May 27, 2010

Coop Tour Report

Being new to chicken ownership, and having no firsthand experience using or even seeing much actual chicken housing, it was with a sense of great expectation and curiosity that I set out on the trail of the first-ever Chicken Coop Tour in Bend a few weeks ago.

With 26 coops on the tour, spread out over a good chunk of Deschutes County, there was obviously no way to visit them all in the time allotted. As best I could, from the descriptions of each coop, I carefully chose a route that would allow me to see the best-sounding 10-12, with minimal driving. Our town is surrounded by a lot of open space -- desert and forest lands with ranches, farms and small acreages in all directions, so most of the coops were in rural areas.

The tour confirmed what I had already suspected: that chicken coops fall into approximately three categories.

1. Slapped together out of whatever materials happen to be lying around -- cheap and easy and appearance not important. Hey, the chickens don't care, why should we?

2. Neat and tidy, a good-looking structure in the home landscape, safe and secure for the chickens and nice enough to be part of a home and garden but built as economically as possible.

3. Money no object. Coops with more square footage than my house ..... coops designed to resemble the Taj Mahal, a Western cowboy town, Martha Stewart's farm, miniature version of the family mansion, tile roof, wee chandeliers in the ceiling, etc.

I saw all kinds, and realized my ideal coop fell somewhere between 1 and 2 and probably closer to 2. Here are some of my faves.....

This one is built out of hay bales, underneath the deck of the house - how simple! The chickens have only recently moved into this space. If they were mine, I would worry about the big gap between the gate and the fencing. This coop is only 2 blocks from our house, and I'm sure the raccoons and skunks that visit us get over that way. There was also a cold frame built out of hay bales. Very basic and cheap.

This coop was only a half mile further away, and right on the street corner. Basic, not fancy but sturdy and practical construction. According to the owner, she lets the chickens roam the 'hood, and they haven't yet been hit by cars or chased by dogs. Amazing. She had a really nice garden too. At this point I realized a coop tour was actually a kind of stealth garden tour as well.

This one was purchased through craigslist -- the seller included the chickens in the price. Although it is essentially a chicken tractor set in a field, it has 2 small solar lights inset into the roof.

This one has a kids' playhouse on the top floor, chicken playhouse below. It is on the grounds of a small, family-operated nursery.

And I may be new at chicken ranching, but even I know this is not a chicken.

This coop was made from dog kennel fence panels, and the chicken shed from materials leftover from building the fanciest horse barn I have ever seen. The shed is insulated and has electricity inside. These are very spoiled chickens!

We had to go out in back of the barn and admire the new arrival....

This was the last coop we saw, back in town less than a mile from my house, and my absolute favorite. It sported wee little prayer flags on the side, and festive japanese lantern mini lights above the door.

It is set in the pines on a steeply sloping lot that also contained a greenhouse/potting shed I lust after..

In the end, I wished there were more urban-style coops on city lots, since that's my situation exactly. But I clearly see that chickens are adaptable critters, ready and willing to fit into a home garden.

My coop arrives tomorrow. Stay tuned for photos!

May 26, 2010

Travails of a Newbie Chicken Rancher

Nothing serious, really, just a few minor worries for the nervous novice.
Worry Number One: baby chicks grow really fast! The Girlies have been here for a month and they are looking like miniature versions of official grownup chickens. They have outgrown their original rent-a-brooder and expanded into larger but still temporary housing.

Here are the two side-by-side, taking up almost the entire floor of my small greenhouse. My tomato starts are also growing at an alarming rate, but it is darned hard getting at them to water, stake, etc. Plus everything is starting to be coated with the fine reddish dust that seems to be exuded by chicken feathers. Ick.

Worry Number Two: The nights are still cold -- near or below freezing, and my official chicken quarters are still under construction. The Chicky Day Spa is still working ok, but it is not secure against night-time predators, so I have to move them back and forth between it and the greenhouse morning and night. Today we had a thunderstorm, and I hastily ran out and added yet more unattractive layers of protection to the already homely contraption.

Worry Number Three: Carnage in the Hen House. Due to overcrowding, boredom, nutritional deficiencies, basic chicken orneriness or all of the above, one of my chicks is getting pecked by the others. I found her one day last week, standing dejectedly facing into the corner of the day spa, with her wee chicken bootie bloodied and her nascent tail feathers sadly diminished. Oh Oh Oh. A quick trip to the feed store for some

I tell you, this is some excellent stuff. Thick purple glop that you slurp over the wounded area, it contains such ingredients as pine tar, aloe vera, tea tree oil and more. It is an all-in-one cure-all, serving to soothe raw bloody tissues, taste bad to would-be peckers, fight infection, promote healing and dye the area a nice dark color that doesn't attract chickens' eye. They are drawn to the color red, alas. This is Betty, my only reddish chick. I guess she is just different enough from the other chicks to cause them to peck. Bad chickens!

