Today is the first day of spring. Slowly the season comes to this mountain: the snow is rotting, the birds are returning like clockwork, the river is opening wider each day as chunks of snow that have been hiding the still waters break off and fall into the rushing brown stream, the horses are wallowing deep in mud, and the chickens have been paying their rent again.
Like all of you who keep chickens, or perhaps remember when, spring is noted by the sudden abundance of fresh eggs. After the long drought of winter, we have a wealth of eggs. That trip down to the coop each evening to lock in the hens finally has its rewards! Although we’re down to 7 hens and a rooster, for a family of three, this is perfect. We have more than enough now for fried eggs each every morning, and lots left over for use in baking. No need to have more; there are no neighbors up here to share the eggs with.
The chicken pen has melted out, and their front yard creek is running in the afternoons. They revel in the sunshine and fresh dirt. When our yard is melted out, we let them free range. Most days in the summer, you’ll find us taking a break out in the sun on the deck or the steps of the cabin, lovingly surrounded by Alan (the Shepherd), a few cats, often a colt or two, and a couple of hens. And since I’m one to leave the door open as much as possible during the short summer season, you’ll often hear us shooing a chicken out from inside our cabin.
However in the snow, there is little desire for them to be about and scratch around. I’ve never met a chicken who likes snow. They tolerate it, perhaps, but given the choice, they’ll stay under the shelter of their coop roof in winter. But after months of remaining “cooped up,” they too have the world opening for them, and in their bliss are rewarding us with their eggs. Oh, I must remember to take a picture of their pen this after noon to show you – it’s a good place to be a chicken… as long as the wildlife leaves them alone!
Which isn’t always the case, of course.
Raising and the daily care of the chickens has been Forrest’s job since he was a wee lad of six. (You can see the post “Chores” for this story.) He does a fine job. But some things are out of his control, and he’s learned to roll with punches, and handle the loss. On a high mountain homestead, I’m afraid the chickens have drawn the short straw. I don’t care how hard you work to barricade your chicken coop, there are still going to be problems. That doesn’t stop us from raising them, but it does put a high price tag on those fresh eggs. And bring a little sadness from time to time.
Raising them is the easy part. Keeping them through the winter is the hard part. No, it’s not the cold that gets them. They might get blackened combs from frost bit, but the bright red color comes back in due time. They are remarkably hearty.
The bigger challenge is predators, and to a chicken in the mountains, there are plenty of predators. The more mild the climate, the greater the risk of predators, so really, up here in this elevation, the chickens have less to worry about.
When we lived lower, you name it, we saw it, and “it” would find, or rather, make, its way into the coop to get the hens. The raccoon, clever fellow that he is, can pry chicken wire off of boards and weasel his way in, but only take what he can eat that night. The skunk will sneak through a small hole in the wire, and kill only one or two. The fisher, oh, that nasty fisher, can chew through the boards to get at them, and then eliminate the entire flock in one visit. He will kill them all, and then look at you like he’d get you next. Even though this guy is little, like a large mink or martin, they have recorded a fisher taking down a deer. They are viscous. Sorry to say, but one of the few rare animals I for one am glad are rare!
And then there is the bear. If a bear wants in at the chickens, well, he’ll have them. We’ve spent plenty of mornings nailing entire walls back up, thanks to a well fed bear. (Thin walls, please don’t worry!) They’ll just rip the whole side off the chicken coop and help themselves. Bears make a mess. I do recall one time when a bear was getting into the chicken coop early in the morning. I could see him from the kitchen window. But rather than run him off, I woke Forrest and the two of us sat there and laughed, watching this big black bear romp around the yard chasing after this fluffy little white hen. We ran him off after getting our good chuckle. But no matter how we rebuilt and barricaded that coop, we lost all the hens that summer.
Up here in this elevation, the most common predator we have is the coyote. But they are not a problem. They are quite easily trained, in fact. We have a line, the corral fence. Coyotes are not allowed past it, and they respect it. We see them ever single day, but they leave us alone, we leave them alone. Good neighbors.
The fox is not as good a neighbor. We have not been able to “train” the fox up here. They don’t take “no” for an answer. They show up every year same time, late winter, the season we assume their pups might just be born and they are desperate for food, though we don’t feel it’s our place to provide them with a chicken dinner. We lost one rooster to the fox this year. After leaving the hens locked inside for several weeks after that, the fox has moved onward, or more than likely, now finds it easier to hunt in his natural territory and therefore has no need to raid our front yard.
We even had a pine martin visit the coop last year; dug in under the door and went on a rampage. It was early in the morning, as I was feeding the horses. I heard the ruckus coming from the coop and called for the boys. By the time we got to the coop, the martin had killed all but one. He spared her, we figured, because she was buried under all the dead bodies. Sad, but true. The martin had bit her head and we were pretty sure we’d lose her too. Brought her in the house, cleaned and medicated her open wound, and kept her here in the kitchen – actually put her in the cage with the doves. Can’t say the doves appreciated that too much. But the hen made it.
It was a lonely life for her until the new batch of chicks was old enough to “hang out” with her. She mostly spent her days scratching around in the yard by the house, and visiting us on deck. Even bonded with the horses to a degree. Pretty cute to watch that interaction.
Other than that, the chickens are relatively safe here.
And on the bright side, the regular need to replenish our flock has given us lots of practice raising chickens…It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it. Really!