Birds Not in Hand…

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I decided to raise chickens – and ducks – so as to not have to worry about empty shelves at the store. Food on hand – in the back yard.

And, renewable. Eggs you can eat – and eggs that produce new birds.

If you don’t lose your birds.

Well, I just lost two, reducing my flock – and egg supply – by about a third.

What happened was natural. I let the birds wander as they like, which they like to do. And I like that allowing them to forage all day greatly reduces the cost of feed (currently about $15 for 50 pounds at the mill – where feed is much cheaper to buy than at say Tractor Supply or Rural King). This is another way to counter (or make up for) inflation, since the government hasn’t yet figured out a way to increase the cost of grass – assuming it’s yours. It is also better for the birds, which is reflected in their better health and better-tasting eggs.

But there is a catch.

If you let your birds wander, it is inevitable that something else is going to get a free lunch. In my case, a hawk – which took two of my birds the other day. You will know it’s a hawk that came to – for – dinner  by the sad pile of feathers you will find to mark the meal. The hawk will dive-bomb the target – to stun it, apparently – and then swoop off with the booty clutched in its claws.

Bye-bye birdie.

Which is a problem if you can’t get new ones.

Now, I have a rooster – so it’s possible. But even so, it will take time for him to do his thing and then for the eggs to hatch. It will take even longer for the chicks to become chickens – and for them to start laying eggs. In general, several months from the time they hatch to the time they start producing eggs. So – for the next several months – I’m looking at getting about a third fewer eggs than I was getting just last week.

Which is why the first thing I did yesterday was to get new chicks – already hatched. This will shave about a month off the time it would take to hatch my eggs – and eliminates the chance that my eggs might not (my rooster hasn’t yet established that he’s fully operational).

But it’ll still be spring before my egg supply returns to what it was.

Which is why I think – in hindsight – that I should have started out with more birds. One can always eat the extras, if there are too many. But you can’t eat what you haven’t got – and it’s hard to wait three months to eat.

A bird in hand is literally worth two in the bush.

On the upside, Rural King still had chicks, which I worried they might not given the time of year (chicks have to be kept warm for several weeks or they will die; this means a heat lamp and – usually – keeping the chicks away from the adult birds, who may try to kill them, perceiving them as foreigners to the flock).

And I was able to get some chicks that will diversify the genetic stock of my flock, including some Ameraucana chicks; these lay the blue-green Easter Egg colored eggs. I also got a couple new ducks – Runners – to do the same for my currently homogenous flock of Muscovy ducks.

I will have a large enough flock to make up for “lost inventory,” so to speak. But – as I say – it will take some time for everything to get back to where it was. This may come back to haunt me if things go badly sideways – at the supermarket – before spring gets here. Before my flock got thinned, I was getting at least two and usually four eggs – from the chickens – each day, which is a decent supply of protein for 1-2 people per day. Luckily, the ducks also produce eggs, which makes up for some of the loss.

But there will be further losses. It is inevitable. And not just because of hawks and other dine-and-dash freeloaders. Birds get sick; birds just die. These facts of life should be taken into consideration. Some of this you will learn to manage by feel – as I am doing. There is a balance to be struck between how large a flock you’ll need to meet your needs and the cost (in time and feed) of maintaining the flock.

My needs seem to be more than adequately supplied by a flock of 10-12 adult/producing birds. You may need more – or less.

The trick being not to get caught with too few!

. . . .

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  1. Birds of prey press the feather/fur eject button on any prey animal! Actually, I saw a guy who handles great horned owls and the clamping force he said was about 500lbs at the talons, same as a german Shepard bite

  2. They might try and make it illegal to free range your chickens. I forget the name of the case but during the depression their was a Supreme Court case that decided growing your own feed stock was interstate commerce. Or look at the law in CA, where it’s illegal to gather rainwater.

