Way back when we were beginning farmers in 2011, we rarely rose with the chickens. We took to shutting the windows at night so we wouldn’t hear our roosters crow at dawn, and even strategically placed the coop away from our bedroom for the same reason. The chickens were lucky to start their foraging by 8am, past prime time for grubs and whatnot.
But all that’s changed now that my husband has taken on the job of Chief Chicken Tender. One of his first orders of business was to maximize free-range forage time for the birds. “I really think they like being out in the early morning and late evenings best. They are with us such a short time anyway, so we owe it to them to let them have that time,” is how he put it.
“I agree,” I responded, and proceeded to snug into the blankets when the alarm went off at 6am the next day. Amir quickly ascertained that if our chickens were truly going to live the good life, it was up to him to make it happen. And so for the past few months, he’s been arising at 5:30am to let the chickens out for prime foraging. Sometimes he returns to bed for a snooze. But to date, he has not once accepted my offer to take over that chore to give him a day or two of sleeping in. “I actually kind of enjoy it,” he said. “Every morning, watching them rush out of the coop… I always think of the Bob Marley song, Exodus,” he laughed.
“Buh ba buh ba ba ba bah bah buh buh buh… Exodus, movement of jah chickens…” I sang in response.
Amir took it upon himself to care for those birds as God’s creatures, worthy of tenderness, respect, and compassion, up until the time they are labeled in the cooler. That means they are practically pets until then. Not just livestock. Chickens. With personalities. Hundreds of them. Which is why he took it so hard when a predator made its presence known. The predator wasn’t just messing with our livestock and livelihood, it was messing with defenseless creatures who were part of the family Amir was called upon to protect.
We had spent the morning moving that batch of chicks from the brooder out into their new digs on the field. They were 24 days old. We had a houseguest with us who had arrived in the late afternoon, and what with all the visiting, it was darker than usual when Amir headed out to close the birds in for the night. I was doing the dishes when Amir came flying in, holding a chick. “This one is hurt really bad, we need to keep it inside. There was a big bird. Maybe an owl. And at least one dead chick.”
And so we found ourselves preparing another little infirmary box in the back bedroom. The brooder had a fly problem we hadn’t yet dealt with, and the deep gashes on the back flesh of the little bird needed to be kept clean. By the time the night was through, we were dealing with a couple of dead chickens, and two in the infirmary. One of them with a severe head wound. I was sure that one was not going to make it, and wondered if it wouldn’t have been more humane to let the predator finish him off. But that chick didn’t seem to know that half of its brain was missing, and went about the business of chirping and eating and drinking and otherwise acting like a normal, healthy chick. I guess that’s where the expression bird brain comes from? Apparently they don’t need much to function.
By the time the dust settled, we had buried a couple of chickens and were nursing five wounded warriors in the back bedroom. Our house was beginning to smell like a chicken coop. Some of the birds were big enough to jump out of their box and had taken to roaming about the room, pooping on polished wood floors and down comforter covers. But Amir was vigilant with the neosporin salve and the birds all seemed to be healing.
He was also busy trying to catch a predator and transform the tarp-covered moveable pasture coop into fort knox. He called in the big guns, a friend of ours who had the title “Professional Animal Wrangler” on his resume. Jason came out and surveyed the scene, heard the gruesome details of the particular kind of damage sustained, and determined we had a raccoon on our hands. The owl had probably dropped in opportunistically when the birds were not safely in their coop that first night when darkness fell. But that raccoon? How did he get through the electric poultry netting?
When I came back from the market the next day. our elegant moveable chicken hoophouse had been secured. Concrete paving stones lined the outsides, and plywood rectangles had been attached to the chicken wire fronts and backs. There were 4 x 4s wedged into all gaps between coop and earth. And traps had been set with sardines. The birds were safely locked in their coops at the twilight’s last gleamings, complete with a light on in the coop to further deter predators, plus to aid the chickens with their non-existent night vision.
To move the coop now required a couple of hours of take down and set up, so the regular daily moves were not a viable option. But the birds still needed a clean place, so we added the task of raking up hay from our mowed fields to strew on the ground of the coop between moves. I say we, but my hay making accounts for only about 10% of what’s gone into the coops. Amir’s been diligent about this duty as well.
After about a week, we were able to move the wounded warriors from the back bedroom ICU to a regular room in the brooder, and about a week after that, they were begging to go back out into the trenches. The pullet with the head wound had only a small scar to show off, and the rooster we thought would lose his eye for sure, didn’t. Amir wanted to be able to keep an eye on them, so we tagged them with cable ties before they rejoined their flock.
That night, Amir went out extra early to spend some time with the birds before bedtime. As they all began to make their way one by one to the safety of the coop, he knelt down to watch for the special ones with the green cable ties around their legs. One by one, they approached him, and he soon found himself surrounded by his special flock of five birds who weren’t yet quite sure where home was, but they knew where safety was. Two of them jumped up onto his lap. I’m quite sure he was talking chicken with them, letting them know they’d be safe inside with their long lost friends. It’s not a very thick line between chicken tender and chicken whisperer, you know.
We still haven’t caught that wily raccoon, but it hasn’t messed with our chickens again, either. We did catch a groundhog in our banana-baited trap yesterday, but as it promised it was not the culprit in our chicken woes, and also not to ever ever mess with our vegetable crops, we released it.
Now the sun has set, this longest night of the year, and the chickens are happily out foraging at their second favorite time of the day. Just this minute, as I was getting ready to wrap up this post, Amir walked in holding our pet chicken, Scruffy, the “henster.” Seems Scruffy got into a scuffle with Roo, our rooster, despite the fence between them. Scruffy’s comb was all scruffed up. Amir held Scruffy in the kitchen while I washed up the scratches and applied neosporin. It’s time for the evening chores now, just time for a quick bite of supper first. A chicken tender’s work is never done.