Saturday, August 22, 2009

Home On The UnFree Range

I’m trained as an academic, so whenever I’m learning something new, I start with a “literature review;” that is, by reading everything I can get my hands on about the topic. However, no matter how much reading I do, when I get out in the field and start interviewing real live human beings, everything changes. I gain different perspectives on issues I’ve read about, and new issues emerge.

So it is with my chickens. I read and researched quite a bit about chicken-raising before ordering my birds and was thoroughly prepared (I thought) when I brought my day-old chicks home. I had already tested the height of the heat lamp for achieving the proper temperature, had sugar standing by to add to warm water, the paper towels for the floor of the brooder so they could find food on the first day, and so on.

Once I got over the initial stress of making sure they were drinking and eating, and got a handle on my fear that death was stalking them at every turn (that hasn’t completely gone away), I began to observe other things. From the beginning, our chicks weren’t comfortable with the recommended 95-98F (98-100F according to the Cackle Hatchery!) starting brooder temperature. They stayed around the outside edges of the brooder and never lingered under the lamp; instead they skittered quickly from one side to another.

Since I wanted them to grow up to be hardy Wisconsin girls, and they are heavy breeds (Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds), I finally worked up the nerve to lower the temperature to their apparent comfort level. That turned out to be around 90-92F – about five or six degrees lower than recommended. The books do say to adjust the temperature based on the birds’ behavior, but I didn’t expect the difference to be so much lower. From then on, they seemed to prefer lower temperatures fairly quickly, so we obliged.

As I observed them, I noticed other things. We put their brooder in the downstairs laundry room on a counter top in front of a window. They had constant artificial light, but they sought the sunlight. Whenever the sun shone into their brooder, I’d find them basking in a sunbeam.

I also noticed that they were curious little birds. Whenever we introduced anything new into their brooder, say, a new thermometer leaning against the side of the box, they would scamper over quickly to check it out. They’d look at each other, look at the thermometer, peck it a few times with their beaks, and try to walk up it like a ramp. As I watched them in their cardboard box, I wondered whether their little bird brains, like any brains, needed some stimulation; whether they needed something to do besides eat, poop, and pick at the duct tape.

I especially wanted to head off boredom because I’d read about the horror of feather-picking and how chicks could literally peck another chick to death. Some sources attributed this behavior to overheating, overcrowding, or boredom. When they were about two weeks old, a long-time chicken-keeper here in Madison suggested that I put a piece of turf in their brooder to give them something to do and some greens to eat.

They went crazy for that piece of turf! They pulled at the grass and clover, scratched at the clump, competed to stand atop it. One chick sprawled over it like she was hugging the good earth. It occurred to me that like all living things, these little chicks needed sunshine, greens, and to be in contact with the earth.

When I decided to raise chickens, I never really thought through what that would entail; that I would essentially be keeping caged birds, and that in the early weeks, they would be raised in completely artificial conditions. On one level, of course, this is blindingly obvious. But watching them seek out sun and earth highlights the issue in a more immediate and compelling way.

If they need sun and earth, they must also need fresh air and exercise, I reasoned. I started thinking about taking them outside in a chicken tractor for short periods, during the warmest part of the day when the outside temperature was about that of the brooder. I asked advice from an acquaintance who grew up on a farm and helped her mother raise hundreds of chickens each year. She, her husband, son, and daughter-in-law run a highly successful dairy farm. She was appalled at the notion of taking not quite three-week-old baby chicks outside. “Don’t you dare!” she exclaimed. “Not until at least four weeks. And maybe not even then.”

I walked away feeling somewhat chastised – but still disbelieving. Surfing the
Backyard Chickens discussion board, I stumbled on the ideas of a poster named Ruth. In a thread about early chick mortality, poster/moderator Eggchel quoted an article by Jeff Mattocks (2002) from The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA):

Many folk, particularly beginners in pastured poultry, treat their chicks like their infant children. Everyone is cautious about drafts and chills and these are things to be aware of. The downfall to being overcautious is the tendency to seal up the entire brooder so that NO fresh air can get in.

Ruth responded:

Wow, I've been saying all along to get those baby chicks outside in fresh air and sunshine from day one but never saw it documented in any poultry book. Everything says keep them in heated box for weeks and weeks. I've had 4 different batches that have gone outside from one week old, in a chick-n-hutch with night temps in 40s and 50s with only a heat lamp and some plastic or blanket thrown over the hutch at night. For day, they are let out to free range in sunshine with temps 60s and up. Never lost one - never had one get sick - definitely never kept one in a heated 95 degree brooder box for more than a day or two.

It was a relief to see someone with experience saying what I’d been feeling, and reporting that none of her chicks had died from exposure. I sought out another of Ruth’s threads, “
A Journey Through A Different Way,” where she explained that she was trying to raise her chicks “as close to natural as possible.” She observed that:

It's true that mama hens will start taking their babies around the farm, from the very beginning, regardless of weather and that they can get under her when they are cold. But they only do this for the first week or so - after that they are somewhat feathered and too big to get under mama or they would be carrying her around like a concert mosh-pit.

