Adventures of an Amateur Chicken Farmer, Part 1

It has been about a year since I decided to become a chicken farmer.  (Well, I suppose “farmer” is quite a stretch for a girl with five chickens.  It has been about a year since I decided to become a chicken owner…a chicken caretaker…a chicken buddy?).  It’s been a fun year…one filled with several chicken-induced joys, worries, and laughs.  And in honor of my chickenversary, I’ve decided that it would be a good time to reflect back on some of my adventures in chicken raising.

When I started my venture into chicken ownership, I knew very little about chickens.  I had lived on a farm all my life, but our livestock had always consisted of a herd of friendly cows and a herd of fuzzy barn cats.  No chickens.

However, my Dad had raised some chickens when he was a kid…  and I had enjoyed the antics of a visiting chicken one fall when said chicken stowed away in our trailer after we bought a bull from a nearby farmer.  So, I decided to take the plunge and get a few chickens.

I bought them at a local farm supply store.  I had been coming in there for years in the spring just for the enjoyment of looking at the baby chicks and I was excited (and a little bit nervous) to finally be buying some for my very own.  I had spent some time beforehand reading about different breeds so that I could pick an appropriate one, but when I got to the store, all they had left were a puddle of black downy Barred Rocks.  So, Barred Rocks it would be.

I bought seven female Barred Rocks… seven because no one was allowed to buy any fewer than five…and seven because it was a lucky number, and let’s be honest – I had no idea what the heck I was doing when it came to chickens and I was going to need all of the luck that I could get.  The little chicks were plucked from their home in the shining silver stock tank and placed in a box rather like one I would have received if I had ordered a happy meal from McDonald’s or a meal of fried chicken and biscuits from KFC.  I carried them carefully out the door.

They chirped in the box at my feet on the floorboards of the car as I headed home.  I was a bit nervous, feeling the anxiety that comes with having the life of something in my hands, without being quite sure if I know how to take care of it properly.  I worried over the temperature.  Was the car too cold or too hot?  I worried over where we were going to put them.  I hadn’t set anything up yet, because I hadn’t actually planned on buying anything today – I had just planned on looking.

Luckily, Dad came to the rescue.  He dug up an old tub to be their home inside the now empty milk house and a light to hang over their heads.  They settled in and cheep-cheeped quite happily.  When one chick pecked at a spot in the chaff, they all pecked at that same spot.  They slept in a pile.  They messed up their food with their little feet.  All was good.

As they got older, they shook off their down, sprouted feathers, and promptly outgrew their little blue tub.  I intended to eventually build them a coop, but as they were still small and the coop had yet to become a reality, we moved them into a 20 bushel apple box with an outdoor space.

We soon learned the importance of having small enough spaces in between the wires of their outdoor fence.  On the first day that we let the chickens outside, Tilly, our best barn cat, discovered them quite quickly.  And her hunting alarm went off.  Her gray tiger-striped tail twitching, she stalked around the cage, trying to figure out how she could get to those plump delicious-looking birds.  I watched her with amusement, thinking that there was no way that she could get at them.

I underestimated Tilly’s abilities.  She waited until one of the chickens wandered too close to the fence and then whoosh!  Her paw snaked through the wires and she caught one of the chickens in her claws.  The chicken squawked and fought, but it was helpless.  Tillie didn’t know how she was going to get it out, but she had caught it and she wasn’t going to let it go.  I had to pull her away.  The chicken was saved, but her feelings were hurt, and so were Tilly’s.  When had I ever denied her a tasty bird?

My next lesson in chickens was the most humbling.  As my chickens got older, I had begun to notice a difference in three of them.  Three of them had lighter feathers and looked bigger than the other four.  I was concerned.  Why were some of my chickens growing better than the others?  Were they okay?  I took my concerns to my dad, the man who claimed to have raised 100 chickens one summer, and was therefore my resident chicken expert.  He listened to my concerns, then raised a question.

“Well, could the bigger ones be boys?”

I scrunched my nose.  “I mean maybe…but they were supposed to be girls…and if you raised a bunch of chickens when you were a kid, wouldn’t you have been able to tell by now if they were boys?”

“I don’t know.  All of my chickens were boys!”  Sigh.  I was beginning to question my dad’s status as resident chicken expert.  I looked up the differences between roosters and hens on the internet.  I went out and looked at my chickens.  The differences between them suddenly felt obvious.  Man, did I feel stupid.  Here I was, a genuine born and raised farm girl…the child of several generations of farmers…and I had failed to tell the difference between a rooster and a hen.

I guess I really am an amateur chicken farmer.