Our free range experiment is going well overall. Not a single chicken has been hawk-caught or otherwise injured during their daytime freedom romps, and Klaus is acclimating well to his newly crowded playground. In fact, he loves the two flocks being out, and when he isn’t protecting them he seems to be boasting his superior running and fetching skills.
We wondered whether any of the birds would know exactly how and when to retreat to the safety of the coop at bedtime, but our concerns were soon alleviated. Despite having only ever lived in either incubators or grow troughs or enclosed coops, every hen and every rooster (around thirty, total) has scooted peacefully to their correct shelters every evening, just before sunset. Knock on wood, we have done zero chicken chasing in the dark. Have you ever chased loose birds with flashlights, with your spouse, wearing pajamas, very tired, avoiding stickers, trying not to get in a fight and also getting sweaty before bed, but then definitely getting in a stupid fight but the chickens still don’t appreciate your efforts? Fun stuff. We are so thankful that has not been the case this year.
Our lone gander, Johnny Cash, is sometimes the wild card. He still rejects our offer of pond life, choosing instead to keep company with, and loosely referee, his adopted family. Occasionally at bedtime he is alone, still nested comfortably in the lawn. He honestly appears to be watching the sunset, though, and as we approach, he always waddles sweetly to bed. We say goodnight and latch the door behind him.
As I write this from the upper deck, the sun is basting me aggressively in my own sweat. Klaus is sitting on the top step of the pool ladder, cooling his hot feet and belly while Handsome sweeps the chlorinated water. To my left, some poultry chaos is brewing in the fire pit. One rooster and two hens have taken up residence in a small, empty cardboard box and are attempting a late afternoon ménage-a-trois. It is a novel setting, I will give them that. But they are making too much noise now, and BW has left the pool and walked over to evict them.
Now someone else is laying an egg in the shade garden, a particularly vocal event, and all the disruption is bouncing from one small group to another, layer upon layer of growing excitement. Exult! Celebration! Announcement! This lasts for several minutes and is so loud we cannot have a conversation. But we love it.
Now the south yard is mostly quiet. We gradually hear a few long, exaggerated moans plus a few stray, one-syllable clucks in the distance. Just here and there. Someone is hot and sleepy, and someone else has found a wealth of insects or worms and is calling everyone to the feast.
Free range ducks means that I can move their little plastic wading pool around the various gardens as often as I want, emptying it easily at the base of any thirsty shrub or in any flower bed as needed. I am not pouring the duck water on food, just to make sure I use compost that is as well rotted as possible; but this little nutrient-rich deep watering feels like a good choice for ornamentals. And the ducks love having fresh, shaded water every single day. It is so fun to watch them discover it anew every day. Splish-splash. Klaus stands and watches them too, smiling. Salivating?
Half an hour later, the same feathered trio attempted another cardboard box rendezvous, and this time Klaus took charge. He marched up to the edge of the fire pit and used his considerable snoot to tip over the box, emptying the lovers onto the smooth rock surround. More chaos. Many loud objections. A satisfied Shepp.
A few people have asked me recently whether the chickens do much damage to my gardens. The answer is yes, they certainly do some leaf shredding and crater digging for dust baths, but not enough to bother me. I harvest way more food than they ever eat. And they provide far more help to the gardens than harm. So the balance is in check for now. They eat grasshoppers and who knows what else. They uproot crabgrass for me and scratch the earth where it is impacted, leaving scant amounts of diggable fertilizer as they go. Symbiosis.
And gosh dang they are so fun and beautiful! I might think long and hard about exposing my more delicate early spring gardens to their treachery, but that decision is for next March. For now, this well established Eden in late summer can comfortably host these happy flocks.
The only new problem worth solving seems to be the sudden and conspicuous absence of fresh eggs. We get only three or four per day lately, compared to twenty or twenty-five normally, and most of the ones we do bring to the house have been found in random, temporary nests around the farm. Handsome tends to find a clutch near the base of the pool pump, which is enclosed by wooden walls. Today I found eggs inside a potted plant.
Two roosters are that empty box now. They are obsessed!