For most of December our girls have been relegated to their coop. With snow often knee deep on the ground, letting them out of their spacious coop and run seemed a less than prudent decision. After the first few snow squalls I would find them huddled under the porch in a muddy heap with wet feathers and dirty feet. Fred and I talked about it and decided that keeping them warm and dry was probably better than fulfilling their desire to be out foraging in the snow, so for most of the month, as it snowed mercilessly here, the girls spent their days in the coop.
I made it up to them by frequent trips out for visits and petting and lots and lots of treats and warm water. Due to the frigid temperatures their water bowls were frequently iced over so I would repeatedly throughout the day replace their bowls with others filled with warm tap water. This seemed to work out fine and they got rather spoiled. As the snow began to melt and the temperatures began to rise they would stand and the open coop door and fuss at me to bring them their breakfast. Instead of hopping out the door as soon as it was ajar (as had been their normal routine) they seemed perfectly content to be waited on hand and foot. It seemed too much of a chore to sully their dainty toes in the melting snow.
I really thought this was odd. Normally they love to be out and if you wait thirty minutes past daylight to open their pen you can hear them fussing all the way in our bedroom for freedom. So as they changed their routine to fussing for full service I really was puzzled. This went on for about three days past the thaw until they saw me exit the house with left over birthday cake one morning. Apparently birthday cake has a cross-species significance and can trump even the most stoic resolve at stubbornness in man and beast alike.
I had opened the coop to retrieve their bowls and gone back in the house to prepare their breakfast. When I stepped on the porch they were all still in the coop fussing at the open door until they realized what I had in my hands. Then the shoving and jostling commenced. Squawking and pushing and basically rolling over each other out the door they came tearing and fussing at me like kamikazes on a mission. Forgotten were their cold feet and genteel sensibilities, all was lost in pursuit of cake!
They could be my biological children so great was their motivation to obtain dessert for breakfast. The snow had melted and refrozen in patches, the yard was a minefield of little ice rinks. Chickens tumbled and spun and slid their way to the porch on their bellies. I threw the cake into the yard and watched them decimate it with the abandon of lifelong Weight Watchers members at a holiday buffet. They cooed at me with icing smeared beaks and danced their delight with the little foot stomping chicken jigs.
It was as if the spell of their confinement had been broken with a magical bite of cake. Like Alice they relished their newfound freedom by exploring through the yard as if it were a magical wonderland. I thought we would slide back into our normal routine with ease. I should have known better. At dark I went out to close up the coop only to discover Mama was the only one in bed. It was full dark but the moon was mostly full so I had neglected to take a flash light out with me. I started back for the house, straining my eyes in the dark and whispering for my girls. As I neared the porch I heard chattering and cooing coming from under the steps. I stooped down and peered into the dark, as the clouds parted and the moon gave off a little light I was greeted by five pair of shiny chicken eyes gazing questioningly at my own.
I sighed. Great, now I figured I was going to spend the next hour chasing black hens around in the dark of night trying to get everyone into the coop. I seriously gave consideration to leaving them under the porch steps but the shepherd in me could not stand to leave my girls open to harm from the elements or from predators. I went back in the house and decided to try the easiest option first. I forsook a light fearing that it would only cause more confusion. I grabbed a can of corn from the cabinet opened it and headed back outside.
I shook the can and reached my hand under the steps so they could smell what I had. I was rewarded with much feather ruffling excitement and foot stomping. I started for the coop calling softly to them as I went. I glanced back over the moonlit snow and saw in my wake four little round black bodies trailing behind me and one slightly smaller red head fussily bringing up the rear. Well, that was easy enough. I stepped into the coop followed by all five chickens and poured a small mound of corn onto the floor. Mama heard all the ruckus and came downstairs to investigate. As all six chickens enjoyed their bedtime snack I slipped from the coop and made back for the house.