  3. Eric, I went through the whole learning process about 5 years ago. Started with 12 chics to get the kids involved in the process. Worked pretty well, the learning thing.
    Had a chain link fence surrounding a coop I built myself (similar to yours).
    My first mistake was building the thing next to a tree. I lost two adult chickens and couldn’t figure out how it happened so I put up a game camera and found the culprits, racoons were climbing the tree and getting inside, the foxes waited outside the fence for the scraps.
    Added chicken wire to the whole top of the compound and all was well for a while.
    Then we had a very late spring one year and I can only surmise that the bears coming out of hibernation had no food. In one night, a bear literally bent down the metal fence on two sides and ate all the chickens. Nothing left, but a busted up coop. Claw marks inside the coop too.
    FYI, not sure how your winters are in VA, but I had one of those infra-red heat lamps in the coop on a plug-type thermostat. The girls seemed happy about it.

  4. Our coop sits inside a 6 foot high fenced orchard. The ‘yard’ has 4 peach trees that the girls are able to hide in. Since we built the coop above ground on concrete piers we haven’t lost a single bird to hawks, eagles, or owls. Our boy ‘Roger’ is pretty good at herding the girls undercover when he thinks danger is close.

    Losing three or four girls a year used to be a regular occurrence. Whatever I think we might need, I double it. Drives my wife crazy, but I get to sleep well at night. Glad to hear you were able to find some replacements. Tractor supply around here stoped selling chicks early this year. Cant wait to see where this contrived supply chain shortage will lead.

  5. Sandhill cranes are making their way south in a quick hurry, winter is going to take hold in less than 60 days now. Whooping cranes migrate with the Sandhills, Whooping cranes have flown directly above the farmstead in years past, stay for a day at the creek before they move on.

    There are bald eagles flying around these parts this time of year, migratory patterns and such.

    I saw a bald eagle in flight, hovering at about 800 feet up in the sky. As I watched the eagle doing his thing, I looked up another 200 feet, lo and behold, there were two hawks hovering above the bald eagle. I had to keep driving, so that was all I observed. However, I have seen two hawks flying directly towards an eagle in full pursuit, the bald eagle books it as fast he can and ends up a mile away. You can hardly see the eagle then, the hawks rule the game, for sure.

    On another occasion, probably ten bald eagles were perched in some cottonwoods and the kill was a hundred yards out in a field. Two bald eagles were dining on venison while the surviving deer was standing 700 yards east of the kill zone. The eagles got what they wanted, not interested in another deer to kill.

    Throw a chicken into a pig sty and the chicken will be gone in less than a minute. Drag a dead horse into a pig sty and the hogs will rip it apart in a day’s time.

    A mama cow will drive a coyote into the dirt and there will be nothing left of the coyote.

    A red fox crossed the highway one night in front of me, had a skunk in its mouth.

    You do see moose now and then, they are one majestic critter.

    Wonders never cease.

  6. Eric,

    Hawks, eagles, and falcons can dive on their prey at 200-300 mph! I don’t know if that startles their prey as much as it catches them totally unaware; by the time they know what’s happening, their in the claws of their predators…

  7. My grandparents had chickens back in the early 70’s. Whenever a hawk or any other protected raptor came around , they practiced the three “S’s”; shoot, shovel and shutup.

  8. Aww, sorry to hear about the loss, Eric.
    This is why I like chicken tractors- The birds can still get fresh pasture…and yet remain protected.

    When I had chickens (I’ll be getting chickens again soon!) I had tried letting them free-range too….but it seems some kind of varmint would get one or two almost every time. The fact that chickens are not smart creatures doesn’t help either.

    I lost a lot of my free-rangers because they’d manage to get over the 5′ fence into my yard, and for some reason were unable to navigate that same fence in order to get out of the yard…so they’d get killed by my late black lab/chow mix, who was very efficient at killing them (My late pitbull would never bother them!).

      • Yeah, they work great! I had two good-sized ones -c. 4×12′, ’cause I had a lot of birds…but the next one I build is going to be small, as I’ll only get a few birds…and so that I can move it by hand, instead of having to use the tractor. (I’ll just use cinderblocks or tent stakes or something to hold the lighter ones down so coyotes can’t lift ’em up for free lunch, and so they don’t get blown over in a bad storm).

