Cackleberries and Coops

A chicken walks into a bar and sees a man wearing sunglasses.

“What’s your name?” The chicken asks.

“Bond. James Bond,” The man answers.

“And yours?”

“Ken. Chick Ken.”

The hot wind tugged my hair as I pulled weeds by the chicken fence in our South Texas backyard. I heard a commotion behind me so I turned to see our chickens looking at me as if to say, “What!? They resumed their scratching and I my weeding. I heard it again.

This time I saw their backsides bouncing toward the other end of the fence, where they stopped and pecked the dry ground. I laughed when this happened a third time. Stampeding chickens are hilarious. As they scrambled toward me, I saw what the race was all about. A single mulberry had dropped out of the tree and was prize for the fastest beak. The marathon lasted the rest of the day as the chickens never tired of competing for the delectable berries.

Starting Over

We had to sell the chickens before moving to Aiken. After I sadly said goodbye to Shoestring (she untied my laces), Oprah (the serene leader) Pearl and the others I knew I wanted to raise chickens again at our new home. We picked a spot in the shade and got ready for the chicks we mail ordered. Chicken coops can be a fixed up old shed, made from scrap lumber, or kits with everything you need to build shelter. There should be two to four square feet of space per bird, and adequate ventilation to keep them healthy. Someone gave us three exotic bird cages which my husband, Alan, connected.

To keep the chickens dry, we put plywood on the top. Next was the roost poles, where chickens sit to sleep. They come “home to roost” every night, and it should be a place where their droppings won’t fall on the nest boxes. Alan used PVC pipe and bamboo poles. Chickens need to snooze protected from strong winds and wet weather. You can use lumber or tarp as walls, but we had heavy burlap bags that I hung on the sides. We added another shelter made from recycled glass panels with more roosting poles for protection during harsh weather.

Nesting

The nesting box where the hen lays eggs should be big enough for her to stand and sit in comfortably. One nest box can accommodate two to four hens. Chickens aren’t fussy creatures and don’t care if it’s recycled objects or brand new. At first we used old dresser drawers, then switched to plastic milk carriers. Get creative and use safe, recycled objects or build your own. The nest boxes should be placed lower than the perch or chickens will use it to roost which results in messy bedding. The boxes should be away from the roosting area for the same reason. Fill the nest boxes with straw or wood shavings. Hens constantly rearrange their nest bedding, so check it often and refill when they get carried away with their house cleaning, and replace when soiled. No matter how nice you make it, you may get a hen that insists on laying eggs on the ground. So watch your step.


Chicken Lingo

  • Brood – Desire of hens to sit on her eggs or chicks. Or a group of chicks.
  • Comb – Red, rubbery flesh on top of a chicken’s head
  • Crop – Part of the esophagus where food is digested and softened before entering the stomach
  • Hackles – Feathers on a chicken’s neck
  • Pullet – A juvenile hen
  • Scratch – A treat of various grains or the digging of the ground with their claws as chickens hunt for goodies in the soil
  • Shank – The bottom of a chicken’s leg
  • Wattle – Two red, rubbery flaps of esh on a chicken’s neck

Special Delivery!

We get the call from the Aiken post office at 7 a.m. to come get the chicks. I’m excited as I drive home with the box of peeping, scratching babies. We put them in the brooder Alan has ready, which looks like a rectangular box with a light inside to keep them warm until they’re big enough to put out in the coop. For the next few weeks they eat starter crumbles and drink water mixed with electrolytes. After they are a little bigger, we make frequent visits to hold and pet the chicks, watching them lose their soft down and turn into pullets. But as I monitor them, I have a feeling the “free” chick that came with our order will not be laying any eggs. Time will tell.

True Grit

We put a feeder and waterer in each section of the coop. You can buy them but again we like to recycle or use what we have so Alan makes feeders from plastic ower pots and hangs them from the roof at beak level. Having so many birds, he hooks up a watering system so I won’t have to constantly fill up waterers. Chickens need grit (not to be confused with grits) for digestion so we keep a supply of crushed oyster shells beside their feed.

Stranger danger

Alan erects a fence around the coop and the area where they will be hanging out for protection from predators. Chickens like to hunt and peck, so I wanted to give them plenty of room to roam. The fencing must be predator-proof, for dogs, raccoons, and hawks all like chicken dinners.

Alan later adds electric fencing to keep determined critters out and adventurous chickens in. Every so often there’s a jail break when a chicken discovers an opening underneath the fence or gets wickedly daring and flies over. Getting them back inside without letting more out is a real chicken challenge. Repeat offenders need their wings clipped for their own safety, and it doesn’t hurt the chicken.

