A Flock of Backyard Chickens

Here, rescued from their original home on chickenmistakes.wordpress.com, is our list of things I did wrong while putting in our first flock of backyard chickens.

Plan for the Maximum Number of Chickens Allowed by Local Ordinance
Originally we were thinking “there’s two of us plus the Boy, and we’ll get two-thirds of an egg per chicken per day, so we shouldn’t need more than six.” Plans were drawn up for a 3×4-foot coop attached to a 7×7-foot yard, which would yield two feet of roost space and eight feet of yard space per bird. All of this would be neatly tucked under our pluot tree (see also: Never Design Anything Around A Tree and Don't Put the Coop Anywhere Near the House) which would in theory be richly fertilized by chicken droppings and provide shade in the hot summer months.

Naturally this plan didn’t survive contact with the Real World. Where we live—the up-and-coming municipality of East Palo Alto, CA, which has a century-old tradition of gentleman poultry farming—we’re allowed up to a dozen chickens, as long as we’re careful not to include a rooster. So when we looked at the Web form on Backyard Chickens and saw many different varieties of interesting-looking chickens, we ordered nine, and then went back for another pair when we discovered that we (and by “we” I mean “me”) had managed to screw up the order.

So we now have eleven chickens. Eleven!

Never Design Anything Around A Tree

The plan went something like this: “we’ll build an integrated coop-and-run sort of thing, and it will sit mostly under the pluot tree. So in the summer when the branches are full of fruit, they will droop down nicely and cover most of it up, providing lots of shade and using an area of the yard that was previously impenetrable for four months out of the year.”

The reality? Siting the thing under the tree meant there were height limits (see: Don't Build Any Human-Accessible Part of the Run with an Interior Height Less Than That Of the Tallest Human in the House) and we had to constantly dodge around shallow roots when planting the concrete pilings. Also, the chickens–being perverse creatures who are absolutely guaranteed to dig and scratch exactly where you don’t want them to dig and scratch–have exposed and pecked away most of the fine roots and are now working on the big ones, so it’s anybody’s guess whether we’ve killed the tree or not.

Bonus: we’ve made it effectively impossible to fence off that area and let them wander around outside their run. They are guaranteed to climb the tree instantly and head up onto the roof, and once they’re up there it’s anybody’s guess when or where they’ll come down.

Don't Put the Coop Anywhere Near the House

As mentioned in Never Design Anything Around a Tree, the coop went under a lovely pluot tree, and the lovely pluot tree is near the house. Right under the kitchen window, in fact.

This was fine when we had tiny month-old chicks bumbling around a large dog crate with a heat lamp over it. We could look out any time and be sure our precious baby fuzz-heads were fine.

As soon as they started to gain a little mass and act like big chickens, however, we figured it out.

Chickens are prairie birds. Prairie birds are dust bathers, meaning that to keep themselves clean, they dig out hollow nest-sized depressions, snuggle down inside, and toss beakfuls and foot-fulls and wing-fulls of dust and bedding all over themselves. Then they shake, and then they flap ... and if you’ve got more than a couple of them (See: Plan for the Maximum Number of Chickens Allowed by Local Ordinance) what you’ve got is a permanent floating dust cloud.

Since a fair amount of what they’re scratching around in is chicken poop, what you’re seeing suspended in midair–and baking into your banana bread, if the coop is under your kitchen windows and your kitchen windows are open–is powdered poop. If you build the coop anywhere near the house, nearby windows will pretty much never be opened again.

Don't Build Any Human-Accessible Part of the Run with an Interior Height Less Than That Of the Tallest Human in the House

Thanks once again to the fact that we were building the coop to fit under the single branch of the pluot tree that gives sweet red pluots as opposed to nasty bitter yellow pluots (see: Never Design Anything Around a Tree) we wound up with a slight slant to the roof of the chicken run. The slant is good; rain and leaves and other tree-poop rolls away from the house. The fact that the lower edge of the roof’s support structure is just a tad under six feet tall and I am personally a quarter past six feet tall is not.

The roof is made of corrugated plastic held up by 2x2s, so the (frequent) occasions when I whack myself on it are not terribly painful, but they are loud and embarrassing, and cause me to flinch and swear and hunch over while inside the coop, which in turn causes my back to hurt.

This situation is getting worse, not better, as the chickens build ziggurats of compressed litter for me to trip over. Next time I build a chicken run, I won’t make the lowest point of the roof less than seven feet high.

Don't Assume That Your Border Collie Will Be Perfectly Fine With A Bunch of Prey Birds Inches Away From Her Jaws

When we put the chickens in, we had a pair of highly intelligent dogs around the place: Kaylee, who was a year-old Australian shepherd, and Misty, who was an eleven-year-old border collie. Although they are visually similar (black and white, nub tails, laughing eyes) they are very different dogs at heart.

