Composting for the Lazy Chicken Owner

I have finally figured out a system to compost without any work! I’ve kept compost piles for years. I tried those black plastic tumblers, but they required frequent attention and they were too small. I’ve had bins, but I’d throw in corn cobs, which, a year later, still looked like corn cobs. You see, I like the idea of compost, but I don’t like to prep the material going in and I never get around to turning the pile.

Now my chickens do all of the work. I’ve fenced in a 3 x 3 foot corner of their yard with chicken wire. There’s a one foot wide opening so that the girls can get in. I put garden waste, weeds, kitchen scraps, and the dirty litter from the guinea pig cage in there. The chickens peck it to small bits, turn it over, and in short order, create the most perfect, loose, dark, uniformly-sized compost. When that bin fills, I close it off and let it rest for a few months. Meanwhile, I fence off another corner of their yard.

I know that the girls like their new job. When they see me heading for the compost, they come hurrying over, rush between my legs and get to the compost pile before me. It is certainly true that one person’s garbage is another one’s treasure.

Chicken Happiness Clarified

I’ve been thinking about what I wrote yesterday. I believe that animals have innate natures that deserve respect. Unfortunately, people often have their own needs and agendas that they superimpose on animals. You see it with the folks who believe that wolves operate on a higher moral scale than people, or that dolphins are spiritual messengers or that dogs are children. (I don’t understand why people who love animals want them to be something other than what they are. I promise to stop here and not rant against PETA.)

We are caretakers of the animals in our lives and they thrive when we understand what it is that they need. With chickens, you can take care of the basics, like food and water, shelter and a place to take dust baths. They’ll be healthy and lay eggs. They’ll be fine, really, and I am understanding of farmers who have to straddle the economic line between care and financial survival.

But those of us with backyard hens have the wherewithal to do more. Give chickens enough space to safely sort out their pecking order and they will develop lasting friendships with other hens. (And yes, for you scientists out there, it is quantifiable. Do a study and see who hangs out with whom.) Give them an enriched environment, with places to explore and wriggly food to scratch for and you will have chickens that are alert and active, busy and chatty. Keep them company, pick them up, talk to them, and feed them tidbits, and you will have hens that are expectant that good things will appear when you do.

Add all of that up, and what you get is a backyard with hens that have obvious, unique personalities (there will be the shy one, the opportunistic one, the one who wants to be held.) You will have talkative, busy, silly, pushy, demanding, delightful animals in your life. And the best tasting eggs ever. I define that as happiness for both hen and owner.

Why Do We Love Them So?

Thanks to everyone who showed up to talk “chicken” at the Verrill Farm Tomato Festival yesterday. Why is it that people bubble with happiness when they talk about their girls? I’ve been thinking about this. You hear that people love dogs because dogs provide unconditional love. Well, chickens bring chatty good cheer to one’s day. When I open the back porch door, the girls come running to their fence, with a look of expectant pleasure on their faces. Yes, even though they have beaks that don’t allow for expressive smiles (which we humans are programmed to relate to) it is easy to see their optimistic outlook. Sure, some of them are bossy and demanding, but it is done in such a fussy, curious, and silly way that you smile. That’s the thing about having hens. You smile a lot around them.

Snowball Underfoot

Did anyone see me raking the yard and shoveling out the coop this morning on hencam? Did you notice a certain small white hen in the way? Kicking up dirt always interests chickens; they come over to see if I’m scratching up something good to eat. They soon lose interest, though, as it is obvious that there are no worms in their yard. Snowball, however, likes the action. And she likes being near me. Which makes it quite awkward to wield a rake and shovel. I’m not sure what interests Candy – she doesn’t want bugs, but she was also underfoot. I think it is simply rabbit curiosity. I complain about them being in the way, but isn’t it the critters with the strong personalities that become your favorites?

Meanwhile, this morning, Ginger and Eleanor had their own little drama. Ginger was in the girls’ favorite nesting box, the one on the bottom left. She was fluffed up and hunkered down. In comes Eleanor, who wants to lay an egg there, too, never mind that there are five other empty boxes to choose from. So she stands in front of Ginger and cackles in Ginger’s face. Ginger ignores her. Eleanor complains even louder, turns in a circle, stretches her neck up so that she is looking down at Ginger. Ginger ignores her. Finally, Eleanor gives up and settles into the middle box. And the two hens look as peaceful and content as laying hens do.

Egg Laying and Heat

This has been the first time in the ten years that I’ve had hens, that the girls couldn’t handle the heat and stopped laying. We went from getting 10 eggs a day to only five. The back of their coop is in the shade, but it gets sun through the windows from morning to mid-afternoon. It was hot and stuffy and humid inside. I wouldn’t want to sit there and lay an egg, either. We hung up an electric fan. Their water was the temperature of hot tea. I put ice cubes in it. I moved the garden sprinkler so that it would reach their run. They appreciated having damp earth to lie in. I pulled crabgrass and put it in their shady corner to nibble on. Still, they lost weight and stopped laying.

The weather broke this week. It has been just gorgeous here. High 70s and low humidity. I’ve been taking the hens up to the pumpkin patch where there are worms galore. They are fattening up. They’re laying again. Even got a pretty blue egg from Perrie today, and she hasn’t laid an egg for two weeks. Only the two slackers, our little bantams, aren’t laying. But that’s okay. Tweedledum is the one hen with full, show-quality feathers and a becoming plumpness. Now that it’s cooler, she’s been bobbing about, chuckling and chortling. Snowball has been underfoot. I’m sure they’re fine.