Apologies for yet another long silence – Peter brought a lovely flu-like virus home with him from his visit to New York over New Year's, and it lived with us for almost the entire month of January. It's hard to believe that February is now almost over – seems like a lot of it has been spent playing catch-up.
On New Year's Eve day, we lost our beautiful Wedge (that's her in the photo above, back in October; the blurry girl behind her is her sister, Max). She was one of only two pullets (young hens) hatched last spring, and they had both just started laying in December. That day was pouring rain, and I spent most of it inside by the wood stove. When I heard a chicken commotion outside, I ran out to find the chickens milling about in what we loosely call the "stable" (really, a three-sided shelter that used to house the horse of a former occupant).
At first glance, I thought everyone was there, so I threw them some scratch and started to head back inside. That's when I noticed Cheepler (our former "house chicken") pacing back and forth in front of the stable and crowing – alone. Wedge was his little girlfriend, and the two of them were inseparable; she followed him everywhere. I went back into the stable and counted heads: two chickens missing. As I stepped toward the field to begin my search, I saw a black mound near a cluster of trees. I prayed it was a gopher (vole?) mound as I ran.
It was Wedge.
She was already gone; the curious part was that there wasn't a mark on her or any signs of a struggle, apart from a half-dozen soft little neck feathers on the ground a couple of feet away. My first guess was that it was a hawk – they "dive" feet first and often break the back or neck of their prey, killing or stunning them on impact. I figured that the roosters had tried to come to her aid, causing the hawk to drop her and fly away.
I buried our girl not far from the coop, in the pouring rain, with Cheepler looking on. While I was working, the other missing chicken (Baby, a then-four-month-old cockerel) crept from his hiding place and re-joined the flock. They were all pretty subdued. At roosting time that evening, Cheepler ran frantically back and forth from the coop to the field, looking for Wedge and calling. He didn't want to go in without her. I finally had to carry him in with the others and close the doors.
The next morning, just as Daks and I were starting our morning walk after letting the chickens out of their coop, the hawk was back. He/she made a few low circles over the area, seemed to decide the chickens were no longer so tempting with me and the dog hanging around, and headed for greener (or less guarded) pastures.
About a week later there was another ruckus. As I rushed out the back door, I could see that there was something with a large wingspan flying around inside the chickens' fenced area. (Chickenville includes the current coop, the new coop/fortress that is under construction, and an area around it fenced in with chicken wire. The wire does not keep our birds in – they can fly very well, thank you – but it does usually help to keep predators out. Our chickens have free access to our side of the property during the day, but inside the fenced area is usually considered their "safe zone," should they need to retreat.)
I ran toward Chickenville, waving my arms and shouting "Get away from my chickens!" As the hawk tried to fly away, he/she became tangled in the top part of the chicken wire (I guess hawks don't understand fences). The hawk panicked and thrashed about, freeing itself just as I ran up. We haven't seen it since.
Now we were left with five roosters and four hens – way too few hens for the number of roosters. The roos were supposed to become dinner (except for Cheepler and Atom, our papa roo) – we even named two of them "Soup" and "Stew" – but when the predator problems started we noticed that the roos all worked together to protect the ladies. So they all stayed, and I've been on the lookout for local people selling bantam (small breed, like ours) hens.
Almost two weeks ago now, I found an ad on Craigslist for two Sebright hens. The person was selling them because they were her only two bantams, and her standard-sized chickens picked on them.
Here are our two lovely new girls, on the day I brought them home:
These girls were used to free-ranging at their old place, but we needed to keep them locked up for several days, in their own section of the coop and run, to get them used to our coop as their new home (and to get our other birds used to the "intruders"). Once chickens have a "home base," they will return there to roost every evening at dusk.
Cheepler was smitten. He spent those first few days hanging around their run talking to them, and strutting around and preening for them.
Soon the day came to let them out. When new chickens are introduced to a flock, there will usually be some fighting as they establish a new pecking order. So, for their first time out, I waited until the rest of the flock was out in the field and closed the gates to the fenced area.
The girls relished their new freedom, while Cheepler gazed at them longingly from the other side of the fence.
Finally I took pity on Cheepler, and decided to bring him in to meet them. Unfortunately, the presence to two such beautiful girls was too much for him, and his hormones took over. Instead of courting them like a gentleman rooster should, he strutted right over and did the wing dance. This is the dance a rooster does when he wants to mate with a hen.
The results weren't pretty.
The more dominant of the two new girls turned out to be a warrior! She fought with Cheepler the way a rooster would. Cheepler was once again relegated to the other side of the fence.
The next day I let them out again, still within the fenced area, but this time for longer. As small and delicate-looking as these girls are (and they're smaller than our other already-small hens), they don't seem to be afraid of anything. Peter was out there working on the soon-to-be second coop for our expanding flock, and they weren't even bothered by his power tools.
I was planning for them to meet the rest of the flock that day, and really wanted them to have the protection of a rooster. So I brought Cheepler in again. This time, he was calm and gentle, courting them and offering them food. This approach did the trick; they accepted him and the three of them have now formed their own little flock.
When the rest of the flock returned to the coop, there was surprisingly little fanfare. The old girls have mostly been pretending that the new girls don't exist, Atom did the wing dance for them once or twice but didn't seem to care that they turned him down, and the other young roos have made their own passes (one of them has actually raped one of the girls) but Cheepler always comes along and thrashes the offender.
Now we just need to name these girls! (Calling them the "new girls" is getting old.) Top contenders:
* Maud and Maeve (they remind me of Irish lace, so I like the Irish-sounding names; plus, Maud means "battle might")
* Laverne and Shirley (if you don't get this reference you're too young to have a vote)
* Eliza Jane and Alice (Almanzo Wilder's sisters in the "Little House" series)
* Xena and Gabrielle (as in "Xena, Warrior Princess" and her sidekick)
And – last, but not least – approximately three weeks ago, our Molly went broody. We gave her some eggs to sit on (eight, originally, but that number was expanded to ten when others laid their eggs under her). About a week after that, Max (Wedge's sister) went broody as well. Our plan had been to discourage Max's broodiness while Molly hatched her clutch, and let Max hatch a clutch later in the spring. Those hens had other plans.
At first they seemed to fight over the nest full of eggs, but apparently they reached some sort of agreement. After a few days, they started sharing the nest. When one of them was off the nest to eat, drink and poo, the other would cover all the eggs. When the one returned, the other would move over to make room for her in the nest, and the returning hen would reach under the other and – with her beak – roll half of the eggs back to her side.
They've shared the brooding duties in this way for the past couple of weeks. Our friend and chicken mentor encouraged us to trust the birds and not separate them. She said that often, once the chicks are hatched, one mama will back down and let the other raise them. She also said she's seen clutches where both mamas stuck around and raised them together. (I'm hoping for the "our chicks have two mommies" scenario.)
As of this afternoon, two of the eggs have hatched (that I'm certain of). Two tiny black fluffy-butts with bright black eyes were peeking out from under Max's tail, watching me while I brought them fresh food and water. Fingers crossed – most of the rest should hatch tomorrow!
End note: Soup (also known as "Super Chicken") is likely to actually become soup soon. He has been guarding the broodies (a mark in his favor), but was also trying to mount them every time they were off the nest (a big mark against). He is also the one that raped one of the new girls – twice, as of today (another big strike against). The fact is that we have too many roosters for our little flock, and are almost certainly hatching more as I type. Stew (also known as "Stuart Little") gets a pass for now, as he seems to be Atom's right-hand man (and also seems to have learned proper courting behavior). Baby is still young enough that he's not yet too obnoxious.