Ruth’s common sense and successful experience gave me the confidence to do what my observations and instincts were telling me to do – get my chicks outside. I started taking them out in the afternoons in fine weather, for just 15 minutes the first day, gradually increasing their time outside. Is it anthropomorphizing to say the chicks “loved” being outside? They happily scampered, scratched, ran and flew from one end of the tractor to the other.

Watching them, we decided to make another change – we’d enlarge the coop and run we were in the process of building. The original design conformed to the recommendations of the
Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension, but now didn’t seem big enough. (Read more about our coop and run here.) When they were about 5 weeks old, and we finally transferred them permanently outside, we were satisfied that we’d given them lots of space to live and grow.

However, now that they are nearly full-grown, at 15 weeks, I am again concerned about their limited space. They’re much more sedentary than they used to be. I don’t know whether that’s normal for their age, or because they’ve outgrown their tractor (which we get them out in every day) and their run. At one time, their tractor was spacious to them and they could run and fly the length of it. Now they just walk around. It seems to me they need to actually run sometimes, just like I need a bike ride or a brisk walk, instead of counting simple chores around the house as “exercise.” I also feel sad when they’re chasing a bug and are thwarted when it flies out of their pen.

They also appear to want out, to be free. They used to get excited whenever we’d transfer them from pen to tractor. They’d happily run out of their pen and into the tractor, and when it was time to return, they’d scamper back quickly. Now they linger in the few feet between tractor and pen, looking around, trying to escape the unsecured pieces of fencing I temporarily put up between the two cages to keep them from running off. One day, Batgirl knocked over a piece of fencing and got free for a short while. (For a second, I half expected the rest of them to start banging tin cups along the wire of their pen! I have a vivid imagination.)

I find myself really, really wanting to let them run free in the yard. But I can’t, for several reasons. To begin with, it’s against city ordinance. I’d probably flout that, if there weren’t other problems. Dogs get to roam freely in their yards, some of them barking incessantly at neighbors whenever they come out; why can’t my chickens free range?

However, if I let them out, they’d tear up my garden. It’s not in one place that I can fence off. I have a large landscaped area as well as raised beds and containers on the deck. There would be no way to keep the chickens from damaging crops and flowers in all these places.

Most importantly, if I let them out they’d be vulnerable to the many predators in the area. We live between a conservation park, less than a mile away, and a 42 acre city park just a block in the other direction. Wildlife regularly travels between the two places, so even though we live in a city, we have coyotes, possums, and raccoons in the neighborhood. One of my neighbors put in a koi pond few years ago and a fat badger who’d been roaming the neighborhood that year came along ate all the fish. Last year, we had wild turkeys attacking mail carriers.

This year, my neighbor Patrick came over, eyes wide, to tell about a huge wild turkey he’d seen at the foot of his yard. To appreciate this story, you have to know that Patrick and Ellen are former urbanites, who moved here from Washington, DC where they rode only public transport and never even owned a car. Now they live in the wilds of Madison, Wisconsin with their 18-month old son Sean. “Fully erect,” Patrick exclaimed, “that turkey had to be at least four feet tall!” Then he sighed. “I don’t know when it will ever be safe for Sean to play outside.”

Hawks are serious predators around here, and have been known to carry off chipmunks, snakes, and birds from backyard feeders. My neighbor Becky, who grew up on a farm, warned me early on that I’d need to protect my chickens from the hawks. My dad’s partner Wilda, who grew up in rural Arkansas, told me that when she was a child, a hawk once tried to make off with one of her mother’s chickens. Seeing the hawk, her mother exclaimed, “No hawk is stealing my chickens!” Then she grabbed a shotgun and picked off the hawk with one shot. The chicken was dead, but so was the hawk. And guess who got to eat the chicken?

I’m pretty sure that method will not work for me. First of all, I don’t own a gun and have never fired one. I’m seriously myopic and have impaired depth perception, which means I’m hopeless at any activity that involves aiming at an object moving through space. If I fired a gun, I’d probably injure myself, terrorize the neighbors, and with my luck, get hauled off by the Department Of Homeland Security to one of those camps they’re reportedly building. And that angry letter I’d sent ranting about the NAIS (National Animal Identification System) probably wouldn’t help my case.

No, I’ll have to come up with something else. Currently, I’m envisioning a system of panels of fencing connected by hinges that can be opened to the size required that day, and folded for storage when not in use. Meanwhile, I still struggle to balance keeping my chickens safe with allowing them a measure of the freedom all creatures need for their health and well-being.

1 comment:

BeckyinKY said...

Thank you for the enjoyable read. I always knew you had a unique perspective and it was great to catch a glimpse of it here on your site. There's a lot to be said for academics in the urban world. No better way to learn. I look forward to reading more...