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Collector's Issue 2010

Hen Party

Coming home to roost in Adirondack backyards— practical poultry advice

ho2010_pp32-33_web“There’s a grouse on your lawn,” our neighbor Don said. He liked to sit on a garden bench and toss improbable statements over the fence. “Funny,” I said, not turning from the porch I was painting. “No, really,” he said. I kept painting. A few months earlier my husband, Mark, and I paid a gentleman farmer in Bloomingdale $25 for a half-dozen tawny speckled chicks and named them things like Hawk, Sparrow and Junco because they looked so much like wild birds. They had grown into rangy adolescents that followed our dog around the yard because we didn’t (yet) have the heart to pen them. So the chickens were on the lawn a lot, slowing cars, drawing comparisons to forest fowl.

But this time a ruffed grouse really did stroll up to check out our flock. “I told you,” Don said. We thought chickens might attract more bloodthirsty wildlife. Weasels, foxes and unseen attackers have taken friends’ birds in the night, but in the four years we’ve been raising hens on our half-acre Saranac Lake lot, all we’ve caught prowling is Gordie the next-door cat, two es­caped hamsters attracted to pellet food, a few dogs and one perhaps unwitting raccoon that we profiled and deported anyway.

Two other households on our street have gotten chickens re­cently. If that doesn’t quite make a trend, 659 people have watched a 30-second YouTube video of Sparrow laying an egg in our dining room. Hundreds of thousands have watched shorts on how to build an endless assortment of backyard coops. Something is going on. Whether people want to disconnect from factory farms, keep useful pets or just have fresh eggs, I don’t know. But home-and-garden magazines have been running a lot of chicken stories lately. Reading these I realize Mark and I have made about every mistake there is in raising little livestock: we annoyed neighbors (not Don, who moved away for his own reasons) by letting the birds scratch their gardens, we let them roam the house, we named and cuddled all the chicks before we could tell that three were roosters and had to eat them so that crowing wouldn’t annoy neighbors even more. So I can’t play expert. But I can pass along some particularly Adirondack lessons to those considering their own North Country coops.

1. Chickens eat insulation.

The biggest consideration in keeping laying hens in a northern climate is housing them over the winter. I call our coop Monticello because my husband, like Thomas Jefferson, has spent much of his adult life designing and redesigning the place.

The coop is where the birds nest, roost for the night, and shelter from wind, rain and cold. Ours started as a modified kitchen cupboard with an attached pen. We had hopes of “tractoring” it around the lawn in summer, letting the hens fertilize the grass and aerate it with their dinosaur feet. But come fall the cupboard proved too drafty and small (three or four square feet per bird is recommended). So Mark built a compartment in a shed attached to our garage and sawed a hole in the side so the chickens could go in and out. Eventually he walled off the back of the shed entirely so our flock of now five has 25 square feet with eating, perching and laying platforms at different heights.

After several modifications—mainly building removable nesting boxes for easy cleaning, a door to keep predators out at night, and repositioning the roosting bar so the chickens would crap on a shelf rather than in their nests—the interior is now cozy, and it is paneled. Paneling is important. Given an opening, chickens peck at fuzzy pink insulation and foamy yellow crack-sealer. They especially like blue foamboard; they will jump up three feet for a beakful, evidenced by the side of our mud-room-in-progress, which looks like it was hit by a shotgun.

Chickens also eat paint chips, fish heads, flowers—more things than not. Best of all they eat table scraps, tightening our household recycling loop. We also buy layer pellets ($11 for a 50-pound bag; $24 for organic) and cracked corn and whole oats for scratching in the pen ($10 a bag). We’ve never calculated how much we spend on food—it’s safe to say we haven’t saved money raising chickens, but there are other satisfactions, like delicious eggs. The hens barely touch their feed in summer; they prefer to forage plants and bugs.

But their favorite thing is raisins, which my husband adds to hot cereal he carries to the coop on winter mornings, when the biddies would rather not set foot in the snow. I was embarrassed to tell anyone our birds were so spoiled, but the more backyard-chicken raisers I meet the more I hear of special treats like corn chips or rice soup. This is not a strictly modern indulgence. “The French, who are great egg eaters, take singular pains as to the food of laying-hens in winter,” wrote William Cobbett in his 1822 classic of self-sufficiency, Cottage Economy. “Some give them ordinary food, and, once a day, toasted bread sopped in wine.”

2. They don’t lay in the dark.

That’s why some warehouse chickens are exposed to constant artificial light. Hens stop making eggs when daylight hours fall below 14, according to Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, a no-nonsense primer relied on by many rookies. In high-latitude winters a light timer can give the flock a few extra hours (Storey’s recommends 15 hours a day) to stimulate laying almost as abundantly as in June, when a young hen will give a steady two eggs every three days.

An incandescent bulb can also provide heat. We use a fluorescent light and add a space heater on –20° days to keep the water dish from freezing, but as long as a coop is wind- and watertight, feathers are enough to keep most breeds warm. (Poultry-care catalog companies such as Randall Burkey offer heated waterers and other light and warmth options.)

The girls get time off in the fall: Mark doesn’t turn on the light until after declining sun triggers a molt. During this annual stage they don’t lay for a month or two as protein and calcium are directed into replacing feathers. The birds look ratty and the coop grows ankle-deep in down, and I wonder why we keep them.