Kaylee was extremely interested in the chicks when we had them in the bathroom. The plan was to prevent her from wanting to eat them alive by making them Her Chickens, and it seems to have worked. Every time I went in there I said "Let’s go check on your chickens!” and she trotted right in and staaaaared while I fed, watered, and de-pasted their little fuzzy butts.

These days Kaylee keeps an eye on the coop, but is pretty low-key. We’ve used one or two chickens in a dog crate as a distraction for her herding lessons, and she will Go By or Away to Me around them without a problem. She’s even had the opportunity to come up and gently sniff at an uncaged hen or two, and has been very nice about not biting anybody’s head off.

Misty, on the other hand, wore a deep, paw-compacted groove into the ground around the chicken run. I wound up having to block access with a small fence, because she was doing endless full circles, around and around and around.

I am pretty sure I know what the problem is: chickens, being non-flocking birds, do not stay together as a group no matter what Misty did from the outside of the enclosure. This made her crazy, and she wanted to kill those damned birds. Kill them. Kill them. Kill them all! And then stack them up in a neat pile, all clumped together and facing the same direction the way they should be!

Do Not Attempt to Automate Any Part of the Feeding or Watering Process

First rule of Chicken Club: your chickens will poop wherever you really, seriously don’t want them to poop.

Highest on this list of places? The feeder and waterer, because ... eeew. Our ladies were getting bigger, eating a lot more, perching on top of both feeder and waterer, crapping all over the place, and occasionally knocking things over and making an even bigger mess than before, so off I went to the drawing board.

The waterer turned out okay, for a first attempt We wound up with a hunk of PVC with five of Farmtek’s finest chicken nipples. It’s gravity-fed from a three-gallon bucket hung from the pluot tree. Refilling it is nowhere near as horrible a chore as was dealing with its predecessor, which involved scrubbing partially-liquified chicken poop out of a steel watering can.

Mistakes made: hanging the bucket from the damn tree, failing to use PVC pipe dope or Teflon tape on every single one of the joints (they leak) and assembling the chicken nipples before inserting them into the PVC manifold. Turns out you want to stick the washers into the holes first, and then push the chicken nipples in, not the other way around. (Yes, "chicken nipples” is my new favorite phrase.) If you wind up here, enlarging the holes in the PVC is not the way to go; you must remove the washers or your assembly will leak. Try not to stab yourself with the screwdriver while doing so.

The feeder needed to be ripped out and done over. Good concept: redwood structure, aluminum inside, lots of room for feed. Mistakes made: it was on the outside wall of the coop, so it got rained on. And it leaked, and the food inside (first crumbles, then pellets) turned into moldy disgusting concrete, and the ladies got very upset. I wound up tarping the outside of the coop but it still leaked in one corner.

Don’t Make the Nest Boxes Too Small

After re-thinking the plan to put the nest boxes up high in the coop (see: Plan for the Maximum Number of Chickens Allowable by Local Ordinance) and reading all sorts of dire warnings about what would happen if we made the nest boxes too big—the chickens would refuse to use them, or eat their own eggs, or vote Republican or worship the Devil or something equally awful—we wound up building small, low boxes.

The nest boxes were supposed to come out 12 x 12 x 9 inches, so the girls could go inside, squat, and lay an egg, but not stand up, turn around, and eat it. Unfortunately, I’m a spazz. In adding the architectural extra of a slanted lid, I managed to cut the height of the boxes way, way down, to maybe six inches at the back. Morticia (our big black Australorp, first to lay) fit, but not comfortably … so after our first egg appeared inside a box (yay!) the next few all showed up on the floor of the run (booooo!).

I’ve since gone back around the top with another layer of 2 x 4, which is ugly, but now the boxes are tall enough to be useful. Morticia, Debbie (the white Easter Egger), and Annie (the biggest Wyandotte) are all laying pretty reliably in the nests; we’ve had a dozen or so eggs so far, mostly in the nest.

We started out with AstroTurf in the nest boxes. This got picked over a bit but survived. After Morticia laid a couple of eggs on the floor we bought some oat straw and put it in the boxes, hoping to make them look more nest-like, but the girls (of course!) thought the straw was food and yanked it out onto the floor and pecked it to pieces and crapped on the pieces and trampled the crapped-on pieces into the dirt.

Try Not to Get Emotionally Attached

Because sometimes, they die.

For a long list of known reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. We lost one of the girls a few weeks back; it was Morticia, my favorite, the Australorp who laid our very first egg. I couldn’t see a thing wrong with her, but she was stretched out stiff–horribly, they assume that rubber-chicken shape when they die–when I got home one afternoon.

20-20 hindsight says we probably shouldn’t have given them names, or watched as their little personalities grew, or cared about them like the sweet-natured pets they are. That’s a mistake we’re going to joyfully repeat; the alternative is too bleak to contemplate.

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