The chicken whisperer: Tales from a backyard chicken farmer in Salisbury
SALISBURY — I never wanted chickens, because I didn’t want the carnage.
Over the last 10 years or so, keeping backyard chickens has become fashionable, especially here in Vermont. But my wife and I have two dogs, so I felt adding chickens to our lives would only increase the already high percentage of critter death on our property. Add two cats and most mornings I am presented with at least one headless mouse and/or a mole or chipmunk for good measure. Then our springer spaniel, Ziggy, snatches the bodies in his mouth and chews on them for half the day, flinging their wet, lifeless, bloody little corpses into the air and catching them, then happily carrying them around in his mouth on our walks in the woods. Eventually, he loses interest until the next fresh kill arrives on the doorstep.
To me, chickens always represented a larger, messier, feathered corpse that I would eventually have to dispose of, and I had staunchly opposed the idea for years. Until two years ago.
In the decade since we bought our farmhouse on two acres, my wife, Sarah, has wanted two things — chickens, and a new mailbox. I had been stubbornly resisting both, but in the span of one magical month in October 2014, both of her wishes came true.
• • • • •
Across the road from us sits a simple, white ranch-style house that served as an income rental property for years.
The owners decided to sell the house in the spring of 2014, and notified the family that they had to move out. Over the next six weeks or so, they did, leaving a yard full of Chevy truck bodies, empty propane tanks, garden hose, beer cans, scrap lumber and a host of other junk. They also left their chickens.
We didn’t realize it at first. We would come down our driveway and across the road we could see the chickens down near the sugarhouse the tenants had built. For a few days, we just thought that eventually they would come back and gather up the chickens and take them wherever they had moved.
Then, the chickens started coming across the road, scratching and picking and foraging in the forested buffer between our driveway and the adjacent neighbor’s property. Their young grandsons started feeding them when they could.
After about 10 days, Sarah made her plea.
“They’re starving,” she said, looking at me with those eyes I’ve never been able to say “no” to. “They’re going to die. We have to do something.”
“But I don’t want chickens!” I protested.
At the end of the day, I am a huge animal lover. And though it was a stretch for me, chickens are, in fact, animals. Since there was no other choice, I could not in good conscience be responsible for the demise of a chicken flock due to neglect. So, we got chickens.
For the next several weeks we started feeding them on their property near their coop, and it was during this “getting to know you” period than I began to develop a real fondness for the birds. They were a unique flock, and although you could fill a book with what I didn’t know about chickens, I could tell that these birds were special.
There were two full-size roosters. When the neighbor’s grandsons were feeding them, they named the roosters “Thunder” and “Lightning, and it stuck. Thunder was the classic Rhode Island Red, replete with green, orange and red feather on the side, a green plume of a tail, and red waddle and comb. He was big, and he was magnificent.
But he was not the alpha rooster, oh no. That was “Lightning,” who was an Aracauna, I think. He was green, with a ruff of white feathers around his neck and shoulders. He was just as large, and clearly bore the responsibility of keeping the others in line.
There was a third rooster, the size of a hen but with the comb and waddle (the thing under their chin). Turned out he is a Bantam rooster. He was brown and red with a red comb and waddle, but he had black feathers at his ankles. My daughter, 19 at the time, named him something else that I can’t print in a family newspaper. He started roosting on top of a nearby sugarhouse at night when all the other chickens would be in the coop and wouldn’t come down. I had to start grabbing him with my bare hands and putting him in the coop. His family-friendly name is “Billy”.
There were three hens. “Big Bertha” was the most reliable laying hen, and she didn’t take shit from anybody. She was big and dark, dark brown. She regularly laid huge, light green eggs. She was the workhorse of the hens.
Then there was a put-upon hen with gray and white-flecked feathers. My wife named her “Maizie” and I was never sure of her purpose. She didn’t seem to lay eggs, and her role was the scapegoat for the rest of the flock. Her goal was to eat enough to flourish, which she did, but to not draw too much attention to herself.
Finally, there was “Goldie,” the other laying hen. She was lovely, plump with light brown and gold feathers. Goldie was the first hen to greet me when I went over to feed them in the morning, probably because we had history.
One evening a few months after I started caring for the flock, I made my second pilgrimage of the day over to the coop. I spread the ground corn scratch on the ground and refilled the waterer. I check the nesting boxes. Holding a still-warm egg in my hand, I did a quick head count and realized that Goldie was not present and accounted for.
I started looking in the bushes, calling “Heeere, chick, chick chick! Heeere, chick, chick, chick!” I looked under the sugarhouse, around the sap buckets and piles of scrap wood. No Goldie.
I circled around the back of the coop past a large roll of unused chicken wire, starting to fear she had been eaten. I stopped and called again, and then I heard a sound.
“Goldie?” I said.
It was the softest “cluck: I had ever heard. I looked down at the roll of chicken wire.
