Category Archives: Hedley Hen House

“The Girls” Represent A Simple Life

Like myself, the “girls” appear to be experiencing some emotional, psychological and physiological changes. Being new to this business IMG_0975of egg ranching, I’ve been observing them and assessing their health constantly. Their laying has fallen off markedly this winter. This has helped me understand, to my considerable chagrin, that my interest is not prompted entirely by compassion, altruism or emotional attachment. With great reluctance I have needed to admit to myself that their egg production is more important to me than I had realized.

Last winter, inspite of -20 degree C. temperatures at times, their laying barely faltered. I came to have great respect for their hardiness and unswerving sense of purpose. As the mercury slithered downward late in 2014 though, it became evident the girls were not able to maintain their earlier torrid laying pace. Lonely Hearts had from the beginning been a less consistent layer. Actually, I always felt she was doing her best. Sometimes she sat for nearly an hour, vainly struggling to produce an egg.

Initially the production fell from 3 eggs most days to 2 eggs. Then at times only one. A few weeks ago none of the girls laid. I actually searched their compound in the hope they were again hiding eggs. Nothing.

I’ve begun to speculate about the possibility that chickens suffer from Seasonally Adjusted Disorder. Last week Lonely Hearts pretty much stopped eating. She’d leave the Hen House with the Cleopatras and then sit quietly at the entrance to the yard. Even treats didn’t interest her. While the other two pecked furiously and raced around seeking the bits of dry oatmeal, she sat still.

When she didn’t return to the Hen House even after dark one evening, I discovered her in the usual place at the entrance. She didn’t squawk or squirm when I picked her up and carried her into their abode. Same routine the next evening. She felt light and I feared she might die overnight. The next morning though, she was still alive and began eating again. Did she just need a little attention to lift her sagging spirits? It does cause me to wonder how elderly individuals living alone fare during the dark dreary days of winter. Undoubtedly there are some who sit alone, day after day, without anything to stir their interest in life.

The girls share my interest in food, especially treats. They know that in the morning I throw a handful of oatmeal on the ground of their small private yard before I open the little “chicken door”. They usually wait on their roost until I come in. Then they fly down. This morning they had prepared a surprise for me. After taking a day off from laying yesterday, two eggs lay almost hidden in the loose, dry grass on their floor. Remembering that recently one of them had landed on an egg and broken it, I hurriedly bent over to gather them.

Bending over while they are still on the roost is risky, mostly due to their eagerness to come down and the uncertainty of their flight trajectory. Sometimes they shuffle from side to side for up to a minute, seemingly getting up the courage to fly down. They appear to be seeking a safe place to alight. Invariably there is a mad flapping of wings as they descend. This morning Lonely Hearts landed on my back while I was bent over. I expected her to hop to the floor immediately. Instead, she dug her talons into my jacket, evidently pleased with this new perch. She remained there until I slowly straightened my back, then dropped unceremoniously to the grassy floor. I opened their door and “the girls” rushed out, eagerly anticipating the much deserved reward waiting for them.

Watching them exit their little home, I was reminded that in addition to the exceptionally delicious eggs they provide for Linda and me, there is another reason for having them. They give us a sense that ours is a simple existence, not as cluttered by expectations as when we lived in Abbotsford. As I’ve said to them many times, they are good girls.

Lonely Hearts & The Cleopatras in Winter

Last winter Lonely Hearts and the two Cleopatras insisted on going

Hen House in Winter
Hen House in Winter

outdoors even when the mercury dipped to -20. I don’t recall any days that frigid this winter, but we have been blessed with an abundance of snow. The snow has lingered, due to mostly sub-zero temperatures. With a 100 watt bulb in their little home, it’s quite cozy in there. Maybe it’s age related, or it could be wisdom, but they’ve been in a self imposed quarantine all of December and January.

In winter I close the “chicken door” for the night to keep out the cold air. After their first few days of not venturing out this past December, I ceased opening the door in the morning. One ramification of them confining themselves to their quarters is that I need to scrape up their droppings more frequently. It’s not an onerous task but they are curious about any activity and I need to take care not to trample on them in the constricted space.

