Monday, September 7, 2009

Flies, chickens and hawks

There are few ways to deter flies in an organic dairy herd.  I decided to get some chickens so that they could follow the cows from paddock to paddock and take care of the fly eggs in the cow poop.  And I'd have eggs to boot!  With the help of members of our milk association, we converted an old mail truck to a moving chicken coop so that the Moving Coop, or The Moop for short, and the chickens could go wherever the cows did.  There are ten nests in The Moop and roosts for at least 100 chickens.  I bought 25 chicks - all supposed to be pullets.  (Pullets are girls, the future laying hens - and no, you do not need a rooster to make a hen lay an egg.)  They sent one extra chick, so being a hopeless optimist, I thought I would be getting eggs from 26 hens come November.  Hah!

First, the runt got beat up by the others and died.  Then one got caught in some tape we used to tape together two furniture boxes for our brooder, and a third just simply disappeared!  Never found the remains.  So now there were 23, and of course when one runt was gone, there was another.  They were doing a number on her - she wasn't going to last long - so I scooped her up and took her to my bedroom closet, where she lived in a box for the next two months.  I named her Peep.  Peep was lonely - she missed the flock even though they were bent on killing her.  She loved being held and made many little contented noises while she nestled against my chest each evening.  Then I got the idea to get a mirror for her.  The good news was that she was no longer lonely.  The bad news was that so far as our evening lovefests were concerned, she was having none of it anymore.
I moved the big chicks from the greenhouse brooding box to The Moop and moved it to a pasture.  Success!  I moved Peep to the brooder box the flock had just vacated. I discovered that two of the pullets were roosters, evidenced by their large combs.  Okay, 21 hens including Peep - that is a fair number!  These Golden Campines are supposed to lay five eggs a week, so that is 105 eggs each week.  Did I mention that I am an optimist?

I devised a plan to re-integrate Peep into the flock.  Instead of putting her into The Moop with the other chicks, where I feared they would kill her, I moved the smallest chick from the flock into her brooder box in the greenhouse.  Within a couple of days, they had adjusted well to one another. So I brought another chick to the brooder.  Then after three more days, I took all three back to The Moop.  Did you know that chickens that scatter madly at your approach in the daylight hours will let you pet them and hold them after dark?  That made chicken transport an easy job.  Peep became one of the flock again.

The chicks were loving the freedom in the pasture.  But then I saw a hawk circling.  That night, the count was 22 chicks – one gone.  Each night I would count and my heart would be in my throat as I hoped for the same number that had roosted in The Moop the previous night.

Then one night, there were 21.  Three days later there were 20.  But Peep was still there.  Then I was down to 19, and this time it was my little Peep.  I was angry.  I borrowed my neighbor's 20 gage Remington, which I fired two or three times a day, and for three days, the number remained at 19.  Then there were 18.  The hawk had it figured out - just wait until that woman drives away and then lunch is served!  Last Tuesday I lost two, one of the roosters and another pullet.  That did it.

So much for chickens running free and cleaning up the fly population in the pastures.  I know when a plan needs to be abandoned!  Off to Tractor Supply for T-posts and 7' deer netting.  With the chickens still inside, I moved The Moop to my side yard and constructed a fence around it.  Then I took fishing line and wove it back and forth from post to post, creating a cobweb of line overhead.  I read that the line will deter hawks because they will not dive into an area from which they fear then cannot make a quick and easy escape.  And then finally, with the pen done and the line overhead, I let the chicks back out, all 16 of them.  I heard a hawk screeching a short time later.  I saw two circling and screeching Saturday night.  Obviously their excellent vision is not just a rumor.  They see the fish line and they are leaving the flock alone.  Fresh chick has been removed from the menu.

The new pen was constructed last Wednesday morning.  Tonight, when I buttoned up the little critters and did the head count, there were still 16.

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