You are welcome to re-print or pass them along with my blessing, I only ask that if you do so, that you kindly credit www.FredsFineFowl.com
By Frederick J. Dunn
(Published in the Poultry Press February 2006)
As summer waned the days shortened and leaves turned their true colors, it began…
After being away from home for a couple of hours, I stirred my cup of coffee as I gazed through the kitchen window at the grass beyond. There, raked by the afternoon sun, was a pile of feathers. The dooryard, normally animated by roaming chickens, was conspicuously void of birds accompanied by a loud silence.
Stepping into my always-untied work shoes, I walked out the back door, across the porch and made my way to the telltale feathers. I was disgusted to find that they were the beautiful and distinctive feathers of one of my Belgian Bearded d’Uccle hens (Mille Fleur). Then, as I surveyed the scene, not twenty feet away, next to a coop, there lay the rest of the carcass. Darned if that marauder (whoever it was) didn’t have the audacity to drag my chicken and then sit right there in the afternoon sun having a good feed!
I walked back to the house and mustered the kids, wanting to know if anyone had seen anything? They all gathered on the porch in amazement… what? It ate it right where? It took it’s time I told them, why don’t you guys bother to look out the window when you’re in the kitchen getting your after school snacks? Ah well, it’s futile after the fact I figured. That was one of the best ones, Justin chimed in… wish it had taken one of the ones I hate… isn’t that always the way of things I thought to myself.
A couple of days later, I was again at the kitchen window as the morning yawned into a new day. Again, the yard was void of activity… that’s weird I thought? Then I noticed a large bird on the volleyball net pole. A Hawk… I whispered to myself, transfixed by it’s size and conspicuous point of observation. Then, I noticed a second one, perched right next to the hen door of the farthest coop! With it’s back to me, I noticed the unmistakable rust red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk. These guys are tag-teaming my chickens I thought as I hoisted open the double-hung window! Off they flew to the distant tree line.
My dilemma was, I like wildlife, I love chickens and it’s awesome to see such large hawks so near. Talking with my neighbors was fruitless, as I considered how to protect free ranging chickens from such efficient raptors. The common advise was “three s’s, shoot, shovel and shut-up”. I quickly dismissed that option from my thoughts. The chickens had become very keen at spotting the hawks and provided very little opportunity for a meal. The large breeds had nothing to fear, as they were too large for the red-tails. A Rhode Island Red hen was making a dash across a large open area when a hawk dove on her, then, oddly, it put on the air breaks only a couple of feet away and changed it’s mind. Good thing too, as the hen’s only defensive maneuver was to hunch down on the ground!
The hawks changed tactics. Rather than hovering, or perching to hunt, they began to come low and fast around corners and under trees, only a couple of feet off the ground! It was always surprising and amazing to witness such a bird, with a four foot wingspan, change up it’s tactics and appear suddenly so nearby!
In the days that followed, groups of crows began to gather in the trees and hassled the hawks, dogging their every move and completely removing any idea they had of sneaking up on the chickens. They continued to heckle, vex, harass and dive on the hawks until they finally sought new hunting grounds.
Never thought I’d be so happy to have the crows around. A week or more passed and I soon forgot the hawks, as I hadn’t seen any, save for the solitary bird soaring high aloft. Then one day, I caught a streaking movement out of the corner of my eye, a flash of feathers darting from sky to earth. There it was, one of the hawks, standing bolt upright on the ground, as a chicken made a hasty retreat beneath one of the raised coops. A couple of chicken feathers were still drifting to the ground, demonstrating how nearly she’d been missed. I thought it odd that the hawk didn’t immediately fly off again. It stood there, looking over it’s proud shoulder, toes raised by it’s long talons on the flat earth. Then, like a chicken’s worst nightmare, this hawk actually loped along the ground and made a dash under the coop! The chickens ran out in every direction as the hawk engaged in a foot pursuit! I opened my door and ran out into the yard, the hawk flew off and I haven’t seen him, nor lost another chicken since.
Winter keeps the chickens inside most of the time and there are no loitering hawks about that I’ve noticed. Spring may bring a different story, but I’m hoping my chickens hone their dodging and hiding skills before the next group of raptors show in the sky. The crows are at the wild bird feeder, how I do love those crows!
Free Range Drama
By Frederick J. Dunn
It was one of those near perfect mornings, tree swallows slicing through the sky, Blue Birds inspecting nest boxes, a Tufted Titmouse calls "Peter-Peter-Peter" and the shadows of night shortened as the sun rose over the eastern treetops. A perfect Pennsylvania morning, with everything new, lush and burgeoning.
