The Great Chicken Escape

Our pullets are not pleased with the wet weather
These pullets are about half the size they will be in another ten weeks when they are full grown and start laying eggs.

I walked the dog the other day in my poncho because the rain was pouring down, but when she’s gotta go, she’s gotta go.

My hope was she would pee and then show the good sense to turn around and head back to the house. That was not the case. I guess when they said Anatolian Shepherds could handle adverse weather, this is what they meant. But instead of hanging outside with a flock of goats or sheep, she just had me. So we continued on our normal morning walk, which I was finally able to cut short, so we did only about half a mile.

When she came back inside and got toweled off, I had to decide whether to feed the chickens in the rain or wait and see if the weather cleared up that afternoon.

The chicken feeder is inside their coop, so they can eat where it is dry. Adding feed to it won’t get them wet, either. But the chickens are used to me letting them out of the run to free range and then getting some scratch when I call them back. Whenever they see me, they crowd the fence, hoping to be fed some scratch. It’s a good thing the gate opens outwards because they pile up against it. I didn’t plan it that way; the slope of the hill made it necessary to open downhill instead of up, but I’m happy that’s how it worked out.

Chickens can handle getting wet and they can handle to cold, but they can’t handle being cold and wet. That wasn’t a problem since it was in the 60s. I headed over there with the feed.

Missing Chickens

When I get to the coop, I see four of the ten Black Star pullets (pullets are immature chickens who are no longer chicks but are not yet old enough to lay eggs) have escaped their portion of the pen and are outside in the open. How did they get there? I can only assume they got on top of the dog crate I am using as their temporary coop and then flew over the fence. I may have to cover their run, at least in that area.

The four escapees huddled against the fence, trying to get back to their sisters. All four pullets are wet and bedraggled, leaving me to believe they have been outside for hours, if not all night. Three of the four are easy to catch, and I do my best to dry them off before I put them back inside their run. The fourth is scared witless and does a great job of dodging, bobbing, and weaving. I finally catch her and toss her back in.

Then I do a head count and find we are down to eight chicks from our ten. Hmm.

I don’t see any feathers signifying a fox got them, but maybe an owl swooped down and raided them during the night or a hawk during the day. That would explain what scared the others out of their pen. I’m not happy about this, but since I had originally planned on having eight new chickens, I can live with it.

Of course, the missing chickens could also just be adventurous or have run up to the tree line to seek shelter from the rains. I went inside and told my wife the story, and asked her to keep an out. Her home office has a big window, and she sees turkeys and deer walk by. Maybe she’ll see some chickens.

The Lost Ones

The rain headed down the other side of the mountain that afternoon, leaving us with clouds and an occasional flash of blue sky. My wife went out to survey the damage (three potted plants had blown over). She came back in to tell me she had found the missing pullets. They were hiding in the chicken run. Not their run, but the run used by the big chickens. When these two flew out of their pen, they went the other way, landing in the main run instead of outside. So while they were safe, they were intimidated by the full-size chickens and had wedged themselves into a corner for “safety.”

I went out and “saved” them from their larger sisters, who were ignoring them. They were not only wet, but a little muddy. I gave everyone some scratch and went heavy on the sunflower seeds to help them keep warm on a cool, wet night. I also tossed in the tops of some strawberries, which they love.

So we are back to ten young chickens to lay eggs this fall, which makes me happy. The world is full of predators and losing livestock happens, but no one likes it.

The next morning, all the pullets looked fine. I can’t tell which ones were the escapees. More importantly, they were all where they should be, in their fence on their side of the run. Maybe they learned their lesson. Maybe some thunder scared them. Either way, we’re happy to have them back.

Stockpiling Chicken Feed

Last week, I stopped by the feed mill and picked up more layer pellets, 50-pounds of scratch, and 25 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds. I now have 12 bags of chicken feed on hand, which would normally last me six months. With ten new chickens, I expect we’ll be closer to four months, especially once the pullets move from grower feed to layer feed in six or eight weeks.

In the summer, I am less concerned about having extra feed than I am in the winter. We have lots of grasses with seed heads, plenty of clover, and lots of other weeds for the chickens to eat. They can scratch in the dirt for worms and grubs and chase insects. In another month, we’ll have garden refuse for them. In contrast, there is little for them to scrounge in the winter. From a prepping standpoint, winter is when having six months of feed is important. I’m sure I’ll be heading back to the feed mill in September to restock.

Chicken feed is high on my list of last-minute emergency purchases should we have advanced warning of an impending disaster. In an end-of-the-world scenario, I expect we would harvest some of those seed heads as they dry to feed back to the chickens in the winter. I’d also do what I could to make some clover hay. It’s not alfalfa, but it might help them through the winter. As long as the gasoline lasts and we can cut firewood with chainsaws, the sawdust would be their bedding.

Pioneers had chickens well before there were special feeds, so I know we could raise them on what is naturally available, but it would not be easy. If the free ranged all day, we would lose more birds to predation.

What is Chicken Scratch?

If you non-chicken people are curious about chicken scratch, here’s an explanation:

Scratch is a blend of seeds and grains that is heavy on cracked corn. I’ve heard scratch described as “potato chips for chickens,” and yes, the chickens love it. You throw it on the ground and the chickens come running to “scratch” about and get every piece. I use it as a training aid, much like you might use treats to reward a dog. Give me a plastic cup of scratch to shake, and I am the Pied Piper of chickens.

Scratch looks like birdseed, so why is it compared to potato chips? Because it is junk food for chickens. Think empty calories. As a result, their diet should not have more than 10 percent scratch. That’s why I buy one bag of scratch and 12 bags of feed.

We feed a five-grain scratch that includes corn, milo, barley, millet, and sunflower seeds. It is $16 for a 50-pound bag. I throw in extra black oil sunflower seeds during the cooler months to give the chickens some body fat and extra energy to keep warm. My last 50-pound bag of BOSS lasted two winters, so I bought 25 pounds this time.

The chickens are usually easy to care for. I hope these new youngsters don’t escape again; that’s how you lose chickens for good.