The Great Escape
Chickens like to scratch in the dirt. A lot.
Actually, that’s an understatement. Chickens like to scratch and dig like some sports “fans” like to wreak havoc on social media.
This isn’t just a casual scratch, like you might scratch an itch on your nose. This is a great big scratching, a shuddering-sigh-of-pleasure scratching that tills the soil and gets the field ready for planting for the next year’s crop. Our hens – Hobbes, Kylo Hen, and Wonderwing – can kick up so much soil and pine shavings that they’ve been known to occasionally bury their food and or water dish between meals (which means I probably need a better mechanism for serving them – a shelf? A hen-sized picnic table?).
It’s the sort of scratching and digging that leaves gaping holes beneath the fence of the chicken run, big enough that if our hens had any burrowing owl blood, they would probably be out and about without a care in the world. Holes big enough to alarm our chicken-sitters into jury-rigging a barrier against any burrowing.
Given how active our hens are, and how frequently they poke and pry around the edges of their run, I shouldn’t have been as startled as I was when the Great Escape happened. It’s called a “Chicken Run”, after all. What was I expecting?
7:30, the twilight hours, and I was sitting at my ease in the living room near the floor-to-ceiling windows, when I caught a flash of orange at the corner of my vision. I turned, and there was Hobbes just outside the window, hopping up, flapping madly, evidently curious as to what we were up to in our strangely-enormous human coop. “Hi everybody, what ya doing?”
“Oh,” I said. “The chickens are loose.”
Since we’ve already received two letters from the city letting us know someone complained that we might have chickens in the backyard, I prefer the chickens to be where I expect them to be.
(For the record, we’ve paid the permitting and licensing fees for our hens and follow all the regulations. Roosters, our hens are not. They might squawk occasionally, but that’s no more disturbing than the illegal and far-more-incendiary fireworks some of our neighbors on the next street over enjoy on the 4th of July.)
Things you might not know about chickens:
- They form gangs.
We learned this when we asked M’s sister if she could temporarily house our hens with her flock for a month while we fled the smoke and heat of Sacramento; she was forced to decline, stating that her existing flock tended to peck, harass, and generally make life miserable for any other hens they tried to introduce. Maybe this ties in to the great escape? They plotted and conspired?
- They love literature.
Our chicken-sitting neighbors discovered that hens enjoy hanging out while you read to them, and will even go back in the coop compliantly if you first let them out for Reading Time (side note, I polled the chickens, and they too were #TeamLeVar for Jeopardy, especially given the #MeToo rumors surrounding the current producer-who-hired-himself. Chickens are way more culturally attuned than we think, and have surprisingly strong views on whether we need more mediocre seedy white men in influential TV presenter roles).
- They are fast when they want to be.
After recovering from the shock of an unexpected chicken at the window, I sallied forth and rounded up Hobbes pretty quickly. She just sat there in the yard looking at me while I scooped her up like a fumbled football and returned her to the coop, securing the loose door they had nudged open. Kylo Hen, too, was docile as I plucked her off the top of a bench. but Wonderwing darted around the backyard like we were playing a desperate game of freeze tag. I begin to suspect that rugby was developed by farmers experimenting with free-range chicken husbandry.
They say “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
This is classic chicken. If chickens worked in an office, this would be their motivational posters in the break room. Chickens simply don’t sweat the small stuff. They also don’t sweat the big stuff.
That’s not because chickens are zen or anything. They literally can’t sweat. They lack sweat glands. Which sounds useful until you realize that in Sacramento, late summer is frequently breaking 100 degrees.
Last winter, I researched whether chickens would go dormant because the cold. And it turned out that while, yes, hens might produce fewer eggs in cold weather, my little troupe basically kept rolling all winter.
So when I started noticing a disruption in the three eggs per day pattern as summer warmed up, I should have immediately considered the corollary question: do chickens lay fewer eggs in extreme heat?
Spoiler alert: yes, they might.
Laying eggs heats up the hen internally, so hens suffering from extreme heat will often stop laying eggs, or just lay them less frequently.
I didn’t know this immediately. What I did notice was that the egg count was trending down, and occasionally eggs were appearing in a different part of the coop, and sometimes the run itself, often in the shadiest parts.
I looked at the hens’ behavior. None seemed to be in distress, all were relatively active and chirpy when we would go near. There were no signs of predators sneaking in to steal eggs, and no eggs were buried beneath piles of pine shavings.
I did also notice that hens were eating less of the scratch that they usually seemed to love even more than their primary pellets.
Eventually I thought to do some reading, which produced the links above. But before I did the reading, I started to get it. Not sure if these are all correct, but these were the steps I took once I started considering the heat.
- I started putting out extra water, including ice cubes in some of the water to keep it cool, and then to melt and replenish the supply.
- I occasionally used the “Mist” feature of the hose attachment to wet down the coop, the run, and the hens themselves; they would move away from the mist at first, but they started adapting to it.
- When I chose snacks to give the hens as special treats, I started leaning more towards berries, cooler treats that would provide a little moisture as well.
Fortunately, the coop and the run had the built-in advantage of being in the shadiest part of our yard. But as I started reading, I learned more ideas that seemed obvious in hindsight.
In short, the lesson is rather intuitive, and again twofold: you need to keep your hens as cool as possible during heat waves – not only is it humane, but it will also maintain your egg production; additionally, when you find neighbors willing to watch your hens for a month, and not only watch them, but also read to them, grapple those neighbors to your soul with hoops of steel, or at least hoops of free eggs.
By the time we left for a vacation? The hens started producing three eggs a day again as the heat started to drop. But these conditions will be a fact of life in Sacramento, so it’s something we’ll have to plan for next year. More room, more tools, more comfort for our flock. All will be well.
Assuming the mediocre white people who called the city about our hens don’t burn down the whole city with illegal fireworks in the meantime.