As autumn progresses in the upper Midwest, birds appear and disappear, group and spread out. Pileated woodpeckers have returned to the suet feeders. Chickens help grind up the garden residue and eat the bugs. White-throated sparrows sing a different tune on their way south. Juncos suddenly appear. Bluebirds sit on branches surveying the yards. Hawks send everyone scurrying. Vultures wing one more time overhead before catching the north winds and head to warmer climes.
We were surprised to look out the window on Veteran’s Day morning to see nearly six inches of snow outside. The predicted snow skiff turned into a dump, and we soon fired up the snowblower and put the shovels to use. This much snow in early November is unusual.
Just before we started shoveling, our chickens demonstrated their amazing ability to learn and remember. Every morning we open the pop hole door, and the hens zoom outside with enthusiasm to discover tasty bugs and weed seeds to eat. When we opened the door after the snow, our older hens peered out the door, turned around, and decided the cracked corn we scattered inside the coop was a fine breakfast. They’d remembered snow from last year and knew walking in it yielded cold toes and legs.
Most of our hens are newbies, hatched in mid-July. They’d never seen snow, and when we opened the pop hole door they roared outside, stood perplexed, walked around for a few minutes, and then came right back inside. And, the rooster sang his call from inside. No doubt their toes were cold.
Chickens are often considered witless animals lacking even a shred of intelligence. We know otherwise. Remembering snow proved that our old hens had learned what it was last winter and remembered their cold toe experience over the eight long months since the last frozen white stuff melted. Chickens are no dumb clucks.
We were delighted when our Lavender Orpington hen started acting strangely. She fluffed up her feathers, spent most of her time in a nest box, and gave us a stern warning call if we came too close. She was broody.
A broody hen simply wants to be a mother. Her ambition is to keep a clutch of eggs warm for 21 days and then raise a bunch of bouncy babies to chicken adolescence. We don’t have a rooster so all of our hen’s eggs are infertile and won’t hatch. Broody doesn’t know this, but we found a way to have her happily raise a brood of chicks.
After about two weeks of incubation, we bought a dozen chicks from a local farm store and slipped them under her after dark. Motherhood commenced.
Watching a mother hen is interesting but listening is truly fascinating. While on eggs she sat almost trancelike, but the peeping awakened her. She began clucking in a tone that must have both comforted the downy chicks and instructed them to get into the warmth and security of her feathers.
The next morning she used a different clucking tone to introduce the babes to the big world. They followed her out of the nest and scampered around the coop. We don’t speak “chicken” but she clucked again and it must have meant, “come over here and eat.” She put her beak in a feeder filled with chick starter. The bravest babies picked a few crumbs of feed off her beak and soon all were eating and dipping their beaks into a nearby waterer for a cool drink.
Mother hens are attentive and have a vocabulary of many “words” or at least different sounding clucks. When the babes got too far from her she’d cluck in a certain way bringing them scampering back to safety near or under Mom. If she scratched up a delicious tidbit she’d utter a different sounding cluck and the babies would rush over and enjoy a food new to them. She taught them safety and the fine art of foraging.
See these YouTube videos and photos of our most recent broody and foraging for treats.
We like our small flock of hens and the delicious eggs they give us each day. Although a hen can live for ten or a dozen years her laying slows after two or three years. After that, it declines steeply. Eventually, she might only lay an egg or two a year!
To keep a steady supply of eggs for the kitchen we need to occasionally replace old hens with younger ones, and we’ve learned a trick that works well. We enlist the help of a broody hen.
When a hen develops a mothering instinct she’ll stop laying, puff up her feathers, and change her vocabulary. She’s broody. Then she’ll sit and sit on eggs, hoping they’ll magically transform into baby chicks. We don’t have a rooster so the eggs are infertile. She can sit for eternity and they’ll never hatch. So we use a trick to help her have a happy motherhood and produce new replacement egg layers. Here’s what we do:
When a hen begins sitting we put a half dozen golf balls in an extra nest that we keep in storage. We put the broody hen and her nest isolated from the other hens in a separate coop. Usually, she quickly settles down and keeps those golf balls comfortably warm.
After she’s been sitting for a couple of weeks we buy chicks from a nearby farm store or hatchery. When darkness descends we enter the coop with the chicks and gently place them under the broody. She immediately senses that her golf balls have hatched and adopts the babies. Her clucking vocabulary changes and she’ll keep her babies warm. The following morning she’ll lead her chicks out of the nest and begin teaching them how to find food and stay safe.
It always amazes us how quickly the broody changes from the trancelike incubation phase to active motherhood. We keep the chicks and their mom separate from the other adult chickens for six or seven weeks until they’ve grown quite a bit and then intermingle them.