As I opened my umbrella chair and settled next to some blue berry bushes to absorb the morning sun, a hen breeched her coop door and announced that she’d deposited an egg. Her proclamation was answered by a nearby Rooster friend, who replied with a similar yet much louder series of buck-bakuuuk buck-buck-bakuuuk, their voices echoing across the landscape. Who doesn't enjoy a well-placed brown egg? Satisfied that she’d bragged enough and shamed all the pretenders, off she went to join other hens already busy scratching up bugs near some pin oak trees.
Other social clicks of hens and roosters were scattered here and there, covering several acres of gently sloping grass and woods. It really was a perfect scene and the beginnings of a perfect day. Until, silent as morning mist, a stray cat stood at the edge of the clearing, half in sun half shadowed, crouched in full stalk mode, he watched a lone Rhode Island Red hen busy picking at something interesting on the ground.
I’d seen this yellow striped cat before, and it was apparently making this a hunting morning and was feeling froggy enough to tackle a full-grown hen. Now, I couldn’t count on our Yorkshire Terrier (Muffin) to deliver our land from this marauder, though she weighs in at a whopping 4.5 pounds. If I called to her, she’d put on a brave show, but was just as apt do dash blindly past the culprit as she was to deal with him. Besides, Muffin was afraid of chickens and stayed near the house when they are about.
Suddenly the lone hen was aware of the cat and had frozen in her tracks twisting her neck to look back at the steady eyed mouse muncher. An alarm went up among all the chickens in the field, a sort of trill ending with a questioning tone. The hen made a dash, glancing back over her shoulder, and the cat came into the open but failed to make a chase.
Now these are Rhode Island Reds and virtually everyone who owns them, names one “Big Red”, well our flock is no exception. Big Red was going towards the cat while the hen gained a safe distance and paused to look back. The cat crouched low again as if it’s yellow stripes would suddenly blend among the dandy lions. As Big Red stood a few feet off, hackle, tail and saddle feathers gleaming in the sun, he assessed the cat, stepping closer, turning his proud scarlet combed head side to side as if to see which eye the cat looked better through.
This cat was obviously inexperienced when it came to Rhode Island Red Roosters, you see, they are prone to form gangs, gangs which face intruders collectively. Before the cat could spit and make a dignified retreat, another rooster appeared on the trail, which would have been the cat’s exit point a few moments earlier had he been wiser. With military precision, two additional roosters silently took up flanking positions and another came alongside Big Red (aptly named Little Red). It was a brilliant display, five prime Roosters, complete in their glistening mahogany feathered splendor, yellow shanks with red stripes down the side like marine gunnery sergeants.
The cat really took on a pitiful sort of expression; with its ears flat, glancing left and right in little jerks as it looked for an opening in this ever-closing red-feathered wall. It attempted to sniff at a wild flower and a stick, possibly hoping they would forget about him being there. Suddenly a flanking rooster went for the cat, spurs first, and the cat was off like a shot with five standard reds in hot pursuit. They continued the chase for some distance, just in case some of the hens might have missed their show of bravery… even a couple of banty roosters joined in the chase as they came from beneath the shrubs.
Big Red crowed and flapped his wings triumphantly. The big yellow cat took an undignified leave of absence into the maple grove. After a brief pause, they all rejoined their respective hens, which probably didn’t respond to their heroism in the way they had hoped. All was once again in order… You won’t see anything like that in a chicken pen. Is there anything better than chickens that forget they are?
It’s March and the snow, finally warmed, has been fully received by the softening earth. Still cold in the shade, few plants bud, unconvinced that Mother Nature is not simply teasing with her warm breath. Amazingly, if one watches closely, there are tiny mosquitoes hovering near the srub, if they are male, we are safe, if female… she wants our blood!
As I walk along, assessing the winter impact on the landscape, the soil literally percolates with the sound of earthworms retreating from danger. How rare it is, a day like this, with temperatures soaring into the upper sixties. Wood frogs are heard in the night now and yellow spotted salamanders make for their mating sites.
Of course, I’m not the only being taking advantage of this gem of a day, Gallus Domesticus is on the trail of anything growing or moving. The Rhode Island Reds spend so much time running after one another, one hen finds something and others dash after her to snatch it up, another pecks at something on a grass pile and they all dash over to scratch it apart. How silly this game is, as if they couldn’t find things on their own if they just stopped coveting what others have found? The slightest sprit of a leaf and they peck it off the lower branches.
