I wanted to title this post “Seven Highly Unsuccessful Habits of Chicken Herders.” But, however accurate, that was just too long. You see, I’ve done it again to those poor birds. I’ve messed with their routine.
There is no creature on earth more married to routine than a chicken. Chicken memories are written in stone, or maybe grit, since they’ve got pea brains. Move their coop five feet during the day is a guarantee that the hens can’t find the doorway come nightfall.
“We’re doomed, Henrietta! What happened to our home? I swear it was right there this morning,” one hen will cry to another, pointing to where the coop had been as she stands next to the door ramp. (By the way, in my world all hens have names that begin with “H,” because they’re hens.)
It requires three full days, or at least three nights going into the coop and three dawns coming out, before chickens again know where they are. That’s my way of saying I knew what I was in for when I decided to change things up on them.
For the first time since I moved onto the farm I have my fencing the way I want it. That means the farthest pasture, the area where the massive cottonwood stands, is finally enclosed for my hogs. There are a dozen huge trees, sycamore, cottonwood, mulberry, walnut, alder, and ash. It’s always shady and at least ten degrees cooler than anywhere else on the property. The ground is alluvial clay, laid down by Oak Creek, and is badly in need of turning, something the piggies are happy to do for me. And there’s lots water for wallowing and drinking.
Last week the final line of fence went up (thanks to all my friends for their help). After that, I spent five days letting the piglets exploit every possible weakness, following after them, closing up the holes. I used all my favorite building materials: baling twine, handy panels, an extra gate or two, and, of course, U-bolts. Not only are the piggies now trapped where I want them, but last night I put Bear to work, guarding the little guys. Moosie joined him for a while, but sometime during the night he chose to come back to his couch on the porch. There is no keeping that dog where he doesn’t want to be.
As happy as I was to have completed this task, I knew I was in for it with the birds. To keep the pigs in place, the chickens had to move in with them. Unlike chickens, pigs are very smart. If they saw the chickens using the front barn door, they’d find some way to use it, too. So, until the pigs are bigger, the barn door must stay closed.
The retraining began three days ago when I closed the door to their coop during the day, only opening it at dusk and dawn. That meant me coming down every few hours to rescue the group of girls pacing helplessly in front of the closed door. I’d chase them to the new gate and into the pig pasture. By day two, half of the flock was in the right place while the other half spent much of the day staring at the new gate, wondering how to make it open. By day three, most of them were not only where I wanted them, but stayed there. Those few who insisted on escaping did so through the one place where only they, and not the pigs, can get in and out. I’m good with that.
Since one change at a time is as much as a chicken can tolerate, I didn’t mess with their morning or evening routine until last night. I showed up at the barn around 6 PM with their food. Most of the girls were gathered before that magic gate, waiting for me to let them out so they could go around the corner and into the barn through their usual front door. Instead, I opened the back door to the coop and put their food bowls in their usual places. Not a bird moved toward the new opening. Instead, they all crowded closer to the gate, ready to race for the front door so they could battle each other for food.
If you’ve never herded chickens, let me say it’s much worse than herding cats. Drive a chicken to the left and she’ll go that direction for about ten steps, then do a 180 and race past you at top speed. Drive two chickens in one direction, and they’ll watch you over their shoulders for a moment, then split, each of them going a different direction. I like to think of it as a specialized Crossfit exercise. Dash right at top speed, spin left, slow down to a tiptoe, jerk forward a few steps and lunge right, then race flat out as fast as you can for a hundred feet or more. Repeat.
After making myself crazy for about fifteen minutes, I settled for moving them one by one. By 7 PM I had half of my sixteen birds in the coop. These were the calmest of the birds, or the ones who noticed how close the food bowls were once they were near the new door. They’ll be the ones to find their way home without much help from me tonight. The other eight kept me running until almost dark. Just two more days of this, just two short days.
When I finally returned to the house to gnaw on cold chicken because I was too tired to cook, I thought I smelled burning rubber. Worried that something was smoldering in my house, I checked everything mechanical and electrical. There was no trace of smoke or even heat, which was amazing considering how hot yesterday was. At that point I was too tired to worry any more and went to bed.
It wasn’t until I went to down to free Bear this morning that I realized what I’d smelled the previous night. He reeked of skunk. No wonder Moosie left him.