3. If you eat them, you don’t have to overwinter them.

This crosses my mind. Depending on breed, chickens start laying at 20 to 26 weeks old. Some people make soup of them after their first or second year, when egg production slows. With two spent four-year-olds and three two-year-olds in our backyard, we collect only enough eggs for our breakfast now. But our chickens have graduated from livestock to pets (not Plan A). We won’t cook them, though their tender young brothers roasted very well.

Friends with more land raise fast-growing “meat bird” chicks in spring to slaughter within 10 weeks. Some mayflies lead longer lives. When we want broilers we go to Alec DuMond, in Ray Brook, who is entering college this fall. He has raised, butchered and sold 500 Cornish-rock crosses each of the past three summers, in shifts of 250 at a time. The business pays a little better than the average 17-year-old’s summer job, he says, but he only has to work an hour or so a day, feeding and watering his flock, and moving their 10-by-20-foot enclosure to new pasture.

Alec and his father killed, plucked and cleaned the chickens themselves at first. The process took them almost a week, Alec says. Now they contract those final steps to Brandt Custom Meat Cutting and Mobile Slaughtering, a mom-and-pop operation based in Carthage, near Watertown, that can prepare 40 to 50 broilers in an hour, Rachel Brandt reports. Over five years, she and her husband have seen business increase enough to hire on a high-school student as a summer assistant. “It’s been good to us and the people around us too,” she says.

4. Combs can freeze.

The fleshy red appendage on a chicken’s head is called a comb, and turns out there are many types. In selecting cold-hardy stock, consider breeds with low, cropped combs and wattles so they’re less vulnerable to frostbite. Our first birds were either Ameraucanas or Easter eggers—it’s hard to tell the difference and it doesn’t matter much to us: both are friendly, handsome Pata­gonian crosses with a “pea” comb, more like a forehead stripe than a Foghorn Leghorn glove. They lay pretty pastel blue and green eggs. But their production slows markedly with age. We’re considering other breeds when there’s room in the coop.

Natalie Miller, in Onchiota, raises some gorgeous birds and some Fraggle Rock freaks: frizzles, feather-footed birchen Co­chins, buff silkies, buff Or­pingtons, lavender Orpingtons, lav­ender silkies, silver laced Wy­andottes, blue laced Wyandottes, Ameraucanas, olive eggers, a white-crested Poland, salmon Fave­rolles, a French black copper Ma­ran, a mille fleur d’Uccle, some adorable bantams, plus a crested magpie duck who ar­rived as a mail-order egg that was supposed to hatch into a chicken. Miller grew fond of the docile Chuckie and adopted two khaki Campbell runner ducks to share his kiddie pool. She got into poultry only three years ago when a relative brought her daughters a surprise gift of eight chicks. “I was like, ‘Absolutely not. We have enough animals,’” she recalls. “But I fell in love and wanted more.” Now Miller ships hundreds of fertilized eggs around the country to other passionate hobbyists she meets on backyardchickens.com, a site she calls “my home away from home.” It lets her earn enough to cover the birds’ food and shelter and to raise and hatch more.

Many mail-order breeds are ornamental, and Miller’s coops are exceptionally warm and orderly to accommodate their needs. For Adirondackers looking for a low-maintenance egg producer that tolerates cold well, she recommends Orpingtons and Rhode Island reds—largish birds and good layers—as well as Easter eggers. Readers of Mother Earth News recently endorsed chanteclers, buckeyes, Brahmas and Javas for cold climates. Elsa Schisler, a backyard raiser of 10 years in Indian Lake, is fond of Orpingtons and black Australorps as well as modern hybrids red stars and black stars.

Frostnip on the comb is the first sign you’re not protecting your birds from the elements, Miller says. She advises lots of fresh, clean bedding such as pine chips or straw to snuggle in.

5. Ask around.

Things can go wrong. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens de­votes a whole chapter to disease and health problems (worms, parasites, fleas, gout, soft shells), most of them harmless to hu­mans. Sparrow died of crop failure (the crop that grinds food). Chicks are especially vulnerable to heat, cold, dehydration and intestinal disease in their first seven weeks, until feathers grow in. There are doz­ens of Web sites dedicated to chicken care, and you’ll find that people nearby who have chickens love to talk about them.

The first question—how to get started—can be answered by asking local farmers’ market vendors about who is raising and selling chicks or pullets. Chicks can also be mail-ordered through catalogs such as Mur­ray McMurray.

6. Know your town code.

The village of Saranac Lake allows residents to keep farm animals but only if they are confined. No free-ranging. It’s a common-sense ordinance for a densely populated area, and we’ve apologized to neighbors for not observing it strictly from the beginning. Our chickens are now penned with plenty of shade and grass, and we shep­herd them on walks to grub, graze and groom in their favorite dirt-bath.

Communities have different rules. Some cities where livestock had been illegal are repealing bans, allowing residents to raise a handful of hens (urbanchickens.org is as­sembling a list of ordinances). Tupper Lake is moving in the other direction. Farm animals had been legal until last year, when the village board unanimously prohibited them because it didn’t want to deal with complaints.

Most important is to be a good neighbor, making sure the coop does not smell (pine chips and straw absorb ammonia) and storing food in rodent-proof containers. Don’t keep roosters if people live within earshot. Payoffs in protein and poop—eggs and fertilizer—create much goodwill.

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