A Texas Ranching Adventure: Chicken Employees
Definition of chicken moat: a double-fenced area surrounding a garden where chickens are allowed to roam and feed, thus creating a bug-free zone.
Driving through the dark on a Texas highway, I shone the flashlight at my book and read:
“Chickens can be decidedly stupid about finding their home after it’s been moved. You can help them along by watching for stragglers that insist on bedding down in the old place, and by never moving the house far outside the previous range–chickens are conservative by nature, and don’t like to venture more than about 200 yards (180 m) from their home place.”
I closed the book, A Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow, and said, “Will this conservative chicken mentality foil our plan to build a chicken moat?”
My husband Jay shrugged. “We’ll train them. Coax and train.”
In the black of night we tiptoed quietly toward the chicken house following Mr. Swenson. He’d told us, “You have to catch chickens while they’re asleep.” I shone the flashlight into the coop which caused some odd purring responses from the birds while Mr. Swenson peered about, and pulled one, two, three … off the roost and put them in the burlap bag my husband held. “And that should be ten,” Swenson said, as some began flapping and shrieking. “Take this runt too—for free.” The birds were all awake and hysterical now, calling alarms as Mr. Swenson quickly closed the door to his coop.
When we’d all walked a respectful distance from the upset birds, Mr. Swenson warned us. “Now you know the roosters will begin to fight as they grow up? You can’t keep this many together.” We told Mr. Swenson we knew that danger. We explained, “For now we plan to employ them to eat insects around our yard and garden. To garden organically!” We also admitted that we hadn’t even started building the chicken coop when we saw his ad in the newspaper. But we had built a fence around the yard and now would have the chickens patrol it.
“That’s an idea,” he said, nodding. “When we first moved out here, I had to spray gallons of poison out round the house ’cause the ticks and mosquitoes were eating me alive.” He wished us luck.
Ten roosters and one little hen.
We opened the bags at home in the garage where the birds could safely spend their first night. The young roosters were handsome red-heads with slim golden bodies. Known as Buff Orpingtons, they were a self-reliant breed good at foraging, and prized for colourful feathers. The free runt was a dun brown hen with a glint of bad-humor in her eye.
Early the next morning, we showed the birds their home at one end of our long front porch. There was food and water in containers, and a roosting stand Jay had built of two wooden pallets leaned together and fastened at the top with baling wire.
Already on the very first day the roosters cooperatively ran loose through the yard hunting insects–their golden-red plumage glinting in the sunshine. And that night, they did return, led by food, to their perch. After that, every sunrise, the crowing began: “cock a doodle dooo, cock kee-kee a rooo!” As we slept with our bedroom door open, we heard the orchestra loud and clear. All the world knew those birds were there.
The hoped-for chicken moat became a great success: the roosters and Little Hen, as we called her, did their job in our yard and vegetable garden. And when the hot winds of summer brought huge grasshoppers from Mexico, I’d walk from one fruit tree to another pulling the hoppers off and tossing them to the roosters, who followed me like a pack of devoted dogs.
As the month passed, some of the roosters began to run and peck at each other. Jay tried to catch the most aggressive and sometimes succeeded: we enjoyed the best rooster and dumplings we’d ever had. And he began to listen to their voices: the rooster with the most beautiful crow would be kept and called Caruso. And we’d already ordered female Buff Orpington chicks to match our singer and give him companions.
We decided to expand our flock.
To diversify, we ordered guinea fowl, a native of Africa, which we figured would fit in in dry Central Texas because guineas don’t like dew on the ground. These fowl were beautiful small birds, blue-grey with white spots. They were better than guard dogs for an alarm and raised a racket anytime anything happened–a door slammed, a car drove up, a man or beast approached.
Sure enough, soon our birds had callers. One night we woke to guineas crying an alarm. Jay ran out with a flashlight and found a possum, which slunk off. Some nights a whole platoon of raccoons beamed their black eyes back at him. Jay began sleeping in the garage to be close to the birds so he could intercept varmints.
We realized that the chicken coop Jay had started building had better be finished ASAP to protect the poultry. For the interim, Jay put chicken wire on the three open sides of the porch perch.
We were ready for the coop anyway. The orchestra volume was getting out of hand each morning and evening. The guineas called both when waking up and settling down in the evening. The new coop would be located farther from our bedroom in a back corner of the fenced yard.
Jay designed the coop himself. As a young man growing up in Europe, he had wanted to be an architect but his mother had said that in the post-WWII renovations all buildings needed had been built, and she’d only pay for a different education. So now Jay had his chance to build things: he contructed the coop of sheet metal, which was impervious to critters, and with an open floor, unattached to the ground. The chicken books called this style a chicken tractor: this coop could be moved around, and in each location, the chicken poop that fell would fertilize the soil and the birds’ scratching would aerate the ground.
We had to herd the chickens into the new coop for a week or two. Soon, they got used to the new location, which was less than 200 yards from the porch site. Then, being conservative, they returned home each evening voluntarily, even though the metal house grew hot in the summer sun; they returned even after a skinny weasel got in and ate some birds; and after a snake crawled in and ate some eggs. We closed up those predator entrance holes by putting in a chicken wire floor. But the guineas—a wilder breed of bird—decided to stop sleeping in the coop.
For a while they survived. They were good at hiding their eggs but we collected some. Once we found 97 of their small, rock-hard eggs in a single piled-high nest in the middle of a meadow. One season they hatched out 40-some-odd chicks under the huge rose bush in our front yard. The males and females stood guard when the babies were at the nest. By day, they all trooped through the pasture with the chicks running along single-file escorted by the adults. Excellent parents! But then came predators. Weasels, raccoons? We found a slaughtered field one morning all around that rose bush. Just a handful of adults survived and moved to the live oak trees by the creek bed.
Then one morning I saw a large shadow pass through the air, like a ghost, silent and weightless, it seemed. It glided close over the ground and up to the oak trees. A five foot wing span. A Great Horned Owl.
Day by day, those last guineas disappeared.
One dawn, Jay spotted the great owl crouching on the ground and munching on what had been the lone survivor. Jay scared off the owl, and carried the mostly intact guinea into the house. It was the only one we ever ate. Delicious meat.
It was both a challenge and a solace that we could not tame that place.
For the beginning of the Texas Ranching Adventure series, click here.