Brush Off Your Chickens

The youngest four of last year’s chicks (two from Honey and two from Horus aka Mama Flake) have taken to hanging out together. They are most assuredly the bottom of the pecking order, and finding them a space in the shed at night is a challenge. The other hens get there first and won’t share nicely, so the only way the youngsters can get in is after dark when the other birds can’t tell what’s going on. This a variant on something I wrote about a couple of years back – Chickens In The Dark.

I herd the youngsters in and then wait around with a torch to provide enough light for them to get on to the perches. It’s a finely balanced thing – too much light and the other hens can see a target to peck at, or even decide to jump down and hunt the shed floor for food, but too little light and the youngsters won’t make the leap up. There’s an old pallet set up as a ladder to help them – they’re big enough now that they don’t really need it, but at least if they’re a few rungs up I know they’re headed in the right direction.

This dodgy system has been working well until recently. I did my usual head-count and came up short. This happens from time-to-time when a hen decides to brood a batch of eggs in some obscure spot, or is simply really late turning up. Sometimes being a hen short just means I need to work on my counting skills, and occasionally it means a bird has met a fox. Whatever the reason, when I’m a bird short, and several re-counts have made no difference, I go hunting.

So far, this year, we have had one broody hen and I found her in the hay barn. A week earlier and I wouldn’t have spotted her, but by the time she decided to sit her eggs, enough hay was gone to expose the nest. I’ve had two rounds of counting failure, which is easy to do in the gloom, and turning on too many lights wakes them up and sets them moving around. So far, no foxes. However, that’s for one missing bird. Four missing was a bit of a puzzle.

After a lot of recounting and turning on too many lights, I worked out that I was missing the youngsters, so I went hunting. They’re too young to be laying, but perfectly capable of staying out late and it seemed unlikely that a fox might have picked off exactly the four youngsters. After a tour of the nearest fields and the orchard, I was still four chickens short, and had seen no signs of the feather explosion that marks a fox kill, so I closed the shed door and went to find a better torch.

Strictly speaking, I started to close the door and stopped at the sounds of protest and wing-flapping. All four missing birds were perched on the top of the open door, tucked under the eaves, alive and well, and very annoying. I’d walked past them several times without noticing.

There are so many reasons why this is not a good place to stay for the night. It’s not even remotely fox-safe, it means I can’t shut the door for the rest of the birds, and it leaves the youngsters perfectly lined up to poop on the door bolt. The trouble is, how to get four chickens off the top of the door? If I just close it slowly there’s the chance of crush injuries, and if I reach up I might get pecked or even chicken poop up the inside of my sleeve. It’s amazing just how many yucky things can happen that I’d never have thought of before we had chickens.

Instead, I choose to give them the brush-off, scooting them along the top of the door with the bristly end of the yard broom until they flew down. After that, the broom is perfect to herd four stressed and excitable birds into the shed for the performance with the torch.

Now I have to do the routine every night. You would think that they would learn, but all four get up there and refuse to come down until the broom comes their way. I now have an alarm set to remind me to brush them off at just the right time of day. Too late, and it takes forever to herd them in the dark, but too early and they just fly back up to the top of the door.

It’s easy to fall into painting analogies when dealing with the birds. It’s a matter of finding just the right light, getting them up on the palet(te) and perfecting my brushwork until they’re properly perched if not actually posed.

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