Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chillin with my Peeps

Chickens. On the Brain. That's the only way to describe us. I thought that when I got the idea to get chickens, I would be the only one (well, besides the kids) that would not laugh hysterically at the idea... or shake their heads disapprovingly. When I first told Evan that I wanted a chicken (it started with just one) He was not only open to the idea, but he seemed to encourage the idea. I wasn't sure if it was just because he didn't want me to launch into debating convincing fact-providing Meagan mode, or if he really truly thought it was a good idea. In the next day or so, the excitement with which he researched online with me was proof that he really DID want to have chickens.

I have never had chickens. When I was in high school, we moved the chicken shed (an old and very cool shed that used to house feed and chickens at different stages in it's life) from my great grandparents house on the farm, to our house on the farm. I was entirely excited. It was going to eventually be converted. I wasn't sure if I would do chickens, but was excited about possibly pheasants or quail or something that I could raise and release into the wild. I saw an animal related project, another FFA Project... I was entirely excited. I guess at the time I didn't see that my dad must have been excited too, because he moved the building for me without much prompting. At the time I probably meant that HE didn't want me to launch into debating convincing fact-providing Meagan mode, but I should have taken into account that as a child, he was raised around chickens. He had a pet chicken on a leash. He had animals all around him, thanks in part to his amazing grandpa, and his dad (my grandpa.) He had a goat looking into his bedroom window in the morning, from the garage roof. He had a pony. He had chickens. He had cows. He had pretty much any animal that they wanted to raise. I have to believe that there is something about animal lovers that just might be genetic. (I know that someone is laughing) But I have always loved animals. I have wanted to raise them, nurse them, care for them (and eat some of them) regardless of whatever stumbling blocks might have supposedly been in my way.

Growing up, no matter what animal I wanted, no matter what reason that I was given that it just couldn't happen, I would try to find a way. The only animal that I was absolutely forbidden to have, was a cat. This is probably a big reason why I am not a cat person. But my dad would never ever give on cats. And I think we knew that, but when we were young, I know we still harassed him about cats.

I am not really sure that I actually asked permission for some of my animals. Okay, for most of them. I know for a fact that I was occasionally told no.... but did it anyway. That's kinda my style. As a parent that must have been insanely annoying. But I did bring home a rabbit from school when it let out for the summer my senior year. And it was a mean rabbit. Like a wild one that we bred in class. But it needed a home and it was cute and small at first. Then it got mean and it bit and it clawed the shit out of me on a regular basis till it got to the point where I didn't have much enjoyment from it anymore. Eventually it got some type of tumor or growth on it's chest that just kept growing and eventually it got so that I could lay it in a small cardboard box and it wouldn't even try to get out. Not because it was well-behaved, but because it wasn't healthy. It was devastating and relieving at the same time... to know that the rabbit's time had come. I remember one day I left for school/work. I told dad that I was leaving the rabbit in a cardboard box on the front step and that I knew it was very sick. I told him that I hoped that it would be gone when I got home, and that I didn't want to know if it hopped into the wild or if my dad ended it's suffering. I still don't know to this day. Dad was good like that :)

Lots of animals have lived in that rabbit hutch since then.

And I had cows. A gentle, cud-chewing, pacifist mamma cow named Geraldine who I raised from a bucket calf that I bought at the sale barn, right up until the day she got on the truck to go back to the sale barn after her calving years were over. She was tame as can be and I walked her around with a halter on and my beef cattle records won me a section FFA Award for Beef Proficiency. And her first calf was named Rowdy, after it promptly head butted my dad when we tried to rope him after birth... and gave dad a serious black eye. I remember not thinking that cow would see his next day of life that moment.

And then there were all our dogs. We had bad luck with dogs. Beagles. LOTS of beagles. Beagles that got sick and beagles that got hit by hay mowers and beagles that got stolen. We were attached to LOTS of beagles. We love beagles. And one mean black poodle that we took off someone's hands when they were moving and it needed a home. Then right back to beagles. Eventually I wanted my own beagle and so despite dad's answer of NO I bought Boyd for $50 from my husband's cousin back in 1997. And he will be FOURTEEN this May! And salamanders. OH did I have salamanders! I would catch them on the road, and dad would find them, and I kept them in a muddy aquarium in the garage with slimy leaves and things in there. I loved those things. I think dad loved them too.

And I had fish in my bedroom and little crabs in the water that jumped out and I found like MONTHS later all dried up on the floor. When I was really little (4 or 5?) I had a fish named... Molly? I know that was our first bucket calf's name... but I think it was the fish's name too? It was in a goldfish bowl in the living room and one day the fish was gone and mom said she grilled me over and over about what I did with the fish, and even tried telling me I wouldn't get into trouble if I would just please tell her where the fish went. I swore up and down that I had no idea and then a while after that, she pulled out the couch to vacuum and we found the petrified fish behind the couch. She said It must have jumped out of the bowl and that then she felt bad for accusing me and drilling me for info on the missing fish when I truly did not know where it was.