The girls’ understanding of our agreement seems to be that in exchange for their eggs, it is my responsibility to provide meals and lodging and also do the house work. Lately I’ve chided them, somewhat good naturedly, for their growing complacency in regard to laying. “One egg per day from the three of you just doesn’t cut it,” I have told them several times. “Surely you can give up a little pecking time and lay at least one more.” They seem to listen respectfully at the time, heads turned up, then speedily forget. However, they are quick to remind me, with discontented clucking, if I am derelict in carrying out any of my responsibilities to them.

After the first two weeks in seclusion, I wondered if they were having second thoughts about their negative opinion of the snow and cold. I shovelled a walking path for them and then opened their door. They hesitantly stepped out onto their covered patio, an area sheltered by a glass storm door leaning against the outer wall. When they saw the foot deep snow, they ignored the path I had made and resolutely scurried back inside. Having ascertained their wishes, I closed the door and again secured it against the cold and predators.

The mercury has now crept up somewhat and I again shovelled a

Art with Miss Lonely Hearts and the Cleopatras
Art with Miss Lonely Hearts and the Cleopatras

walking area earlier this week and opened their door. Lonely Hearts stepped out hesitantly, as usual leading the way. The Cleopatras followed. After much testing and considerable consultation among themselves, the girls came to a collective decision to again spend the daytime hours outdoors. Their production of droppings will now decrease in the hen house but once the snow goes and the ground thaws, I’ll need to deal with that issue outside. Being a poultry rancher requires labour, patience and a sense of humour.

“The Girls” In Winter

Probably due to the mountains surrounding our little community, summer nights sometimes remain quite warm. According to Linda’s online research, hens don’t have sweat glands. Not wanting “the girls” to suffer from the Hedley heat, in spring I removed the insulation from their little home. We appreciate their golden brown eggs and I do whatever I can to accommodate their needs and desires.

The girls are terrific troopers and this summer, when people were moaning about being hot, they took it in stride. They didn’t complain even when the mercury rose to 40 degrees C above.

Now that the mercury has reversed itself and plummeted

"The Girls" fluffed up in the hen house
“The Girls” fluffed up in the hen house

downward, I have needed to again respond to the seasonal change. Just before the current cold weather (-15 some nights), I put the insulation back into their home. I’ve heard of chickens losing their feet in very cold temperatures.

I had laid up a stock of fresh grass for this season. A few weeks ago I began spreading some on the floor of an apple box. The box was in their house all last winter and they laid in it faithfully. In spring though, they simultaneously began boycotting the box.

When they deviate from an established pattern, they invariably catch me off guard. I attribute such changes to boredom and an understandable need for stimulation. Not having anyone willing to share Frequent Flyer points, they can’t go to Mexico or Spain. Laying in a different location seems to alleviate the boredom. I think they derive great pleasure from watching as I search for eggs. Sometimes I need a few days to find them.

With the onset of cold weather I hoped they would exercise some common hen sense and resume laying in the box. Fortunately they did. Of course their incessant scratching quickly sends the grass flying and I need to replenish it almost daily. I keep in mind that scratching is in their DNA and try to exercise patience.

When frigid air from the north invaded our valley, the girls decided

Ice forming on 20 Mile Creek
Ice forming on 20 Mile Creek

to take a sabbatical from laying. At least I assumed that was behind the sudden dearth of eggs.

Until now they had never all agreed on a “work to rule” campaign at the same time, so I was a tad suspicious. One day I searched their domain with the thoroughness of a prison guard looking for drugs. I checked the outdoor laying box they used in good weather. I looked behind the ever bearing raspberry shoots and the lilac bushes against the neighbor’s 6 foot high fence.

Concealed in a secret place under the lilacs, they had laid up a store of 11 eggs, tightly bunched together. It has been colder outside than in our fridge, so the eggs were in perfect condition. Unfortunately, the girls now seem disgruntled at losing their impressive stash. Maybe they were planning a lavish breakfast for themselves. Anyway, whatever their reasoning, it’s back to one egg a day.

