Thursday, December 3, 2009

Dead Chicken Walking

Yesterday was the first day I thought to myself: Is it really worth it to have chickens?

I’ve surprised myself with how well I adapted to caring for them, cleaning up after them, and generally tackling the work associated with keeping them. But yesterday I really felt weary. I noticed again little black marks on the combs of the Barred Rocks, indicating that somebody, probably Little Jerry again, one of the Rhode Island Reds, was pecking their combs.

We first realized Little Jerry was bullying the BRs when we noticed that the BRs were not going after the greens we put in the suet cage like the reds were. The BRs would content themselves with the other daily treat, the chicken scratch we scattered.

So we observed for awhile, and saw the BRs occasionally head for the suet cage only to get chased off by Little Jerry. (Interestingly, LJ never bothered Tracy, the other RIR. Maybe she is some kind of racist chicken.) She must have done it many times before, because sometimes she’d barely make a move in their direction, and they backed off. Sometimes Little Jerry would even chase them off the chicken scratch, although she herself didn’t want it. After she chased them away, she’d go back to eating the greens.

The BRs have come to be our favorites. They are friendlier and have a sweeter disposition than the Reds. So far as I know, they have never pecked anybody. The combs of the RIRs have never had a mark. Amelia got the worst of Little Jerry’s pecking. Her comb had large black spots at one point, and whenever I’d come into the pen, she’d follow me almost whining. When I learned about the pecking problem, I thought: She’s trying to tell on Little Jerry!

Anyway, Amelia is Rick’s favorite, so Little Jerry definitely picked on the wrong bird. He was so angry when he saw Little Jerry go after Amelia, he picked up LJ, put her in the coop, and shut the door without thinking. She squawked loudly (as she always does, she’s the loudest of our hens and can be really annoying.) Rick left her in “time out” for a few minutes; then let her out. She behaved for a bit; then went after Amelia again. He again put her in time out. I thought this strategy was inspired, so we stayed with them for awhile, attempting a bit of behavioralist training. Rick ended up putting LJ in timeout several times more that evening.

The next morning, I spent some time with the birds doing the same training. I also bought another suet cage, realizing that one wasn’t enough for four large hens. And, I started giving them greens twice daily, thinking sufficient rations would also cut down on the pecking problem.

It seemed to help for awhile, so Little Jerry got a stay of execution. Rick has always said he had no problem sending a chicken to “freezer camp” as they say on
Backyard Chickens, if she caused too much trouble. I was told by an older friend of mine, who has a cattle farm now, but grew up raising chickens, that at 6 ½ months, LJ wasn’t too old yet for roasting. (I have yet to find clear information on appropriate ages for harvesting meat birds of different breeds. I do know I’d be reluctant to eat a stewer. I happened to get one from a local farmer once, and it was stanky! I boiled her and boiled her, but she didn’t get any more appetizing and I even threw out the broth, it smelled so bad.)

I also consider myself lucky that the trouble-maker turned out to be Little Jerry, named by our 14-year-old grandson after Kramer’s rooster in the old Seinfeld sitcom. Since Nathan’s quite a bit older than our other two grandchildren, and has about zero interest in the chickens, I don’t think it will bother him if she is, ah, removed. (Note to self: NEVER let the grandkids name chickens again!)

But, as I say, things seemed to settle down and Amelia’s comb mostly healed. Then yesterday I went into the pen and saw small black marks on BOTH Amelia’s and Batgirl’s combs. Now LJ was messing with my girl! I adore Batgirl’s independence (I’ll write more about her in a few days) and secretly admire her every time she escapes. She’s now up to six successful jailbreaks, and I’m at the point where, when I see her get away again, I smile and think to myself: Way to go, Batgirl!

She’s at the point where she doesn’t even try too hard to evade capture. I guess it’s something of a game with us now. She knows she’s a far more proficient player, so she gives me a handicap. Or, maybe she just likes a little attention from me. Once, when I had them out in the yard in 4 ½ foot high temporary netting, Batgirl flew over it, but stayed right next to me while I gardened, scratching around in the earth nearby.

Back to Little Jerry. I’ve turned the problem over and over in my mind, trying to decide what best to do. My biggest concern is winter, when they will be stuck in their pen for weeks at a time. I don’t want to worry about pecking problems on top of worrying about winter care for them. That’s stressful enough on its own. I keep saying, I can’t wait until I’m through the first year with them, when I have gone through all the seasons and stages of growth. The learning curve has been huge, and lately I feel tired.

I also think about how we don’t really need four chickens for just the two of us. I only kept four in case one of the little chicks died. Still, as angry as I get with Little Jerry, it’s hard to go through with it. I ask myself whether I’m being overprotective of the other hens, whether LJ is just being a chicken, whether once she is removed, somebody else will take over the bully role. But somehow, I don’t think so.

We have a friend who’s experienced, and has agreed to do the deed. We have never done it and wouldn’t be skilled enough to quickly dispatch her. I just have to make a decision!

This morning, as I was writing this, I thought, if I could just have some sign! I noticed it was time to go out and give them their morning greens and scratch and looked out the window. A light snow was falling, the first of the season, and I thought, this is it. Little Jerry has really only lasted this long because we have had unseasonably warm weather. Usually, by this time we have plenty of snow on the ground. So up to now, we’ve been able to continue regularly letting them out of their pen, which keeps them busy and Little Jerry occupied with something other than tormenting the Barred Rocks.

So, I guess the decision has been made. Hasn’t it? I’m pretty sure.

Now you know what Rick goes through!

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