        The beauty is, too, that the chickens fertilize and hill the ground…so the area where you circulate your chicken tractor makes for a great garden next year! Stuff like this really makes all the difference in small-scale agriculture! (Plus it keeps the chickens healthier- not having to constantly be over bare dirt, and where their own waste products and parasites and things can fester- but rather always being on fresh clean ground/grass)

        • RE: “Plus it keeps the chickens healthier- not having to constantly be over bare dirt, and where their own waste products”

          My chicken run 8’x15′ has just recently turned from grass to bare dirt. I had been throwing in bundles of grass & weeds over the last few months. This morning I started raking some of it up, then I thought, “wait! this is an outdoor deep bedding!” So I stopped & I’m just gonna leave it there all Winter & keep adding to it.

          I hope it works out. Keeps them up off stuff a bit.

      • Frequently, I think about building a chicken tractor or a chicksaw, however; they are kinda high maintenance, time-wise. It takes time to do, for the chicksaw you’ve gotta be there throughout the day, etc..

        I may still build one someday, that said, with the projects I see on Eric’s To-Do list he’s probably a bit like me as there’s not enough hours in the day or energy leftover after doing other chores & projects to have any left to deal with a chicken tractor or chicksaw. It’s enough just finding the time to feed & water them as is.

        I can definitely see why farmers, the Amish, & the Pioneers, etc had ten children. If it wasn’t so danged expensive & a bureaucratic nightmare I’d adopt a couple right now.

        Like the guys said below, this non-industrial style farming stuff is hard.

  9. To protect from weasels (biggest killer here) Wrap you coup in one inch chicken wire, bury a skirt, and gasket the doors with it. They will tunnel.

    Walls of 2 inch wire between trees or tall poles above your fence and/or at random, for hawks.

    Foxes you need a good fence, with concertina.

    Bears and indeed, all of them backed up by a good guard/livestock dog. Heelers are awesome.

    You have to shoot the weasels. They won’t stop, but your dog will corner it.

  10. A couple of references to hawks. In my youth hawks were not a serious problem, because there simply weren’t that many of them. There are now. As we may be forced to fend for ourselves for food, we may become not so tolerant of predators. Any predator can be baited and killed if they become a problem. Which is why there did not used to be so many hawks.

    • Ironic (or not) how most federally protected birds are apex predators that take what they like, are offered special protections, and contribute next to nothing to the general equation of life on this earth. Muh protected species….

    • Speaking of weird animal behavior, I almost got ran over by a deer the other day!

      I was just standing near an outbuilding which I had built near my mother’s singlewide, and stopped to contemplate something. As I go to take a step to start walking again, a good-sized deer came rocketing by right in front of me- so close that if I had taken that step he would have T-boned me, as he ran past and through the c. 20′ gap between the outbuilding and trailer. 27.5 acres and he HAD to run withinb inches of me and through that narrow spot!

      I hate to think how I would’ve fared had that deer hit me! So much for the idea that deer are harmless! No worries the time a coyote was watching me weed-eat…but THIS scared me!

  11. I’ve come to similar conclusions that having a few extra birds is not a bad thing. We lost two of our ducks (runners) this summer so I was glad I had a few extras. Don’t know what killed them we just found them dead next to the water trough We hatched out three more ducklings and have since replaced the two and gained one although we’ll cull the extra male this weekend because as anyone who has animals knows, too many males can be a bit of a problem. My chickens have just reached maturity and with winter coming may not produce any chick’s until next spring, but I’m hoping to increase the flock substantially.
    The good thing about having way more eggs than you need is what you don’t eat give way or sell yourself can be directly buried in the garden beds for fertilizer. We tried this with our pepper plants and they produced like crazy this year. So I no longer see extra, rotten or even cracked eggs as any sort of problem.
    Since I free range my birds as much as possible for the same reasons Eric mentioned I’m constantly looking for better predator solutions.
    Ground attacks haven’t been a problem but we still plan on getting a dog to discourage any would be ground attackers during the day and keep them securely put up at night
    I’ve found that encouraging the birds to hang out under trees with fairly low hanging branches by placing waterers and small piles of food under them helps with aerial assaults . They tend to view this as a place of safety while still foraging. This has saved my ducks and chickens on at least three occasions from hawks. We also plan on trying to span some chicken wire or nylon netting up in various places as a buffer/shelter from overhead attacks.