I give the girls full credit for being hardy. Much like children, even on the coldest days, they prefer to be outdoors. One thing has changed though and I doubt that they understand. In warmer weather, just about every time we looked out the rear windows, we saw the girls scratching the earth as determinedly as diamond miners drilling into rock. Now the ground in their compound is frozen solid. I can’t push a shovel into it and the girls can’t scratch beneath the surface. This has cut them off from one of their favourite culinary delights. For the insects it’s a blessing.

Yesterday I observed Miss Lonely Hearts for a long minute, unmoving as a statue. It’s just the beginning of at least 3 months of uselessly standing around, wondering why this circumstance is being inflicted on them.

For the sake of their mental equilibrium, I may have to invest in a 60 inch smart tv. I’ll set it up in the house though, and they can enjoy their favorite programs through the window.

Miss Lonely Hearts

Miss Lonely Hearts Could Show Us the Way

I highly respect the political science and sociology professors who gave me an education at SFU. They were learned individuals, with

Miss Lonely Hearts & The Cleopatras Watching Art
Miss Lonely Hearts & The Cleopatras Watching Art

degrees from prestigious universities. In spite of my regard for them, for significant life lessons, I’m actually more inclined to turn to my 3 chickens.

Better known in Hedley as “the girls”, their leader in innovation and thwarting my purposes is Miss Lonely Hearts. She is the odd girl out. Possibly due to the rejection, she is most apt to think “outside the fence.” Then there are the two Cleopatras, life long buddies. We can’t tell them apart and therefore decided one name will do for both.

Like an unanticipated pregnancy, the girls arrived without any prior notice. To control them, I affixed a length of chicken wire to poles around the garden. With the fence in place, I felt confident the garden was adequately protected.

Very quickly I found myself locked in a fierce battle of wits and will with Lonely Hearts. It was spring and appetizing shoots were sprouting out of the soil in the garden. Possibly even more compelling, the garden was off limits, and this she could not tolerate. All that first afternoon she patrolled along the outside of the fence. With the Cleopatras marching behind, they looked like determined, hardened cons, seeking to escape from prison.

The following morning the girls were in the garden, furiously scratching for insects. Tender young plants were being uprooted with alarming haste. I picked up the girls individually and gently threw them over the fence. They had squeezed through a narrow opening between the fence and storage shed. A quick fix. I was considerably mollified by their thoughtful gift of 3 beautiful brown eggs.

Same story the next morning. They were in the garden and again I evicted them. In the afternoon Linda saw Lonely Hearts run toward the fence at breakneck speed, then blithely soar over. “Clip their wings,” people said, and that day we clipped the right wing of each girl.

For almost 2 weeks Lonely Hearts devised creative means of penetrating the fence. Her favourite trick was to poke her head through one of the small openings in the fence and work the wire with her neck, patiently and persistently stretching it until she could slip through. When Linda went to the garden to harvest her basil, the girls had already thoroughly clipped it and had started on the radish tops.

After two weeks, I installed a higher, much sturdier fence. Lonely Hearts flew over my new five foot high fence once, by taking off from a box I’d left standing on end inside their area.

The lady’s strategies mirror the words of Jack Canfield in “The Principles of Success.” Canfield suggests we “operate outside the world of conventionality and instead live in a world of expanding awareness, creativity and accomplishment.” He urges us to “become free of the many fears and anxieties that diminish the imaginations and ambitions of the vast majority of people.”

This describes Miss Lonely Hearts nicely. Like the intrepid individuals who dug tunnels under the Berlin Wall to attain freedom, she concocts strategies that will take her under, over, around or through the obstacle.

If we were to apply this thinking consistently at the personal and community level, could we develop more fulfilling lives? Could we create more attractive communities that people would want to come to and be part of? Miss Lonely Hearts would say, “it’s possible.”