I got down on my knees and on a hunch, looked into one end of the chicken wire roll. There was Goldie, staring back at me.
“Cluck!” she said plaintively.
She had gone into the center of the wire roll to lay and had gotten stuck — very stuck. Goldie was a robust hen of solid proportions, and the opening in the roll was just slightly narrower than Goldie’s width. Add chicken feet caught in the wire and I had one stuck hen.
I quickly saw there was only one way to get her out of there. I had to unroll the roll of wire.
I found the end and gingerly started to pull it toward me, turning the roll.
“Hold on, Goldie,” I said. “We’ll get you out of there.”
It was a large roll of chicken wire, and as I pulled more and more of it out, Goldie went round and round inside the middle, making her little clucks each time. By the time of got to end where I could reach in and lift her out, there was about 40 feet of wire fencing lying in a large pile, and Goldie had gone around probably 10 times.
It was the first time I had ever held a chicken. She was so soft. I held her close to by body and stroked her head. Then I gently placed her on the ground. She immediately fell over, still dizzy from being repeatedly rolled. Alarmed, I quickly picked her up again and steadied her on her feet, this time holding her upright while she got her bearings. After a minute or so, Goldie was walking on her own, seemingly unhurt by her experience.
It hit me how ridiculous this whole incident had been, and I started laughing, relieved that my favorite chicken was going to be O.K. I rolled up the chicken wire, this time into a much larger roll with plenty of room inside in case the other chickens got the same idea.
After that, Goldie was even friendlier and seemed genuinely happy to see me every time I went over for to feed the flock. I started spending more time with them, sitting on a log, watching them peck their way around the driveway and drinking out of the waterer. They were a funny group to me, always purposeful but never angry, and very close knit.
• • • • •
The coming winter turned out to be one of the coldest and snowiest in recent memory, and that’s when the flock really earned my respect. I started doing some research and was impressed when I learned that the average chicken generates roughly 10 kilowatts of heat each within their little bodies.
By January, nighttime temperatures were well below zero, minus double digits for several nights in a row. Daytime temps barely broke zero. I locked the flock in the coop, changed out the frozen solid waterer twice a day, and bedded them down with extra wood shavings. They were fine. The rooster protected the hens and helped keep them warm and they were all very easy keepers.
But when spring finally began to emerge, I started letting the birds out. They like to roost on the nearby sugarhouse, but would often refuse to go in the coop at night once it got warmer.
It was then that slowly and in dramatic fashion I learned that my original opposition to having chickens, the fear of carnage, was steeped in reality. Spring brought predators.
I lost Lightening first. One morning in March, I went over to feed the flock and it was eerily quiet. Usually, they came running as soon as they saw me, but that morning there wasn’t a chicken or rooster to be found.
I found Lightening’s body outside the run attached to the back of the coop. There were green and white feathers everywhere, and there he lay in heap, a gory necklace of bites around his neck, his throat eaten out.
The rest of the flock had scattered and were hiding terrified in the brush and nearby woods. Lightening had given his life protecting them.
Thunder was killed a month later. I had started training the flock to get inside the coop when it got dark in an effort to prevent more deaths. I would lock them in, a 2×4 across the handles of the coop door.
But inside they had a door that connected to a small run totally enclosed with chicken wire. The door was hooked to the ceiling of the coop, and I didn’t think to close it. I didn’t think anything would get in through the wire mesh. But I learned that a hungry animal will do what ever it takes to get to a chicken.
A fisher cat or a marten got Thunder. I found him in roughly the same spot as Lightening, but his body was inside the wire run and his head was outside the fencing. Whatever got him had taken hold and didn’t let go, ate out his insides and left the rest.
It was horrible. It was only after those huge, beautiful roosters died that I ever touched them. Both times, I picked up their bodies and was startled at how heavy they were. They each must have weighed at least 15 pounds.
I’ve buried two cats and a beagle in the woods behind my house. I decided not to bury the roosters without even realizing at the time why. It was the first step I needed to take toward viewing chickens less as pets and more as livestock. I needed to put some distance between my raw emotions, the helplessness and sorrow I felt for what these birds had been through. I needed to start thinking like a veterinarian, or a farmer. I put Thunder and Lightning into trash bags and took them to the local dump.
But that May, Bertha was hit by a car, and I cried. I came home from work one warm afternoon and there she was in the middle of the road. She was my best layer, producing these big, beautiful blue Easter eggs.
I’m grateful that I never had to see Goldie’s corpse. She simply disappeared. I went to feed the remaining three hens one day and she was nowhere to be found. I spent an hour searching, beating the bushes, checking all of her favorite spots, but she was gone.
Same thing with Billy. He and Maizie were the only two left when I finally had the coop moved to my own backyard later that spring. One cold, rainy night, he went back across the road and wouldn’t be caught. I came home to a note from my wife saying she was across the road trying to get Billy. I walked over in the drizzle to find her sitting next to the sugarhouse with a candle in front of her, crying.