But it's working and I am keeping an eye out for further cannibalism. You have to love the brand name 'Rooster Booster', don't you? I bet it would be champion for all kinds of human ailments as well. I may add a bottle to my bathroom medicine cabinet. It would probably cure athlete's foot, head lice, hangnails, cold sores, possibly even malaria and cancer. Get yours now.

We are waiting with bated breath for the official housing. Our builder is finishing it up, and hopefully it will be delivered this weekend! The chickies are excited too, even if they don't know why. Here is a link to the place that is making our henhouse:

Tomorrow I head to the paint store to look at paint chips. I'm thinking deep purple with green trim .......... forest green with brown trim....... It's going to be a yuppie hen house, so why not enjoy myself?

May 23, 2010

The Chickabiddy Chronicles

For a gardening blog, there has been precious little gardening reported so far this year. I think I'm working too much. Plus the weather has been totally crappy all spring (after a balmy but useless-for-gardening-purposes winter) and we have had about 3 warm (as in t-shirt) weather since March. The plants waited and waited to leaf out, green up, sprout, etc. but have finally given up in disgust, waiting for sunshine and toasty temps, and are growing anyway. And freezing their little plant butts at night.

It seems like all of the semi-decently warm days have coincided with my heavy work days. I know I'm making excuses. And full disclosure forces me to reveal that, while it's true the spring has been cold and unfriendly, there is another reason I'm so behind in the garden: my chickens. Omigosh, they are such a distraction, I can't believe it.

I go out with excellent intentions to do 15 minutes of weeding. On my way out to the garden, I pass the chickens. Then I have to stop and er, make sure they're alright. Sit down and watch for a while. Eventually get up and actually go out and start weeding. Hmm, what's this: an earwig? I bet the chickens would like to eat a tasty earwig. Pillbugs? Cutworms? Centipedes? Even my precious earthworms? Yes, they all get collected in a bowl and thrown into the chicken box and instantly the mayhem begins.......

Personalities are developing. Hawkeye and Olive are the fastest at darting in first, and quickly snapping up multiple bugs. Betty waits for an opening, then dashes in and usually grabs something big and yummy and long. Lucy doesn't seem to bother much with pecking her own bugs -- she waits until one of the other chicks picks something up, then chases her around and around, trying to steal it.

After extensive reading, talking with friends who have chickens, and looking at a lot of coops in a local chicken coop tour, I finally decided on the kind of coop I wanted, and a friendly local woodworker is making it for me. Meanwhile, back on the (chicken) ranch, my chicks are growing and growing and growing -- I can't believe how fast. Outgrowing their borrowed brooder. Earlier last week, when the weather was (briefly) warmer, I created a sort of outdoor chickie day spa for my girlies, out of a second-hand portable dog run, some hardware cloth, a tarp, some cardboard, composter parts and boards.

As you can see from this interior shot, it is quite luxuriously appointed with actual soil, grass and exciting fresh, outside air.

It has a certain poor white trash look that really adds to the ambience of my weedy garden. I'm not the only chicken fan in the family, either:

After only a few days of 'warm weather', it got cold again -- hard frost at night and cold, blustery days -- so I kept the girls inside day and night. I borrowed an additional wire cage and split the chicks between the two, to give them more space. Am I spoiling them? Probably. Between anxious new motherhood and desperation at not having permanent quarters ready, I may be overdoing the 'keep chicks warm' aspect. It's so hard to know if the REALLY have enough feathers to stay warm when I've never had birds before, not even a parakeet.

It's pretty hilarious, trying to get them out of their night-time quarters and into the cat carrier I use to move them in and out to the day spa. They know I'm the bringer of tasty treats, and they really really want out of the cage, but I'm so big and scary when my hands come in and grab them that they just have to squawk and peep and run away. Sometimes they peck me, and this morning I am pretty sure I heard ..... a crow. Or at least the first attempt at one, by Maggie. Or should I say 'Max'?

I never suspected chickens would be so funny and entertaining. Dealing with Maggie, if she turns out to be a 'he' might not be so funny. We are allowed chickens here in town, but hens only. Roosters are deemed too noisy for the city. And I'm not sure I would want a rooster, either, though I would be willing to give it (him) a try if I didn't worry about annoying my so-far unsuspecting neighbors. My plan B for roosterization is a bit fuzzy at this point, but I may have to step up the planning. Keep your fingers crossed it was just galline laryngitis.

