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Blog: My Little Farm in Town

Just How Complicated Can Five Chickens Make Your Life?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Seventeen inches of snow fell on my neighborhood last week, complicating all of our lives immensely. Then the temperature dropped below 0 F. We had received one or two inches a few days before so I had already been pulling the big tarp over my hens' straw-bedded yard (previously three raised garden beds) each night to keep it relatively snow free. The Girls don't like the feel of snow on their tender chicken feet. They refuse to leave the coop if I don't sweep the snow off the run between the house and yard and put a little straw down to buffer them from the cold.

My five "girls" retreated into the coop before the worst of the storm hit. To further complicate all of our lives, one of the gals decided to molt almost bald before the storm. I entered the coop one chilly morning to what looked like the aftermath of  a massive pillow fight. Since the girls are essentially working pets and she would go out if her sisters went out, I felt I had to coop them and start using the ceramic heat emitter bulb to raise the temperature enough to keep her alive until her new feathers emerged.

In other respects the gals are surprisingly hardy. I purposely chose Dominiques for the color and tightness of their feathers, ability to forage, and their calm dispositions. I liked the idea of a bird that could stand cold, resist frostbite, blend in, find it's own food, and get along with each other and me. My girls will chose to stay outside in 14 or 15 F with a windbreak and some scratch!

Another complication of raising chickens in town is that they cannot be a nuisance. That means no excessive noise, no smell, no flies, no vermin, and no eye sores.  Needless to say, there are no roosters in my small flock. I had to carefully think through my backyard "system" before I even brought the chicks home to brood.

I already had a big two-bin composting system in place to handle my garden and vegetable household waste, so manure disposal has never been a problem. I layer kitchen scraps that I don't feed the hens and the droppings from under their roost and the floor of the coop each day with rough garden material. The benefit is more finished compost more quickly.

How to prevent flies and smells? My extremely handy husband built a very stout, dry coop. (I traded hostas with my  generous brother-in-law for 80% of the building materials). Dry manure doesn't breed flies. Bedding the yard with seedy grass hay keeps the girls busy, and as they scratch to find bugs and larvae under the dark moist cover, they turn their manure into the soil of the yard and into contact with all the decomposers in the soil, eliminating odor. From time to time, I rake up the broken-down bedding and add it as a rough layer to the compost bin or use it as a feeding mulch on one of my garden beds.

Idle beaks are the devils workshop! Busy birds are generally quiet birds. Unless they see a strange dog or person walking by on the street below, or a bunny in the next yard, or they are working on laying an egg! Noise management complicates our lives the most. Five angry hens can make quite a racket. Distractions in the form of food sometimes works, but I can't help feeling that I am the one being manipulated!

Vermin problems have been minimized so far by raising the coop, burying wire in the ground, and fastening it to the bottom of the structure. Hardware wire between the floor joists and the floor of the coop keeps mice and rats from gnawing their way in easily.

The coop is sided and shingled, and next spring it will be painted to match our house. The yard has lattice I obtained from various sources (my favorite pieces were free or purchased at garage sales) fastened to the wire on three sides. It makes the yard more attractive and breaks up the birds' patterns, making them less attractive to loose and roving dogs--the biggest killers of urban chickens.

My husband just woke up long enough to comment that blogs are supposed to be short, so I'll stop here. Stay Warm, Begonia.

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Wisconsin USA
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