By Krislee Johnson
In this past year of caring for chickens, ducks and turkeys my days have been filled with many first-time experiences. Over the past 5-7 years I’ve dreamed of raising chickens and have romanticized about gathering eggs each morning. After a full year of living ‘the dream’ let me share with you a summary of the reality.
I’ll start by saying this, I love my birds. There’s no other way to put it – I’m officially The Crazy Chicken Lady. Their antics make me laugh almost daily. I get instant gratification when my feathered babies come running towards me…even when I have no treats. The flock and I love taking long walks together. They enjoy their mealworm treats and I my glass of wine.
In short, the enjoyment I have received through caring for my birds has been amazing. It truly is the best part of the entire experience. Yes, I’m saying the work of caring for my birds has been wonderful. Sometimes tiring, always poopy and dusty, but gratifying.
However, as I chose to free-range my birds there was big reality I was not prepared for. Poop gets everywhere. It was on the porch (see photo below – drying turkey poo delightfully runny from eating green apples), sprinkled throughout the back yard and caked on the bottoms of every shoe I own.
It picked the most inopportune times and places to show up. Smeared along the back of my leg as I chatted with a neighbor. Or better yet, found spread like peanut butter across the leather of my purse as I cruised the aisles at Tractor Supply. And, just wait until your dog finds a particularly juicy morsel to roll in.
Another minor inconvenience was the fact that birds pick at EVERYTHING. If you let them roam freely be prepared to fence off anything you don’t want them in. Gardens, grape vines, porches, decks and flowerbeds are just a few of their favorite places.
What could possibly be good about all of this? They are great natural fertilizers and they are good at controlling bugs. I’ve seen them eat our many spiders, ticks, crickets, moths and grasshoppers here on the farm. They’ve even gotten ahold of mice. They chase each other and toss their prey into the air which can be quite the show.
Beyond enjoying their unique personalities I’ve gained a sense of personal achievement. I’ve kept 30+ birds healthy and alive over the past year! I have learned that paying close attention to my birds is not simply explained as Crazy Chicken Lady doting.
Knowing your birds well assists in better identifying illness. It’s a necessity. From detecting a slight limp to knowing who is laying what egg, this may provide you with clues on a bird’s health. Ultimately, this can determine the overall health of the flock, especially if its something contagious.
After my first eye opening bout with bumblefoot I recognized the need for a first aid kit. As my husband would say, “There is always something.” Bumblefoot, random injuries and illness, you have to be prepared. With my basic Poultry First Aid Kit I was able to help my duck Diller after a dog attack. Knowledge is power and preparedness is key, I’m still learning.
By the fall of our first year our eggs came rolling in. I was on cloud nine after discovering a couple precious oval gems in a nesting box. Imagine my disappointment having hard boiled and peeled those beauties into something resembling Freddy Kreuger’s face. I had to educate myself on the fine art of hard steaming farm fresh eggs.
I learned about eggs with no yolks to eggs with no shell. Big eggs, tiny eggs, weird gelatinous eggs. How long eggs kept on the counter, how to float eggs and discovering eggs in unusual places. Wrinkled misshapen eggs, the science and biology behind colored eggs and causes of weak shelled eggs. Believe it or not, there was a lot of information I never knew about eggs! Including a recent lesson…the smell of rotten eggs.
The sheer amount of chicken and duck sex here on the farm was another lesson I’d never forget. Poor hens were pecked and ridden until their backs and shoulders were bare. What seemed like a constant chase of our beta rooster by our alpha rooster became almost tiresome.
Ducks seemed to copulate at peak levels as soon as their pool waters were refreshed. My husband and I shared many laughs as our Pekin drake would finish his business by falling straight over onto his side. Not to mention how we roared when one of the female ducks grabbed his doodle like it was a juicy worm.
Fertilization seemed to be the name of the game on our 25 acre farm. So, naturally I delved further into keeping chickens through the miraculous experience of egg incubation. Learning the stages of growth, candling and raising young chicks in a brooder was educational. Watching my first successful hatch was amazing and utterly fulfilling.
I tried my hand at sexing chicks; learning about various methods and what worked or what was pure poppycock. There were even moments of giddiness when I realized my “first born” was a pullet and I would get to keep her.
Over a year’s time I learned and Googled so many things having to do with chickens and ducks. The jargon alone keep Siri busy when I didn’t understand a particular article. What could they eat, what could they not, when does this or that happen? Solutions were found on anything from dealing with care issues to reducing boredom in the flock.
Coop changes were constant during our initial year of raising birds. One roost bar evolved into 3 roost bars. Rolls of plastic sheeting turned our covered outdoor pen into a chilled, yet wind and snow free space. I even started using the deep litter method during the harsh winter. After a couple missteps resulting in ammonia issues, I finally got it right.
My initial core flock of 2 roosters, 8 hens and 6 ducks survived every season. Through blizzards and nasty negative temperatures, they had no signs of illness. Perhaps there were a couple instances of slight comb frostbite, but it was minor.
Ultimately, with life came death here on the farm. Butchering birds I had grown attached to was no easy task. Admittedly, some were easier than others to part with. Good temperaments and bad, my goal was to put meat in the freezer. That, and to have a healthy flock of egg layers remaining.
Sadly, one unintended “assumed” death also came knocking on our door. This spring a nightly headcount revealed a missing hen. After a quick search, no feathers or signs of struggle remained. My husband believes a coyote may have been responsible for her disappearance. I secretly held onto hope that she became broody and left to do her thing. Nearly 10 weeks later my hope has faded completely.
All in all, in terms of predators we have been fortunate. I’ve seen eagles, hawks, owls, feral cats, coyotes and our neighbor reported seeing a raccoon. Not to be forgotten, our own domesticated dogs. Considering we free-range our flock, I think we must be doing something right.
Through all of my chicken, duck and turkey adventures I am satisfied with what I’ve come know. At 40-something it has been exciting to have so many firsts! Yes, it is a lot of hard work. Yes, some days I wish my coop had an automatic door, feeder and water fountain. BUT. It is worth it. All the work is worth it. After all, life without experiences is merely surviving. Now I can say, “I did it!”