Sunday, February 24, 2008

More Predator Problems

A few days ago, I went to feed and water the chickens (and gather eggs) and got a bad feeling as soon as I walked up to the door of the coop. I could tell something was wrong - I couldn't see the glow of the heat lamp through a crack next to the latch on the door.

I got further confirmation of a problem when I tried to push open the door and it was blocked by a dead hen. A little more shoving and grunting and I got the door open enough to get in the coop. Although there were still chickens walking around and roosting, my eyes were drawn to the dead bodies strewn about the floor. The surviving chickens got an extensive lesson in four-letter words...I was a bit steamed.

I grabbed an empty feed bag from the bin outside the coop and started loading bodies into it. I also discovered why I had such a hard time getting into the coop: there was a body jammed behind the door that was blocking from opening all the way. The final count: nine hens dead. Each of the dead had a small wound on the neck and no other obvious injuries. Unlike previous attacks, there were no missing heads. The bodies filled the feed bag (50lb). And it felt like it weighed about 50 pounds.

We are now down to 18 hens and one rooster.

A little history

In September, we ordered 75 female-only chicks. One was DOA. One more died within the first 24 hours. A couple of months ago, we suffered four attacks. The first left two dead (missing heads). The next night, 12 were killed. At least half were missing heads and the rest had messy neck wounds. In response, I blocked the chicken-sized door much more securely (the door doesn't close, there is just a board that goes across it that is held in place with a large paver). Two uneventful weeks went by, and then there were an even dozen casualties. I re-secured the chicken-sized door, but the next night 15 were killed. Again, missing heads.

These attacks were clearly violent. The heat lamp(s) were knocked to the ground with broken bulbs. The ever-present dust was swept clean from most surfaces and there were wing marks in the dust on all the walls nearly to the ceiling.

At this point, I was ready to tear my hair out. I could not figure out how the perp was getting in. After searching high and low, I realized that the venting in the eaves of the coop (front and back) was open with no wire covering the holes. This left 2-3" wide holes 8-10 feet off the ground. My best guess was that something was either climbing the exterior wall or dropping to the roof from an overhanging limb, and slinking in through the eaves.

So, on a bitterly cold and windy day in November, I covered all these holes with chicken wire and crossed my (frozen) fingers. At this point, we were down to 32 chickens (31 hens and one rooster).

These measures appeared to do the trick.

A couple months later, Catherine and I decided to take a walk in the woods during a Nor'easter. It was a pretty intense storm, and I had made sure the chickens would be able to get through the day without a visit from me if I decided to stay in all day. But since I was out anyway, I went to check in on the girls. As I was walking across the yard, I noticed lots of steam coming out from under the eaves. It was blowing like crazy, bitterly cold and snowing really hard.

When I got to the door, I discovered that the "steam" was actually smoke. Acrid smoke. When I got the door open, I was struck by the fact that the smoke was so think I couldn't see the other side of the coop (ten feet away). I was also struck by the nasty burning plastic fumes.

One of the chickens apparently decided to roost on the lamp or the lamp's wire and knocked it to the ground. It landed face down and didn't break the bulb. The lamp landed in the plastic tray that sits under the waterer. It burned a hole in the plastic and started the wood and litter beneath it smoldering. It took about 20 minutes to get the fire out completely - I had to throw everything out into the snow. An hour later, I had the heat lamp nailed to the ceiling so it will not ever come down again, and all the wires are neatly tacked out of the way.

Once the smoke had cleared, I found that three of the hens were dead. I am surprised it wasn't worse! It took about three weeks before the smell from this incident was completely gone from the coop and my coat.

Flash forward to this week

So how did something get back in? Dunno. There is no sign that a beast forced its way under the wire that I tacked over the eaves, but I supplemented the defenses by nailing boards over the edge of the wire. Using a ladder in four feet of snow is lots of fun.

Is it possible that the perpetrator can fit through the holes in the chicken wire? Maybe I should have used hardware cloth? Drew blames the rooster - could this be an inside job?

We are discussing the possibility of a new coop - we would like to get it away from the edge of the woods and also be able to build in better defenses. We are also talking about how/when to replenish the flock.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Getting Started

We moved from suburban Carlsbad, CA (northern San Diego County) to rural New Hampshire in the early spring of 2007. Our new home is a modest cape on 76 acres along a country road in the Lakes Region.

The previous owner had built a chicken coop and kept a flock of layers. On moving day, he offered to leave some chickens for us. Catherine said, "Sounds great, but not more than a dozen." The previous owner set us up with a 3-gallon waterer, a hanging feeder, a 50-pound bag of feed and about 10 minutes of instructions on how to keep the chickens alive. We were chicken farmers. Or is it egg farmers? I still don't know which we are.

The day after we moved in, we were eating the freshest, most delicious eggs we had ever had in our lives! What a treat!

Our 2007 flock consisted of nine hens and three roosters. The hens were a mixed bag: a couple of Barred Rocks and a bunch of scraggly Ameraucana. The roosters were an awesome Barred Rock and two fancy shmancy bantams. Each day, we got a handful of brown and blue-green eggs.

Our flock was free-range. Each morning, we let the flock out of the coop to wander the property (and sometimes across the street). They ate lots of bugs and pooped everywhere. Each evening, they would return to roost in the coop and we would close the door overnight to keep them safe. Our dogs quickly became obsessed with eating chicken poop and would search high and low for a tasty morsel in the yard.

This worked out pretty well, although we did have a couple of incidents. A couple of times the flock scattered with great fanfare as some sort of predator was sighted. When the coast was clear, the roosters would go to the coop and call the girls home. There were a few of these scares with no harm done, although on one occasion one of the hens was killed and gutted, probably by a coyote. On another occasion, one of the hens got a mauled wing - I found her being licked tenderly by one of our Aussies (Pumpkin Pie). When I found her, I thought she was dead; unfortunately I had to help her along. To make matters worse, I had to do it during a conference call for work - fortunately I was able to mute my cell phone...

Overall, things went smoothly through the spring and summer. However, our egg production (which was always questionable) began to have serious issues. Eventually, we were feeding ten birds and getting only a couple of eggs a day.

Important lesson: If someone is happy to give you a dozen chickens, don't be surprised if they are a bunch of old ladies that are nearly done laying.

It was at that point that we decided it was time to reboot the flock.