There are several ways to dispose of elderly hens. One is to transition them into stewing chickens, but most people don’t want to kill their hard-working hens. A less lethal way is to advertise them for sale at a bargain price on a social media list. Usually, they’ll be sold within a few days. Four to five months after hatching, our new pullets will lay their first egg.
We recently bought a bag of cheap wild bird seed. It contained mostly milo with some sunflower, cracked corn, and millet mixed in. We should have known better but dumped a scoop of it on top of our platform feeder at Winding Pathways and watched what happened.
Birds swooped right in. Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, and even a cardinal. They were joined by red-headed woodpeckers. The birds quickly devoured the sunflower seeds, then the corn, and finally the millet. They left the milo untouched.
Birds don’t like milo. Sure, they’ll eat it if they are hungry and there’s nothing else available, but they often leave it uneaten.
Milo is a type of sorghum grown in places too arid for corn. Its seeds are round, reddish, and about the size of a BB. The less expensive a bird seed blend is the more likely it is to have a high percent milo seed.
The very best all-around seed for feeding a diversity of seed-eating birds is black oil sunflower. Many birds like cracked corn, which is inexpensive. Ground feeding birds like doves and juncos love millet, but they just don’t like milo.
In the past few years, thousands of Americans have begun tending small flocks of chickens in their backyards. For most folks, it’s a new hobby, but we’ve been at it far longer. Rich began raising chickens in his suburban backyard when he was eight or nine years old – over 60 years ago. Marion’s family raised chickens at their New Hampshire home.
This spring many chicken newcomers will install a coop, raise chicks, and produce delicious food in their yards. It can be complicated, so this blog is designed to explain chicken husbandry in its very simplest form. Many books in most libraries and websites on chicken culture give detailed chicken care information and are outstanding resources. We recommend checking Hoover’s Hatchery. It offers a printed catalog, an online catalog, and website blogs. We also do a Facebook Live program each month for Hoover’s about different aspects of chicken care. Also see Scoop from the Coop for detailed information.
Baby chicks can be purchased online. Most hatcheries require a minimum order of 15 or 25 babies, usually more than most families want. Smaller quantities can be purchased at farm stores, such as Tractor Supply. Many cities have ordinances allowing chickens but usually limit the flock size to six or fewer birds. Check your local ordinance before buying.
Chicks come in dozens of different breeds, but we suggest choosing those that lay brown eggs. These breeds are fairly large bodied, calm birds. Our long-term favorites are New Englanders like the Rhode Island or New Hampshire Reds, or the Barred Plymouth Rock. Other great breeds are Wyandottes, Orpingtons, and Australorps. White egg breeds, like Leghorns, lay like crazy but are more nervous and noisier than brown eggers.
Often, it’s possible to buy a variety of breeds. Having a six hen flock composed of six different breeds is colorful and fun.
Baby chicks need to be warm until their insulating feathers grow. They are reared in a device called a brooder. A simple one can be made with items most people have around the house. See the blog on building a brooder on Hoover’s Hatchery Website for detail.
By the time the babies are six weeks, or so, old they need to move into permanent quarters, the chicken coop. The easiest way for a family to start is to buy a pre-made coop online or at a farm store. These range in size from tiny ones that will fit just a couple of hens to those that might fit up to a dozen. It’s a good idea to have an attached outside fenced in area, called a run, so the hens can enjoy fresh air and sunshine. Building a coop isn’t difficult and plans are printed in most basic chicken books or can be downloaded from websites.
Chicken houses need fluffy bedding, called litter, covering the floor. Pine chips work great. Bales of chips can be bought at farm stores. Every coop should have a nest for hens to lay their eggs in and a pole installed parallel to the floor for them to roost on. Yup, chickens sleep standing up.
The house should have windows that can be closed to prevent cold winter drafts but open to welcome fresh summer air. Cover windows with mosquito mesh and heavy wire to discourage both bugs and raccoons. Neighborhood raccoons would love a chicken dinner, so keep them out of the coop!
Food and Drink
Stores that sell baby chicks almost always sell feed. Babies need a high protein mash called Chick Starter from the time they hatch until they lay their first egg. Then switch to Layer feed. Simple inexpensive feeders are sold in farm stores. Chickens love drinking fresh water so invest in a water fount and keep it full. Hens enjoy a handful of corn every once in a while, as a treat. They also love table scraps. We give ours bits of rice, squash seeds and hulls, meat scraps and a few other things. As with all treats, we keep portions small.
This is chicken husbandry in a nutshell. There’s lots more to it, so be sure to read websites and books on chicken care before buying your first batch of chicks. If you are lucky you can take a backyard chicken basic class at a nearby nature or garden center.