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Paean to My Hens

My hens are laying up a storm now that storms have arrived in our part of the world. I welcome both! Shrove Tuesday is March 4th this year, so the Lenten Season is just a short month away.

Every year Shrove Tuesday arrives – the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the Catholic/Anglican/Episcopal 40-day season of thoughtful repentance and fasting before Easter – and I think to myself: “it’s pancakes for dinner tonight.” Photo: Two of my hens on pest control duty in the garden.

Shrove (derived from shrive to confess) Tuesday – also known as Fat Tuesday – is a day in the Catholic/Anglican/Episcopal tradition where a person confesses the sins they will repent for during Lent, and they use up the last of their meat and lard and other winter stores before the fasting of Lent begins. In some areas of the world (and in my mother’s house), this translated into pancakes for dinner and my mother emphasized the egg aspect to the meal – you had pancakes in order to use the eggs and milk was the lesson I took away into adulthood from these delicious late winter/early spring dinners that featured delicate crépe pancakes sprinkled with lemon juice and powdered sugar. Photo: Hens are happy to be held and in the company of their humans, especially if they have been handled regularly and gently starting from when they are chicks. Some breeds are known for their good natures, such as the Bard Rock on the left, and others are not, such as Rhode Island Reds.

As I grew older, the idea of an ancient agrarian society feasting on the last of the winter stores before this long, lean stretch of time between last year’s harvest being used up and the first of the spring crops coming in (especially if you happen to live in a colder climate than the valley portions of the North State) made total sense to me. As in much related to religious ritual, there is a common-sense link to lives once lived solely off the land. Photo: Eggs can come year round once you have a producing flock.

But it occurred to me this last week as I collected another 5 eggs from my 5 fat, happy hens that to give up eggs for Lent didn’t in fact make any sense at all. Now is the exact time of year – as the light lengthens a lovely little bit each day – that had farmers of old given up eggs for Lent, they would have wasted a whole lot of eggs.

Ruminating on this disconnect, I did a little more research into what is often known as Pancake Day to the Episcopalians of British Persuasion (my mother among them). Turns out, eggs are not on the list of things traditionally given up for Lent, but meat and meat products are. So eggs, milk and butter are ok (being considered “pre-flesh), but lard and meat were (and still are) commonly on the “fasting-from” list. Pancakes were a festive way of using up the last of the lard, the sausages, the bacon, etc. Photo: Our first chicken coop and fenced run in Loveland, Colorado was built immediately adjacent to our vegetable garden.

While I don’t practice any one faith in particular other than the one of faith in a god of love and hope and the power of these mixed with gardening to cure most ills. But I appreciate the idea of the Lenten season, its focus on prayer and contemplation of all the blessings we do have and do value in a lean season.

So this is a praise-song for my hens, who in exchange for food, water and shelter provide companionable clucking, ready made fertilizer and diligent pest control as they hunt for bugs and grubs in the garden by day. For most of the year, especially in spring, they also offer up an abundance of gorgeous yellow upright yolks swimming in silky whites loaded with protein and plenty even in lean early spring. Photo: A lovely Araucauna hen who was a steady layer of pale green eggs.

Keeping Backyard Chickens:

Poultry and fowl of all kind have companioned farmers and gardeners since almost recorded time. While you can keep all kinds of backyard poultry, I have only experienced life with chickens – and mostly hens. When it comes to coops, accessories (like food and water dispensers) as well as chicks themselves, your local independent feed store (and in some cases your local independent nursery) is your good friend and can generally provide you with all you need – including on-going advice. It should be noted that before you get started with the idea of keeping chickens, most cities and counties have some requirements, be it permits or restrictions on numbers of chickens allowed in what zoning areas. Do this homework first.Photos above: A stone hen patrolling a garden in Greune, Texas and, below, a happy hen keeper holding one of his favorite Silkies in a Chico garden.

We have had backyard chickens for going on 12 years now. We had a small flock of five in our earliest garden in Loveland, Colorado and we’ve had two flocks now here in Northern California. My husband built our first coop based on a design in a small chapbook entitled “The Big Book Of Garden Hens” by Francine Raymond. Her aesthetically pleasing handbook for keeping backyard chickens includes solid information on building a coop, starting your flock from day-old chicks, and care from then on as well as recipes for using your treasured eggs, which are sometimes few and far between and sometimes insanely abundant. Photo: Our current coop has a head height fenced run to which the hens have constant access. The interior of the coop is raised about 2 1/2 feet off the ground and so the hens can get out of the rain and still peck in the dirt on rainy days. The interior of the coop has three nesting boxes and two roosting bars. While we currently have 5 hens, they all lay their eggs in one nesting box, which is not uncommon.

When it comes to coops – whether self-built to a design found on the web or in a book, custom built by local craftsman, or even a prefabricated coop that you can buy flat in a box and put together yourself – there are a few things to keep in mind, in my opinion and from my experience. Photo: This coop at Magnolia Gift & Garden in Chico has a nice raised coop design but with an easy external access to the laying boxes for easy collecting of the eggs daily. Inside (photo right), the feed container is hung off the floor, the roosting ladder is against the wall to the left and the nesting boxes are to the right. The operable windows allow for good air circulation and a lot of natural light. Hens lay regularly based on amount of daylight they receive. Fewer daylight hours in winter is what triggers hens to stop laying for a time.

