While Pearl may be the biggest and brawniest of our chickens, ruthlessly laying down the law with a beak of iron, she’s still only a mere beginner when it comes to egg-laying, as is graphically laid bare when two of her eggs are compared with shop-bought ones produced by highly trained professionals.
Still, it’s a start, and considering that it was less than a week ago that she produced her first one, she’s not doing too badly.
Incidentally, after discovering that WordPress has a plugin that will generate graphs automatically, I’ve started a permanent egg production page, which will be updated every time I find more data sources in one of the nesting bays. Pearl and Queenie’s eggs will probably be indistinguishable (they’re the same breed), but Vi and Ida’s should look distinctive enough to be able to be plotted separately, at least when they get around to producing any.
Last night we installed a protective tarpaulin over the pen, and left it looking reasonably taut, but this morning we discovered that an overnight downpour had created something closer to an inverted Mount Fuji.
So after trying and failing to push the water upwards and over the edge, we resorted to the time-honoured method of punching a hole in the middle and sticking a bucket underneath. Hopefully there’s enough water in there to prevent the chickens knocking it over, but they didn’t seem that bothered by yesterday’s rainfall so it probably won’t matter even if they do. They were initially mesmerised by this unexpected water feature, although three of them had wandered off by the time I’d fetched my camera.
Incidentally, this photo gives a better view of the soft bark surface that we installed on Sunday – it looks muddier than it is, but it’s actually surprisingly springy underfoot.
Update: I’ve also just realised that this photo resembles the bottom half of a giant blue chicken weeing into a bucket – you can see its wooden ‘claws’ on either side of the composition. Sorry about that, but I’ve got a children’s party to go to this afternoon, and need to practice being very easily amused.
Well, this should put a lid on any further escape attempts. Quite literally.
Actually, the main function of this blue tarpaulin serving as a makeshift roof is to keep the pen dry(ish) and stop the feed in the feeders from getting completely soaked. There are two at the back of the pen on opposite sides: we bought the green one after we spotted Pearl regularly shoving Ida out of the way when the others were troughing from the red one. The third feeder nearest the entrance supplies water. All three are currently full of bits of bark, but they don’t seem too bothered.
However, they were definitely bothered by the installation of the tarpaulin. There’s no way of telling what was going through their tiny chicken brains, but they clearly Were Not Happy – Vi in particular was running round the pen like a feathery maniac, though it’s easy to see why she specifically would feel most strongly about this new development.
It’s been bucketing down with rain all morning, yet all four chickens have been blithely pottering around the pen for most of it. Truly, their ways are not our ways.
And then Vi seized the opportunity to mount a third daring escape attempt, and this time I was able to grab my camera before shooing her back into the pen. Her new friend flew off as soon as I’d got close enough to be a perceived threat, leaving Vi to wobble unsteadily for a few seconds before making a fairly ungainly descent to rejoin her fellow chickens. We’re making every effort to keep them safe from foxes, but she’s not doing herself any favours.
We’ve had the chickens for exactly a fortnight. When they arrived, the pen looked like this, complete with a fair amount of the original grass:
But since that time they’ve systematically removed all the grass and turned the ground into an arid, dusty wasteland over which tumbleweeds might plausibly drift if they managed to bounce over the fence first. All of which was fine last week when we had near-continuous sunshine, but with the weather forecasting torrential downpours starting today, there was a real risk of the pen becoming a mudbath. Which almost certainly wouldn’t have fazed the chickens one iota, but us humans have to enter the pen on a daily basis too.
So last night, to the accompaniment of Spain hammering Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final and immediately after the chickens had been packed off to bed (or perch), I spread the contents of two large bags of soft bark over the whole of the interior, also covering the paving slabs. Although in this photo the end result doesn’t look any different from the mudbath that we were trying to avoid, in actual fact the surface is much more absorbent, and springy rather than squelchy underfoot:
The chickens seemed utterly unfazed by it, and indeed spent much of the day digging up bits of bark and shifting them around, which is why an entire corner of the previous surface has been exposed (bottom left). They also seemed completely unaffected by the weather – as you can see, all four are out in the pouring rain, and it wasn’t just to say hello.
