This time, the chickens are smart enough to not even try to leave the coop. They mostly stay huddled at the far end, in the nesting boxes and on their roosts. Some are on the floor, Captain Safety, the big rooster, protectively in front. A few brave hens come forward and risk a cold wind and a dusting of snow when I put their water and feed dishes right inside the door. Unfortunately, I’m far from a master carpenter, so their coop is a bit better ventilated than I’d like.
The chickens and I have learned a lot of lessons this past year. Most recently: Don’t get caught outside in a blizzard if you’re a chicken. They hatched last May, so last month’s big storm was their first. That morning, I opened the door of their coop at dawn as usual. The very first flakes were falling and I decided I’d rather not keep them cooped up. I figured if it got bad they’d take shelter. I forgot how windy it is on the big open field where I pasture them. When I returned that afternoon, there were a few that hadn’t managed to fight the wind and navigate the ramp back into the coop. Luckily, they were happy to be picked up, brought to shelter and cooped up for the rest of the day.
There were a few lost feathers and frost bitten combs, but otherwise the flock weathered the storm well. They even laid eggs that day! They’ve been good sports with my bumbling. One of the reasons for this is that the flock is a mix of heritage breed birds that are naturally more cold hardy and better foragers than the hybrid birds that are more common. They also don’t have their beaks trimmed, another common industry practice that helps prevent chickens from doing too much damage to each other by pecking, which they’re more likely to do when confined to small spaces. Trimmed beaks also hinder their ability to effectively dig for the worms, grubs and insects that are a natural part of their diet.
When the snow melts and the ground thaws, I’ll be moving their coop and fencing onto fresh ground so they can go to town on the rye grass, weeds and assorted bugs. I’m sure the chickens are looking forward to it even more than I am. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this first year of farming on my own, it’s that change comes, whether you’re ready for it or not.