First Snow for the Chickens

Today it snowed! It doesn’t always snow when they say it will, but today the weather forecasters were right. We have at least six inches and it’s still coming down, which negated our plans to go see the Russian Ballet perform the Nutcracker on stage in Charlottesville this evening. I’m not sure I ever had to forfeit theater tickets before because of weather. But Samuel made his homemade pizza instead and that was quite a consolation.

Even if it wrecks your theater plans, snow is so beautiful.When it first started to blanket the cedar tree in the middle of the circle, I could see from inside the house the white Christmas lights through the light frosting of powder – it was magical. Outside it was very pretty too, but you could hardly see the lights.

I headed for the garden shed to get the snow shovels and realized that this was the first time my chickens have seen snow! They hatched at the beginning of this past March and were indoors for their first 6-8 weeks. How would they like it? What would they do?

What would you do if you were a chicken? Do you see any chickens?? I didn’t!

Oh, there they are! Underneath! I did not expect a snowy day to turn into an I-feel-proud-of-my-chickens day, but it did. I have Smart Chickens! My chickens stayed out of the snow!

The stuff is cold and wet! What did you expect??

Anyway where did all the bugs go?

I somehow expected the Sewing Circle to be this sensible. They are the bigger hens (which does not make them smarter, I know!), and their sheltered area leads directly into their coop. I’ve marked their little door leading inside, or where it starts anyway – it’s behind that post. I watched them and wondered if they would go inside or continue to tramp around in their very small un-snowed-upon area not wanting to get their cold feet. All they have to do is go up a small ramp from where they are and they will be fully sheltered inside the coop.

In no time they went in on their own, not quite sure what to do in there in the daytime. Normally they come in here only to sleep and to lay eggs. Hey, ‘scuse me, pardon me, looking for something to eat here!

To my delight the Bridge Club was also trying to stay dry! There they were, all huddled up in an even smaller un-snowed-upon area.

It’s cold, lady!

And there’s no way inside from here!

We’re stuck!

It’s true. The configuration of the new coop and run is different than the old one. To get inside, these chickens would have to venture into the white, wet stuff and then make their way up a much bigger, possibly slippery ramp. See it in this next photo?

Poor little silkies! You can tell from how fluffy their heads are that they did not get wet first and then seek shelter. Good little silkies! Why is it that I don’t feel as sorry for their coop-mates? Oh, right, that group includes the one that thinks she’s a rooster, croaking out a sickly sounding half-crow now and then, and the one that won’t let you catch her easily, even when you need to, and the one that insists on bullying the silkies every single morning when I let them out! (She still does, yes, and the silkies endure it…)

But one and all were cold and getting colder, so we picked them up (though none seemed the least bit happy about it), and put them inside their coop and shut the door against the wind. None of them had to get their feet wet or brave the ramp. When it gets warm again we should perhaps build them an easier way in, like a wheelchair ramp, long and gradual, nice and wide (well, maybe not wheelchair-wide!) so they don’t worry on their way up or down. Is this necessary? Would you do this for them?

The Coop Unoccupied and the Stubborn Horse

It has been weeks now, weeks (!), since the coop for the silkies and their friends has been finished on the inside. It has fabulous features like cedar roosting poles and the coolest chicken ladders ever. Chickens generally go in their coop at night after they scratch around and dust themselves and eat bugs and whatever they can find during the day (and make obnoxious noises if they are roosters).

This is what the interior of their coop looks like at night with the egg door open. That opaque panel above the egg door can come down by way of a pulley system for an extra measure of protection. That is, if they went in.

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Theoretically, when the chickens go on the cedar pole on the right (the one that looks like it’s shedding), you/we/anyone will be able to see them from outside through those plexiglass windows. Oh wait, maybe that’s the problem. No privacy! Anyone could see in at night. Maybe I have chickens with a privacy complex.

During the day there’s all kinds of curiosity. Look, they are practically lined up to check it out.


They have no problem going up and down this outside ladder. Nevertheless the coop itself remains unoccupied, day or night. I caught three chickens one rainy day and put them in there. They stayed a while, then probably shrugged, said “Eh,” tossed their heads, turned toward the exit and left. Ungrateful wretches.

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And that d’uccle rooster found his way back in on his own one time, and not again since.


But by and large they avoid it like the plague. Perhaps it’s not a privacy complex. Perhaps this photo says it all. You want me to step on that??

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This silkie had been put in via the brooding box through the door that is behind her. The wire mesh floor is supposed to allow the nasty stuff to go through into vinyl-lined trays below that can be pulled out from the back and (easily) cleaned. Sandy, who almost single handedly built the coop, found the idea online somewhere and it seemed reasonable. Tracy, my neighbor who has more chicken experience than I do, said she tried mesh and her chickens’ poop was too big and didn’t go through; then again hers was a double layer of mesh. Obviously I’m counting on my small chickens having small poop. Claudia, my dear friend in Germany who grew up on a dairy farm that also had chickens, suggested that perhaps the wire didn’t feel good under their feet.

