When picking out our flock 4 years ago, my wife and I went to the local co-op and chose several varieties; Buff Orpington, Red Sexlinks, Amber Star, Ameraucana. We have since settled on the Buff Orpington since they seem to be the most easy going and don’t tend to pick on the other chickens. My wife’s favorites are the Ameraucanas, they lay pretty colored eggs and seem to snuggle in when held, but they are not large egg producers. The layers were the Amber Stars and Sexlinks, but the predators took out the amber stars quickly and a few of the Sexlinks act like predators by picking on the other chickens. We now have a somewhat peaceful chicken community because we added only Buffs and Australorps into the mix two years ago. We live in N. Idaho and they all handle the cold. The worst cold snap we have had these past two winters were in the negative teens. Of our original flock four years ago, we still have nine of the nineteen chickens. The only variety that has not been sick or died in some tragic way has been the Ameraucanas, however, they are the least aggressive, shyest of our flock and were picked on ruthlessly by the others.
This year we are butchering our older birds and canning the meat. They are no longer producing eggs frequently enough and seem to be a drain on the chicken feed. We found a person who will butcher each bird for three dollars. I have butchered several chickens in the past and don’t really enjoy the process. In a pinch I could do it, but to pay someone else to do this deed is worth it to me. If I was working from home full time, I would most likely butcher my own chickens.
For our new batch of chicks this year, we have decided to try two different breeds Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rock. We have to keep the chicks warm, but without the extra electricity to run a heat lamp. The chicks will be camping out behind our wood stove until their feathers develop. Our son has decided to be the chicks’ Papa and spend some extra time holding them to help raise a people friendly flock.
While preparing for our new chicks to arrive, we are also having our ladies prepare our garden for us. I built a run from the coup to the fenced garden and the chickens are able to run back and forth from the garden to the laying boxes in the coop during the day. My son and I throw some scratch in the garden beds. The chickens race over when called and go to work tilling up the garden bed for the day. We love that they are doing all the weeding and tilling of the soil for our future garden. The chickens also seem really happy to not be cooped up. We began to keep them in the coop and their chicken run versus allowing them to free range. When the chickens were free ranged, predators would sneak onto our property in the evenings and chickens would disappear.
On one particular event, I found several feathers in the trees about 100 yards away from the house. Our dog tracked the scent around the feathers and followed a trail until she pointed her nose up a tree. The only animal we know that would stealthily take a chicken like that and climb a tree with the prey to eat all the while leaving a trail for the dog to travel is a mountain lion, which we do have in our area.
Four years ago, when we purchased our first flock of chicks, we had a mountain lion visit our home’s front door at 3:00 am in the morning. I was awoken from a dead sleep from a cougar scream at the front door. It must have been frustrated that the chicks were protected by a barrier it couldn’t penetrate and let out a scream. I ran for the shotgun. My wife grabbed the flashlight and we headed for the door to put an end to our unwelcomed visitor. We jumped out of the house in our pajamas and rubber boots. I pointed the barrel of the gun and my wife pointed the flashlight somewhere else. I then quickly moved the gun to aim where the flashlight was pointing, and my wife quickly moved the light to where the gun once was pointed before. I was really glad that cougar had become bored so quickly and left. My wife and I now have our flashlight and shotgun movements choreographed for the next visit. We were and still are city slickers, but we are also brave and foolish at heart. This would not be the last time I would reach for the shotgun.
Another time a distant neighbor’s dog came on the property and killed one chicken and attempted to kill another for sport. Dogs are my favorite animal, but I was going for my gun when the beast wouldn’t leave the chase alone. In Northern Idaho if you can’t keep your animals from causing a nuisance on a neighbor’s property, their lives are forfeit. The dog escaped, but it wasn’t long before he disappeared from the neighbor’s property permanently. If the dog was a nuisance to others on the road as well, it is probably buried on the property of whoever was packing.
Our new chicks arrived Thursday, April 14th. We picked up our son after school and had him help us get the chicks. He didn’t really show much interest, but appreciated tagging along. This year’s Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks should add a new diversity to our flock. We should also be able to easily identify the old birds from the new flock, which will make culling the older group easier in the future.
Last night was a difficult night as we gathered our 9 remaining chickens from our original flock of 4 years. As I type this, my wife is driving them to the butcher with an ominous thunderstorm rumbling on the horizon. With the drops of rain hitting our cheeks, it becomes indistinguishable from the tears. I justify this last act, knowing to keep them they will eventually die from old age or an age related illness. What makes this so hard is they were our fist batch of chickens, and we called them all by name and knew each of their quirky personalities. Perhaps, culling the flock will get easier with time.