This Hen’s Got Pluck!

I had trouble with a chicken.  You may recall. Goldyneck was a bully, always harassing the little silkies – chasing them, snatching at their back feathers with her beak, intensely and recurrently bothering them. This is the one I’m talking about. She’s pretty, you have to admit. Who would guess she has such a mean streak in her?

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I can’t have a bully.

She’s big, but not as big as the bigger girls in the other coop, so I banished her. I put in her with them for a while. They sneered at her. Snubbed her. Ostracized her. You wanna see something funny – watch a big hen puff her chest out in the direction of a smaller (clearly inferior) coop-mate with a gesture that has who-do-you-think-you-are? written all over it.

She hid under the coop trying to steer clear of them. She was clearly at the bottom of the status heap. See her in the upper left-hand corner? She won’t be able to get near that feeder until the rest have had their fill.

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I felt sorry for her and put her back with the silkies, hoping she had learned her lesson perhaps? But chickens don’t learn. Their brains are very small. In no time she started the bullying again. I seemed to have a no-win situation on my hands. Maybe someone could just take her away?

Solutions are often not that easy. No one volunteered.  No one came. I was stuck with her. But the bullying annoyed me. I saw it every day. First thing in the morning she started in with the chasing, snatching, bothering. In one decisive moment a couple months ago, I put her back with the big girls, come what may.

The square footage of their run is more than twice the recommended (generous) amount. The others eventually wander away from the feeder. Bugs are to be found here and there. I throw leftovers in randomly, plenty for all. I knew she wouldn’t starve. But she sure was getting a lesson in pecking order. They still made her sleep separately.

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What’s a girl to do?

Before I tell you what she did, we must be clear that this is a female chicken. She has no external evidence of being anything else, and I am not going to look further.

If you are not familiar with chickens, let me review the basics.

Status Pecking order is a real thing. We get the very term from chickens. They are good at it, unabashedly cold-shouldering the weaker, smaller, lesser among their flock. I have even seen murder, no kidding. In one fell swoop, Goldyneck went from the top of the order to the bottom. I do not fear for her safety, but it’s her lot. She asked for it.

Eggs Hens lay eggs. Roosters don’t. Roosters fertilize eggs. If you have a rooster in the mix, you will get chicks eventually. If you don’t have a rooster in the mix, you still get eggs.

Noise Hens cackle. Their noises make it seem like they have something caught in their throats. Cackling has its charm, in the evoking-sympathy, is-that-really-the-best-they-can-do sort of way. Roosters crow. They don’t just crow in the morning, the way storybooks present it. They crow all the day long! I find crowing annoying.

Roles Hens are good for eggs, wonderful eggs, and entertainment (they are very funny looking). Roosters are good for lawn ornaments (some people think the chicken picture is not complete without a strutting cock), protection (some predators, not all, might think twice if there is a big rooster defending the ladies in non-protected, open territory), dinner (some people eat them) and fertilization (if you want chicks down the road). I want/need nothing that roosters offer, so I have only hens.

What Do Hens Do All Day? Mine scratch around in the hay and the dirt, looking for anything edible. They eat pretty much anything. They dust themselves in the dry sand under their shelters. They sit to rest and lay their eggs. They get wet in the rain and look ridiculous.

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It’s not a rough life around here: Frequent kitchen scraps. No predators to worry about; (very secure enclosures). No bravado males running around after them always trying to jump on them to get, you know, theirs.

Back to Goldyneck. She seems to have come to terms with her now-permanent location among the big girls as well as her low status. She finds her food and finds a place to lay her eggs.

But this hen, this would-be dominatrix, this bully-taken-down-a-notch, does not cackle. This hen decided to sing!! By singing, I mean crowing. I mean I have a hen that crows! This hen’s got pluck!

She starts in about 530 a.m, before the sun comes up. At first I thought I was hearing my neighbor’s roosters. It’s wintertime and the leaves are down and I reasoned that the sound had to be traveling from Tracy’s coop to my ears. But I was wrong. Early one morning the noise seemed too close so I went out there to investigate. I watched her myself. Thankfully she does her crowing strictly in the early morning, for a few minutes only, and not at all during the day.