May 7, 2010

The Six Chix Mix Pix

I know, you can only see 5 chicks in that photo. But there were 6. Or maybe the 6th one came later. I had to go to 3 places to fill my little flock. Why 6? After researching chickens until I had memorized all the books, I wanted one of each kind. Not having the space for any rare, endangered or strictly-for-show darlings, I still had a short list of 4-8. Maybe it's my personality. Last year I had Seed Greed. This year I had Breed Greed.

Want to meet the girls? Not all have been named formally -- some names may change as feathers come in and personalities develop. But here are the Final Six Chix, in all their original cuteness.

First is Lucy -- small but spunky, like my mom, whose name she bears. She is supposed to be a standard Columbian Plymouth Rock, but she is looking awfully small compared to the other girls, and I fear she may turn out to be a bantam. In my inexperience, I can't tell if she is just a lot younger than the others (ie a week) or truly smaller; time will tell. There was some confusion at the feed store about this. In the meantime, and regardless of her current smallness, she doesn't put up with any guff from the other chicks -- or from me.

Next is Olive, a Silver-Laced Wyandotte. (get it?) Olive is definitely bossy - I named her after a childhood friend. She is brave and not as afraid of me as the other chicks. Always on the lookout for food, and gets more than her share of any treats (worms! spaghetti noodles!), by nabbing fast and snatching away from others.

This is Priscilla, a Barred Plymouth Rock. Priscilla seemed like a good Pilgrim-type name. I definitely feel like chickens should have comfortable, old-fashioned names, and Priscilla fits the bill. In case she turns out to be a bit kinky, I can always think of her as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

This next chick may or may not be called Pinky, after a Canadian aunt of the same name. She is a Brit Red, apparently a Rhode Island Red hybrid, but I can find almost nothing on this breed on the internet. The feed store catalog had a vague drawing of one, and it looks like she will be a lighter-than-your-average-R.I.R when she feathers out. Meanwhile, she is quite blonde. My sweetheart, the newly re-instated Canadian/US dual citizen that he is, thinks she should be called Elizabeth, after 'his' queen. While I am all in favor of people in other lands having queens, I am not personally interested in having one. And I'm not sure I want to be calling a chicken 'Elizabeth'. I fear it will devolve into 'Lizzie' 'Beth' or hey -- maybe 'Betty' would be ok. (Old family joke.) In the meantime, here she is, the prettiest chick in the coop so far. She is not wild about me, except as a feeder.

This is Hawkeye, an Ameraucana -- she will lay green or blue-green eggs. Her name may change too, since I suspect she will lose her distinctive hawk-like patterning around her eyes. But maybe not. Ameraucanas come in several colors, and I don't know how she will look when she gets her adult feathers. She will have ear 'muffs' -- I can hardly wait. She is the biggest (oldest) and fairly dominant.

And finally, here is Maggie, an Australorp. I had to go to a third feed store to find her, and she is the scraggliest chick of the bunch. In my chicken newbieness, I didn't know whether she was actually unhealthy, or just at an awkward spot in her feathering-out. In the week that I've had her, she has calmed down and is looking a bit sleeker. I think she's ok. She is definitely the wildest, thinks I am Satan Incarnate to Chickens whenever I enter the room. Sigh. I guess they can't all be pets. Australorps are famous egg-layers, and she will be a green-tinted, iridescent black all over.

That's my little flock. And, as these photos were taken an entire week ago, they are now completely outdated. The girls are much bigger, and a couple are nearly feathered out. I can't believe how fast they are growing and changing. I am excited to see the new feather colors and patterns coming in. I am also getting nervous because my outside coop is not yet built. But plans are afoot and I go on a city-wide 'tour de coops' tomorrow, for ideas and inspiration.

And here they are in action:

May 1, 2010


Did I mention chickens? After 35+ years of pent-up chicken lust, I finally have chickens. Almost since the beginning of my gardening life, almost 40 years now, I've wanted a small flock of hens to complete the picture. To be honest, my personal experience with chickens up to just recently, has been minimal. Various relatives on both sides of my family have had chickens, but in my childhood visits, they were just part of the scenery to me.

My grandmother (Arabella - this blog's namesake) lived on a farm in Illinois, and during her annual escape-the-snow-in-winter visits with us, she told us many stories about her horses, sheep and other livestock. My favorite stories were about her pet chicken, Chick-a-biddy, that used to follow her around, 'just like any dog would'. I was quite charmed with this idea and vowed that someday I too would have such a chicken, and would name it Chick-a-biddy. Growing up in suburbia, there were no chickens anywhere close by, but once we left home and the parents moved to a more rural area, my mom, perhaps returning to her hillbilly roots, got some chickens, which produced the first blue-green eggs I ever saw.

