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Desperately seeking chicken whisperer

December 10, 2009

So, we got almost two feet of snow and then it turned cold. Very, very cold. Yesterday the low was -10F and the high was around 20F. We humans are doing okay, we’ve got wool socks and thick blankets and the kids seem to make extra heat in the way they run to get the yellow crayon that rolled five feet away. There’s also the strategy of Never Being Completely Still, which can be a subtle toe-scrunching under the table or the more overt game Col played this morning called “I’m trying to snap my leg off” which involved sitting on one leg while flapping the other like a fledgling bird on its first flight. It didn’t work, but I began feeling warm just sitting next to him.

But the chickens I am worried about. They haven’t left their coop in four days. They’re like some survivalist stronghold group that won’t leave the bunker and every morning I slip them their tea and grain and slivers of raw deer meat and tell them that it’s safe out here; cold and snowy, but safe.

It was just last Sunday, the day before the storm that the four hens were free-ranging around the yard, scratching up bugs and kicking soil out of our garden beds and shredding the garden’s winter leaf mulch and huddling under the bird feeder eating spilt seed and approaching us in hopes of food and then running from us with their clipped wings spread and leaving chicken poop on our stairs like loitering teenagers flicking cigarette butts under their park bench.

The chicken coop is tucked under the canopy of a hawthorn and a peach tree, which is like the shady umbrella section of the beach during our sweltering summers; the rest of us pant and sweat around the yard yanking bindweed while the chickens luxuriate on their chaise lounges and take nips at dangling ripe peaches. 

But I’m afraid our girls need a winter retreat; the sun isn’t hitting them, the snow isn’t melting and despite the clearing I shoveled out under the peach tree for them, they’re like nervous kids at the pool who won’t venture from the steps. And given the weather report calling for more snow this weekend, we’re not going to see bare ground anytime soon.

So, if this were a murder mystery, the next thing I’m going to tell you would be the turning point of the story, where everyone would say “ahhh,” seeing how all the bit parts coalesce into a workable solution. We live on top of a 400 square foot solarium, post and beam style, built by Dan and not a nail in the entire ponderosa pine frame. We share it with our three downstairs neighbors and our cat. It contains my chard-filled greenhouse, Dan’s bow-making workshop and some saggy couches. It has a rough wood floor, which has seen elk blood, kids’ paints, red wine, sawdust and muddy boots.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Are we together, seeing the workable solution? Now, who is going to tell Dan?

It reminds me of a story my friend told me of her friend who went to Jamaica, fell in love with a local, got married, had a baby and returned to her expensive hometown of Berkeley with her new husband and baby and no place to live. There was incidentally, her mother’s 2500 square foot house in the Berkeley hills, but we Americans are peculiar about personal space and cohabitating with our parents as adults, so the young family rented a cramped apartment in nearby Oakland.

Maybe it’s not the same at all, I mean we are talking about chickens and none of them has a baby and there isn’t much unused space in the solarium but damn that bunker’s getting stinky and the snow is so high I have to bend down under the peach and hawthorn branches to deliver the cult their daily rations.

What would you do?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2009 5:45 pm

    How did they do last winter or is this your first winter with them? I know nothing about chickens capacity to deal with the cold. Those legs look pretty spindly.

    • 6512 and growing permalink*
      December 12, 2009 3:46 pm

      Katie, we were in Ashland, OR for most of last winter but the chickens all survived and layed all but December and January.

  2. December 10, 2009 5:52 pm

    Hi there

    Saw your comment on my site and would be happy to discuss with you further. I have a few questions for you so I can learn more about the situation. First of all, what is your coop like? How warm is it? Is it drafty, etc. Where are you living? How cold does it get there. We are in North Carolina and I think that is about as cold as chickens can stand. They do better in the cold than in heat but still you don’t want them to get too cold. If the water is freezing, it is too cold.

    Even here in NC we put heat lamps or a heater in the coop and have it on a timer so they stay warm over night. I’m surprised they don’t want to get out, even for a little while. Is there a way to add a wind break to their yard or add on to their yard area that gets some sun?

    The other concern that comes up is the possibility of a hawk. I’m sure you would have noticed if one of your chickens was hurt or killed but what you may not have seen was a hawk coming overhead or diving on them. Hawks will snatch up a chicken very easily so one may have flown on them and scared them. We lost our rooster to a hawk last winter and the hens didn’t come out of the coop for almost a week. If you can create overhead protection (we added chicken wire over our chicken yard area) then they will be safer.

    Just some thoughts.

    Let me know if that helps!

  3. December 10, 2009 7:28 pm

    My chickens came out to the snow. I shoveled a path and spread oatmeal to the kitchen window where I would throw out more until they came.

    Oh, you make me laugh, your writing is wonderfully talented and funny… maybe it is not supposed to be funny.. but the way you share humanity. oh do I get it! you crack me up. Your child trying to snap his lef off.. yes here too, I have heard that one to.

  4. December 11, 2009 10:09 pm

    Yes, ditto on the sarah comment! I also shoveled a clear space and they left their little coop. They seem to be fine in there. We haven’t put a lamp in there to keep them warm..I hope it gets warmer for them. Yours and mine!!

  5. December 15, 2009 11:04 am

    we’ve got hardy australorps (as I think you know) and all the info I get on them is that even the northern scandanavian crowd in Minnesota thinks they’re just fine without a heat lamp. We’ve got a dozen and they all seem to be doing just fine. I did shovel out an area for them and they are laying alot less but I figure they get a break from production and just concentrate on survival. We love our girls.


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