She’s some kind of chicken.

You won’t let me chase the silkies, she says. You won’t let me show them how much better I am. You put me in here with these big girls who make me eat last and sleep alone.

Fine. I’ll show you. I’ll call attention to myself another way. I’m cleverer than any of them. I’ll do a thing that you can’t take away from me. I’m special in my own way. And it won’t hurt anyone.

You gotta hand it to her! Hens don’t crow when there is a rooster around, but apparently, rarely, they do crow among just their sisters. Goldyneck had something to prove, and by golly she’s proving it on a daily basis!

Let us all sing in our own way, especially when we can’t do the thing we really want to do 😊

The Chicken Conundrum: Part 2

I woke this morning to the sound of rain. It was still dark. I did not immediately remember the small rug I had hung out over the back-deck railing last night because it had gotten wet from the leaking (unbeknownst-to-me-turned-off) freezer – it is surely wetter now. I did not remember the itty-bitty splinters in my hands from when the front porch was wet (and a bit icy) yesterday morning and I had slipped and caught myself by reaching for the rough cedar siding of the house. Instead my mind flashed to the chickens – dry in their coops now, but not for long!

Bedraggled is the best word for them when they have been standing in the rain, seemingly oblivious to it, for even a short while. I can provide them a palatial coop, I can make sure they have space under it to escape nasty weather, but I cannot keep them from getting wet.

Do you see the beginning of what was already a bad hair day starting to get worse? This photo, taken on another wet day back when the leaves were still green, shows the clumps and points and spikes beginning. In the rain, the silkie’s crown of fluffy feathers gets clumpier and clumpier, pointier and pointier, spikier and spikier and ultimately flatter and flatter. Hey, that’s my crown you’re talking about!silkie9.18 (2) beginning of bad hair day.jpg

No offense, Missy, but there’s not a lot of brain in your fluffy head.

Then I opened my phone and saw Claudia’s thoughtful response to my recent Banishment-Harassment Conundrum post. Regarding what to do with Goldyneck, my black copper maran that unmercifully harasses the silkies in her coop, was banished therefrom and subsequently reunited with the smaller hens, Claudia wrote:

Great observation and great metaphor for social analysis. Analogies help us think, they unfold a truth and point out connecting and turning points. But at one point a chicken stays a chicken and a human being – convicted or not – is a human being with the ability to think, feel and change if that human being recognizes a need to change plus receives the needed support. That is the pedagogy and assumption in me. Chickens on the other hand follow their instincts. Goldyneck will be at the lowest level in her new society until someone newer and weaker than her joins. If you keep her at her new place much longer – guess what – I think she will be the new one again and start from the lowest position. Sociology. No logical thinking patterns in chickens, no rational thinking just instincts, NO empathy. That’s where the original analogy ends and where we need to look for a new one that helps us think further and put our findings into understanding. How about a heart: We as humans have the ability to feel and build emotions in various contexts. Chickens don’t have that part – they “feel” pain because of their neural system but they are missing the emotional heart.
Thank you for making us think!

To which I say:

On the contrary, my friend — you are the one making us think.

Any analogy we make (including the one I had made comparing chickens to humans) goes only so far. Always, always, let us remember that behind every statistic, behind every story, there are individuals who act in certain ways in part because they are genetically programmed that way (we breathe to get air into our bodies, we run from fire because we naturally self-preserve) and in part because it’s what we individually want (for dinner, say) or what we thought would be the best course of action (such as quitting a job or choosing a mate). The thinking part distinguishes us from our feathered friends.

Chickens lean heavily, almost exclusively, toward the actions that are genetically programmed (pick on the little guy to establish pecking order). The image of Goldyneck being excluded from the watermelon circle,

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watching the others play out the who-invited-you? scenario, kept coming back to me, indeed weighed on me. In sixth grade – I remember it as if it were yesterday, there we were in the elementary school gym – as I myself attempted to merely stand with a small group of girls (I was not trying to share the watermelon!), those were the words I heard: “Who invited you?”

