Thursday 30 July 2015

It started with a few chickens...

So, many years ago, inspired by a co-worker who started keeping chickens, my husband and I went to something called The Fur and Feather Show. It was a dreary, misty, cold day and we walked around looking at various fowl for sale, as well as some cute little bunny rabbits. We knew very little about chickens. We found some Rhode Island Red hens that seemed to be a good price. We were handed some gangly, scrawny-necked dark, reddish brown chickens in a box. We were idiots. 

After keeping chickens for many years, I now know that those were NOT young birds. You can tell by looking at their legs. Nice, smooth brightly coloured legs indicate young, healthy birds. As birds get older (well, hey, and sometimes women nearing 50!) their legs change for the worse.
Chickens' legs become scaly looking, thicker, and lose their nice bright yellow colour. These Rhode Island Red hens had "middle-aged" legs. Some of them were missing feathers on their necks, usually a sign of another hen picking at them, or perhaps a rooster with nasty habits.

Anyway, we kept them. They laid nice big brown eggs, although not all that frequently. We did not have a chicken coop of any sort. No sir, we put them in our shed. Our gardening shed. We were idiots. We also let them roam free. We were blissfully unaware of how incredibly destructive chickens can be. They dig huge holes. They don't care where they dig them. They do this so they can create a dust bath. They like to take dust baths to shed themselves of mites, which no doubt these chickens were lousy with! And chickens poop. A LOT. Everywhere. On your porch. On your garden bench. Everywhere you walk.

But, eventually the husband built them a coop. Now here's the deal. I grew up in the country. I've been around farm animals. I have seen barns. Nobody I knew had a cute little chicken coop, but I knew the sort of space required for animals and feed storage, and I had a pretty good idea what we would need. My husband was born in Montreal, although he is not French speaking. He then grew up in London (Ontario). The closest my husband came to farm animals was probably the animals on display at Old Macdonald's Farm in Story Book Gardens in Springbank Park in London. So once it became painfully obvious that our middle-aged Rhode Island Reds needed an enclosure, he based the design on what he knew. The chicken coops featured in the cartoons with Foghorn Leghorn.
childhood inspiration

He built a fabulous chicken coop. It was sided with lovely old barn board. We repurposed an old wooden door from our basement for the door to the coop. He raised it up over the ground and created a little ramp which led to a chicken-sized door. He even wired it for electricity.
Doesn't the coop look idyllic with the foxgloves in front? The red door is from our basement and has an iron rooster attached to it that we picked up on a trip to Florida when we were first married.

Here is an older shot of the coop taken after a wind storm which brought down some branches from the Manitoba maples.

You can see the little chicken ramp they used to get in and out of the coop.
Not all creatures at the chicken coop are chickens.

What did we use for nesting boxes? Well, that's another repurpose. When I went away to University, I really needed book shelves (English and History major - lots of books!). I also needed a spot for a clock radio (dating myself here). So, I asked my father to build me something that could be used for both. My father was not one to do things in small measure, so he built a bomb-proof bookshelf with a cutout section so I could reach my clock radio at just the right height beside my bed and painted it dark brown. The thing weighed a ton, but it was well-built and I used it all through university. Then after we got married, it was used for storage in a spare bedroom. After we moved to a different house (our current one) that had an ancient bathroom with no storage, that bookshelf became our towel storage. Then finally, so many years later, we turned the vertical bookshelf into a horizontal set of nesting boxes nailed to the wall of the chicken coop. The birds loved it, all packed with fresh straw. And like many bird brains, they all tended to use the same one or two nesting boxes, rather than utilizing all of them, often cramming two birds in a box at once.
They liked this box (the smallest one!) and the one beside it the most. This is not a Rhode Island red, but a later bird, perhaps an Isa Brown.

The chickens now had a very upscale home, but still were free range birds. They came in to nest in the evenings. We really never had to find them and shoo them in, they just naturally "came home to roost". We put a tree branch that had been stripped of its bark in the coop for them to roost on. Some chose the branch, some preferred to be on top of the nesting boxes.
Here is the branch (roost) filled with chickens and one rooster. The three sitting on top of the blue box will be explained in a later post, as well as the handsome rooster on the coop floor. You can see there is a cage built below the nesting boxes which we used for very young birds who were too little to introduce to the flock.

Over the years, we had various chickens. Sometimes we bought pullets from a local company. They were great because they were already at the very beginning of their laying age and they produced a lot of eggs. We also purchased chickens from the Keady Market, a local outdoor market which also has livestock sales. We never really learned from those experiences. Once we bought a lovely pair of birds. One was a very handsome, colourful, banty rooster and his mate. They were in a box with a cut-away section so you could see the birds inside. We were idiots. Buyer beware, of course. It was our choice to purchase them. I think I was lured by his bright colours, but Rusty (of course, named after the rooster that lived in a bag on the wall of the Friendly Giant's castle for all those Canadians who can relate) was quite frankly a son of a bitch. The only one who could handle him was my husband. He chased me to the point where I whacked him with an empty plastic bucket. He attacked our son. Boy, Rusty hated our son's little red rubber boots! Rusty crowed brilliantly, however and was gorgeous to look at. His mate in the box? Well, she was also a banty hen (meaning small size) and she was blind in one eye. Likely due to some other chicken pecking her. We named her Winky. She laid one tiny egg about once a month. But we kept her. She was quite a little character, very timid, probably due to her lack of great sight. Eventually we gave Rusty to a farmer down the road who had all kinds of chickens. He could then attack different people. Winky started to "fly the coop" and once some people who lived a fair distance from us found her in their back yard. We rescued her and brought her home. Then, she flew away permanently. That is not a euphemism. She literally left and we never found her again, although we really did look for her.
Rusty. Pint sized and full of attitude.

My son holding Winky. She was very tiny.(So was he in this photo!)

I think I will stop there, but will continue with more chicken stories and eventually get to the ducks. I was inspired by John of Going Gently (see my side bar) telling tales of his various fowl.

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