It’s unnatural, really. All the dirt and mulch and stones outside under their feet all the livelong day – why would they want to go from that to this? I didn’t think chicken feet were that sensitive, but fair enough. I took Claudia’s advice and put down newspapers, then sprinkled food – yummy cracked corn — on top of the newspaper.

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Still no takers!

I am reminded of a specific horse, well known in the annals of time. You know, the one who wouldn’t drink.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

These darn chickens have a Ritz of a coop, and they won’t go in it. I’m leading as best as I can. But I can’t make them.

Isn’t it just like so many things, so many people? You lead, you encourage, you hope, you provide, you give, you understand, you help, you pull strings, you even finagle! You do whatever you think it might take to get them to do a good thing, a better thing, a more sensible thing. And God bless you for it. But the hard part is stopping after you have done your bit. The hard part is letting them do their bit — or not. Then waiting. Then (maybe) encouraging some more.

For now I am waiting. My birds don’t want to go in there? Fine. I do think that sooner or later they will wander in and enjoy their Ritz. Possibly one of these days one of them (let’s say a smart one) will meander up the ladder, peek in, hop in, look around and shout, Hey, girlfriends! Look at this! Check it out! Our ship has come in! Whoo-hoo!

Do you think?

Maybe they just need a little more encouragement (just like people), and I am not likely to give up. Suggestions, anyone?

The Happy Wanderer, a.k.a. The Prodigal Rooster

None the worse for wear, one of the roosters showed up this morning, having found his way through the woods from the bottom of the hill, drawn perhaps by the incessant crowing of the not-yet-relocated little d’uccle roosters that clearly have a Napoleon complex. I surprise myself with the thought that perhaps this chicken has more than a pea brain.

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Ha! he says. Thought you fooled me!

I’d been alternately imagining him and his buddies enjoying a safe haven or having met a quick demise. Their haven would be filled with worms, beetles and other forms of chicken protein, reasonably sheltered and dry, and they would take turns on lookout for enemies. Your turn, Jack, I’m hungry.

Only one turning up raises questions. Dissention in the ranks? Full on attack with one survivor? Out for a morning stroll, got distracted by a buzzing bee and randomly wound up back home? Vague deja vu recollection of having been carried to this location. Oh look, a path! I wonder where it goes…

This big boy can’t tell his story, but he has one. So do his buddies, but theirs remain a mystery for now. We each have our own story. Sure, they are mixed up with other people’s (and sometimes chickens!), turned upside down at times by circumstances beyond our control, filled with surprises and challenges (good or not). Our own chapters don’t usually turn out the way we think they will, but the next chapter always builds on the last. And no one can take our story away. Say it like the sea gulls in Finding Nemo: Mine! Mine! Mine! If you forget how adorable they are, see

The other day I was reminded of Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain. I appreciate this movie, and watched it start to finish again last night.  I appreciate the window it gives into the ugly, bloody, complex, unfair story of that conflict, showing teenage boys who don’t make it through the battle, the old woman killing her beauty of a goat in order to give Inman food, a young widow depending on her hog to get her through the winter, and love unable to write its full story because arrogant, powerful people play their games with no regard for human and societal cost.

The book by Charles Frazier that the movie is based on, by the way, won a National Book Award and is exceedingly well written. His writing is so on point with the culture, geography, flora, fauna and language of the time, and paints exceptional images of the heart-wrenching trek Inman took near the end of the Civil War to get back to Ada. Even just contrasting the movie scene of the widow, her baby and the hungry Union soldiers with its corresponding chapter, “bride bed full of blood,” would make for a highly worthwhile evening. How much we take for granted. How easy we have it.

The stories of individuals, no matter what era or location, brings me back to this prodigal rooster. I’m stuck now again though. If I leave him outside the coop, he will scratch in my nicely spread mulch to find his worms, make a mess of things, and perhaps invite the predators to come closer and put the other chickens in harm’s way. If I keep him, I’m back where I was before: What To Do!

This whole chicken enterprise is easier when you don’t have to make tough decisions and can just happily watch a silkie explore her new coop, starting in the brooding box we put her in for kicks last night. Coco, who has her own tales of woe, couldn’t quite reach her.


I then closed the brooding box door and watched that chick start with a look of Huh! Now what do you want me to do? and then make her way outside.

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I imagine that later, after she made her way out that coop through the egg-shaped door, while she huddled on the ground with her friends late last night, she let them talk a bit. She waited while the others compared notes on their stylish hairdos and told of the shiny, fancy bugs they had caught.

Then she told her own story: Hey, I gotta tell y’all. I’d just chomped down on a big fat greenish beetle and all of a sudden I was grabbed from behind and put in this strange place with fine wood shavings underneath — not like this rough chunky mulch we scratch around in all day. A flat-nosed black thing with big eyes and no hairdo at all to speak of — she really needs help, that one — looked up at me and terrified me, but I didn’t let on. I’m cool…

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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


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.


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.