We Rein In The Girls

The Girls in Their New Enclosure
The Girls in Their New Enclosure

It is now one year since the girls arrived on our little “farm” (37.5 ft. x 100’ ft.). They have roamed wherever they pleased in the back yard, sometimes penetrating or flying over the garden fence. Occasionally they have soared over the gate of the back fence and dined on bugs in the alley behind our lot. As I have mentioned in the past, their pecking on Linda’s legs when she hangs out laundry has been quite distracting for her. Occasionally Linda also mentioned quite pointedly she was having to be careful where she stepped. (I did rake the lawn to clean up their droppings).

Over winter the garden was covered with a foot of snow, and the ground was frozen solid. During this time, it held no interest for them. Shortly after the frost came out, just over a month ago, I saw two of the girls in the garden. I was reminded of how rapidly they had devoured Linda’s basil last summer. It occurred to me that they were ruling more than their assigned territory. I couldn’t do anything in their domain without them being constantly underfoot. Besides Linda was hinting that she’d like to have the back yard for our exclusive use.

The decision to curtail their freedom didn’t come easily. Often the most important issues are resolved only with a good deal of soul searching. Reluctantly, Linda and I visited the lumber yard in Princeton and selected a length of sturdy 5 ft. high wire. The girls would not be able to fly over it, burrow under it or bend the wire enough to create an opening. I remembered their ingenious schemes for outwitting me earlier when I used so called chicken wire. I concluded it must have been developed by someone who didn’t want chickens to be penned up. The girls had been as cagey as jail birds in devising escape strategies. I knew that only by employing every precaution would I be able to win this war of wits.

I decided it would be fair to allow them about 40% of the space they were accustomed to having. That would give Linda the yard back and with some luck, I’d retain at least some of my rapport with the girls.

When I began digging holes for the posts, they didn’t yet understand my purpose. They are such trusting creatures. Evidently it was their belief I was there to provide a nutritional opportunity. With their heads darting in and out so rapidly, I feared I’d clip off a beak, or even an entire head. It’s quite clear they have a high opinion of their value to me and expect me to ensure their safety. For their protection I used a handful of oatmeal to lure them into the small fenced off area at the rear of our property. They appreciate any opportunity to spend time there. The soil is loose and provides excellent dining opportunities.

When I had fixed the posts securely in the holes and attached the wire, I proudly invited the girls to inspect my handiwork. Initially they seemed intrigued by this unexpected development in their terrain. Once they comprehended that the gate by which they had entered was now closed, they immediately proceeded to examine the fence for a weakness. As the realization set in that they were now confined to more limited quarters, with no access to the garden or their other little scratching places, they mounted a verbal protest. Wanting to permit them to deal with the grief of their loss privately, and also wanting to get away from the racket, Linda and I went for an extended walk.

That night we went to sleep with considerable relief at the knowledge that this spring our garden would be safe from their predations. We’d be able to go away for a few days not wondering if they were in there. It had been a difficult decision to curtail their roaming, but we felt that in making it, we had grown stronger inwardly.

The following morning I looked out the back window to assess their spirits. One girl was dispiritedly prowling along the inside of the fence, evidently hoping for a means of escape. The other two were likely in the Hen House I thought, laying eggs. They are such good girls.

When I stepped out onto the side patio, I was astounded to see two girls in the garden, contentedly hunting bugs. They heard the storm door close and came running to me with great joy, obviously delighted to be out, and maybe even happy to see me. I am fully aware, of course, that their pleasure at seeing me is based on the hope that I will give them a treat.

How had they managed to get over my much vaunted 5ft. fence? We had recently clipped their wings. If I couldn’t devise a means of keeping them inside their new space, our garden would not be safe. Obviously, they were still engaging us in a power struggle and they intended to prevail.

Linda pointed out to me that I had left a wooden box inside the fence, close to the gate. “Very likely”, she said, “they had alighted on it, and used it as a launching pad to fly over the gate”. I had allowed them to keep the box because they appreciate a little clutter. They had taken advantage of my desire to be good to them. Reluctantly, I removed the box.

