Midwestern winters can be notorious for its subzero temperatures, blizzards, bitterly cold and powerful winds and short days with little sunshine.
That lack of sun sometimes causes lethargy in all creatures.
One bright spot for me each day is the few minutes I spend taking care of my chickens. Right now, I only have nine older hens and one scrawny young rooster who has just learned to crow.
Since this winter has been a mild one, my chickens get to enjoy the outdoors. They are so happy when the door is open, and they can go out and do their chicken thing. Scratching in the dirt, running hither and yon.
If beaks can smile, theirs are.
Smart little birds, they head back to the shed towards dusk and are usually in their favorite spots making all the familiar noises that chickens do when they are sleeping. It doesn’t matter if it’s a chicken house or a cattle barn, it’s just a comfortable feeling to see livestock resting.
My ten birds are about a third of the flock that was in my care a year ago. The summer before, a mother hen had hatched out eleven little chicks of all colors. She was a good mother, talking to them in chicken language. When a hawk flew over, they took refuge under the rhubarb leaves or in the briars of the raspberry and blackberry plants so thick that only harmless baby rabbits would venture in. She did such an excellent job of raising those young that all made it to maturity.
Sadly, most were roosters.
All winter long I fed the roosters with my laying hens. At least they added body heat to help keep the eggs from freezing in the nests. Looking at the astronomical feed bill, we doubted their worth. So on a warm early spring day, we butchered those extra roosters. There already were three that spent a fair time sparring to see who was master of the flock.
My plans to restock my flock with younger hens faced all kinds of failures last summer.
I have a good sitting hen. Wilhelmina is of Dutch ancestry, a Golden Lakenvelder. She has her rooster, Hans and then there is another Lakenvelder named Stokie – or trouble maker.
These three occupied a coop. Wilhelmina would lay her eggs and do the sitting, while Stokie roosted next to Hans all night.
When the eggs were within in a week of hatching, Stokie became envious of the mother-to-be and took over Wilhelmina’s nest. When Stokie wouldn’t leave, Wilhelmina abandoned the nest. Deciding she didn’t want the responsibility of a family, Stokie forsook the nest.
Without the continual warmth of a mother hen, the eggs didn’t hatch.
Mrs. Blue would sit on eggs in another coop. Occasionally, she would leave to get water and feed at the same time another hen needed a handy nest to lay her egg. When Mrs. Blue came back, she was confused and went to the nest next door where Rocky had been sitting. When Rocky saw another hen in her nest she must have thought, “if she wants it that bad, I will just go outdoors and find myself a juicy grasshopper.”
Several hours later Mrs. Blue must have realized this wasn’t her nest and went back to her own.
Again, all the eggs had gotten too cold…
One night, Stokie and Hans didn’t return, and the next morning there were tufts of feathers along the walking path. Despite all the drama going on in the flock, Wilhelmina did manage to hatch one egg. The chick was nameless until we determined it was a ‘he’.
Oh, the way she doted on him, he had to be of royal of blood, so he was dubbed ‘Prince Orange’ even though he is blue.
He’s a bit confused perhaps – but knows he has to announce the morning’s arrival. Granted, the short days near the winter solstice confuse the young man, but when I turned the light on at 5:00 one night to do the chores, and the young Prince crowed, the light stayed on all night as it would never do to hurt his feelings.
It must have been his first crowing job, as it sounded like the tuning of a violin.
During the summer, the chicken house door is open every morning and shut at night. One night we came home after it had been dark for several hours. While closing the door, I noticed a dead chicken right at my feet. My first thought was, chickens do just die occasionally, but soon I saw the floor covered with dead chickens.
A weasel had a picnic that night. The three roosters must have put a valiant fight, as all were dead along with a dozen hens. Their bravery defending the flock did allow some to escape.
Slowly they came out of their hiding places the next few days. It was quite a dilemma; they were too scared to go back into the chicken house, and I was too scared to leave them outdoors. We had seen a fox with one of the remaining hens in his mouth the day after the weasel massacre.
At this rate, my chickens were not going to last. Only Wilhelmina and Prince Orange didn’t share their terror as they were in the royal palace/coop.
For a few days, all chickens were locked up, but knowing chickens enjoyed being outdoors on pleasant weather days as much as I do it seemed like a hard punishment for the innocent, so we returned to our usual routine.
Which worked fine for the rest of the summer.
One fall day when washing windows, there was a ruckus in the grove, and a few chickens came running out. Not a good sign, so I took off running barefoot over the gravel driveway and into the little wilderness grove.
There, a fox had dinner in his mouth – at least he thought so. My grove has many sticks on the ground; consequently, I pelted him with them. He kept going, but somehow my chicken escaped. She followed me out of the grove.
Most nights I count my chickens, and ten is an easy number to track. This spring I am planning to order baby chicks from a hatchery.
The breed choices are many – I just wonder how many eggs we should eat for breakfast.