Of the plethora of problems we face with our chickens, one is that the biggest group of layers tends to be too "free-range". I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but any situation that invariably leads to, or creates problems is not good. The layers are supposed to be in a concentrated area so we can maximize their fertilizer potential. Flock three thinks that free-range means they can go wherever they want. We have seen some chickens at least a tenth of a mile from their house. I have read (from multiple sources) that when layers roam they tend to hang around their shelter or within the immediate area.
Flock three, apparently remembered last year when they were by the barn and must think that the grass tastes better or something. We moved them to newly certified land behind the barn. They were on fresh winter rye and hairy-vetch. The trailer is at least seven hundred feet away from the barn and down a hill. They cannot see the barn but, they fly over the electric fence and walk up the hill to the barn. The barn is but one of many stops they will make in the day, they walk around the barn, then past the barn to the house, they walk around the house, then head down the hill in front of the house and into the old abandoned railway. I found this little fact out quite by accident. I was driving up to the house from the street and I see this lump in the middle of what we call the “causeway,” My first thought is terror in that it looks like a small dog. We have already had one dog attack and it was not pretty or easy to deal with.
The causeway is an old railway bed that separated one side of the property from the other. As I got close and had a better look, it was three chickens, probably the three stooges, but I did not check, come to think of it, we never did go after them. Sometimes you get into a routine and the unusual goes forgotten. Nothing happened to them and they did find their way back. When we close the layers up for the night, a head count takes place and the numbers were correct. Predation is a major issue for free-range farmers as is when hens start laying outside the nest. When that takes place, you have an old-fashioned egg hunt on your hands. We learned it was vital to get them into the routine of laying eggs inside a nest before letting them really roam. With flock three, the first year of their life, they stayed inside the electric fence without a hint of flying the coop. Today, they epitomize the term free range like none other we have raised. They roam everywhere, as long as they are near the woods, they are relatively safe from hawks, other hazards not so much.
I see things from the layers sometimes that make me think they have memories, decision-making capacities however slight and some have their own personalities. No, I am not anthropomorphizing, as much as pointing out that some of them act different from the others and they remember where they have been. Then sometimes their behavior just has me shaking my head and mumbling to myself. There are now twenty-one hens in the trailer with the rooster and ten nesting boxes. The rule of thumb is two to four hens to a nest. You would think that there would be no waiting when it comes to nesting boxes but for some strange reason one layer will always pick a nest already occupied.
There would be nine other empty nests, but the best nest was the one with the hen inside. When that happens, they start to cluck at each other. I am standing there watching the one hen outside the nest clucking, while the one inside waits until the first one is quiet, then responds with her own. This goes on for a bit until the one on the outside goes to another nest or the one on the inside lays her egg and leaves. Sometimes, one will just go into the nest box even though another hen is there. This is especially true when you have a broody hen; the other hens sense it and lay eggs in her nest. I do not know this to be a rule but when a hen gets broody, we often find most of the day’s eggs are under her.
Memory is another thing. Periodically, we have had to place birds in quarunteen or the hospital pen. It is a stall inside the barn with a window, food, water, nest and roost. I've written about the three stooges and their penchant for staying inside the hospital pen. We have had to have the doors closed at all times this summer because these things just refuse to stay out. Henrietta, as she is called, has some magical gift of hearing. She will be no ware in sight, as soon as I open the front barn door, she appears. That would be fine, but she insists on getting up on my work bench, kicking most of the light stuff off and lays her egg on the wood shaving by the mitter saw. She has also become territorial, she believes her place is in the hospital pen and she is determined to lay claim.
She did spend time in there when we were trying to get her to stop flying out of the fenced area. But that was over ten months ago and she still thinks that is her home.
We do have a very social and inquisitive group of hens, which is great when kids visit, not so great when a worker is here and the bird gets in the van to check things out. We have gotten into the routine of asking people to check their vehicles before they leave the farm. It saves them an unwarranted re-visit just in case.
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