Unfortunately my first attempt to have chickens or quail or pheasants never came to light, because a bad storm came through that spawned tornadoes in our area, and it sheared off pine trees in the backyard and flipped that little chicken coop right over and did enough damage that we deemed it fit for the burn pile. There are pictures of that somewhere. I was sad.

I never thought that 15 years later I would be sitting in my own house with 6 baby chicks in my basement. They are so wonderful. I love everything about them. I think I was always dissuaded from liking chickens because I was always told they poop too much and they are filthy and loud and smelly and that they peck at you and eat your plants and kill your grass.

The day that Marek and I stumbled upon the new chicks at TSC, I didn't really think about having chickens. I thought about having chickens "someday." You know, "someday" when I get to live on a farm again. "Someday" when the kids need a pet project. But for some reason those darn chicks nagged at me all day. By early afternoon I had already decided that I could have just ONE chicken. Right? I had been googling and reading and seeing things about backyard chickens... and my research rapidly expanded and continually came up with encouraging, positive, happy chicken owners. Even in CITIES. Not in villages like we live in... in CITIES. Houston. Seattle. Chicago. Really.

We set out to find out about out local ordinances (clear!) and then to find out what we would need to provide (doable!) and then to choose a breed. As soon as I opened a magazine, I saw a Buff Orpington and instantly was in love. Beautiful, fluffy, soft hens. They looked like everything a hen should be! Plump and soft and mothering. But I thought right away that those pretty chickens probably couldn't live in Illinois. The more I researched, the more pleasantly surprised I was. They were recommended for city and town dwelling. Tame and Quiet. Docile and good with pets and children. Great Egg Layers and Meat Birds. Beautiful Fluffy Plumage that keeps them nice and warm in very cold climates. The list of positives just went on and on. Heavy birds so they don't fly (bonus!) The problem would just be finding them.

I went through lots of online hatcheries, discovering that most required a minimum order of 15-25 chicks. I only wanted 1. Then a friend had told me that was really not a good idea, because one chicken won't live long without some companionship. So then I thought... well 2. Then it became three. But there was no way I could take care of more than 2-3 hens in this little yard. I wanted the chickens to be able to free range in the front yard when we were home during the day, and be outside with the kids when we played. I wanted to provide them with a small but adequate coop with a small run they could use when they couldn't free range. But there was just no way I could even raise 25 chicks... I just don't have the space! Then I found a place that lets you buy 5... but 5 chicks were going to be insanely inflated because the shipping cost of that small number was higher than for a whole lot of them. It would cost me MORE to have 5 chicks shipped than to have the same breed shipped in a lot of 15-25 chicks. What? $46 for 5 Buff Orpingtons. I set out to find a hatchery "locally" that would have chicks or even eggs I could incubate if I had to.

The most local I could find was almost 2 hours away, in Miller Iowa. I made plans to potentially drive there, sent the hatchery an email, and they didn't respond. As impatient as I am, the very day after this chicken idea popped into my head, I decided to call TSC Back and just check to see which bird breeds they were carrying. I was sure there wouldn't be Buffs there, but I was curious and thought maybe they could give me an idea of where I could go. The lady at the store ran through the entire list of chicks and ducks they had, and then said "Oh, and there is our feature chick too... let's see. What are those called? *rustling of papers* Buff something..."

I nearly jumped through the phone at her "Buff Orpingtons?!?!?! Are they Buff Orpingtons?!?!" Well, she said "that might be it." and I thought I was going to have to reach through the phone and say "For Gods sake woman, Go look!" She still couldn't pronounce the name, but I spelled it out for her and she said "yep, that's our feature chick" and then I asked how many they had and how much they were and asked them to hold 6 for me at $1.99 each. Yep. Six chicks for $12. I did only want three, but there is the issue that these are straight run chicks, which means they aren't sexed, which means that there might be a rooster (or 6, hopefully not) in my lot... and I don't plan on keeping a rooster...

If I ordered online I could have gotten pullets (female chickens under a year old) but I wasn't paying $46 for 5 chicks. Plus there is a minimum quantity of 6 chicks from TSC, and you have to order in multiples of 6. I suppose this is so they don't have someone just take ONE home as a pet and also because they won't be left with just ONE or TWO at the end of the season. I wonder if chicks go on clearance? LOL.

So they were holding the chicks and The kids and I feverishly got dressed and Evan looked at me and said "Now, you can't just go buy those chicks without having everything you need all set up for them." (really, I could tell that he knew that's exactly what I was about to do, and he knew exactly that I would make it work, but he wasn't prepared to let me do that) and so I put the kids in the van, we drive to the farm and got our baby pool (good ol turtle) out of the bottom shed and then drove to MY parents for a light, gathered the wood chip bedding that I had in the basement already, cleared a space for them, plugged in our light and then hopped right back in the van to drive to TSC to get the chicks, some starter feed, and a waterer and feeder.

