I mentioned a few posts ago that I was taking a series of trainings in Backyard Food Production for master gardeners. One of our last sessions was on beekeeping, a practice I want to take up at some point in the future. The beekeeper presenting the session concluded by advising, “Enjoy your bees. Observe them; learn from them.”
I thought to myself, that’s been my approach with my chickens. Observing them, seeing what they need, and trying to make it available to them. In my August post, “Home on the UnFree Range,” I wrote about the early part of that journey – the way the baby chicks sought sunlight, even in their artificially lit brooder, how they went crazy over a piece of turf we put in their brooder, and how I eventually decided to take not yet three-week-old babies outside, despite contrary advice in the literature and from conventional farmers.
I never solved the central problem, however, of the chickens wanting and needing space and freedom. “When I decided to raise chickens,” I wrote, “I never really thought through what that would entail; that I would essentially be keeping caged birds.” I had managed to give the baby chicks more space and freedom, but that was fairly easy, given how small they were at the time. We also enlarged the coop and run, beyond what the designer and other sources claim is adequate. However, I am still confronted with the problem of allowing our chickens “a measure of the freedom all creatures need for their health and well-being.”
Clearly, they are communicating their desire and need for more space and freedom. Every time I so much as step out the back door they go crazy running up and down the front of their pen, banging their beaks on the wire fencing, wanting to get out. Our house is built into a slope, with the front entrance at ground level, and the back entrance at the top of the hill. There is a small deck outside the back door, with steps leading down to the yard and a lower deck. My herb garden is just off the upper deck and the chicken coop at the far end of the bottom of the yard. I so hate to disappoint my girls I’ve taken to sneaking around whenever I want to clip a few herbs for something I’m cooking. I carefully open the back door to avoid making any noise, creep to the herb garden, and crouch low to harvest some leaves.
It never works. As soon as I step a foot out the door, they go wild.
I’ve made it a point to let them out in their tractor every day, which they enjoy. But, as I wrote in the earlier post, when they were little, “their tractor was spacious to them and they could run and fly the length of it. Now they just walk around.”
What I’d like to have is some sort of temporary fencing system that I could put up in different parts of the yard to allow them more space, but keep them from destroying the garden and pooping all over the two decks and the steps. We had a roll of four foot high galvanized fencing in the garage, so I decided to try to use that to set up a temporary fenced area. But it was heavy to lug out there and I needed Rick’s help to set it up.
Next, I bought some plastic netting. Folded in half, we were able to set up a 4 ½ foot high fenced area, with some of the netting hanging over the top. The first day we set it up just outside their coop. They loved it. As I suspected, the only reason they just stood around in their tractor now they were bigger, was lack of space. Inside the larger enclosure, they ran and hopped and flapped their wings.
But the extra space didn’t stop them from looking for ways out of the largest enclosure they’d ever enjoyed. Amelia, a Barred Rock who is our first and best flier, attempted to fly out – and would have made it if not for the bit of netting hanging over the top. The netting is hard to see and she momentarily got her wings caught in it. It all happened in a few seconds, as we stood staring, unable to move. As she freed herself, shook out her feathers, and walked away, we breathed a sigh of relief. I threw a chunk of hay in to distract them, and they were pacified for several days.
The following week, I set up the netting in a different place, and let the hens out. Only this time, I was too lazy to put rocks around the bottom edge of the netting. I didn’t notice a place where the netting was pulled tight, leaving a gap at the bottom. But Batgirl, our other Barred Rock, lost no time in finding it. I turned my back for just a few seconds, and the next thing I knew, she was in the nearby strawberry patch, chowing down on some pretty leaves. While I tried to catch her, Tracy, one of the Rhode Island Reds, slipped out.
Belatedly, I blocked the gap, before anybody else could break free, then turned to catch the jailbreakers. By now, Batgirl had moved on to the raspberries, even jumping up now and then to get a bite of an especially attractive leaf. Lots of good things to eat out here!
Eventually, I caught them both, and secured the perimeter of the fence. Now, however, all the chickens realized that escape routes did exist, and they kept poking and prodding the area along the netting where the escapees had broken free, bawking loudly the whole time.
Yesterday, I again set up the netting, this time carefully securing the bottom of the fence. Before long, I heard wings beating loudly and turned to see Batgirl clear the 4 ½ foot fence! The rest of the chickens and I stood frozen in disbelief for a few seconds. If Amelia is our best flier, Batgirl is our best escape artist. This marked the third time she’d broken free. Tracy is the only other chicken to have succeeded in escaping, and she’d only made it once.
I threw some cracked corn into the fenced area, hoping to distract the other birds, who were already looking at the top of the fence, and I’m sure, contemplating an attempt of their own. Usually they go nuts for the cracked corn, but this time they just turned, watched it fall to the ground, then turned their attention back to gauging the height of the fence. Fearing they’d all start flying over while I was occupied with chasing Batgirl, I decided to herd them back into their pen first. They struggled and protested the whole way, and who could blame them?
After I caught Batgirl, I was worn out dealing with them for the day, so I took down the fencing. While I was taking it down, they stood at the door of their pen, pleading with me. It’s hard for me to describe their different sounds. They have a quiet, contented clucking sound when they’re scratching, a loud bawking when we come outside and they want to be let out, a continuous guttural sound when it seems like they’re trying to talk to us. This was sort of a whiney, less noisy, bawking sound. I felt like a meanie.
So, what’s the solution? I need to come up with one fast, because yesterday, before all the drama, I noticed dark, reddish, black spots on Amelia’s previously perfect comb. My first thought was that they were from scraps with another chicken. But they usually don’t fight. So my imagination took off and I started worrying about disease.
After consulting with a few people at Backyard Chickens, however, it seems my first hunch was right. (Since they never fought before, I wonder if the problem, at least in part, is linked to their starting to lay, and perhaps not having enough nest box space for that.) The posters at BYC also seemed to think that space is tight in our coop and pen, and, as we know, close quarters contributes to pecking problems.
I don’t disagree; if I had it to do over again, I’d build a coop and pen twice as large as the original plans we purchased. We’ve already enlarged both, but it’s clearly not enough. We could give away one chicken, but I don’t think I’m ready to do that. I’m instead going to face up to a solution I’ve been avoiding: clipping their wings.
I hate to do that, even though it doesn’t physically hurt them. I feel badly about truncating a defining feature of a bird. I think I also resist it because forces the recognition that we are keeping birds in captivity. And I’m still working through my feelings about that.
If their wings are clipped, they can regularly and safely enjoy being out in a larger fenced area, and still have a good life. Can’t they? It’s not really possible to “free” domesticated animals entirely.