Since that one desperate bid for freedom and autonomy, they have not managed to escape their new, more constricted compound. I had wondered if the change would cause them emotional trauma and adversely impact their laying. They have adjusted well though, and their laying is currently at record levels. I continue to give them their treat of oatmeal each morning and usually place the sprinkler in their area at a trickle level. They enjoy the water and it seems to bring worms and bugs nearer to the surface. I still say to them almost every day, “you are good girls”.


“The Girls” and I Tackle Gate Maintenance

May 1st    “Maintenance on gate to chicken enclosure,” my To Do list instructed me this morning.  It had actually been on the list for 2 days so I decided to make it a priority.  With a screw driver and 4 small screws in hand, I went out to tackle what I was certain would be a quick, easy job.

The girls immediately exhibited their usual keen interest in having

Art & Curious Chickens
Art & Curious Chickens

some role in this project.  I’m sure they didn’t care much what that role would be, but they intended to become involved. Extraordinarily curious creatures, they are easily bored.  It quickly became evident that either I would include them in what I was doing, or they’d take measures to frustrate me. To acquaint me with their desire to assist, and get my attention, they immediately pecked at my legs with their usual woodpecker zeal. What they lacked in velocity they made up for with intensity.

Until this spring, I had credited myself with great cleverness and ingenuity.  By wearing rubber boots, I had avoided the irritation of their constant pecking.  In time though, they had begun to understand that their pecking tactics were having no effect on my mental equilibrium. Like sophisticated computer hackers, they experimented with new, more advanced strategies. By craning their skinny necks higher, they could access human flesh through my pant legs.  As efficiently as a highly trained group of militants, that is where they now aimed their 3 pronged assault.

Distracted by them,  I lost my concentration and dropped the first screw.  They evidently assumed it was something quite delicious and with their usual amazing speed pounced on it.  It was my quick witted response that spared the screw from being swallowed whole by a chicken.  I had only four screws so I didn’t want to lose one.  Also, swallowing a screw probably would not be conducive to fowl health.  Of course, it was much more their scrambling and bumping than my quick witted action that thwarted them.  Even the two identical, virtually joined at the hip, Cleopatras give no ground to each other if there is the prospect of a delicacy.  Everything is deemed to be a delicacy until they discover otherwise.

When I tried once more to get the screw started, the pecking resumed with increased intensity. Miss Lonely Hearts apparently had decided on revenge because I had deprived her of the screw.  I pushed her away with my foot, gently but firmly. She resisted, flapping her wings and squawking.  A power struggle ensued.

With the incessant drumming on my legs and no means to prevent it,  I simply couldn’t focus on getting that first screw started.  Determined to get my little job done, I bent over until I was just about nose to beak with Miss Lonely Hearts.  Alert so I would not be pecked in the face,  I said, “Lady,  you are stretching my sense of humour!  Go away and lay an egg!”

She stared at me, apparently amused.  Realizing I wouldn’t win this little contest without help, I scattered a handful of bird seed on the ground to occupy them.  It’s their favourite but infrequent menu item. Like children scrambling for candies thrown from a float in a parade, they raced to garner their share. I quickly completed the job.

My impatience with them subsided and I was able to think more rationally about how to handle this kind of challenge. I recalled that our neighbour Angelique had observed quite sagely when I was constructing the Hen House, “after all Art, they are only chickens.”  She is a longstanding owner of chickens herself and also a local politician. I respect her experience and knowledge concerning politics and chickens.  Maybe my expectations of the girls are beyond their capability.  After all, in their own way they just wanted to be included in my project.

I returned the tools to the shed. Locking the door, I retreated to the sanctuary of the house with the rare pleasure of knowing that the girls and I had successfully completed the gate maintenance project.

Outfoxed By Chickens

When we retired to Hedley B..C., population about 300, I suggested to Linda we acquire a few chickens. She disagreed, saying a few chickens really didn’t warrant the expense of building a hen house. But when we visited a friend’s chicken farm, he let us look at his birds. Red in colour with white tail feathers, they were magnificent. Linda said, “They are pretty. I can understand that you would want them.”