“I can’t catch him,” she sobbed.
I told her it was O.K., that he was named his other name for a reason. I tried to grab his feet but he was too quick.
“Let’s leave him, Babe,” I said. “It’s O.K. It’s not worth it.”
We felt bad, but had to leave him there and go to bed, and we never saw him again. It was a blessing in disguise. He had no redeeming qualities. He crowed constantly and as the lone remaining rooster, was mounting Maizie so often that all of the feathers on her back come off and she was rubbed bare.
So there she was, Maizie, the dumbest, least likable and most fearful hen, the sole survivor from the original flock. There’s a lesson there.
• • • • •
A few days later, Sarah saw an ad on Craigslist for four free hens in a neighboring town. They were Leghorns, all white, with red combs and yellow legs, and they were huge. I dubbed them “The Four Hens of the Apocalypse” because I couldn’t tell them apart. Except for one. Now, the other lesson I learned about not getting as attached is that perhaps we should stop naming the chickens. Bu this one Leghorn was so magnificent, even larger than the other three and clearly the hen in charge, that I named her Janis, after Janis Joplin.
She died of natural causes last May, but I did everything I could to save her. When Janis started to act unwell, I actually took her to the vet. My vet also has chickens, and lives in my town. I made an appointment and put her in a cat crate and took her in. After an examination, he gave me a prescription for an oral antibiotic that I would have to administer twice a day for two weeks. It took a few days but I developed a technique. Fill a plastic syringe with sticky pink antibiotic, clutch the hen under your left arm, bend over, and with your left hand pry open her beak and with your right hand attempt to squirt 20ccs of medicine down her gullet. Chickens do resist this procedure.
Janis perked up after about five days of this. I started making her special chicken salads. Chickens love spinach and tomatoes, so I would make her a special paper plate of spinach and chopped tomatoes topped with sunflower seeds and mealworms. Chickens LOVE mealworms the most. Janis would be resting in the coop and even when she was too weak to move, I would put the plate in front of her and she would peck at her salad.
She rallied, and I probably added about a month to her life. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. Janis died in the coop one warm spring day almost a year after she came to me, so huge and fierce. To this day I don’t know how old any of them are. For all I know, she could have died of old age.
She died just a week after one of the most unexpected and intrusive attacks on the flock. It was a cool late May afternoon and I had been able to leave work early. I pulled my truck into the gravel driveway at my house around 3 p.m. and turned off the engine. The barn was sat straight ahead and the coop was to the right, tucked up against the woods. A quiet, calm breeze passed through the birches, and black walnuts loomed large over the barn. No traffic on the road that time of day. But something was off.
I climbed out of the truck and walked straight for the chicken coop. It was sturdily built and had survived the move from across the street well, but it was missing a piece of metal roof and needed a coat of paint. The sun had dried the dew on the thick grass hours ago, and the smell of lilac was heavy in the spring air, the light purple blooms on the ancient trees around the house had peaked just days before.
I took less than 10 steps toward the coop and I saw him, an enormous hawk, crouched over something in the chicken yard. My heart sank, and I yelled something I don’t remember, waving my arms wildly, my throat tight with the familiar grief of finding another slain chicken. The raptor’s huge size became clearer the moment he spread his wings, five feet across if they were an inch. A broad back the color of rich coffee, gold flecks, a wide smooth tail. He took off without a sound and flew low into the dark green forest bordering the backyard, expertly passing through the large maples and branches of oak in his path. And he was gone.
I ran into the coop yard and saw what I dreaded. Maizie, poor, dumb, nervous Maizie, who had become one of my best layers, who had survived four separate attacks on her flock, lay dead on the ground. Her belly was ripped open, intestines spilling onto the dirt, her breast torn, pink flesh exposed. Feathers everywhere, gray, black and white striped, so many feathers. Her eyes were closed, and I hoped to God that she died of fright before the hawk’s beak and talons ripped her apart.
My eyes welled with angry tears as I found the others hens cowering in the weeds in corner of the white fencing that surrounded the coop. They were O.K., but terrified.
I walked quickly into the house and opened the cupboard under the kitchen sink and grabbed a garbage bag. I was still trying to comprehend what I’d just witnessed. I felt the way people who are victims of burglaries must feel, violated. How dare that hawk come onto my property and into my chicken yard and commit such a barbaric act.
But by the time I got back to Maizie and lifter her into the garbage bag, I had an important realization. This was the trade-off. To have chickens is to be in touch with nature and its guaranteed cadence of life and death, weakness and strength, vulnerability and protection. If I was going to keep chickens, I would have to accept the fact that they are a quick, helpless meal to myriad predators that live around me and with me here in Vermont. And more importantly, it’s not personal. It’s nature. It’s survival of the fittest, and there is a limit to how much I can control.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” I call to them. “I’m right here.” Then I hear it, that whistle-cry and I look up and there is a hawk, high above, circling my house.
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