So a new chore has been added to our lengthening list: every evening, after the chickens have been locked up in the house, we have to spread the bark around so that it covers the entire pen, and every so often we’ll have to replace it altogether. But we’ll worry about that when we come to it.
Since Werner Herzog was quoted earlier today, and since his 1977 film Stroszek was cited in the first (and so far only) comment posted on this blog, it was a natural for number two in this series. Indeed, like the first entry, El Bruto, it’s a film that saves its best chicken moment for the very end, in this case a bizarre two-minute dance routine with additional contributions from a duck and a rabbit. Roger Ebert called this “one of the oddest films ever made”. He wasn’t wrong.
As with any other pet, there are downsides to keeping chickens, and the main thing that I’d been putting off as long as possible was cleaning out their house. In theory, this is supposed to be done weekly, but based on the surprisingly not-bad condition that they left it in this morning, we reckon we can probably get away with a fortnightly clean-out.
Anyway, this is what the chicken house looks like from behind. Note the bolt on the left-hand side of the left-hand picture – we added that because we thought it would be too easy for a determined fox to flip up the rather crude wooden catches and get the entire back open. There’s also some chicken wire draped over the roof – this is to discourage foxes from climbing up the house and using the roof as a launch pad to get into the pen. (We’re working out a less ramshackle and more permanent solution.)
The interior is essentially divided into two, with the back half subdivided further into three nesting compartments and some roosting bars. In theory, egg collection simply involves flipping down the back entrance and collecting them from the nesting compartment(s), though in practice the first egg was laid in the chicken pen so we have to keep an eye out there too.
Here’s a better-lit close-up of the interior:
This was taken after this morning’s cleaning-out, which involved scraping out as much of the existing sawdust as possible with a Dutch hoe (as in a gardening implement, not a denizen of Amsterdam’s famous red light district) and porting it over to our compost bin, and then replacing it with fresh sawdust – I erred on the side of generosity after I noticed that one of the chickens (presumably Pearl) had been augmenting her nesting compartment with torn-up newspaper. I also changed the newspaper under the roosting bars, something I do separately every few days as it usually gets the worst of the various substances that chickens are wont to leave behind.
We’ll also be giving the house a more elaborate clean-out every so often, including spraying the interior to kill off any red mite or other pests – which we did just before the chickens arrived in the first place.
One thing that’s very hard to ignore about chickens, especially if your only previous experience with pets has been with intelligent animals like cats, is that they’re very very stupid indeed. Which isn’t too surprising when you consider that their brains are apparently the size of an average human thumbnail.
Or, as the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog put it:
Still, they’re unlikely to spend the better part of a day constructing elaborate death traps out of balls of wool by winding it around the furniture at ankle height, flipping up short floorboards to explore under the house and not covering the hole afterwards, or sleeping on the stairs in the dark. Feel free to detect the voice of experience here.
And cats are notoriously fussy eaters. This is not a charge that can fairly be levelled at chickens.
It is said that sexing chicks is the toughest poultry-related job that there is.
Never having done it myself, I can’t contest that – but putting four reluctant chickens to bed must run it a close second. The problem is, even if you get to the stage of physically picking them up and trying to steer them into the chicken house, as soon as you turn round to deal with one of the others, the first one pops back out.
There’d have been a hilarious video of this evening’s shenanigans if I’d thought to rig up a camera, but it would probably have been too embarrassing: being bested repeatedly by chickens isn’t something that one normally wants to boast about.
(Jane managed to sort it out in the end, not least thanks to a cunning plan of removing all the feeders first.)
We have a second egg – identical to the first one, and this time it was definitely Pearl’s, so it’s highly likely that Thursday’s was hers too. So the current rate is one every 48 hours, but we’re threatened with twenty per week once they all get the hang of it. But we don’t have any plans to rear bacon at home just yet.
One useful difference is that this egg was laid in one of the nesting boxes, as opposed to out in the pen, so it’s not only a lot cleaner but was also much easier to find. This is why we’re certain that it was Pearl’s, as she was spotted in the same nesting box for much of the morning.