Chickens in winter

The dogs, Cherisse and I reveled in the big snowstorm on December 29 which dumped about a foot of snow. The dogs raced through the drifts, and Cherisse and I made looping paths with our snowshoes so we could cross-country ski around the yard and through the woods.

Not all of us were thrilled. Rebecca looked out the kitchen door repeatedly to see if conditions had changed, then returned to her chair by the woodstove where it was warm and dry. The chickens were outraged.

Last year the chickens were outside when the first snow of their lives began to fall. They seemed unconcerned as it piled on their backs. As it turns out, they don’t like to walk in snow, so by the next day they wouldn’t leave their coop. Luckily for them it was a mild winter.

This year, we wondered how the three new chicks would react. After the December storm we opened their door and they all peered out…and then retreated, complaining loudly. For several days the snow remained deep, and the chickens stayed in their coop. Finally, Cherisse tramped down a path in their wire enclosure and they ventured out to get some corn—any corn that fell in the deeper snow was ignored.

Days later they had grown deafening in their complaint, and finally the mama chicken made a dash out the door we use. The others followed, but they only went under their house for a dust bath; they would go no further. Each day, as the snow melted, their territory expanded.

During this time, egg production also expanded. The three pullets have consistently laid small eggs with incredibly hard shells. The older hens had fallen off. Some molted and others we thought still might be recovering from their terrorizing experience with Junior. Then suddenly rhythm was magically restored. Saturday we got seven eggs—one from each hen—and Sunday, six.

People have asked what we will do when the chickens stop laying. Do they become stewing hens, or live on for years in comfort? We avoid this question. Our choice in letting the chickens roam free might just be our answer. We started with ten chickens, hatched four more, and yet our total count is now eight. So attrition is keeping our numbers manageable. We are sad with every loss, but the risk of predators (so long as the risk remains low) seems worth their freedom—they are so clearly in their element roaming free, and so outraged when they are locked up. And this younger generation seems even more cautious then their kin…and bigger, so perhaps we are breeding hardier birds. Except when it comes to snow.

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