When we first moved here, there was an old couple living on a small farm, right in the middle of town next to the main highway, who sold cut flowers. It was the kind of place with a hand-painted sign next to the mailbox, where you pulled off onto their dirt driveway and chose your flowers, which were sitting in metal cans full of water, and left money in another can on the same table. One time I drove all the way in to meet the owners and they turned out to be these darling people with wonderful old-fashioned names (Casper and Grace?). They showed me their flower beds, their vegetable garden, their barn and their whole place, and all the while banties were skittering here and there, pecking and chuckling around our feet. I fell in love with bantams at the moment.

For many years my chicken dreams stayed in the background, since I assumed the city didn't allow backyard chickens, and my sweetheart expressed a strong desire NOT to 'live on a farm.' However, several years ago I found out that indeed, one could have chickens in town (no roosters) and a few friends began to get hens. I was increasingly jealous. Then, last spring, 'eat local', 'grown your own organic food' and 'backyard chickens' all came together in my life when suddenly, without warning, Don changed his mind about chickens.

I nearly crowed with delight, and started making plans. 3 people at the bike shop have chickens and they all encouraged me to go for it. In the end, though, I realized I was just too busy with a couple of huge projects that wouldn't be coming to fruition until mid-summer, and I didn't have the time and energy to also deal with starting chickens until it would be too late to get chicks locally. Reluctantly, I decided to wait a year.

In the meantime, I did research. I read books about chickens and coop design. I visited friends' coops. I subscribed to Backyard Poultry magazine (I know, that's really nerdy). I scoured the internet for sites about chickens. I read chicken blogs. I ordered chicken supply and hatchery catalogs. I took copious notes. I attended a showing of the wonderful documentary film about backyard chickens, Mad City Chickens. I met a whole bunch of 'chicken people' and found they were just my kind of people. (Who knew?) I took a class on chicken-raising from the county extension service. In short, I went chicken crazy.

Pretty early on, I realized I needed an additional reality check. Yes, I wanted chickens -- but my own in-person experience with chickens was pretty much nil. What if I got chickens and then didn't really like being around them? Maybe I was only in love with the IDEA of having chickens? Time for a field test. On a blistering hot August day last summer I went to the county fair and scoped out the poultry barn. I always love going to the fair, especially seeing the 4H kids with their pigs, goats, sheep, llamas, calves and horses. But I haven't hung out much with the poultry end of things, so that was my mission.

Wow, I never knew there were so many kinds of chickens. Being a show, there were a lot of more decorative types of chickens, and lots of gorgeous roosters, which of course I can't have, but also lots of regular old laying breed-type chickens. One HUGE rooster (a cochin, I think) was the size of a small dog. In the end, I came away with some definite opinions about what breeds I wanted, and the assurance that I really would like to hang with some chickens.

This spring I'm super busy again, but the chickens have risen to top priority as I realized the feed stores probably wouldn't have chicks for much longer. Armed with my Top 6 list of Best Chicken Breeds for me, I headed out to do serious chick availability research at all the feed stores within 15 miles.

Right. What was I thinking?! I never got past the first place. The minute I walked in the door and heard the cheeping in the back corner, I was a goner. I emerged an hour later with a box full of chicks, a feeder, a waterer, heatlamp and a sack of feed.

I rushed home to set up my 'brooder' -- a galvanized metal washtub rescued from the garden, full of -- ta da -- chips from the remnants of the birch trees that were cut down recently. Once I got them in there, they look mighty cute, though a bit stunned by their traumatic journeying. Hmmm, that box looks awfully small......

And then I started to worry. What do I know about birds? Practically nothing. I've been around cats my whole life, and they just naturally tell you what they want. They also cuddle right up and purr. Chickens don't purr. They don't cuddle. They just sit there, looking scared, peeping faintly.

Worse yet, we had to leave for a dinner date an hour after the chicks arrived. I could hardly bear to leave my babies. When we returned home after a really nice time with friends (our hosts have chickens too so I at least got a short chicken fix while I was away from my own wee darlings) I rushed to the garage with great trepidation. I was afraid they would all be dead of roasting (heat lamp too close), freezing (heat lamp too far away) or just sheer trauma. But there they still were, perking up a bit now and pecking cutely. Still, although I had a strong urge to sleep with them, my sweetheart refused to leave me there in the garage overnight.

The next morning they were still fine, and so I think we are all going to be ok. Meanwhile other members of the family are also taking an interest: