By the time I got back from the garden with my daily blueberry harvest, something had discovered the wild black raspberries by the woodshed, stripping the lower canes of every last bit of treasure. I picked the last half cup of berries by the shed and then did a quick lap around the yard for an informal inventory. At every point, the lower canes had been henpecked out of their bounty. I had almost completed the lap when I bumped int the culprits and an age old question – which comes first, the chickens or the eggs?
We don’t cultivate black raspberries or blackberries. They cultivate themselves — usually in the most invconvenient spots – but we do try to harvest enough for a small batch of jam or berry pancakes each year. They’re one of a few crops we don’t have to work for.
Eggs are the other crop we do very little to nurture. New chicks get a starter feed and, as soon as they’re old enough, a coop on the range. Advocates of letting chickens be chickens, we’ve been letting the Ladies of the Coop dictate what they want to eat, and, until the berries ripened, that worked out pretty well. They seemed to go mostly for bugs and weeds and, aside from “aerating” the carrot bed a little too enthusiastically, left most of the garden plants alone.
Letting chicks be chicks has, historically, given us delicious eggs with rich dark yolks. Blackberries are just starting to form and ripen. I suspect the Ladies of the Coop will be aiming for that crop as well. Part of me wants to try to fence off the canes to save it for the humans. The other part of me is coming to terms with the fact that getting great eggs may mean letting the chickens come first.
Every morning when we bring out the checks, Katie follows us. She watches and whines, urging us to be careful as we move the growing babies from indoor enclosure to box to the chicken tractor outside. She trails the Big Guy from room to outdoors and hovers as he releases the checks into the tractor.
When the chicks are settled in their outdoor home, she’ll sniff on all four sides, inspect the sky to see if any predators are selling above, and then give a pointed look at Jim-Bob, as if to say, “Don’t mess with my chicks”.
most mornings she’ll lie down next to the coop, watching the chicks scratch and argue over who gets this would chip in that white fluffy flower. To be sure, Katie has her explorations in the woods. From the moment the chicks are in the tractor, however, until the moment we begin moving them back into the house, she lets us and them –and even the cats – know that she is there to protect and serve.￼￼
She never growls or bares her teeth at anyone.￼￼￼ when she sees Princess Jane get too close to the coop, she will physically move herself between the chicks and arrow little gray huntress, but there are no snarls or parks. When it counts, she firm but always as loving with Princess Jane as she is with the chicks.￼￼￼
No one will ever mistake Katie for a huntress or vicious guard dog, but as a vigilant and caring protector, she’s becoming quite good at keeping the peace.￼￼
Well it was bound to happen sooner or later. Apparently you can’t assemble more than three chickens without a clique starting to click because that’s what our Rhode Island Reds have started to do.
There are four Reds and three Americaunas. The chicks are very sweet to us, but they’ve discovered that the tiny white flowers that are growing outside (and inside) the chicken tractor are infinitely more delicious when they are fed to you by humans on their knees (I think the Jim-Bob may have been reading to them from his soon to be published How to Have Your Human Serve You). The Americauna’s take turns yanking the flowers from our hands, but three of the Red’s, whom I am now calling the Plastics, butt in front of their smallest sister every single time.
The boys came up with a strategy of distracting the Plastics with the fluffy flowers on one side of the tractor while I feed Baby Sister her share from the other. It’s worked once or twice, but the Plastics are not your average bird brains. They seem to be catching on, and we’re scratching new ground as we start our field research into Social Emotional Learning for Chickens so our ladies can keep the peace.
Katie settles in from a comfortable distance to watch the chicks. She makes a practice of checking on them whenever they move from their indoor house to the outdoor home. She lolls in the grass as Jim tries and talk the chickens into squeezing through the holes in the wire.
The chicks love to visit with Jim, chirping that they’d be only too happy to show him their feathers up close if only they could get through. Visibly cursing the physics of chicken wire, Jim pretends to be distracted by a chipmunk under the car and left.
Jane watches for a while and then decides it’s time for the pro from Dover to put the fear of the Warrior Princess into the chicks. This is when, Katie, recognizing a true huntress, gets to her feet, shadowing her Royal Highness before she gets within 6 feet of the coop.
Karie takes a fair amount of teasing for being a bit of a wimp. It’s safe to say chicks are usually less afraid of the cats than the she is. Ultimately, though, she lives by one overriding philosophy of ”Don’t mess with my chicks.”
I can sympathize.
The weather experts kept pushing back the storms’ arrival time yesterday, so we decided to get the chicks out of their indoor enclosure and into the outdoor tractor for a little playtime. We still get some cold nights, and they’ll go outside full-time when we hear more clucking than peeping. That can’t happen soon enough for all of us because the difference in environment between even a lovingly maintained indoor enclosure and fresh green grass is stark.
We’ve paired down our flock to a manageable seven. The Big Guy cleans the tank out every other day, and they have room to do gymnastics in there, but, in the tractor, they can actually fly a little. In the tank, they eat their medicated baby food — they’ll go to plain old cracked corn not too long from now. In the tractor but they’ve discovered the joy of chasing and chomping bugs. They get to play “who wants to tease the cat?” When they get tired, they find a sunny spot for a little meditation.
From past experience, we know all this roaming and bug eating makes delicious eggs with rich yolks. And, even though I don’t claim to be a chicken psychologist, from my lawnchair, the outdoor chickens, much like outdoor kids or cats or dogs, just seem happier.