  12. Something attacked my free-range chickens this Summer, too. Fortunately, my garden is super overgrown with thick tall weeds and I have overgrown drainage ditches half-completed all over the place, these were the places they hid from whatever tried attacking them.

    I finished building my small outdoor covered run. One day there was a loud ruckus from the hens. As I rounded the corner I saw a fat hawk the size of a football fly off from the top of the covered run. As a result of that I was glad I built the covered portion of the run.

    However; I’ve come to learn from others there are weasels in this area. My coop is resistant to them, but my run is not, at all.
    I have zero experience with weasels, from what I’ve read, weasels work in the night. I hope that is true.

    I’ve been gathering piles of weeds to throw into the chicken run to make up for not letting them out. And, leftover kitchen scraps. It’s better than nothing.

    I’m not making any headway in constructing mobile chicken tunnels, but it’s on my list. Somewhere.

    Your coop looks really nice. I have yet to install more windows as well. The one I have put in was an old salvaged storm window, super easy install. The other is the second portion of my pop door, it’s an old salvaged wooden framed window.

    Put a 2×4 (thicker than the window) on the wall on both sides & one on the bottom, then set window in, then put 2×4’s or other boards on top of the 1st 2×4’s – offset the top ones slightly to keep the window in place and form a track for the window to ride up & down.
    Make sure the 1st 2×4 is thick enough to create enough loose space for the window so when it gets wet & the wood swells up it still moves up & down easily.
    You probably already knew all that. I suppose I mention it for posterity or some such.

    I bid on a complete window, frame and all, at a farm auction. Ten bucks I bid, the sucker went all the way up to 80 Bucks.
    I’m not putting an 80 Dollar window on a chicken coop.

    • Chickens are nearly as useful as hogs at disposing of garbage. They won’t eat citrus peels, few animals will, but that’s about all I’ve ever seen them turn down.

  13. I’m not going to raise chickens, I going to raise hunting hawks. Just kidding.

    My neighbor has suburban chickens and she brings us the overage of eggs she has. They taste great!

  14. Geese are aggressive against predators. My grandmother always kept 2 or 4 around. They do come in pairs, as they mate for life. Guinea fowl likewise. I’ve seen a dozen of them chase dogs away. Of course both are bluffing, but a bluff often works. The best would be dogs, if you can manage to train them not to BE the predators. My grandmother did it, but I never asked her how, nor saw how she did it.

    • My Guinea fowl are very aggressive with most of my hens. They keep the hens away from food & probably stress them enough to lower egg production.

      A nearby chicken wrangler told us roosters will stress hens & lower egg production, too.

      I have thought about building a separate small coop just for the rooster. Idk.

      I’ve read donkeys keep coyotes away, I wonder if they scare off hawks as well?

      I’d like to have a security donkey some day. For the manure, mostly.

  15. Just brainstorming and do not know if this would be feasible’ but what about covering the top of the run with some kind of large gauge chicken wire? Maybe some kind of framed panels which could be folded open to go in and clean?

  16. Your experience underscores the reality that most ‘modern’ people never have to face:
    creating food is a difficult task with many potential pitfalls. Small scale farming is hard work with low returns … until the returns become the secret to survival for your family.

    • If you have any returns. Members of the weasel family are often sport hunters, and can wipe out a chicken flock in short order. Killing them for the sake of doing so. Likewise the weather re your garden. My intent is not to discourage, but to elucidate. Non industrial agriculture is NOT easy, requiring hard work and diligence. Of course industrial agriculture is a self destructive dead end. That’s why Bill Gates is so heavily invested in it. Because there are too many people for his tastes.

    • John Galt, well stated. I am reminded of a quote by southern historian Shelby Foote. It was relative to the Depression but could also apply to value of growing your own food.

      “I prize the Depression, for instance, because I learned the value of things in the Depression that a way people who don’t have to worry about such things never learned to prize it really, I believe.”


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