Fred and I talked about it and decided since they had been out of their routine for a few days that maybe the darkness just surprised them and when they realized it was full dark it was too late and they were stuck under the porch instead of in the coop. They tend to stay near the house during the days for fear of missing a treat from the kitchen. Plus huddling near the side of the house offers them some shelter from the brutal winds that have accompanied our ferocious December weather. Fred and I decided it was probably a fluke and would just wait and see.
I will note here that with the bitter cold and the harsh winds we have put a 125watt heat bulb in their coop. The coop is not greatly insulated and, although many sources say providing them heat is unnecessary, I know I do not like to be cold and I do not figure my hens enjoy it either. Happy hens are healthy hens and healthy hens are good layers. One bulb is not going to make that big of a difference on our electric bill and I would rather spend a little more on electric than another gigantic vet bill for frostbitten hen toes. Fred and I both wondered if the extra light from the bulb may have thrown off the hen’s sense of bed time or if they were avoiding heading to the coop because the light spooked them. Anyway I chalked it up to a fluke & turned my mind to other things.
The next night darkness found me making dinner so Fred went out to shut the girls in. He came back in the house shortly and told me that everyone was in the coop except for one of the BJGs in the darkness he could not tell them apart and he had come back to get a flash light to search for her. I panicked a little and left the skillets hot on the stove as I struggled into my boots and coat. Fred shouted for me to wait, he said what good would it do for me to stumble around in the dark but I was already half out the door, my imagination running rampant with visions of slaughtered chickens plaguing my heels.
I crouched in the darkness near the pine trees and began softly calling. As I neared the smaller of the two pines I hear the unmistakable chatter of a scared chicken. I reached out in the darkness and felt her soft bulky body half under the tree. I picked her up and tucked her under my arm and made for the coop. In the light from the heat bulb she appeared uninjured. I put her in with her sisters, disturbing everyone, much chicken fussing ensued.
We thought it strange that just one would be left out and Fred said when he went to the coop to shut them in the others were fussy and upset, like they were trying to let him know something just was not right. We once again decided that they just were not back into their routine so we left them to sleep and went back in the house.
The next morning Fred went out to let them out of the coop, a little later than normal, and noted that one of the BJGs had a chuck of feathers missing out of her back. It was not down to the skin and she acted fine but there is just a baldish patch with nothing but downy under-feathers showing. We assume that this was probably due to a pecking order dispute or some other nest-box competition but it was just another weird bit to add to the odd winter chicken behavior. They are all eating normally and fussing, laying and playing. No one is exhibiting any visible signs of illness so we are not exactly sure what is causing these issues.
Yesterday morning found another of the BJGs missing a matching hunk of feathers in a similar location to her sister. And last night found me back outside playing the Pied Piper of chickendom a second time. Once again all four of the girls were huddled under the porch with only Mama and Stacy-chicken in the coop. For some reason they will not follow Fred back to the coop and instead run around the yard willy-nilly forcing him to chase them hither, tither and yon. It is easier if I go out and call to them. They will follow me back to the coop and go to bed just like that is the way we have always done it.
Fred and I joke that they are spoiled and need to be tucked in but we are both concerned about this sudden inability to get to the coop by themselves at night. Darkness leaves them open for predator attack and having them out of the coop and away from the safety and shelter it provides even for just a few minutes past dark can be dangerous. The things that “go bump in the night” are a real threat to a silly little biddy.
We are open for any suggestions or ideas from anyone out there raising chickens. Our big issue is the girls not wanting to roost at night. The other side issue is the missing feathers on our two BJGs. I really suspect that this is due to a pecking order dispute and not any type of disease. But as far as the roosting issue goes we are at a loss. If it is due to their routine upset from the snow you would think eventually they would get back into the flow. I considered that it might be the light from the heat lamp so I have unplugged it until after dark but this still did not seem to motivate them to the roost. I do not know what else it could be. Any help would be appreciated.
Thanks for reading & much love,