So, 24 hours after I saw the chicks for the very first time with Marek, with no idea or thought of having chickens in my near future, I was already on my way to pick up 6 baby chicks. If you haven't noticed already, this is how I operate. Most people probably think that I jump into things without thinking them through, and that I am impulsive and silly. But I have to say, it's quite the opposite. In fact, I might just be one of the quickest researchers I know. The night after I saw the chicks the first time, I had already spread out a pile of about 25 hobby farm and homesteading/natural living magazines (which I already owned of course) and had read every chicken related article in every single one of them (and there were plenty) Then I got out my sustainable living book and read about every type of poultry or fowl and how to raise, care for, and shelter them. Then I read how to process them and store the meat and eggs. Then I googled and spent hours researching breeds and looking at coops and reading about backyard chickens.

The next day the kids and I talked about chickens like crazy. Evan too. We are already in a great little routine of checking on the chicks a few times a day, and today I cleaned their bedding and replaced it, and the same with their water... and also checked their food and removed any debris. They like to be held and softly petted (especially on the chest) and are nestled all snug. They lay sleeping and we like to sneak down and catch them all laying flat with their eyes closed. Evan and I both commented that the first time we saw them sleeping like that we thought they had all died. LOL. So far, it's been more than 24 hours and we still have all 6. I sure hope we can keep them healthy and safe, but I know realistically (because a hundred people have reminded me) that chicks do get sick and die, or predators get them, etc etc.

So now I have been all crazy researching pens and coops and on all the backyard chicken websites looking at photos and specs and ideas... and at things that the coop owners or builders would do differently. I have a sided and shingled wood doghouse that we are planning to convert to a little coop. I have decided that I want the coop to look like a miniature barn or cottage. I would love to have a miniature barn, red with white trim. I would REALLY love to have a cupola on top for venting with a miniature rooster weather vane (believe me, I have already looked into all of this!) But I realistically know that perhaps my helpers won't be as excited about barn details as I am, and if this is the case I am going to rally my cause for a cottage looking coop with a windowbox... maybe yellow with white trim or even a pretty blue or green. My luck it will look like a dog house that got attacked by chicken wire :)

So, that's the story. Well, someone is coughing in their bed, so I had better wrap this up. I will leave you with a couple of images that might make you smile :)

Top: Chicks Huddled together sleeping right after they got home. 2nd Row from Left: Ardyn helping pack the chicks up at the store, kids and daddy checking the temperature in the brooder, Ardyn listening for the peep peeping in the checkout line. 3rd row from left: chick close up in my hand, Marek is so excited about the chicks!

These pics are currently serving as my coop inspiration. They were generously shared at by other chicken owners.

I would really like mine to have a compartment that is latchable, perhaps under the coop, where I can store a sealed plastic containers or buckets of food, grit, etc with the food scoops. Then I don't have to find a place "elsewhere" when I can just have the supplies on hand right there. I also want to make a slatted floor that is ABOVE a solid floor, with a space between that will fit a plastic tray, like you can buy at the farm supply stores, just like the kennel trays that are in dog kennels. I would then make a small door that I can open from the outside, and slide the tray and dirty bedding out to dump or scoop, and then freshen. The plastic tray could also be cleaned/scrubbed/pressure washed whenever necessary. I choose a slotted floor over a wire floor because the specific breed I have chosen is a heavier breed and can be prone to foot problems if not on a slatted or solid floor. They don't do well with wire flooring in their coops. I think it would be nice if the house were on stilts, but I honestly don't think I want it too high off the ground. Just perhaps 2-3 feet. I want the kids to be able to see inside and help collect eggs and care for the chickens too, and I don't want it to be toooo tall and obviously glaring above the fence in the yard... plus that wouldn't block the porch windows in the location we have in mind.

I want an externally added on nest box, and I am thinking just one, but perhaps two just to be safe. I am considering that the nest boxes themselves be removeable and just nest perfectly inside the "addition" and the roof of the nesting addition be hinged for easy access and removal of the nesting boxes. I would also like a lightweight roof, instead of a shingled one. I have considered tin, or perhaps even that corrugated looking plastic that mimics tin. I have seen one coop that used the clear corrugated plastic in the roof, which allowed lots of natural light into the coop. This could be good and bad in summer heat.... so not sure about that just yet. Tin roof seems to be lightweight, sturdy, and logical. The lighter roof would allow for removal of the roof for cleaning, maintenance, and additions to the coop.

I am currently undecided on the floor of the small run. Some people have solid wood. Some people have wire bottoms. I could do slatted wood, but there would still need to be something to stop digging predators. Unsure about this. The solid floor is nice because there is a definite bottom to the coop... but at the same time, it isn't necessarily easier to clean, and I have seen dust baths with play sand done either way. Oh the decisions!

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