Natural Perspectives: Checking in our chickens

The most common question that Vic and I get about our columns is "How are the chickens doing?" We thought it was time for an update.

You may remember that we put a coffee table in the enclosed chicken run a few months back. Yes, our hens have furniture. They have a solar light too, just in case they're afraid of the dark. And there's artwork hanging on the chicken coop itself, but the hangings are located on the outside where we see them.

The little coffee table that we put in the coop was one that my father made out of plywood back in the mid-1950s. When my mother moved to Huntington Beach in the late 1990s, she brought it with her to hold plants on her balcony. After she passed away, the table came to rest on our deck. Over the years, the elements have not been kind to that little table.

The chickens have been even less kind to it. They spill their water from their two watering containers on it and they poop on it. The little coffee table began deteriorating badly. With my limited home repair and decorating skills, I decided that what the table needed was a tablecloth. I wanted a waterproof tablecloth that I could just hose down. That's pretty much the extent of my housekeeping skill as well.

Fortunately or not, Vic and I are both clutter hoarders. We hate throwing things out because someday we might need it. I'm trying to overcome that tendency but haven't been real successful. I had a thick, circular, black plastic sheet that had been the pond liner for our long-defunct patio pond. I had kept it by the side of the house for several years, thinking that I might find a use for it. No use had occurred to me, and I had finally tossed it into the recycle bin. That was the week that I decided that the chickens needed a waterproof tablecloth.

I rooted around in the blue bin and fished out the plastic sheet. It was dirty and seemed to have been permanently creased from having been folded for several years. Reasoning that heat would help unfold it, I hosed it off on both sides and draped it over a birdbath so the sun could soften it. The chickens watched with great fascination. Or maybe they were bored. It's really hard to tell with chickens.

After the plastic liner had dried, I removed the coffee table from the coop, cleaned it off and draped the plastic over it to let the sun's heat help mold the plastic to the shape of the table. The chickens watched it all. And that's how I left things for the evening.

The next morning, the chickens began making a horrible racket as soon as the sun came up. This was not their normal noises of "I laid an egg" or "Where is everybody?" When two hens are laying eggs in the coop at the same time, the third hen in the run thinks she's alone and sets up a constant clatter of clucking. The loner doesn't stop calling until one of the other hens emerges from the coop.

No, this was the alarm call that they make when they see a predator. Thinking that a critter was after my hens, I threw on some clothes and dashed outside. No predator. The hens were looking at the coffee table with its black tablecloth and raising an alarm about it. When I looked at it from their point of view, the circular drape over the rectangular table did look a bit like a black wolf. An immobile wolf with no head or tail. The poor hens were terrified of the black tablecloth over the table, the one they had watched me clean the day before. These really are not bright birds.

I reassured them that it was all right. I did this by simply remaining with them and talking to them until they calmed down. Then I used duct tape to tape the tablecloth to the bottom of the table so that it wouldn't look like a wolf to them.

I put the table back into the coop, set the watering containers on top and leveled the table with bricks under the legs. I can now safely hose off the table after they've made their daily deposits upon it.

One issue we've had with our hens is that they're spoiled rotten. They have come to expect a daily ration of scratch (a mix of cracked corn, wheat, milo and other grains) in addition to their always full feeder of laying pellets, plus a daily meal of fresh greens from our garden. If I don't provide these things in a manner that is prompt in their little minds, they set up a racket early in the morning. To stymie this nuisance, I bought them a seed block from Midway City Feed Store. It's 25 pounds of seed all compressed and held together with an edible corn syrup glue.

The hens love their seed block. They keep themselves busy with that until almost 9 a.m., when they begin demanding other treats. That's a more reasonable hour than dawn, and we can live with that.

Unfortunately, we've had an issue with Henny Penny, the older of the two Black Sex-link breed of hens. She lays thin-shelled eggs that are prone to breakage. If one of the other two chickens is using the straw-lined nest box in the coop, she often lays her egg on the coffee table, where it breaks. The hens have three nest boxes in the coop, but they only like one of them. They all want to use that one box, the one in the corner.

The other day, Henrietta, the Black Australorp, was clucking away like crazy, wondering where the other two hens were. They were both in the coop since the urge to lay had hit them simultaneously. I peeked in to see if they were finally using one of the non-preferred nest boxes. No, Chicken Little was in the preferred nest box. Henny Penny was sitting on top of her!

In an attempt to solve the problem of their dislike of the other two nest boxes, I stood a cardboard box on its end in the corner of the coop opposite their preferred nesting box. I put straw in it, but so far, none of them have used it. Putting a fake egg in the new box may trick them into using it. Anything that is in the general shape of an egg will do. Now what I need for my chickens is a golf ball.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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