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Branching Out: The heady high of hens

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

So, COVID has you contemplating chickens? Homebound, several of our friends have taken on a flock and it’s been fun to watch their affection blossom. It was a big step; hens live from five to ten years, so there’s little room for impulsiveness. Still interested? Read on and we’ll share what we’ve learned over the past five years of bringing them into our own lives.

Google reveals a breathtaking panoply of breeds. It’s easy to get sucked in or overwhelmed, but not if you start in the right place: Why do you want them? Companionship, entertainment? Eggs, meat? Hone in on our limiting factor, climate, and Google “cold hardy hens.” Winnow it down through pets, eggs, or meat … and then allow yourself an image search. The rest, just like parenting, you’ll learn along the way.

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I hadn’t had chickens since before my daughter, Juniper, but we eagerly adopted a flock from friends unable to keep theirs. These five, feathered females adapted to our ancient coop and caged-in run with ease. A fully-enclosed caged is a must against predators. Death is a cyclical lesson with your chickens, especially if you start with chicks. The learning curve is priceless for raising resilient kids, but it can be steep if you don’t prepare.

Purchase new chicks in person. Darling or exotic breeds online are tempting, but the postal service is sketchy with COVID … and often as deadly. Peruse our RF Poultry Peeps group on Facebook for access to local chicken breeders and you can pick them out first hand. The Roaring Fork Coop sources their chicks from Whiting Farms in Delta, and have friendly staff dedicated to the care of chicks in the store.

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Newborns need a nurturing, controlled environment. They’re vulnerable and will rely solely on you for their first eight weeks of life.

Like ferrets, chicks curl up in impossible love knots, and can get smothered in a brooder with corners: think baby pool or ag trough. We mount a red heat lamp, and prepare electrolytes to keep them hydrated. Large-shave pine bedding is sterile. As feisty and messy as chicks are, it inevitably mixes with their food, but is large enough they won’t eat it. Provide chick feed only: its shape, size and protein-balance are specific to their growth and development.

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Check on them throughout the day, every day – sickness and death can be swift. And it’s heartbreaking; I can’t describe the sense of helplessness, trying to rescue newborns.

As you fall in love with them, there will be many new mysteries to unravel with your birds. We joined a Facebook group, Colorado Backyard Chickens, with over 8,000 voices peeping in. It’s a henhouse of humor and experience.

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Transitioning to “The Big House” is a blast. Our coop was built with old wood and repurposed materials and is large enough to enter. I truly savor my time in their coop. Being there with them, submissively, quietly, I think I earn trust and acceptance. Every six months or so, watching them, I renovate. Bird dynamics, squabbling over nest boxes, mess levels and seasonal shifts guide improvements. While I would love an automated door for the nights that I’m over-extended or away, letting them in and out keeps me connected to them. That “one last time,” as they’re falling asleep, cooing, murmuring – what a sweet moment! It’s similar to peering in on your own little stinker, deceptively demure.

Waking in the morning and releasing all the birds is equally special, connecting with other creatures in the fresh air of winter or summer. I often go barefoot, despite cold, mud, poop or snow. There’s a viscerality to meeting the birds on their own ground. Every greeting is bolstered by the assurance they are well-cared for, that each bird has enough floor space in the coop, roosting bar turf, and access to food and water.

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At the “whoosh” of our back door, they flock the chicken run gate. As I work the gate toggle, they freak out even more. And finally, ducking behind the caged-run door, they explode en masse to freedom and food. In the freedom of a huge-ass chicken yard, they can hunt, peck and forage in their instinctual ways.

We’ve named all of our birds. I’ve learned so much from Juniper; she has a natural affinity for them and an attention to details and mannerisms that blows me away. We know their individual dispositions; their friendships. We’ve weathered heartbreak, inflicted death and dissected casualties with curiosity. I’ve prepared and shared the best-tasting Thanksgiving rooster ever.

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Full circle, we’ve even purchased fertile eggs and shared in the miracle of a broody hen hatching her “own” chicks. Watching her raise them (so officiously!) tapped memories of nurturing my own seven-pound Juni, and the fulfillment we females derive from creating and sustaining life; fledging little ones from our nest.

Our lives revolve around the girls today. They’re a heady, gateway drug to Life: to environmentalism, stewardship, and connection anew.

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Tags: #chickens
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