Just Wing It

Our chicken decision has been a continual pleasure. I can hardly believe I was going to not get chickens. As I mentioned in the Chicken Herder post, they have been an incredible learning opportunity for my daughter. The regularity of a chore, that belongs to her but benefits the family, is just wonderful. But in addition to that overriding lesson, there are myriad little daily lessons to be had in purely tangible problem solving. She has learned to operate the hook and eye latches to let the chickens out and put them away at night, to gather and count eggs, put them away in the kitchen and mark the appropriate number of ticks onto our “egg calendar” on the fridge. Furthermore she has learned more subtle things like how to lure the ladies into the coop with a cup of grain when necessary and how to clean the wood shavings out of the hinge when the door isn’t closing properly.

The chooks also provide a continual source of entertainment, especially since the run is right next to the house and we can open the dining room window and throw them scraps. We had a friend over recently and, after cutting up an avocado she asked if I wanted the peel in my compost bucket. The 1.5yo piped up, eyes big with pride at cracking a code, “Kickens?” Oh yes! Don’t compost what you can throw to the chickens!

My favorite thing about having hens remains feeding them kitchen scraps. I hate wasting food, and I think we do a darn good job at recycling leftovers around here. But, especially with kids, there are just quite a lot of bits and pieces which would otherwise get dumped. Bread crusts, two bites of oatmeal, dried nibs of cheese from behind the sofa. I love throwing those things out for the ladies, who come running full bore when I open the window.

But the best thing to feed chooks is the kitchen failures that otherwise make me want to cry. I tried fermenting some pickles recently, but I didn’t make enough of an effort to keep the cukes submerged. The sticking out parts turned into moldy slime. I am fairly devastated by this kind of DIY failure. I kick myself pretty hard. And, not that it didn’t still suck the big one, but when I pulled the mold off and threw the half rotten pickles to the chickens, my fallen heart got a little boost back up. Yea. Something good came out of it, at least.

As far as their yard, those ladies work hard all day long, churning up the dirt to keep the weeds back and eating bugs that would otherwise head towards our house. The soil devestation would be a problem in many situations, but in ours, the area alongside the house where I set up their run was a big overgrown mess. Unusable for anything else, just a jungle of bug breeding weeds. They are actually dramatically improving the value of that side area.

And did I mention that the eggs kick ass? I had thought they would taste just like the farmer’s market eggs, which are very, very good. But no, my eggs are even better. Maybe it’s because they’re mine. Maybe it’s because sometimes they’re still warm when I crack them into the pan. Maybe it’s because they eat bugs all frickin’ day long. But damn are them some fine eggs.

Yes, I highly recommend the chicken caper. It’s not utopia, I mentioned the downsides here, but if you can get past those, there are so many benefits.

Erica at NW Edibles gave us a tour of their coop recently, which is righteously awesome. I want to give you a tour of my set-up, which is the extreme other end of the chicken spectrum, just so you know that you can do it for hardly any money, and very little work if the situation warrants it.

Did you catch that last part? Before we get into my scroungy coop, I want to make something very clear. If you own your own land and intend to have chooks over the long haul, do not slam together a half-assed coop like mine. Take the time and money to build a high functioning, long term solution like Erica’s. You won’t regret it. Consider it like a pension fund.

If, on the other hand, you are renting like us, or want to give chickens a try without committing, or really, really want chickens but are just flat broke, you can do it on the fly. Here’s some inspiration:

Classy, isn’t it? Nothing like a blue tarp to dress things right down. I could buy a sheet of plywood to properly roof it, but that would cost actual money. As it is, all the materials except the wire mesh and the tarp were scavenged. There is a plywood roof under that tarp, but it just barely fits the footprint, without any overhang. Hence the tarp.

Here is the church, here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the —

Oooops! Hello there lovely lady! Hard at work I see.

As you can see, I sprung for the fancy feeder, not sure why, those are a pretty basic DIY. But I did set up a sketchy brainchild gravity flow waterer, complete with twistie-ties, which I’m going to explain in a separate post.

The coop itself is very small because the girls spend most of the day outside. If they had to be enclosed at all times, we would need a drastically larger coop. When I built my coop in Alaska, I had planned on the chooks being outside a lot, but that didn’t really pan out because of dogs, a roaming neighborhood bear, and a lack of fencing. Because they were in the coop almost all the time, it turned out to be a bit too small for my animal ethics. The lesson here is, carefully consider whether you have an appropriately secure yard space for the ladies, before you plan your coop.

The very generous sized chook yard, already enclosed on the two long sides, and the lack of serious daytime predators is a lot of what made my shoestring budget possible. We have possums here, which apparently can and do kill chickens, but they are nocturnal. Other than that, it’s just the small possibility of a loose dog. You can see that although the coop itself is pretty tight (we lock them in at night), the yard is really just to keep the girls in, not anything in particular out. I do sometimes leave the house for short excursions with them out in the yard, and it’s somewhat risky, but I think the benefit outweighs the risk.

If you are going to be building a small coop, I highly recommend looking for some crates. These worked out very well, and I think could even have their place in a nice coop. They are pretty sturdy really. These came from a boutique tile store, so are probably sturdier than most.

I’m not sure that using all that wire mesh was the right thing to do. I had my pick of a very large pile of scrap plywood (small pieces) and could have saved even more money by using it (that small gauge mesh is expensive!) but we don’t have a power saw here, and the idea of cutting very much plywood with our hand saw wore me out. Stapling the mesh on was relatively quick and easy. But as you can see, the bedding is slowly filtering out onto the ground. Plus I need that tarp overhang partly because there’s no plywood siding to keep the rain out. That damn stuff just refuses to fall straight down, and always seems to come at an angle.

On the other hand, the mesh helps keep things cooler in there, and at 95 F, cooler is definitely better.

Have you ever seen chickens pant? They do, like a dog. They hang their beaks open, and their whole little bodies heave with the in and out breaths. It’s somewhere between cute and disturbing.

With my next post I’ll go into a bit of detail about some specific DIY chicken projects, such as my weird brainchild waterer.

Stay tuned!

One thought on “Just Wing It

  1. CJ, I have to admit, I sooo want chickens. I ache for just three little birdies to cluck around, crap on my patio and ruin the grass. Because you’re right – those homegrown eggs are friggin the yummiest eggs around. I had a source, through my sons school, of rhode island red chickens eggs last year – big, orange yolks and soooo good you just drooled even on the drive home. But alas, her son’s at a different school this year.

    I miss her, and I really miss those eggs!

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