With Linda’s full agreement, I bought 3 chickens, plus a pail of organic feed. During the 4 hour drive to our new home, they sat patiently in a box in the trunk.

I had not anticipated Linda’s change of heart so I had no lodging for them and no fenced off area to control their roaming. Fortunately, there is a perimeter fence. The birds were ecstatic when I released them into our back yard, where they could explore at will. For them it was a bonus to tread on grass, not wire. We were delighted with our new family and immediately began affectionately referring to them as “the girls.”

Their industriousness amazed us. With the zeal of men digging for gold, they scratched furiously anywhere they pleased. A healthy kale plant was unceremoniously uprooted. Wanting to be understanding of their need to grub for insects, I didn’t protest. When I installed tomato cages over the other kale plants, the girls eagerly poked their small heads

between the wires and nibbled until only flimsy skeleton stems remained. Our small potato patch soon had the appearance of a scorched earth war zone. When Linda went to the garden to collect basil, she was dismayed to see they had already harvested the entire crop. The next day I observed them contentedly munching on radish tops. The girls, like locusts in the “dirty thirties,” were consuming our garden at a feverish pace.

They did lay their golden brown, organic eggs faithfully, always under the sheltering leaves of the same rhubarb plant. While this contributed to our sense of having achieved a back to the land lifestyle, Linda and I realized we couldn’t indefinitely tolerate their pillaging of our garden. They had become the dominant force in our back yard and I was determined to assert authority over what I considered our domain.

Entering the Hen House
Entering the Hen House

By the end of that first week I had completed a 4 by 5ft. hen house and a 4 ft high fence. I gently deposited the girls one at a time in their new, more constricting quarters. Instantly aggrieved, they began patrolling along the inside of the confining fence, much like somber faced federal prisoners probing determinedly for a weak link. Their shrill clucking suggested intense inner turmoil. We glanced out the back window uneasily all afternoon, anxious that they adjust to their limited quarters.

When we awoke early the next morning, each had already laid an egg. We were pleased at this, to be sure, but disconcerted by the fact that they had not used the laying box I had placed in their new home. Instead, each had laid a lovely brown egg under the rhubarb plant as usual. The rhubarb plant, of course, was outside their fence! The girls were in the garden, munching peacefully, apparently quite unaware they were committing a

cardinal sin. I patiently carried them one at a time back to their designated space and repaired a weakness in the fence.

The next day we awoke at 6 am, and they were again in the garden, having flown over the fence. I affixed another layer of wire to increase the height of the fence to a full 5 feet. We also clipped the right wing of each girl. I held the bird and Linda clipped with scissors. There was no evidence of pain. When I had again returned them lovingly to their compound, they retreated to the hen house. I assumed it was to sulk, but that turned out to be a naïive assumption. Apparently it was to devise a new strategy. It was becoming evident that these girls had a surgeon’s capacity to focus intently, and they were not quitters.

To my dismay, the following morning they were back in the garden. One of the girls had put her head through a hole in the mesh and patiently worked at stretching the wire until she could squeeze through. The others had followed. I repaired the opening and applied a second layer of wire mesh over the original layer.

All this was to no avail. The following morning we were up early enough to observe them squeeze through a new hole they had made in the fence and run like Olympic sprinters to the rhubarb plant. “Maybe,” Linda suggested somewhat resignedly, “they are driven by an inner compulsion to lay. And they are programmed to lay under that rhubarb plant.”

Linda and I needed to be away for three days. Since the feed and water were in the hen house, the girls required access to it. If they escaped from their quarters while we were gone, would their mentality and skills enable them to get back in?

Reluctantly Linda and I agreed the girls had outfoxed and outlasted us. I created an opening so they could enter and leave their compound as they pleased. When we return, I decided, I will put up a high fence around the garden, and if necessary, we’ll do another clipping. They are good girls so they can have the yard. We will have the garden and the eggs.