Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Ballad of Butch the Chook

The life of the farm chicken is mostly good: a steady supply of food, acceptable housing, room to roam and scratch, nice spots for laying eggs, the occasional juicy snail...and then a rather sudden end.  But not for Butch.

We got our first batch of chooks almost three years ago.  At that time, there wasn't much to the farm at all--very few animals and almost no infrastructure.  However, chickens don't need much, especially when they first arrive.  (We get ours from Murray McMurray, and they arrive by mail as one-day-old peeps; you get a call from the P.O. at 5:30 in the morning, asking you to come by and pick up your package, which is about the size of a large shoe box and is chirping like a box full of chicks.)  For a few weeks, they were fine in a big wooden box with a heat lamp.

The theme of our farm, for far too much of our term here, has been a race between animal acquisition and the construction of animal facilities, and animal facilities have consistently lagged.  So our first batch of chooks was getting far too big for their temporary quarters before I got their coop built...a situation I'm really ashamed of.

I am also ashamed of the coop that eventually got built.  There are a lot of paintings out there that have violins in them, and in many cases, you can tell that the artist has seen a violin before but when pressed, couldn't quite remember some features right.  Well, I had seen some nice larger coops, and had some ideas about what I wanted, but I was constrained by cheapness and didn't get some details right.  I was also hampered by my own inexperience:  I had seen some construction work, but I clearly didn't get the construction right.  The result was just bad.  The floor gave out, the doors didn't stay together, the roof was horrible, there were severe design flaws...just bad.

Once we got them into the coop, we had a mixed relationship with our chooks.  I never did get the coop painted, so it stayed ugly.  As always, facilities for animals lagged behind need, so I didn't get the perches installed for a while.  I never got a satisfactory waterer, so the birds got all their water from the animals' water buckets.  I was so busy with the other animals that I didn't really get to domesticate the birds, and only two of them ever got named.

Things even managed to get worse. I didn't get egg boxes made until after the birds had started laying, so I taught them some inexcusably bad habits.  Of the dozen or so birds, a couple laid eggs where they were supposed to; the rest would find secluded nooks and hidden niches to make nests.  I'd periodically find a clutch of a dozen or two dozen eggs of unknown age behind the fencing wire or in the burn pile or with the plumbing supplies or behind the paint cans or in some other private place. If I found a nest, I could sometimes clean the eggs out and the culprits would continue to lay there; more often than not, as soon as they realized they'd been found, the culprits would stop laying there and find a new hiding place.

There were a few birds who did lay in the boxes we provided.  However, there were also a couple of birds who developed a taste for eggs.  Worse, the oviphages knew that the egg boxes were an easy mark.  I never did see a smoking gun--or yolky beak--to know who did it, but I had some suspicions.

By last spring, we were feeding over a dozen birds, and getting eggs from maybe two.  The remainder had some utility, eating snails and such, but still, we were paying to feed them.  We decided to get a new batch of chooks.  The chirping box arrived in the mail in July, and they've been settling in nicely since.  I took longer than I'd like to admit, but I did finally get their coop built, and it's pretty good:  better design, and vastly better construction.  I took unreasonable delight in dismantling the old coop, obliterating that stain from our yard.

A neighbor of ours offered to take our old birds and give them a home in some canning jars, which was fine by us.  So one night, S. came by, reached into the coop and grabbed the snoozing chooks by their feet and stuffed them, complaining and groggy, into a box.  "Big day tomorrow," said S., "been hunting, so we're doing chickens and grouse and a turkey!"

Such was the end for our first batch of chooks--except Butch.  Butch was always a special bird.  We were very suspicious about Butch from an early age; though the bird never developed spurs, it did develop a bit more comb and wattles than a hen of the breed was supposed to.  Butch would try--and still tries--to crow sometimes in the morning, though it comes out like a teenage boy trying to do James Earl Jones.  But, Butch was one of the few birds that, at least for a while, went into nest boxes, and with my own eyes I saw Butch enter an empty nest box and leave an egg behind.  Thus the name (and the lack of a gendered pronoun), and Butch avoided an early trip to the cook pot.

Butch differed from the other birds in one essential way: instead of heading back to the crummy, shoddy coop to sleep, Butch would perch high in the rafters of the woodshed.  So when S. came by that fateful night, Butch escaped.

But Butch had to develop a new modus vivendi.  The new chickens have grown up in their new coop, and I have them fenced in with an eight-foot-high wall of chicken wire under a tree.  (They can fly around, but remain naive about the possibility of flying out of their enclosure, and they will learn that they should always lay eggs in the nest boxes.)  Butch was wandering around forlornly (and hungrily) so I put captured the bird and threw it in with the young 'uns.  They collectively decided that this newcomer should be at the bottom of the pecking order and went on the attack.  From nesting in rafters, Butch knew that vertical flight meant safety, and so escaped--back to hunger and solitude.

However, Butch has it figured out now.  Every morning I find Butch in the enclosure, under the coop, breakfasting on scratch that has fallen through the floor.  When I release the new birds from the coop, Butch quickly runs in as they fly out, and grabs a bit more chow before flying up to the roof and over the fencing.  Periodically, during the day, Butch will fly in for a nibble and fly out.  Every night finds Butch safely and smugly roosting, high up in the woodshed, resting up for another day.  And so Butch lives and will, unlike the rest of the first cohort, continue to live, happily ever after.

Provided I never find yolk on Butch's beak.

Butch, getting ready to fly the coop.

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