This past spring we found ourselves waiting at the airport to meet 26 wonderful new family members. Mom had wanted laying hens for a long time, and finally it was possible for her wish to come true. Mom ordered the chicks from Washington, USA and had them flown to Whitehorse on Air North. The breeders delayed the chicks arrival by putting off the shipment three times, but when the day finally arrived we were all crowded excitedly into the waiting room of the Air North Cargo area. The minutes were hours while waiting for the box of peeps to be unloaded. Finally, a person wearing an orange reflective vest came in carrying 2 boxes with peeps and chirps emanating from the inside. In one box, there were 18 hens that were 3 weeks old, and in the other box were 8 tiny 3 day old chicks. Mom had ordered six different species: Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Barnevelders, Ameraucanas, Partridge Chanticlers (A Canadian Heritage breed), Silver-laced Wyandottes, and Barred Rocks.
There are no roasting chickens being raised in our family, though one of them, the rooster Peter O’ Brady Callahan III ( a Partridge Chanticler) came awfully close being one. He grew up as the only rooster, and had to learn about the way of life and the process of the birds and the bees alone. He quickly grew frustrated with his lack of knowledge and was mean to the hens all the time. After being grabbed and held upside down while his flight feathers were being clipped as a consequence of his actions, he quickly realized the error of his ways and became the best rooster that anyone could ask for. Now he works very hard every day keeping an eye up to the sky, announcing arrivals and departures, finding food for the hens, dancing and displaying, and of course, crowing. He even started dancing and scratching up food for my Mom as she entered the garden, then peered up at her with one hopeful eye.
One of the little Silver-laced Wyandotte hens, previously known as Geraldine, grew a big, curved, flashy green tail one day and became Pierre le Rouge mont Blanc. Pierre had no problems at all with chasing the hens away from food and eating it all himself, and he never patrolled or kept watch. He challenged Peter’s position as the most dominant rooster in the coop with a hen army behind him, and poor Peter had little choice but to back down, but not without a fight! They both engaged in lengthy crowing sessions in which Peter always won by getting higher than Pierre and being the last to stop crowing. Still, Pierres’ dominance was greater than Peter’s and he claimed rule of the flock.
Zoe was always different from the other hens. She was smaller than the others as a chick and obsessed with pecking at spots on the cardboard walls of the brooder. All night and all day you could hear the incessant tapping. Sometimes another chick would join her and together they would sound like a crew of carpenters hammering away. If you reached out to pick her up she would scream and run as fast as her tiny legs could carry her. However, the moment you caught her, laid her in your hand and started rocking her she would instantly fall asleep. My younger siblings actually got her used to laying on her back in a little bed with a blanket over her. It relaxed Zoe so much that she would fall to sleep in that position within moments, even as an adult! We watched her closely because Mom had read that weak hens will often get picked on (sometimes severely) by the healthier, stronger hens. With Mom’s flock that was not the case. When the youngest chicks were old enough, they were integrated with the older chickens, and the bigger chicks would protect Zoe if she got into any kind of trouble. Zoe grew up to be a hen who nervously watches the sky in case it falls and runs screaming if you even walk in the same direction as her.
Mom let us each have our own little hen as a pet. My little sister chose a Barred Rock and named her Mathilda, my youngest brother chose a Wyandotte and named her Zelda, my other younger brother chose a Barred Rock and named her Priscilla, and I chose a Rhode Island Red, naming her Hilda.
Mathilda as a chick had a huge white feather diaper, bigger than any of the other Barred Rocks and so she was easily told from the rest. As she grew up she always wanted to be with Sabrina, and clearly viewed her as her Mummy. She did nearly everything that Sabrina wanted her to, and often fell asleep while being rocked in Sabrina’s hand. ‘Little Mattie’ grew up to be one of the sweetest hens in the flock, developing very soft-looking eyes that clearly reflect her soft personality.
Toren’s hen Zelda had a complicated white and dark-grey pattern all over her face, and a mostly grey body with a white belly. She became very protective of Toren, not liking it if we came too close to him while she was on his shoulder. She acted nearly like a mother sometimes as well, wanting to wash his face after a meal and nearly ordering him aloud to go and brush his teeth! Her devotion to Toren sends her running to meet him when he steps into the chicken coop. She is one of the quietest, best-behaved hens in the flock.
