One of the first things most people get when they start their little farm is chickens. A few chickens running around gobbling up bugs and leaving you eggs to eat is just what every homestead needs. Of course you want them to have free range to gobble up the most bugs and to provide you with entertainment. Of course they will obligingly return to the nest boxes you've so lovingly provided so leave their eggs. It is so perfect, isn't it?
We started with three hens that were given to us. They roamed freely and it worked out pretty well. They did scratch the mulch onto Mamaw and Papaw's sidewalk some, and there was a little poo around here and there, but with only three chickens it really wasn't a problem.
Then a friend gave us some ducks. I really enjoy the ducks. For the longest time they made their home under our back deck. They didn't cause any problems. Finding their eggs could be a challenge, but when we did, we were rewarded with large rich eggs. It worked out well, until they got brave and ventured to the front yard.
For some unknown reason the ducks decided to take up residency in our front yard. Fine, except one thing, they decided the front porch was the best sleeping area. Every morning they left large unwanted deposits right in front of the door. Around the same time, another friend gave us more than a dozen chickens. It was time for some fencing.
Papaw and Tim spent quite a bit of time building a fence for the poultry. We still wanted them to free range, but wanted to keep them away from the houses. The solution was to put fencing far enough out that chickens could roam in the forest, clean up under the rabbit hutches, and clean up in the goat barn, but not go around the end of the fencing to the yards. It took awhile to get it poultry proof. Actually it was never quite perfect, as we have a few smaller mixed breed hens that are quite determined to lay and nest away from the rest of the chickens, but for the most part we were happy with the solution. The poultry also seemed happy with the solution. For the better part of last summer, and all winter, they stayed in the pasture.
Then this spring, the ducks starting going on adventures. Our ducks are Rouens. Their bodies are heavy. Their wings are short. They are bred to not fly, and they don't. They barely look like they can walk, but these awkward waddling birds were walking well over a quarter a mile around the fence to feast on the tadpoles in our ditches this spring. Soon they had found their favorite nest spot on my front porch, and then they demolished all the peas in the garden. Time to build more fence.
Instead of adding on or enclosing what was already built for the chickens, we decided it would be easier and work better to duck proof a small bit of pasture that we use as a nursery area for the livestock. It already had a small wallow in it for water. We moved an unused dog house in for shelter, and the wallow was dug out to make a small pond for the ducks. It took many attempts to get all the gaps closed enough to keep the ducks in, but finally they were staying in. At about the same time, we started noticing chickens were missing.
The chickens were perfectly happy in their pasture. They were foraging for bugs, and cleaning up the areas there were supposed to. Not all of them were diligent in returning to the nest box to lay, but for the most part things were working out well. Then the rooster went missing, and a count revealed a couple of hens were also missing.
One afternoon Kellen heard the chickens sound out their alarm. One minute he saw a hen walking along the edge of the ridge. The next he saw a puff of feathers. Tim tried to track it, but only found that puff of feathers and a small bit of remains clear down in the hollow. We suspect a fox was the culprit. We've set out a live trap, but have caught nothing. Maybe this free ranging isn't all it is cracked up to be?
The poor hens spent over a week shut up in their coop. Another fence line has been added around their coop to create a large run, and they finally were let out today. The pullets that are in another location, have also been prey to something. They will soon be joining the hens. The chickens will have a tiny bit of forest to forage in and rabbits to clean up after. They will no longer have access to the goat barn. I guess we will have more flies this year.
Chickens are a staple of the family homestead. They provide meat and eggs, and will clean up after the other animals. They are fairly easy to care for, but certainly do come with their own challenges. I doubt that our poultry adventures are over, but hopefully there will be a lull in the excitement.