Chicken watch | TheFencePost.com

Chicken watch

Tom Theobald
Niwot, Colo.

We're back into the sunshine, what little snow we had is gone and it is up into the 60s. If I'm around in the late afternoons I'm turning over those portions of the garden that didn't get planted to winter rye and I let the chickens out for an hour or so of grazing while I dig. I enjoy being able to let the chickens out while I work, for so much of the summer they have to be kept out because they are just too destructive, but now the garden is theirs.

There's a fox around, I saw one by the barn last week so I can't really leave the chickens alone in the garden for long for fear the fox may happen by. The neighbor lost two more ducks the other evening because they didn't get closed in soon enough after dark. My chickens are a little safer because their yard is completely enclosed, but the fox could dig in if it was motivated so I close the door on the chicken coop and the higher door on the pigeon loft every night. I still need to bury some fencing around the perimeter, it's mostly done, but there are a few vulnerable spots that could use a little beefing up. Maybe I can get to it before the ground freezes up.

The rye didn't get up quite as high as I would have liked, but high enough. The top growth and the fine root mass the rye puts out will prevent any wind erosion and it is high enough and thick enough that the chickens don't scratch in it much. They do work it over thoroughly though for who knows what, I like to think they are harvesting a lot of weed seeds and bug eggs, and they munch on the green growth as they go, not enough to bother the rye, but enough that they are getting ample greens in their diet and that has to be good for them — chicken salad.

Tall Man has matured into a magnificent young rooster, tall and long legged, with an upright, regal bearing, iridescent black feathers with a flowing tail and a deep, mellow crow. He is a Langshan, if any of you want to look up the breed. He's old enough now that he has taken an interest in the hens, but fortunately, so far, not in me. I keep my eye on him though, my go-rounds with Dune Buggy have left me a little rooster shy, but it looks like Tall Man isn't defensive. Of course just about the time I say that and get complacent I'll feel a sudden sharp pain between my shoulder blades while I'm digging.

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These columns are often a progressive affair, unfolding over a period of hours. I started early this morning and now it is late afternoon. The sun is just about to settle behind James Peak to the southwest and I'm sitting in the garden watching the chickens. James Peak is about as far south as the sun gets in the winter, before it makes the turn on December 21 and starts north again. As I recall, the Utes and Arapahos called it The Wolf's Tusk. So at this time of year my evenings in the garden are in the shadow of The Wolf's Tusk. How cool is that?

Tall Man is off in one part of the garden with his two favorites, the Barred Rock and the Wyandotte. The one the 4-Hers called Hunch darts around the garden flapping her wings, 6-inches off the ground, energized as if she was administered a sudden shot of adrenaline or had an attack of ants in her pants. She is an odd little chicken, lovable, but a little strange, and she alternates between periods of seeming peace and outbursts of energy, a bi-polar chicken perhaps? Most of the time she seems to be in her own little world.

Hunch is one of five Auracanas. Two of these are survivors from the original flock, one of which seems to have melded in with the three new pullets, but the other, the one with no tail, tends to keep to herself. Hunch drifts in and out of the Auracana bunch.

The Barred Rock and the Wyandotte are boss chickens and they stick together most of the time, while the Red Star goes wherever she darn well pleases. She seems to be outside the dominance hierarchy and is very independent. When I'm turning over the soil with the garden fork she is always right there in front of me, quick to inspect the soil as it's turned, looking for goodies, and I have to be careful that I don't stab her with the garden fork or clock her on the head as I break up clods.

The Hamburg is a quiet little chicken and she goes about her business without being picked on or doing any picking herself. She distinguishes herself by being an early rooster, that is she goes to roost long before the others and I never have to round her up or worry if she is in.

The sun has dropped behind the mountains now and last red light of sunset fires up the clouds on the western horizon. Most of the chickens are drifting over toward the coop and Tall Man is crowing one last time to his fellow roosters living within a quarter mile radius to the north.

Most of the hens will follow me into the chicken yard if I cluck to them a few times, knowing that I am about to throw out some scratch, but some, like the Red Star, will linger and I have to go back out after I have the rest of the flock in the chicken yard and herd her in. Shepherds have their crook and dogs, I find as a chickherd the best tool is a broom rake. I don't rake them up, but the broom rake extends my reach, my influence, by several feet in any direction and the broom part looms over the chickens and if I go slowly and don't spook them I can steer them around pretty handily, just like a good Border Collie.

The nine hens are giving me four to six eggs a day now, ample for me, Harold and Genevieve, Red and Donna and occasionally Mark and Kelly. It is so nice to go out at the end of the day and come back in with a handful of multi-colored eggs. It's like a winter harvest, in fact maybe the chickens themselves are part of my winter harvest. It probably sounds a little odd to some of my friends who lead fast paced, scheduled lives, that I would set aside an hour or so in the evening to putz around in the garden and watch my chickens, but I think in our rush to do everything, see everything, experience everything, we often miss some fundamental joys that are right at our feet or over our heads and free for the taking, like the chickens, like the sunsets. Barbara and I would do that often. I miss her so. ❖