We usually buy day-old chicks every two years to replace our laying flock of Barred Plymouth Rocks. These are the black-and-white striped hens that were the staple of every farmyard during the first half of the 20th century but, for many years, were almost extinct, as many poultry keepers were carried away with the new crossbreeds.
They made a comeback mainly because they are good layers, hardy, and active. People who tie flies for fishing say that the Barred Plymouth Rock cockerels carry the best cape feathers.
We kept the day-old balls of fluff in a small room in the basement with regular incandescent lights for heat because they like to be at 30° C or so for the first few weeks, gradually decreasing to about 22° C when they are ready to move to their henhouse, an old ambulance/van parked in the lee of one of our sheds.
This ambulance has been our best henhouse ever; high enough so we can stand in the inside, off the ground, critter-tight, with windows for light and ventilation. The only drawback is that the hens keep bugging us for rides to the lake in the summer.
We kept Barred Rocks for nine years but the last two roosters were a little too protective of their girls. Susan had to advance toward the henhouse with a garbage can lid as a shield and a short spade in her free hand to collect the eggs. She soon got tired of playing Roman Legion and we looked around for another, quieter breed.
There are many on the market, about 60. Some for meat, some for white eggs, some for brown eggs, some for show. We chose Shaver Red Sex-Link, developed here in Ontario by Shaver Poultry Breeding Farms because they are available as ready-to-lay, 20 week-old birds. Test results from Europe and Canada show that Shaver Reds equal most other brown hybrids. Body weight after one year of laying is less than three kilos and egg production at 72 weeks of age is nearly an egg a day. Hens are reddish-brown in colour with white underfeathers. Roosters are white with a few red markings on the feathers.
We got the ambulance ready for our 20 new arrivals, with four inches of peat moss on the floor, plenty of roosting space, an automatic waterer, a hanging feeder, and four nesting boxes. We washed the windows because light is especially important for layers as it stimulates the pituitary hormones that regulate the laying cycle.
Our new ladies took to their home readily, scratching in their yard for the existing vegetation and the table scraps we threw them. They would come charging out as soon as we opened the back double doors of the ambulance in the morning and all be quietly roosted inside when we closed them up at night.
One of their nicest features was that they would squat down when you walked close to them, making them very easy to pick up. This was certainly preferable to running around the yard with a hook-ended wire, trying to snare the leg of a chicken that has escaped the pen. The World Almanac lists human foot speed as 30 km/hour for a 100-metre dash, and there are only three farm animals we can outrun: chickens at 14, pigs at 18, and turkeys at 24 km/hour. Well, my 100-metre dash is nowhere near 30 km/hour so I was very pleased to have lazy, squatting chickens.
We’ve always penned our hens because our black Labrador dog would try to retrieve them for us. But this year we decided to give the dog, and the hens, another chance. We left the pen door open and the hens all crowded around the opening for an hour or so, peeking out and discussing the possibilities among themselves. Finally, one brave hen ventured out, followed by all of them in the next ten minutes. They spread around the ambulance, clucking and pecking, with the peaceful ta, ta, ta that hens make.
The dog ignored them and every day they ventured further; down the driveway, around the house, and into the gardens. Now my dream has always been to have chickens free-ranging all over the place but digging up the gardens was never part of it. So we fenced the three kitchen gardens in the back. Then we fenced the flower beds in the front. Then we fenced the half-acre main garden, tossing a few renegades that had flown in back over the fence.
It would have been annoying but they were just so friendly, in addition to giving us eggs. As soon as we went outside to do anything, there were several hens around us, scratching and clucking and talking. They would congregate on the back deck just under our office window, jumping around on a couple of bales of straw we had there for garden mulch. I never thought much about chicken jumping, but their constant thudding made them seem like 30 kilos, not three.
They dug around the foundation of the house so I had to line up rocks to keep them away, they scattered the straw mulch 20 feet from the roses, and they would constantly sneak into the barn to lay.
First we found 10 eggs in the corner and thought it was cute. Then we found 10 more in the calf pen next to a bale of straw. Then we found a cache of about 40 in the hay mow, and those were really ripe. Putting rotten eggs in a bucket for the compost suddenly became our least-favourite job.
Things settled down a bit until we found about 60 eggs in three other nests in the barn hay. Steps had to be taken. We sealed all the barn entrances and grounded the hens in their ambulance. It must have been quite a sight seeing us herd hens across the yard, gently swinging brooms to keep them on track – except for the time I lost my temper and whacked one, sending it running right into the ambulance.
The girls were in their snug quarters for the first big snow of the year, so they didn’t miss much foraging. They got used to smaller horizons and giving up their eggs in exchange for safety, grain, and warm water. Wild chickens tamed at last, at least until the snow melts and that green grass through the fence gets their hen-brains churning once more.