Unlike Goldy, who in her chicken-ness is alone but probably clueless as to why, I, being human, felt the pain of that exclusion. It reached my emotional heart and lodged there and over time turned into an understanding of human pecking order, as real as chicken pecking order, and a bristling within myself whenever I see anything that resembles this kind of behavior practiced maliciously.

But as emotionally challenging as my own experience was back then, my ability to reflect/think/reason kicked in regarding Goldyneck. She is never going to learn. And as Claudia so beautifully pointed out, all her relocation will accomplish is simply a different pecking order. Within hours of posting the first conundrum blog I came to this same conclusion, and I put Goldyneck back where she had started, with her Bridge Club, among her silkie girlfriends.

They’ll work it out, I said to myself. In their primitive way, the silkies will find a way to hold their own — as by extension, all of us who are deemed “lesser” somehow will do with whatever emotional and social capacities we have (or don’t have) naturally within us or (let us hope) we have developed over time. There will always be those who are bigger, stronger, more powerful, more strategically placed — and more bent on asserting such. It has never been otherwise, and never will be. We all simply do the best we can with what we have wherever we are. Or at least we should be trying to do the best we can. Regarding How to think and How to feel – let us never imagine that we have arrived at the pinnacle of either, but always know we have a ways to go in improving both.

Upon approaching the coop this morning as daylight increased and rain slackened, I observed the Bridge Club – the smaller chickens just waiting to be let out, curious about me on the other side of the wire. Goldyneck was among them, waiting too, curious too, behaving as you would hope, minding her own business.

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I went around to the other side and opened the egg door. She was the first one out, loaded with energy, scuttling around on her two funny feet. Then didn’t she find a silkie to peck!! She comes up from behind and grabs hold of the feathers on the back of the silkie and pulls a bit. For no apparent reason! This poor thing, the one we call Spot, was the harassed one this time, but she managed to distance herself and find a place of peace under the coop. (Do note her dry head at this time — they had emerged just minutes ago from the coop.)

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The way of the world is not so nice sometimes, but she found her corner. We all find our corners. Goldyneck continued to traipse around the run, but for as long as I stayed out there refilling food and water, she didn’t bother any of her coop-mates again. Who knows what moves her to annoy the others? Who knows why she stops? There are some things you cannot know, some things to just leave alone (until she gets my dander up again!).

When I returned an hour later – after the rain had started up again, after the not-overly-bright birds had stood in it for a while, I saw the natural outcome of small brains + rainy weather. As Sandy so aptly remarked: Punk is alive and well 😊

Hey, that’s my crown you’re talking about!

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Scrap Wood Unwasted, a.k.a. Cheap Runs Deep, Part 2

In the beginning was the idea to build a new chicken coop. This was because certain (unnamed, and possibly including myself) people had gotten overexcited about the idea of chicks and bought sooooo many there had to be two separate enclosures in the basement. They were awfully cute back then.

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Of course they got bigger and the basement started to smell. Getting them outside sooner rather than later kept us working as often as weather and time allowed.

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The coop took shape. Chickens need to scratch around outside too, so there would have to be an outdoor enclosure (a run). But it turned out that the one set of basement chicks was growing at the speed of light, far outpacing the other set and looking gigantic in comparison.

Chickens are nasty, you know. Integrating one flock with another often leads to shows of blood. Pecking order is a very real thing. Peck, peck, peck on the back of the neck. Big over little. Strong over weak. Murder happens. I have seen this. It’s not pretty. Mine were used to their separate spaces. Keeping the giants separate from the dwarfs would be the best approach.

So okay, two coops, two runs – adjacent but with a chicken wire fence between them. Is this unreasonable yet?

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It got to where there were two sets of doors, leading into one run and the other, with a concrete (soon to be brick) entrance. That’s all there was going to be at first, just a flat, sweepable way in. That garden bench was still there at that time (fancy table too, huh? cinder blocks and a piece of 2×8). I had been sick and it was nice to have a place to sit down, and then when I felt better it was too heavy for me to move by myself and not really in the way… yet…so it just stayed there.

Clearly we already had some bricks for that area in front of the doors. Clearly not enough. There is a salvage place in Louisa that I had never been to before and will never go to again, but they did have bricks, and I bought as many as would reasonably fit in my Prius. At 20 cents a piece I deemed it worth the trip. These still were not enough, but that problem would wait for another day.

