Saturday, December 21, 2013

Born Free - or - My Rangy Birds

            We have been owned by chickens for approximately seven weeks now.  Our flock of six consists of five hens and one rooster.  Of the six, five are phoenix chickens (including the rooster) and one is a mottled houdan.  The original owners gave them an outside pen with a small chicken house, so they were used to the elements and would dive into the chicken house for safety when danger approached.  I wanted a similar setup with a bigger chicken pen inside the barn and an area to free range outside, but I feared for the safety of my small flock and was reluctant to let them out without the benefit of a caged corral.  We had planned to transform our current corral into a chicken coop by trimming in one side, retrofitting it with chicken wire along the sides and top, and creating a walkway from the barn to the yard.  And then we priced chicken wire.  Nevermind.

            It devastated me to see my chickens trapped in the barn.  They were unaffected, I am sure, but I was depressed watching them walk around in the pen without any bugs to chase or plants to munch.  My compromise was bringing in fresh greens when I visited (four or five times a day) and catching crickets whenever possible and trotting them over to the pen.  I also refrained from mowing the lawn in one fell swoop and would mow one or two bagfuls at a go, then scatter the fresh grass and nutritious bugs into the pen.  The chickens were content with these conditions.  I was not. 

            One afternoon approximately four weeks after the chickens arrived, Brian and I were standing idly in the barn, dreaming and scheming.  Brian said, “You do realize it is not going to be cost effective to have an outside chicken run that size, right?”, to which I replied, “Well, what should we do?  Just let them out?”  He looked at me, and I looked at him, and he said, “What will it hurt?”  I reached over to our newly completed chicken pen’s door and pulled it open.  The chickens just looked at us.  I went inside and grabbed a handful of chicken food, returning to the barn proper to coax the chickens out.  Reluctantly they left the sanctity of their home, only to run back quickly with any sudden noise.  After half an hour, I was able to lead them to the corral so they could search out fresh greens and insects.  They had no problem adapting.  Fawkes even sounded the alarm when a hawk flew overhead and we watched in wonder as the chickens dove for the cover of shrubs and low lying trees.  The chickens were doing great, although one happened to hop through the fencing of the corral to play in the woods.  Brian and I attempted to corral our two-legged egg layer, but in the process managed to draw forward two more chickens into the woods.  In desperation, we decided the chickens were too out of control.  Besides, they had been outside a few hours and needed to remember where the roost was.  I managed to wrangle four of the six chickens, but two remained at large. Brian and I finally gave up and went inside.  I was rather worried since the sun was hanging low in the sky and my chickens were separated from Fawkes – would they be forever lost without their rooster?  Apparently my worries were for naught.  The chickens understood perfectly where they were to be at dusk, and wandered to their pen unaided.  My task at day’s end was to open the door to the pen so they could hustle in.  Well, how about that?
            The following day I let the chickens out a bit earlier.  Chase and I began completing his Arkansas Virtual Academy work outside near the barn to keep an eye on the chickens.  The puppies were not fond of this situation since they typically roamed the property while Chase and I ARVAed.  I was reluctant allowing the puppies to free range with the chickens, so they were kennel-bound for a while.  As days progressed, I allowed the chickens out for longer and longer periods of time, ensuring they were safe by monitoring them whenever possible.  One afternoon I scooted to the barn with my dinner and iPad and seated myself a short distance from the feathered scavengers.  A few minutes later I found myself surrounded by chickens who were critically eyeballing my mulligatawny.  One of the golden phoenixes felt brave enough to do more than look, though, and pecked at a carrot.  I was transfixed by their actions and found myself caught in a conundrum:  do I protect the mulligatawny I truly love and worked so hard to prepare, or do I watch my chickens in wonderment as they peck out my meal?  Needless to say, the chickens won.  I also learned that when chickens eat something wet, they tend to shake their heads back and forth to release the moisture from their beaks.  I ended the meal covered in mulligatawny I had not had to pleasure to eat.