At last we bring the pullets to their new home and wait for them to start laying (at approximately four to five months old). We have a mix of Ameraucana and Araucana that lay the blue/green “Easter egg;” Black Stars and Rhode Island Reds for brown eggs; and White Pearl and Polish hens (with the fluffy heads) for some white. Happy hens. Then I hear it, a screeching warbled attempt at crowing. Ah, the freebie.

I chose the name “Henry” for the growing black and white rooster, since, like the king, he has many females to attend. He’s ferociously protective of his harem, which I found out the hard way. I was filling a feeder and disturbed a chicken. When she squawked, Henry swooped at me, claws first, digging them into the back of my calf, knocking me down. I was the one squawking as I grabbed a stick to swat at him while running to the gate. Still have three little circular scars as a reminder of who rules that roost.

There’s a certain shade of blue chickens do not like, and I discovered a dollar-store broom that fit the bill. For a long time I carried that broom with me when entering the coop, but the broom broke and fortunately Henry has mellowed a bit over the years. I’m still really careful about upsetting his hens.

Henry is quite the gentleman. When he discovers a grub or beetle, he makes a funny sound and steps back to allow the fastest hen to snatch it. He calls to them when finding a new patch of grass to consume (salad!) or a wriggling worm. Strutting around, he’s the sentry while the hens take dust baths (as a defense against lice and mites), crowing if he spots a hawk studying them from a fence post or soaring overhead.

One day all the chickens, even Henry, were inside the coop. When I walked around back to investigate, a hawk swooped past me. That evening Alan built a few shelters made out of old pallets and we set them inside the fence. We also hung up old CDs (they flash in the sunlight and discourage hawks) and streamers. The chickens’ digs looked like a used car lot, but so far, it’s been keeping the hawks at bay.


I took five of the chicks to church as an object lesson for the kid’s message about looking different on the outside but being the same on the inside. As the children peered into the big plastic pot, I asked them what their favorite color chick was. They called out, “the brown and white” and “black” one when one boy pointed to a yellow chick and announced, “I like the blond.”


Egg Thief

Because I keep my eye on Henry or am checking food and water when I go inside the fence, I don’t always pay attention as I step into the coop. So it came as a surprise when I reached for eggs and saw a fat snake stretching up trying to get out of the nest box. It was my husband’s day off, so I yelled for him knowing the snake couldn’t hear me. But I stood frozen.

Alan hurried over as I hollered there was a snake and he asked me what kind. I was pretty sure it was nonpoisonous, but I backed away as it struggled to crawl between the wire of the coop. My husband told me he’d be right back, he was going to get the snake ID book to be sure, and get gloves. I got over my fear of snakes living in South Texas for nine years but I was a bit nervous about this guy. He was big, about four feet long. I knew because he stretched up after discovering an opening that almost let him go through. I could count how many eggs he had eaten by the lumps in his otherwise sleek body – he had gorged a half dozen.

Where was Alan?

He finally returned with gloves on. I asked him what in the world took so long and my husband replied he couldn’t find the book so he looked it up online. That was back when we had dial-up.

Alan agreed it was nonpoisonous so he grasped the head, I got the other end and we pulled and pulled. You’d swear the snake had hands we couldn’t see and was holding on. We got him loose, carried him to the far side of our pond. The snake was so stuffed he just lay in our hands until we placed him on the ground – didn’t even slither away when we let go. By now he just looked fat all over since the eggs must have broken inside him. It looked to me as we walked away that he was smiling.

Cackleberries (aka eggs) At Last

With or without a rooster, hens will lay eggs almost daily, although extreme weather changes that. If the eggs are clean there’s absolutely no need to wash them. In fact, eggs have a protective covering called bloom that keeps bacteria from entering. Since store bought eggs can be weeks, even months old, when you crack open fresh eggs, the dazzling yellow yolk is a harbinger of good eating.

I often take the time to watch Henry and the Hens (sounds like a 60s rock and roll group) milling around the chicken yard. They have their own funny personalities and quirks, kind of like some people I know. And like people, they make life interesting, from cackleberry pirating to the freebie chicken. Now that’s something to crow about.

Chicken Talk — How they influence our language
  • Flew the coop
  • Walking on eggshells
  • Quit squawking
  • Hen pecked
  • That’ll raise your hackles
  • Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched
  • Chicken feed
  • Madder than a wet hen
  • Something to crow about
  • Scratching out a living
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket Scarce as hen’s teeth
  • That just flaps my wattles
  • Egg on your face
  • You have to break eggs to make an omelet Up with the chickens
  • Like a chicken with its head cut off Strutting around like a banty rooster
  • Hen party
  • Spring chicken

By Phyllis Maclay