Vince’s hen Priscilla was a sweet chick just like Mathilda. As she started growing in her adult feathers it quickly became apparent that she would be one of the most attractive hens in the flock. She fledged into adulthood with dignity, the bright white bars thickly speckling her ash grey plumage like snow.
My hen, Hilda, always wanted to be with me as a chick and loved to snuggle. As she grew older she took up racing to me when she saw, or heard me calling, hitching up her skirts in order to run faster. However, she can be quite cantankerous if I don’t give her something she is expecting, or if I prevent her from doing something. Her excessive love of food helped her to quickly learn to fly to my arm on command (even without bread bait) as a falcon would with a falconer. I love her abundance of personality: she makes it clear when she wants to spend time with me (which is often) and when she does not. She is so cute!!
Mom put the flock into a big enclosure in the back yard during the summer and used a screen tent for their shelter. Bears and weasels getting into the enclosure and hawks/eagles flying overhead were an ever-threatening danger, but nothing happened. My younger siblings herded the chickens from the enclosure in the back yard, down the alley between the buildings, through the driveway, and into the garden for a day of sun and fun, every day. The chickens behaved very well; they knew the way to the garden and never scattered.
Dad started working on a coop and run for them behind the garden, and we started putting hens in there to lay when they started. The hens quickly realized that they had to be in the coop to lay their eggs. They would fly out of the side-yard enclosure, walk across the backyard straight for the coop on the opposite end of the property, then stand at the door and ask Dad to let them in to lay. Dad had a lot of fun watching them walk over to the coop door with such purpose.
Once it was finished we painted it blue and green on the outside and cream on the inside. Mom even hung up a framed ‘heart-throb’ photo of a rooster on the wall inside for the hens to admire. The coop is insulated and well sealed, and has ventilation to prevent moisture. It also has a big window that looks out into their run. At -23C the temperature inside of the coop is only -6C! The coop has six nest boxes mounted on the walls that are lined with hay; at least one of the boxes are always occupied. The occupier is usually Cricket, a very broody Ameraucana. Some days she clings so stubbornly to the eggs she is brooding that it is difficult to get them out from under her. She never pecks; she simply growls and pushes down on your hand with a surprising amount of force when you try to lift her up.
The hens are able to access the garden when we open the run and garden gate for them. In the summer they gather around your feet watching the gate open, hardly able to contain their excitement, before exploding into garden with screams of delight. There are weeds and bugs for them to eat, and fresh topsoil for them to dust bath in.
Every morning and into the afternoon you can hear the sounds of miracles being made – the screaming of hens in labor and the cuck-cawing of proud new ‘mothers’. Martha (Buff Orpington) was a sweet lass in her childhood.
She grew up to be a very matronly woman… after her morning egg has been laid. Poor Martha has a tough time laying eggs every day. She starts pacing and crying first thing in the morning when she goes into labor. Then she starts to scream. She screams for a long time. Then when it is time to lay her egg she growls and screams at anybody (or hen) that approaches. After the deed is done, she celebrates with loud cheers, and groans for the next day. When any hen has a difficult labor Peter paces worriedly either under the nest box or outside of the coop, occasionally peeking his head in and uttering worried clucks when he hears a scream. He acts just like a worried father-to-be.
The hens lay many eggs of a wide variety of colour. They were laying 20+ eggs every day during the fall, but they have slowed down to about a dozen a day for the winter. Their eggs are very good quality; they have bright yellow yolks and clear egg whites. Very rarely are there blood spots, and those eggs seem to be restricted to a certain species. We use those eggs for baking, and never put them out for sale.
The eggs are very appealing from the time you open the carton and see the brown, pink, green, and blue eggs, to the time they are eaten in a delicious meal. The money from the eggs goes to buy the chickens their feed. The chickens are a hard-working bunch, and are earning a humble living by paying for themselves. They are clean, and they are friendly, and they are smart. Perhaps you have never heard of chickens being described in this way, but everything I have told you about them is true. Many people who have seen our chickens are shocked! Many of these people had never liked chickens because the ones they encountered before were dirty and mean.
Mom’s chickens aren’t like that. They have lots of room to move around, are supplied with fresh hay bedding frequently, are fed good, organic, locally grown grain, and are well-loved. Everyone with a dislike of chickens has had a change of opinion when they see Mom’s flock. Hopefully this post has put chickens in a better light for you too!