The Roosters prove their generosity, or is it, as they present morsels of all kinds to their women folk, standing off while they greedily take it in. I’ve observed, yes, I have time on my hands, that it’s about a three to one deal. The Rooster offers three treats on average, before he expects something for his trouble. Woe unto the hen who eats and dashes, she must be run down and simply costs the Rooster a few more calories in the process. She then fluffs and shivers her feathers back into proper order before resuming her bug hunt.
Southeast exposures warm first and something else is answering the sun’s morning rays. A northern brown snake has emerged from its leafy layer and is warming its shiny body on a piece of rose granite. Not much larger than a number two pencil, it has arrived and settled next to some rich green moss. How peaceful this little fellow is, with its expressionless face and unblinking eyes. Not even its tongue flicks the air. Possibly it’s been feeding on some of the earthworms and needs the warmth to activate its digestive juices.
There is a rustle of leaves nearby as a hen digs out grubs and other underlings. I have become my new friend’s undoing, as the hen has noticed me noticing something. She departs from her interests in the leaves and spied in an instant, my tiny passive friend. In a wink, she has snatched it from the sun-warmed stone and whisked it into the open where she may dispatch it properly. Of course, other keen eyed hens appear and they all dash about, snatching the writhing reptile from beak to beak until at last, one hen downs him like a fat string of spaghetti!
What a tragedy, that such a gentle and harmless creature should be lost in such a way. I suppose, there are many ways off looking at the event. I choose not to think of it as loss, but rather that he has now become a chicken? (“>
If I only knew more, about breeds of poultry which may thrive in desert climates.
All over the world, hearty breeds of poultry have been the main source of nutrition for impoverished people. I know I’m spoiled, as are many in this country where chickens are concerned. I raise them for pest control, something to observe, to animate the countryside and to add dimension to my life. I honestly can’t tell the difference between eggs placed by a Dark Brahma bantam as compared to the Black Tailed Japanese, when it arrives on my breakfast plate.
Chickens are a triple bonus, food, distraction from the pace of modern life and joy in purebred plumage and composition. Back in the day (modern for “in the old days”) rural folk may have been inspired by the look of their birds, but the true value was in the place birds filled on the Sunday table and the smile a well prepared chicken brought to the faces of children and adults alike. Sadly, so many don’t even know the flavor of a properly raised chicken, nor the golden glow of a free-range egg sitting proudly on the skillet. Though we don’t normally make a habit of eating our chickens, we do enjoy the bounty of their prolific egg production.
When I’m not saving eggs for hatching, it’s a joy to deliver the odd dozen to my wife’s home economics teacher Nadia, now long since retired, who is always so thankful that she sends a card each and every time, celebrating the quality of eggs from ranging hens! When I introduce my father-in-law Norman to new breeds I have, his response is one of pure amazement, “we never had anything like these back in my day… I tell ya Fred, I just can’t keep up with all the things that go on today”. Rather than point out, that these breeds have been around, in some cases, more than a hundred years, I understand that breeds were kept and raised because of their economy on the farm. Who would have had the luxury back in Norman’s work-a-day life to purchase and keep birds just for the look of their feathers, or their pleasant disposition?
What we have today is an abundance of extra time and the resources to keep poultry for the pure joy of it. Many years ago, when my wife noticed my sketches of chicken coops for the meadow east of our home, the look on her face was indescribable! She immediately went off on a rant… “Honey, I can buy a dozen eggs for 45 cents!” as her eyes returned to my design which had a frightening price tag next to my list of materials. In my defense, looking up from my dream sketch “eggs? This has absolutely nothing to do with the price of eggs… this is about chickens!” I realized that she was trapped in her upbringing, the value of a dollar and thrift in every purchase. I could also see in the half smile on her face and the tilt of her head, that I would indeed have chickens.
How could she be surprised, hadn’t she seen the pile of chicken books on the coffee table, did she not notice that I had a copy of Chickens in your Backyard, in my back pocket on a daily basis? The books are about chickens, not where to pick up a carton of eggs at the grocery cooler (‘;’). Ok, so I didn’t get the coop I’d originally designed and I concede that it may have been just a tad overboard, but I’ve learned that if I ask for the world, I’ll end up with a modest coop eh?
