I make mistakes. A lot of them.
Sometimes I wear a brown belt with black shoes and don’t even notice.
Last week I went to a dentist appointment and didn’t notice I had duck poo smeared on my boots until I propped them up on the end of the long, vinyl dental chair. Truth.
Occasionally I stop at the grocery store for milk and drive home with 5 bags of groceries only to realize I forgot the milk. Since said store is 18 miles from our out-in-the-country homestead, everyone feels the brunt of that mistake for a few days. Scout, our holstein, is bred but not due to calf for many months, so no fresh milk on the farm yet…
My mistakes on the farm also turn out to be more costly than a fashion faux pas or a forgetful trip to the store. Egg, meat, and milk production can be affected dramatically. Plants can suffer beetle infestation and delicious vegetables or fruit never make it to the table. But last week, animals died. Because of my mistake. I’ve felt sick over it, and I wanted to write about it hoping I can help others avoid making the same mistake I did.
I thought we were doing everything right with our now 8-week-old chicks that we incubated this spring. This is our second year of incubating and assimilating chicks into our flock. (Read this post to find out 10 Foul Facts I learned from my chicken the first week we were brand-new chicken owners.) We kept them under a brooding light until they were old enough to venture outside for brief intervals, always keeping them corralled under our watchful eyes. Then we’d gather them back in their box and situate them once again under their warm light.
We introduced them safely to the other adult chickens, placing them in a large pen in the midst of where the chicken were free ranging. After days of doing that, we carried their pen into the coop and let them sleep there for many nights, behind the safe wire cage.
Then we set them free around the coop for just a brief time for many evenings in a row, knowing all the chickens would soon be coming in to roost for the night. They would file right by and around the new chicks and right up to their roosting spots. This allowed the older hens to get “acquainted” with the young ones at a time that they had no interest in harming them.
I knew drakes sometimes try to mate with hens, so I kept a close eye on how the male duck interacted with the chicks. He kept to himself, with his 3 ducks, and showed no interest in the chicks at all.
But I had no idea that my rooster could be a threat to the well-being of my sweet new chickens.
So I was clueless when I stepped in the coop one morning last week and saw my favorite young hen dead in the corner. My first thought was that a predator had entered in the night, but I realized that made no sense since all the others were fine, but then I noticed they weren’t fine at all. Six of my eight chicks were acting painfully lethargic, barely lifting their heads and not hoping outside when I shooed them to do so. They let me pick them up without any resistance and felt almost limp in my hands.
Before I even had time to run to the computer and research what causes such odd behavior I realized that Mr. Big Fat–my rooster who was named by my daughters, in honor of his inflated self-image, not his actual size–was the source of the problem.
Big Fat grabbed the neck of one of the two surviving young girls and jumped on her to mate before I could stop him.
If you haven’t seen a rooster doing his manly business, you may not know why this would be a problem. I’d seen it hundreds of times–truly walking around the homestead with free-ranging chicken and ducks can get kinda “R”-rated sometimes. So I was immediately mad when I saw the full-size male mount the little, fragile hen who was half his size. His beak sank into her little neck, holding her in place while he hopped on her back and dug his sharp spurs into her, holding on viciously while balancing his cloaca, trying to meet with hers. (“Cloaca” is the official name for both the roosters’ and the hens’ “vents.” Semen exits a rooster’s cloaca and enters a hen’s cloaca to fertilize the eggs.) The vicious balancing act was futile because she was way too small for his cloaca to ever be able to meet with hers.
If that was a little more than you cared to know, sorry, but it’s safe to keep reading. No more chicken anatomy will be mentioned in this post. Promise. If, on the other hand, you’d like to know more about the birds and the bees, chicken style, hop over to this post on the Frugal chicken. If you want to understand the fertilization process of an egg, I think this post from Natural Chicken Keeping is a great resource.
After I witnessed Big Fat carelessly, and pointlessly, hurting her, my pretty little hen seemed okay at first. But his savage act caused terminal internal damage. Within minutes, she looked lethargic like the others had that I had just left in the coop. She was spitting up; then she laid down, convulsed a little, and died by my side within 10 minutes of Big Fat’s pathetic, meaningless act.
The others all died as well, except for one that had eluded the rooster’s lousy attempt at charm. I scooped her up and quarantined her to safety. In a short while I noticed the Roo heading for one of the four youngest chicks on our farm, the babies who hatched by a broody hen a few weeks after our incubated chicks.
In the first 3 or 4 weeks of their life, the momma hen (“Missy”) kept her chicks right by her side, even clucking to them, directing each one to climb in close under her wings if she perceived possible danger nearby.
But the last few weeks, they’d grown (doubled in size since this picture) and she’d given them complete independence. So Missy wasn’t around when Mr. Big Fat started sauntering over to one of the little ones. Thankfully, I was. And they too are tucked away safely now.
I didn’t even consider locking up Big Fat instead, because he’s needed around the homestead. We always have a rooster for two reasons. The first is unnecessary now until next spring… fertilization of the eggs; we incubate new chicks every spring. The other reason though is a daily need that is also rather ironic, given the problem we’re having with Big Fat… protection of the hens. Even though he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about killing them himself with his irrational, insatiable sex drive, he’s crazy protective of them against natural predators. Since they free-range around our very rural property, his aggressive, protective nature has saved their lives many times. We’ve witnessed him puff up and make crazy angry calls to safeguard his women from chicken hawks that nest in our woods. I’m sure he’s also helped them avoid consumption by fox, raccoon, and maybe even coyote. He also does a great job of directing their activity and keeping them in generally “safe” areas, not letting them venture too far from the coop. In the two years we’ve owned free-ranging chicken, we’ve only lost one hen to a predator. And that was one day that the rooster was penned up and his ladies were roaming without him.
I’ve talked with many other homesteaders–locally and on-line– in the last week about my problem. (btw, if you have homesteading questions, in my experience the facebook group “HOMESTEADING”–all caps– is an invaluable resource of over 55,000 people who know a lot about the mistakes and joys of this way of life.) I’ve come to the conclusion that typically 8 weeks is a safe time to assimilate new chicks with older flocks and typically roosters are, well, wiser sexually than good ole Mr. Big Fat. So I’m not giving up on roosters, just maybe Big Fat.
In my numerous discussions I’ve held with other homesteaders this past week about rooster rituals, I’ve learned that the two roosters we’ve owned over the past two years were both atypical roosters. Our first was extremely aggressive toward people, including young children. He wasn’t around long. Our second rooster, Mr. Big Fat, while he is very friendly towards people, is not the suave Don Juan that most roosters are. You see, Big Fat runs right on up to his hens and attacks them from behind, having his pleasure whenever he wants. Most roosters are mush smoother, kinder “courters” of their hens. A rooster typically does a dance for his lady and then only has his way with her if she is in agreement and bows down for him, welcoming him to hop on her back. A hen who was too young would ignore his dance, if indeed he even attempted to woo her.
I’m thankful we do have one young rooster who we’re hoping will take on his responsibilities in a wiser, kinder way than Mr. Big Fat, and then we’ll decide what Big Fat’s fate is. For now, our young hens are safe, separated from the rooster, and I’ve learned that I need to understand each rooster’s temperament before introducing him to young hens.
But I’m certain I’ll still forget the milk and mismatch my belt and shoes every now and then.
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But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. II Corinthians 12:9