tolerated their freeloading for a while, then tried to give them away (to a good home or a pot somewhere, I don’t want to know). The weather in Virginia is nice for chickens, especially in the fall, so I let them free range more than usual, figuring nature could take its course. When it was two down, one to go, I went soft and kept the last, resilient old gray cooped up all winter. It’ll get nice again, of course, I thought, and then I’ll get some newbies and deal with integrating them.

March came, and with it, my granddaughters Rise and Eppie (aged 5 and 3) – a perfect time to get chicks. The day after the girls came, we drove to Crozet to get five silkies and six brahmas and to Southern States to get six Rhode Island Reds. The next day we stopped in Tractor Supply, unintending to get any more, but the name got me: Cinnamon Queens. Their heads had a swath of color like a chipmunk, which I admit is no reason to buy them, but the two little girls were staring alternately at me and these adorable little creatures, so yes, we left with four more chicks. Seems like enough, don’t you think?

This is Rise with one of the brahmas. I hope she never forgets when Oma got chicks!

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How did that fluffy little chick got to be this massive chicken? (Turns out three of the six, including this one, are Brahma Boys and therefore need a new home, which I’m working on, sorry, fellas.)

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And here’s Eppie with a face only she can make.

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My friend Sandy was very helpful with the set-up – the shavings, the heat lamp, the various ways of keeping these jumpy little birds from getting out of their designated space. I should have paid more attention, however, when he told me about his friend who had other kinds of chicks and how pretty and interesting and special they were. I had a lot going on with my own chicks in the house, two delightful little girls here, etc. Next thing I knew, Sandy showed up with a dozen more: four D’uccles, three black copper marans, a silkie/Easter egger mix, a bard rock/silkie mix, a maran/Easter egger mix, and two other beauties of unknown heritage.

This is a lot of chicks. You do the math. I’m too embarrassed. No way were these going to fit into our existing coop. We’ve had 15 in there, but not (gulp) that many (did you add it up?)… Plus, Sandy’s batch, which we combined with the silkies, were considerably smaller than the brahmas, reds and queens, happily chirping away in a separate enclosure. It slowly began to dawn on us that a new coop would solve the problems that might occur if we tried to integrate the Smalls with the Bigs. Note that two coops was not part of the original plan. All I had wanted was fresh eggs again.

Stay tuned for how the new coop took shape.

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