Set the bricks aside and ponder. Sit on the bench and stare. Cute chicks. Darn slope. From the top of the old coop’s stoop to the height of a brick on the concrete was 14”, way too high a step. Someone would surely get hurt if I didn’t do something about that. Plus the mulch would wash over the bricks every time it rained, the run would get the overflow water and it would all be a mucky mess.

There had to be a way to terrace the land right there. One way or another it had to be leveled out. I started digging without much of a plan in mind, which I realize has the potential to be problematic. But I was feeling stronger after having been sick for a month and was happy to be strong enough to dig. First I took out the old coop’s stoop.

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Once I did that I was committed so I just kept digging.

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All the while I’m thinking vaguely This has to be flat. So I kept digging. It is hard to think deep thoughts when you are busy digging. I realize that following a plan has merits when doing a project but sometimes I just keep going. When I got it dug out, I had a flat and reasonably level space with a new drop-off, this one at the front corner of the old coop. Some kind of retaining wall would solve the problem, would be obvious enough that people wouldn’t trip on it. Plus it would keep the water away from that area. I played around with some very heavy concrete blocks that are made for retaining walls, but they were too unwieldy and I couldn’t make them fit in the tight corner. Also they were kind of ugly.

A deck then. It has to be a deck. That would tie the coops together, make a bigger clean space for approaching (and viewing!) my peaceful (non-murderous-because-they-are-separate) chickens and fit the setting better than concrete.

This, however, is where it is going to look funky to those of you who have ever made a deck of any kind. What on earth is she doing with all those short, scrap pieces of 4×4 and 4×6? Bear with me here. This is not as crazy as it looks!

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What I was doing was using the shorter pieces to get my trench level and prepared. Truly I was, but I also stupidly thought I could actually use them there. Sandy took one look at that and said Uh, no. I didn’t yet have the longer 4x4s that you see up and to the right, which he insisted were a necessity. I so wanted to use up all that scrap wood! No, he said, you have to have solid pieces on the sides.

But okay, once the solid sides were in and once they were solidly joined to each other making a solid frame around the whole thing, the rows in the middle would still need wood to screw the decking boards into. I had an itch to scratch, you see, and by golly I was going to use those shorter pieces! End to end, snug in against each other and against the outside framework, c’mon, this works. Then once you screw in the boards from the top, those babies aren’t going anywhere. The ground is hard pack clay (like concrete if you are familiar with Virginia “soil”). And this method does not require me to throw the scrap away (they are pressure treated and can’t be burned) and I had to buy a little less wood (thank you, Bertie!). In the end it looked like this — perfectly solid and perfectly wide for every screw from above to find a home.

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The landscape fabric and sand that ended up on top of these should have been put down below them, I know, but by the time I got all this in place, and level and square, I wasn’t moving anything again. I have my limits after all. So the fabric went on top, then sand, then I punched a bunch of holes in it for rain to get to the earth a little more easily. I didn’t want little pools of water under the deck for the mosquitoes to breed in.

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For the retaining wall side we used two 4x4s on top of each other, connected with timberlock screws, plus a topmost 4×6 on its side to serve as a somewhat more comfortable seat. You can sit on it and look at chickens. You would want to do that, right? You would want to if you saw my chickens.

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Then came the fun part, laying the decking boards. I got real comfortable with the cordless screwdriver I got for Christmas (the one that got lost for six months, but that is another story). There were a lot of screws. This is grunt work. I see why the new guys get the grunt work.

With a few more bricks from Lowe’s I figured out how to make them all fit without cutting any, which was a relief because believe me, it was time to have this project be finished!

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This is the whole picture now, viewing deck ready for guests (and do they ever use it!), solar lanterns up, solar panels in place to power the chandeliers inside the coops, flower pots to look pretty, fluffy chickens showing off. The only thing left is the siding, but I am content to wait for that to be milled.

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The topmost 4×6 on the long retaining wall works as a seat for me, but maybe not for everyone. Anyway now that I am so experienced, I think I’ll make a bench besides…