Chickens and Trenches

Chickens and Trenches
Aracana and Red Rock Ch
Lucille, a barred rock (top)
and Pretty, the araucana wearing the lovely necklace

This is a story about chickens but it starts with a bunch of holes in the ground.

All winter and spring we had 500 feet of trenches criss-crossing the yard and pasture waiting for enough sunny days during our annual spring deluge so Joseph could finish laying cables and run bigger lines to the outbuildings and put the electrics underground.

Joseph has ten years of army life behind him. When we met he told me he had, as he put it, a master’s degree in digging, a comment he has wished a hundred times he’d never said because every time there’s something to dig, I raise my eyebrows and look expectantly in his direction. All spring, rain or shine, he went outside to dig a little more each day and though the project isn’t done yet, at least the holes are filled in now.

Lest you think 500 feet of trenches are crazy-making, last summer we snaked 700 feet of trenches and tunnels for our new septic system. We only learned AFTER we covered over those trenches that it is now legal to put both septic and electric lines in the same trench. Ugh.

So we decided to finish out the Year of Trenches by digging this parallel line for the electrics. Once we filled in the last of the trenches, I spread clover seeds all over the red clay trails that ran through our green field. I imagined in spring seeing beautiful swaths of red and white clover blossoms trailing on down the hill to the south pasture, calling to all the bees in our ten hives.

But alas, we also have chickens. Joseph and I spread a hundred pounds of clover seed up and down the hillside as our free ranging chickens sat under the pine trees snickering. The seed hadn’t been in the ground a week when we saw the little ladies cooing and clucking all down the south pasture, snapping up tasty baby clover shoots and seeds.

Yet another lesson in farmsteading. Don’t plant seed anywhere chickens can get to it.

Something about a hole in the ground is a magnet for chickens. Soon as the sun’s up, the chickens are waddling up and down the rows looking for early worms and grubs. As soon as Joseph goes ‘down in the hole,’ the ladies come a-running because every time he throws a shovelful of fresh dirt up they snatch up a wiggling worm or two.

Now if you’ve never had chickens you probably don’t know this, but when a chicken finds something live and delicious, she can’t keep quiet about it. She grabs the wriggly thing and takes off in full screaming gallop across the yard, worm dangling out the sides of her beak. Instantly the whole flock sets out after her and, if one can, she’ll pull the worm right out of first chicken’s mouth. Then the new worm runner starts her dash for gustatory glory until finally one thinks to swallow it. Think flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz and you’ll get the picture.

Last spring we got all our chickens as hatchlings. We raised 35 or so. A half dozen turned out to be roosters and the rest hens.

When they were a few months old the young roosters started learning to crow. At that point all our roosters were white bantam Cochins, the smallest of our flock. I wish now I’d recorded the song of young roosters because it certainly would make you laugh.

They weren’t yet big enough to sound like the robust big rooster (Cock-a-Doodle-DOO!). Our young Ă”uns sounded more like Wendy when Peter Pan was teaching her to crow (eroo-erroo-oahh). They often had the syllables right but in the wrong order or their rhythm was off (doo-doo-cock-eroo). Joseph and I sat on the patio laughing till our eyes watered each time they had a crowing contest.

Immediatelly following that we came into new hen mating time. If you thought crowing was funny, this would have really knocked you over. Our young roosters knew they were supposed to do *something* to that cute-as-a-button hen girl, but not sure quite what. Half the time they sat in the saddle backwards and the other half they had it right.
Christmas BantysHoliday celebrating chickens

I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful it is to have chickens. Yes, fresh eggs taste totally different than store bought ones, but that’s not why I like having them so much.

Straight from bed — sometimes I’m still wearing jammies — Joseph and I go let our chickens out of the coop and we often spend a half hour watching them before we come in for breakfast.

Soon as we open the coop door, a pile of chickens tumble out (I mean that literally). They’re so eager to get on with their day, they RUN for the compost pile. The promise of early morning worms will light a fire under a free range chicken. They’re entertaining as all get out as anyone who’s watched a chicken gallop across the yard, beak wide open to catch a flying bug, can attest.

If you’ve never seen a chicken run, try this. Hold your arms tight to your body and your body stiff all the way from your neck down. Now run in big loping strides bending only at your knees. To go faster, open your beak wider. Ignore my husband and I laughing on the patio.

The chickens dive into the compost and immediately dig in to find the worms. They break the compost down far faster than would happen normally. Once they turn the compost over and spread it out far and wide, they spend the rest of the day wandering around the yard and field.

Their manure is wonderful for the garden and — big plus — I have seen nary a slug since we got them two years ago. Chickens believe slugs are a delicacy and I do my best to encourage that belief by praising them to high heavens whenever I see them eating one. Maybe that’s why their eggs taste so good? (eeuuw… erase that thought!)

Chickens have a gossip network that is remarkable and nonstop. All day long they tell each other what they found to eat, who’s flying overhead, that they just layed the best egg ever, and anything else that comes into their little chicken heads. If I move a bucket in the yard they run over to watch and then discuss it for the next five minutes.

At the end of a long day of bug catching and kitchen scrap scratching, all our chickens head up to the coop like someone rang the work-is-over bell and they file inside. Most of them fly up on the roosts unless it’s early summer, like when three of them spent 23 days in July sitting on nests, brooding clutches of eggs.

Once they’re all in, Joseph and I go in and do a head count. They’re always there but we like to count anyway, saying goodnight to each of them and praising them for being such productive farm workers. There they sit, perched up high on their roosts, quietly clucking and telling each other about the day.

This is one of my favorite moments in our farm life, when my husband and I stand in the coop, gathering eggs from the nests and listening to the chickens humming and murmuring to each other. A lovely sound.