            A week or so passed after the chickens’ first outing and I was finally more sure of their chicken prowess.  They knew where their roost was from any direction around the barn and I knew Fawkes was extremely protective of his tiny flock.  I finally surrendered my position as micro-manager and allowed my chickens run of the yard.  In the morning I would open their door to find six zealous chickens ready to take on the world.  After a flurry of feathered friends exited, I would enter and grab a container of food, then follow the chickens and shake the container to have them turn around and notice me.  Soon they were trained to recognize the sound of the container meant the presence of a meal, and would come running when they heard pellets hit plastic.  Approximately four or five times a day I meandered to the barn with children, puppies or both in tow to check on and feed the flock. 
            The chickens and puppies were still not allowed out together, and that needed to change.  Whenever I fed the chickens, the puppies were released and followed me to the barn.  The shaking of the food container alerted the pups that they were about to be greeted by a bunch of crazy birds, so they learned to run to me when they heard that sound also.  This led to further training for me since I had to learn to feed the chickens with one hand while holding back Americano with the other (Cappuccino would usually greet the chickens and take off for the field).  Only once did Cappuccino try to engage the chickens in play, and he chose to play with Fawkes.  Fawkes reasoned that this puppy with his front feet splayed before him and his rear in the air was scheming against him and his, so Fawkes launched an attack in the form of a loud cackle, flight, and rather short claws aimed at the puppy.  Cappuccino decided that was enough to settle his curiosity and tore off into the field without glancing back.  A few days later the puppies were granted permission to free range with the chickens.  The two species chose not to interact unless in my presence.  Good.
            When I was not feeding the chickens, I would often peer outside the mudroom door to check their location.  Many times they would cautiously venture outside the barn, but never exceeded a 5’ imaginary barrier Fawkes must have erected around its perimeter.  I began supplementing their diet heavily with the frozen butternut squash, hickory and black walnut shells, and pumpkin innards in the fall, and would frequently visit with giant portions of whatever autumn wonderment I was currently transforming into a meal.  Since I had no container to shake, I decided to call the chickens to notify them of my presence; catching chickens unaware while they are focused on foraging did nothing for the bond of trust I was trying to establish.  Therefore, I would call, “Chicken chicken chicken!” as I crossed the footbridge to the barn and enter to see the chickens peering out of one stall or walking through the opposite door.  I was delighted when my voice was recognized as that of a food wagon: upon calling my flock on morning they decided to run up to me en masse and literally stepped all over me to see what I was bringing them.  What fun! 
            Now my chickens hardly notice the dogs as they prance the fields together.  At daybreak I let them out and listen as Fawkes assures me that yes, once again, it is indeed morning.  During the day we spend feeding times together, and in the evening I walk to their pen to ensure everyone is snug in their beds.  With the temperature plummeting below freezing many nights, our routine has changed in many respects.  Instead of simply shutting the door, I am now climbing to the top of the ladder which is acting as a hanger to keep the blanket on that side of the pen upright.  Why would I need to climb a ladder, you ask?  Could the blanket be yanked out of place every day by curious chickens anxious to let in afternoon sun?  No, it would be a few hens bound to create a lofty loft on the top rung, the highest spot they are able to access in the barn.  So up I climb to “rescue” my chickens by perching them on my forearm and carrying them into their pen. 
            Recently Ross and I created a structure atop the laying boxes for the chickens to roost in cold weather.  This lean-to is not wide nor deep, but is enclosed so when the chickens cuddle up, they are conserving and sharing body warmth on the cold Arkansas nights.  Unfortunately, my chickens do not appreciate the lean-to at all.  At all!  Therefore, the chicken (or chickens) I bring in from atop the ladder is carried to the lean-to and coaxed inside.  The remainder of the flock is moved, one bird at a time, from beside the lean-to to within the lean-to.  Once everyone is settled, I slip the blanket over the opening to better warm the area.  I have no idea how warm the chickens are in this set-up, but it is warm enough to give me peace of mind to sleep at night.
            So there you have it:  how my chickens trained me in the art of free ranging.  It was arduous because I am so very, very, extremely stubborn, but they finally managed to do it.  I will tell you they were definitely not pleased when I left them for two days to visit my brother.  Now we are stepping lightly all over again.  I am sure to win their trust back; I am trainable.


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