Make it easy for the hen’s caretaker (you, your children, etc.) to get in and out of the coop for 1. harvesting eggs, 2. harvesting garden fertilizer AKA cleaning the coop. Make it easy for the chickens themselves to get in and out of their coop and into the outdoors and clean dry dirt for them to peck in – be this a fenced run or the larger garden. But finally, make it difficult for rodents or predators (racoons, fox, birds of prey) to get into the coop and at least some part of their outdoor range. Photo: A coop design in Pam Geisel’s home garden in Hamilton City is able to be moved to different areas of the garden as needed. Pam is the Statewide Coordinator of the UC Master Gardener program.

I am fond of the designs which have a raised central coop, which in our damp winter climate allows for dry dirt under the coop at most times, and a fenced run for them to roam in whenever the birds like. Our run is fully fenced – above and below, but the girls go out into the main garden for good stretches of time 5 out of 7 days. Photo: Chicken coop at the Young Family Farm in Weaverville.

A few final things to keep in mind about coop design is that ventilation is one of the most important aspects of the coop. Make sure there is fresh air circulating through the coop at all times, even when it’s cold. Chickens are actually more prone to illness and disease due to poor circulation and thus poor indoor air quality than due to cold or heat. Likewise, they are far more prone to being bothered by heat than by cold, so fresh air is doubly key. Photo: Our chicken coop from the front. The blue door is used for gathering eggs and cleaning out the coop. The window provides natural light and the eave is wire mesh for good air circulation.

Getting chicks:

You can start your own flock with grown hens or with chicks as young as day old. When we first started, we got day old chicks from the fairly renowned Murray McMurray Hatchery out of Iowa and split the 25-bird minimum order with a friend who wanted a larger flock than I wanted or could have in my in-city-limits backyard. Photo: One of our chicks a few days old.

For that first flock I research birds that were fine with cold (zone 4 Colorado), and birds that were known to do well with children (some breeds are known to be more aggressive than others), I also chose breeds for which the day-old chicks could be sexed (meaning the hatchery can reliably tell which gender your chicks will be) as in-city backyard flocks are generally not allowed to include roosters who by and large don’t do well with noise ordinances. To say the least. In our years of raising chickens, we have had our share of roosters, which you can’t always be quite sure is what you’ve got until the morning comes when you are very very sure he IS a rooster and then you are faced with finding him a more welcoming family and neighborhood. If you buy your chicks from your local feed and grain and you do not want roosters, ask if they will take roosters back, the best shops will (Northern Star Mills in Chico did). Photo: Coop and hen yard at Julie Nelson’s home garden in Redding.

Finally, I had read in one of my books that a good sized flock would include a hen for each member of the family and one additional. This formula was purported to keep you in a good amount of eggs for a good amount of the year. Photo: Few day old chicks under their heat lamp.

Currently, we have two Gold Sex-Link hens, two Bantys (small) of unspecified origin, and one Australorp. We have had two Aracauna (or Americana) hens, and one of which laid a green egg and one which laid a blue-ish egg. We have also had Bard Rocks and a Speckled Sussex and they have all been nice hens. Two of my current hens I got as chicks from Northern Star Mills in Chico, and three I got from other women who raise hens as well. Feed shops is colder areas might only carry chicks in the spring but those in the milder climates will often have chicks year round. Photo: Hens.

Chickens are most intensive when they are chicks. From the time you get them until they have their full, true feathers, chicks need to be kept really warm and dry, fed and watered. We have always kept our 4 – 5 new chicks in a large storage bin in our back room or our garage, with shavings changed as needed, chick starter feed and clean fresh water changed daily under a heat lamp 24/7. As the chicks get bigger, we raise the heat lamp to suit. This whole process is several weeks. Photo: Eggs from our current hens – the little one is from one of the Banty hens.

Once they are fully feathered, they can be moved into their real coop, with a heat lamp as needed based on your weather for another few months. Once they are on their own in the coop, with access to the outdoors, they are really very self sufficient. They need access to food (we use organic layer crumbles once they start laying and daily kitchen scraps of all vegetable and carbohydrate material – leftover toast, noodles, rice, etc.) and clean fresh water (check daily and top off or change every two – three days). Photo: A custom built coop and mini-run available for order from a local craftsman for around $700. For more information contact Magnolia Gift & Garden.

I cover my coop floor with a 1 inch layer of fresh shavings each time I clean it, which is on an as needed basis every three weeks or so. I mix the shaving manure mix into the garden compost and try to make a note on when I have added this so that I don’t put it into the garden within 6 – 12 weeks from that date as chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and will burn plants if not aged for a long enough time. Photo: A small moveable coop at Chaffin Family Farms in Oroville.

Once you decide to commit to having chickens, books, feed shops and websites on backyard chickens have loads of information for you to get any question answered, and the preparing for how to do it well is half the fun. I rely heavily on my books about chickens (see photos above) and on the advice of my local feed shop as well as other people with flocks. Photo: My favorite books on keeping chickens.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time.