Chicken update

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We have not suffered a chicken fatality for several weeks (see Flock’s Flux for some of the sordid history). Having said that, about a month ago, Hannah was asking whether we could get more chickens and just as I was about to respond that we should wait just a little longer, something dropped almost straight down through a hole left in the baling twine I strung up across the pen. I shouted and began running up a small hill toward the pen. Suddenly, it leaped straight up and flew away. Hannah thought it was a falcon. I cannot say one way or the other. Anyway, no bird was hurt. Our rooster, who was reasonably new at the time, played some part in that as well. If someone tries to pick up one of the 8 hens, he’s all hackles and squawking. Good boy, Noodle.
 
Recall that our chicken coop is a re-purposed kid playhouse that I have written about in A New House and On Building Codes. For the last couple of months, the farm house tenants, Mary and Blair, have been helping us with the flock by suggesting solutions to some of the problems we’d been having . They also let the flock out in the morning and closed them in at night. Chickens are pretty easy that way; they willfully go out at dawn and in at dusk. All you have to do is put their food in a rodent proof container and close the coop door at night and the converse in the morning.

We leave the water outside through the night except when it’s frosty in which case having the water in the coop can sometimes keep it from freezing. As a rule, though, keeping the water in the coop allows the hens to drink at any time (slight advantage) but also allows them much more time to defecate in the same water which is, gulp, a bit gross and a big disadvantage. The water also gets splashed around making an area already prone to winter damp that much wetter.

I once babysat a flock in which both food and water were kept in the coop full time. This basically forces the flock to spend an awful lot of time consuming and walking around in their own excrement. I had to hold my breath in order to go in and collect the eggs, the ammonia was so concentrated. And it showed on the hens. Dull, worn-out-looking, lethargic, missing lots of feathers (which was also the result of having too many mean roosters). Of course, the eggs were certified organic and fetched an attractive price at the health food store; that the SPCA would probably shut down the operation wasn’t disclosed on the carton.
 
Maybe our experience there makes us go a little overboard with our own flock. Our coop is VERY well ventilated. I re-purposed a salvaged steel gate which just happened to be exactly the right width to fit inside the south doorway (I was in my very happy place when installing this gate). This allows us to keep the south wooden door wide open during the day. A sprinkle of lime in their bedding from time to time may also be helping. It also helps that the chickens congregate at the south end and deposit 2/3rds of their droppings there. We move the bulk of it to a compost pile every few days. As a result, there’s hardly any smell in the coop.

But I digress. Sometimes Mary and Blair go away and are unable to do chicken duty so we have to do it. Since we live a 7 or 8 minute drive away, it kinda sucks to have to do this, if there’s no other reason to drive into town. Solution: automatic chicken coop door opener. Made in Germany (I think), bought online from a UK distributor, this gadget is completely contained in a 6″X6″X3″ clear plastic water-resistant box. Inside are batteries (included), a motor and some electronics including a photocell to measure light intensity. A 60cm length of fishing line is extended and retracted out the bottom to respectively lower and raise a door, based on ambient light.

The user has to build the actual door although this could hardly have been easier. Adjacent the north door, I cut a rectangular hole through the exterior .5″ plywood sheathing big enough for an average sized rooster to walk through without ducking. Then I made two L-channels, each using two lengths of 1X2 screwed together lengthwise at right angles, which I attached to the sheathing on each vertical side of the hole. Then I cut a rectangular piece of plywood (maximum allowable weight 3kg) a little larger than the hole which slides up and down along the outside of the sheathing, guided by the L-channels. On the top of the door, I pounded in a fence staple which held the end-loop of the fishing line. You can mount the motor box in almost any orientation if you don’t mind using pulleys but I chose the simplest; right above the middle of the door. Four screws and you’re pretty much done.

Mary and Blair were curious about its operation and were concerned about the chickens getting left outside the first night so they went out around sunset and observed. The chickens, accustomed to entering through the human door, were pecking on it, as if the coop gods would open it for them…which they pretty much did since it was already cold and darkish. Shortly after, the chicken door closed (which takes about a 60 seconds; no cartoonish guillotine action to be seen).

In the few days after installation, they got used to the new door and the ramp that I built for them. With the human door closed, they had to figure out how to get in order to lay their eggs. After a couple of nights they got it. Any future birds we add should be fine as they will take the others’ lead.
It got cold here in February with a few nights around -5C. I’m not sure what temperature the chickens are good down to but we started using a heat lamp just in case. We were also not getting many eggs. After we started using the light, production increased. I think we’re of two minds about that, though. Hens apparently only have only so many eggs to lay in their lifetime; if you induce them out earlier, they will simply run out earlier in life. In general we prefer to let them live as naturally as possible. As long as it stays above freezing, I think we’ll go without using artificial heat/light.
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