Sometimes I feel like I should rename this blog “Homesteading for Dummies – Written by A Dummy.” I honestly have no idea what I’m doing. Isn’t that how it is with everything in life though? Two days after giving birth to your first baby, they send you home with a 2-sided brochure and tell you “good luck” (however, when you buy a new T.V. you also get a 200-page manual. What’s up with that?). I suppose the life lessons that sink in deeply are those that you learn by experience. There are simply some things that can’t be learned from a Quick Reference Guide. I’m one of those who believes that life isn’t much fun or rewarding unless you’re having new experiences. So we bought this little farm and I dove in head first. My first lesson? How to keep a chicken alive.
In the span of about 2 or 3 months I lost eight chickens and a parrot (the parrot is another story for another day). A friend of mine said, “Geez, Adrienne. Sounds like it’s bad luck to be a bird in your house.” Call it what you want – bad luck, climbing the learning curve, whatever. This is how I killed 22 chickens and what I learned from it:
Chickens #1 & 2 Death by Coyote
Lesson Learned Chickens make fine prey and protection for your little flock is an absolute must
It’s so idyllic to gaze out my window and observe a small flock of red hens pecking at my lawn beneath the apple trees. I love watching their antics! Foolishly, I assumed that my little flock would hang around where their human or dog friends could protect them. For months they did, but one sad day they ventured into the treeline of the woods. Around these parts, that is coyote territory there and not an ideal place for feathered friends to roost. We lost 2 birds in this fashion, bringing our flock down to 6. Once the coyote got a taste of my chickens, he wanted more. We caught him slinking around the pasture a few times, searching for his next meal. I had to keep my poor babies locked up in the coop until we could complete their enclosed chicken run. Chicken predators are everywhere, even in my parents’ quiet neighborhood (their neighbors lost a couple chickens to a fox). So, do keep in mind that if you want to start a backyard flock of your own, you will need a place to keep them safe. I’ll share the details of how we built our chicken run in another post.
Chicken #3 – 8 Death by Fire
Lesson Learned Do not put a heat lamp in a poultry pen
Genius that I am, I decided that it was getting too cold out and I didn’t want my poor babies to get chilly. I turned on their heat lamp. At 6:30am the next morning, Jeremy went out for a run. As he was running up the hill toward home, he could see flames blazing from the direction of our house. He assumed our house was on fire and started sprinting. Jeremy found flames as tall as the barn and our 100 year-old chicken coop burning to the ground, along with all of my chickens. Sad day, and what a painful lesson to learn. For you would-be chicken owners: Baby chicks require a heat lamp because they do not have feathers to protect them from the cold, and if they get too cold then they will die. Full grown chickens that have all their feathers (especially Buckeye Red chickens which were bred for cold Ohio winters) do not need to use a heat lamp. As a funny side note: This happened just before school. I awoke the boys and gave them the news about the chickens (“Yes, Matthew, even Teddy was killed. I’m so sorry.”). They cried and were super sad. As the boys descended the stairs, they caught a glimpse of our driveway through the window, “Whoa, AWESOME!! How many firetrucks are here?! Can we go watch them?!?” And thus, their sadness was dispelled. It doesn’t take much for a little boy. 🙂
Chicken #9 Death by 7 year-old Twins
Lesson Learned One must be gentle with a 3 day-old chick
This was a lesson for my boys. A few weeks ago we received our new baby chicks in the mail (yes, you can mail-order chickens! Weird!). When Matthew and Jordan got home from school I told them that our chicks had arrived. They raced inside. I still had a little work to finish up in the garden so I followed them inside about 10 minutes later. I assumed that the boys would patiently wait for me to get in the house before they handled the chicks (that was stupid. How long have I been a mother?); however, I found them playing, rather roughly, with the babies. I reminded them how they are to handle such fragile creatures and I also strongly reminded them that they were not to pick up the chicks unless an adult was present. That evening, one of the chicks the boys had been playing with did not look so good. By morning she was dead, and this is where the important part of the lesson-teaching began. You see, I want my young children to believe that life is fun and magical, however, I do not shield them from poor experiences. I think it’s important that children be allowed to experience (and show the emotions of) sadness and pain (within reason, of course. It’s not like I’m going to allow my kids to walk in front of a car in order to teach them a lesson). I want my children to understand that in life there are rules, commandments and natural laws, and if they do not obey those laws then they will pay the consequences. That is why I didn’t hide the poor, lifeless chick from them. That is why I made my boys fully aware that their being too rough with her was likely the reason for her death. Matthew responded, “Hm, I guess we shouldn’t play Battle Chickens anymore.” You’re right, that’s probably not a good idea. Matthew and Jordan were sad and they felt so guilty about it. It also made me sad to see my boys in pain, but I knew that the lesson they learned from this was far more important.
Chickens #10 – 22
Lesson Learned Protect baby chicks from any and all cold drafts
I always, always let the dogs in and lock up at night, so I couldn’t believe this happened. We got home late and I suppose I was just so tired. I went straight to bed without letting the dogs in and without locking the kitchen door. Now, the knob of our kitchen door is funky and doesn’t operate properly. In the night, our dog, Eddie, jumped on the door and opened it. It was about 6:30am when I tiptoed downstairs. I thought, “Wow, it is cold!” The closer I got to the kitchen (where the chickens are), the colder it became. I found the door wide open and I immediately thought of my little chicks. I raced to their box and found that all but 2 were dead. With our door wide open on a cold night, these birds had very little chance for survival. Poor things! The next day we lost one of the survivors, and now “Louise” is the only one that remains from that batch. Fuzzy chicks, with no feathers to protect them, are sensitive to even the slightest draft.
The Saturday morning that I lost all those chicks, I sobbed. I felt so sad and so guilty. “I can’t believe I did that!” I wailed to Jeremy. “I’m just not cut out to be a farmer!” Sensitively, Jeremy assured me that I was speaking nonsense. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “This says nothing about your abilities as a farmer. It’s all just part of the learning curve. Now go get the iPad and order a new batch of chicks.”
And so, I re-learned a lesson that I already knew. Life is full of experiences, both good and bad, yet they are all given to us for our good. I have read so many books and articles on how to raise backyard chickens. The funny thing is, just about every one of those books warned me about the things I have written in this post! However, it wasn’t until I experienced them for myself that I truly learned (although in hindsight, of course, I wish I had heeded the advice of others!). Perhaps when we make mistakes, we need to allow the consequences to chasten us; but then maybe we need to be a little more forgiving of ourselves. We’re all on a learning curve. Jump in and DO. It’s in the doing that we become.