For many though, the work-a-day life remains and resources, such as food and water, are carefully utilized and calculated. I visited such a place, where necessities are as scarce as hen’s teeth, including clean water. I’m working on a plan, to establish a small place for purebred hens in the Colonias outside Rio Bravo, Mexico. I’ll keep you posted as that project takes form, hopefully, bringing joy in poultry and nutrition to an impoverished population. Want to help? Give a person an egg and they eat for a day, teach him or her to raise chickens and you’ll feed them (mind, body and soul) for a lifetime. My quest, is to reach poultry people, who don’t yet know they are such. Today, we may have both, beauty and bounty.
All is well for the ranging flocks this time of year. Flowering trees have strewn their petals on the earth, casting sunlight upwards and causing the ground to glow. Dandelions have released their parachuted seeds to the four winds and buttercups now show as the dominant cadmium yellow. No more snow, nor threat of frost, nor mushy muddy ground beneath the feet. Temperatures soar into the 90’s and the hens still lay!
I started birds back in February, another batch in March and more in May. This is a great time of year for little ones, as they are allowed to explore outside much earlier. A friend wanted replacement Rhode Island Reds for his free ranging flock. Always excited to provide peeps, I set the incubator and filled it with suitably sized and shaped eggs. Right off the bat, I had problems with the temperature, the unit spiked to 110 deg. F! This happened within the first 36 hours of incubation and I had no idea if it had been there for hours or minutes? So, I continued the batch, actually curious if they could take a spike like that.
I go about my daily chores, weeding the corn, important things, like watching the tomato plants leaf out, or seeing if that black tailed Japanese Bantam is ruling over the Partridge Rock as always. I hike in the woods, looking for the elusive Jack in the Pulpit, or counting the variations of fern plants. All the while, the incubator quietly hummed along in my studio.
On the seventh day, I candled the eggs and found that I’d only lost 10 of the 40 eggs placed! I was excited about that, as I’d assumed the temperature had fried everything. So, the process went along routinely and the eggs began to hatch right on time. With chicks in the brooder all happy scampering around, I phoned my friend to come pick them up. Some eggs remained in the incubator and by the end of the 23rd day I shut it down. As the room fell silent, one chick could be heard chirping from a cracked shell. So, I switched the unit back on and kept the temperature. This egg was cracked open about 180 degrees and had stopped there. The 24th Day arrived and the chick showed no progress, same position, and same size crack. So, I shut it down and left the room. Hours later, I came in to do some computer work and heard the muffled chirping again! So, I flip the switch and bring the temp up again, humidity was still good. I figure it’s not going to make it, but for some reason, couldn’t toss it in the trash. Now the 25th day, I’m back to check the little struggler and found no progress.
I turn off the unit, open it up to start sanitizing. While standing at the stainless steel sink, I hear the chick again! I normally don’t help chicks out of their shell, but curiosity got the best of me. I unceremoniously picked up the cracked shell and began to remove pieces while I ran water up to 90 deg. F. Soon, I had a chick in my hand, which was holding the shape of the egg, with the shell removed. It was pitiful, head stuck, wings stuck, feet strongly curled and stuck against its body. So, I held its body beneath the running stream of warm water, prying its appendages away from its body one by one. Its neck was strongly arched and both feet stuck out straight with curled toes. Then some water sprayed on its beak and it looked to be drowning! But it soon got past that and was breathing weakly, but in a steady rhythm. I took out my hair dryer and blew it off with warm air and plopped it all alone in the brooder. In my mind, I’d written it off, but was curious nonetheless.
26th Day, I come into the studio, look into the brooder and there he stood, bright and alert. I could see absolutely nothing wrong with it. Now, I have this solitary chick, perfectly healthy and ready for the larger world. My kids decided it must be special, to have overcome so much and still be here, so giving it away wasn’t an option! I had a hatch of Rhode Island Red Bantams just a week ahead of this batch. I’d been rotating them outside during the day and inside at night, so decided to place this chick in the bantam brooder to see how they may get along. To my surprise, the returning bantams didn’t pay any attention to it at all and the new chick scampered right along with them from food to water and plunked beneath the heat lamp as if he’d always been with them.
Now our miracle chick is two weeks old and still developing on par with the healthiest of chicks. I’m now re-thinking all the eggs I’ve tossed in the past. I also have to re-consider my philosophy on helping chicks out of their eggs… I’m glad this chick was so vocal.
**follow up note: Months later, this chick proved to be oddly formed, loped along with a strange gate and was ill tempered (male), it was given away to someone who would not breed from him. I returned to the original philosophy, don't assist chicks which do not hatch on their own.
Visit a friend who raises chickens, ducks, guineas or has their own honey bee apiary... be happy for a day. Learn sustainable living practices with your own living space and be happy for a life time! Live healthy, bring joy to others...