Natural Essays

Farm scenes with a chicken update

By Richard Phelps
Posted 11/25/20

The dog barked. She leaped up from her bed by the sliding glass door and barked in the direction of the chicken coop. From her perch inside the door she can see the entire backyard including the …

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Natural Essays

Farm scenes with a chicken update

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The dog barked. She leaped up from her bed by the sliding glass door and barked in the direction of the chicken coop. From her perch inside the door she can see the entire backyard including the pond, woods, lawn and chicken coop. I looked up. A giant red-tailed hawk was sweeping over the corner of the chicken area.

The chicken area, now that they free-range, gets bigger every day with the hens exploring and scavenging further and further from their home coop. I opened the glass door and Darcy raced across the patio and to the hens. She was barking a fierce bark and her eyes were trained on the hawk. The hawk took off from the corner of the coop and swooped sideways like a World War I fighter pilot and then Darcy leaped at the predator as high as she could jump and ran after the hawk as it peeled off across the shallow hill defining the pond.

The chickens themselves have a sophisticated warning system based on chicken sounds and electromagnetic bird wiring. Any unusual or sudden motion in the sky triggers a defensive response from the whole flock almost simultaneously. Darcy is still quite baffled by this alien communication skill, but sees herself as the mother and protector of the flock. She sleeps near them during the warm hours of the late morning, or early afternoon, and they forage around her as she is stretched on the fallen leaves. Now the birds are bunched together inside a red dogwood bush thick enough to prevent any airborne attack from the hawk. Darcy chased the hawk on across the lawn and it gave up its attack, its first. We are claiming home-field advantage.

There is some odd talk on the internet about raising chickens that are vegetarians. This seems a profound waste and counter to the nature of the birds. My birds have an absolute disdain for pellets and crumbled chicken food and ignore the offerings as if they are being given sawdust. They love human food scraps and the more meat on the bone the more excited their lunch and any scraps from the cheese drawer is like pie. They eat green grass and other greens but love to scratch their way across the forest floor as if they are wild turkeys and they turn up the leaves in bunches to scratch the earth below and hunt for worms and bits of acorns and roots that look like worms and anything. The hope is the tick population will see a catastrophic decline as the chickens peck at any speck.

The young chicks are laying eggs now, a few dozen a day. It is remarkable how they prefer the nesting boxes and they use them, one after the other like subway cars, to lay their eggs. Another oddity about chickens -- and it seems counterintuitive to the survival of the species -- but after a hen lays an egg, she has an uncontrollable urge to crow about it, and they announce the egg laying success to the rest of the flock (and any predator smart enough to speak chicken) for some short duration before rejoining the flock in the normal chicken activity of eating. On sunny days they will take a break and bask in the sun, in a shallow depression they have dug in the dirt at the edge of the woods, and they spread the wings to soak the sun and shake themselves in their dust bath.

A pair of hawks was here this morning but they did not venture below the tree tops and Darcy was barking in profound alarm and integrity of purpose.

Over the last couple weeks, a solo bald eagle has been cruising over the hill and landing in a large spruce on the edge of the field. The tree was planted 70 years ago by my father. Eagles love to nest in tall pines and conifers that give them a good view in all directions. As far as I can tell, the chickens have been blocked from the eagle’s view by their proclivity for sticking to the woodland underbrush. We shall see if this holds. For an eagle, I would assume these hens are not much more than a chicken McNugget.

We have been sticking to the garlic planting and with the continued good weather have planted 20,006 cloves so far and 800 bulbils. We are mulching with pine and oak woodchips.

The woodshed finally has some fire wood in it. All the seed garlic, which was hung there to cure, has been cracked and planted, opening up space for the firewood. Just in time. Winter is upon.

Have a lovely Thanksgiving. We are staying close to home. And I, for one, am thankful for life, my great customers, those members of my family that still speak to me, and all the rest. Be well.

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