Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Amazing Race: Chicken Edition

If you think being the new kid in high school is tough, you've never seen me try to introduce new chickens into a well-established flock. Imagine that the entire school is one giant clique of Mean Girls (tm) and instead of cutting words, they have literal pointy beaks.

It's surprising to lots of people that chickens don't lay eggs their entire lives. Egg production peaks after a few years, then slows for a few, and then often stops entirely. (Shower thought: does that mean chickens go through henopause?) Our ladies are now three years old. So to grow our flock and plan for a steady flow of eggs in the future, it was time to introduce a few new girls.

I've known from the very beginning that we would eventually need to do this. I was excited to re-live the adorable baby stage, get to know some new breeds, and introduce different egg colors. But I was very, very worried about the well-documented difficulty of introducing new chickens into your flock.

The phrase "pecking order"? Yeah, that's a real thing. Chickens establish a social order, and they don't like to have their places threatened by newcomers. When new chickens are introduced, the existing flock can bully them, sometimes violently. While some amount of jockeying is to be expected, there is a lot of guidance out there on how to integrate new girls as seamlessly as possible.

So here's what we did:

1. We purchased chickens that were already a couple of months old. While this meant missing out on the incredibly adorable fluffy-chick-down phase, it meant several weeks less of keeping them totally separate and under a heat lamp. (They're still tiny and adorable.) We did keep them separate until they were big enough to defend themselves. And we got three so they could help each other out - it can be much harder to introduce just one or two.

2. When we did put them into the coop, we set up a large wire cage/playpen just for the little ones. The two groups could see and hear each other, but with a barrier between them. That way, they could start safely getting used to each other.

3. After a couple weeks, we opened the door! The little girls can still get in and out of the playpen, but the big ones can't. And there's food inside, reducing competition at the feeder. So they're together, but with some refuge. We did the initial introduction in the evening, when the older chickens would be groggy, and we gave them some treats to distract them at the same time.

Sounds easy, right?

I know why the caged bird squawks.


We were starting Step 2. The playpen was set up. We brought the three new ladies into the run, in a box. Preparing to put them into the playpen, we opened the box.

All hell broke loose.

A tornado of flapping and squawking whirled through the coop as the existing flock erupted into a complete uproar. Henry, our rooster, was so perturbed that he busted right out of the coop! He yanked open a small hole in the chicken wire and ran out into the yard, hollering his head off.

Since we weren't planning on any loose chickens, we hadn't locked the dog inside the house. Our little predator took one look at the running, flapping, yodeling chicken dinner drawing all sorts of attention to itself. Then she looked at me.

Then, still making full eye contact with me, she licked her chops. 

And took off running after the chicken.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? 

Imagine the ensuing scene. I'm yelling and running after the dog. Brett is hollering and chasing around a chicken. All the remaining chickens in the coop are screaming like spectators at a WWE match. Based on the noise alone, I assume all our neighbors now believe we've joined some kind of ritual murder cult.

Miraculously, no actual murder occurred that day. I caught the dog, Brett made a wild dive and snatched up the rooster, and the new little chickens eventually made it into their playpen. Ten minutes later, everyone was happily going about their business, cooing and scratching in the dirt like nothing had ever happened.

Victory crowing.

When I tell this story to people, invariably someone says "Wow, I wish you had recorded that!" I mean, yes, I totally wish we had that on film, but we'll all have to settle for the magic of the imagination here. Like THANKS BUT WE WERE KINDA PREOCCUPIED.

Anyways, the door-open playpen phase is going okay. The big ones definitely still rule the roost, and any little chicken getting in their way gets a big peck on the back. But there's no serious harm and it gets a little better every day. Our little high schoolers are growing up fast!

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