coop building : part 1: foundation

My Dad has returned from a successful harvest season, so our coop building has begun in earnest!

I started the process by moving that shrub (my Mom thinks it’s a Euonymus Fortunei)... with help from the kids. It took a good part of last Saturday, but I think it worked.

bush-moving

I had my doubts the whole time (soaking the dry earth, then digging, soaking more, digging more) about our ability to move it… so it was a great relief when I finally felt the roots pull away from the earth. So much so that the kids and I had a big water fight to clean off afterwards… and then the lure of the muddy hole we created to dig out the bush was too much for the kids to resist, so they had a mud fight too.

kids-in-mud

Alberta & Frances actually like the bush much better in it’s new location. They have been hanging out underneath it quite a bit.

With the space finally cleared, we staked out the measurements for the coop, 126″ x 64″ (just over 5’x10′).

staking-coop

We’re going to follow this well-loved coop design:  http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/wichita-cabin-coop (and Willow Creek Farm’s version: http://willowcreekfarm.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/finished-chicken-coop/ but we’re using concrete blocks instead of paving stones for the foundation (22 16″x8″x8″ blocks) and we plan to lay down hardware cloth to deter digging bandits (rats? weasels?).

digging-foundation1

You can’t really tell from these pics, but the ground slopes quite a bit toward the fence and the back of the yard, so we had to dig down much farther in the front to make the foundation level, and the back will be raised up a bit, which should help it stay drier in the rainy season. The girls are already quite impressed with our progress. Especially with the number of worms that have been turned over in the process. They are most definitely enamored with my Dad for tossing them over whenever he spotted one. Here they are surveying their new domain and playing queen of the mountain:

digging-foundation2

The next day we (and whenever I say we from now on, you can assume I mean mostly my Dad) made incredible progress on the foundation… not to mention replacing those old fence boards that were rotting behind that bush. (better to do it now before the coop covers them up again!) Here are all of the blocks in, and the fence boards replaced:

foundation-blocks-in

 

And our supervisors making their rounds to check our progress, and play more “queen of the mountain”:

queen-of-mountain

And then they had to make way for the real queen of the mountain:

real-queen-of-mountain

We decided to use cedar base boards, instead of the recommended pressure-treated boards to combat rot. Just the idea of my girls pecking at the chemicals they use in those boards turned my stomach a bit. My Dad had some 8″ cedar planks on hand, and we were just going to use those on end, as the plans suggest, but in trying to wrap our heads around how to lay the hardware cloth, fill or cover the concrete block holes, and provide additional stability, we decided to spring for another round of 6″ cedar boards screwed flat on the inside of these to meet all of these needs. (This modified base idea was inspired by this similar coop design, which is also very cool: http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/taj-mahal-wichata-knockoff) This will also have the added benefit of prolonging the life of the 2×4 framing lumber we plan to use, since it will be resting on the cedar, instead of on the ground.

Here is the outer frame in place and the dirt leveled out (still an attractive playground!):

gloria-watching-girls

More playing:

girls-in-coop-2

Gloria’s turn:

gloria-coop-foundation

And now the hardware cloth goes down:

hardware-cloth-laying

And now the foundation is finished! (or close enough to call it a day). Not nearly as much fun to play on right now, though. The girls have to find other items of interest close at hand:

finished-foundation1

What an incredible day’s work from my sweet Papa! (OK, not to pat myself on the back, but maybe I held a few things and stained a few boards ;-))

We kept telling each other what an awful shame it is that all this beautiful cedar is going to be shortly covered in dirt and chicken poop… but what can I say? Nothing but the best for my spoiled girls. I mean, hey, they already wear dresses and listen to Mozart!

foundation-done

I just had time to relax on the hammock a bit with the girls before it got dark:

frances-hammock

Alberta wanted to be the fashion star tonight:

alberta-hammock

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flourishing feathers

Look how much can happen in a week!

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Frances’s back feathers are looking great! Unfortunately, she is getting so big that her dress is shorter now, thus Alberta has been able to get to her tail feathers again. She had 7 long ones left yesterday:

frances-14wks

Now she is down to 4, with 3 bloody ends. :-( I was hoping to let her be rid of the dress soon! Now it looks like I may need to make a new, longer one until she grows her tail feathers in again too.

Things seem to be getting calmer and calmer with Gloria, but they are still not kindred spirits. And I can’t let the girls out alone at all yet anyway, as we keep getting neighborhood cats coming around to stalk them, even with me in the yard! I just chased one away not 2 seconds ago. I wonder if it’s because they still chirp like baby birds… and still look like a catchable dinner… way too tempting!

fragile feathers

It’s working! Frances’s dress is doing it’s job to protect her back and her feathers are growing back in!

feathers-growing1

I did my homework, and learned that young chickens are in a constant state of molt until they reach adulthood, so their feathers will start growing back immediately when they get pulled out, and should be fully grown in a few weeks (if they don’t keep getting pulled!) Adult chickens whose feathers are completely pulled out will also start growing in immediately, but if they are merely broken off, they won’t grow back until their next molt.

frances-feathers-growing

But I’ve learned that I can’t leave the chicks together unattended and confined when Frances’s dress is off (even for a few minutes!), or Alberta will start pulling at them again. Here she is enjoying a bit of freedom from it… during our daily free-ranging time:

frances-alberta-13wks

I’ve also found some tricks to keep them occupied during the day they have to spend in their cage in the laundry room. I pick fresh grass and put it in clumps on the top of their cage, as well as scattering it in the straw, and I also throw in some meal worms for them to find. But the very best trick is a hanging bird feeder with a bell on it. I put in 1/4 fresh corn on the cob, and they go nuts pecking at it. With the swinging challenge, it can take them a couple of hours to peck it clean. And… I’ve been playing music for them. I noticed that they love it when we sing or hum to them, and they are very interested in all the sounds outside, so I thought I would try music during the day in the laundry room. I know, I know… I am such a softy. But they love it! I can tell which they prefer, because they calm down and start purring. I started with Mozart, and they like the serenades, but the more active movements make them a little crazy. They also like instrumental piano music, boys choirs, and mellow female vocals like the Wailing Jennies. So crazy that I’m talking about this! But my son reminded me that chickens are very smart, even smarter than dogs, so it’s no wonder they get bored so easily. I can especially tell they are smart because Frances now knows her blue-kote medicine bottle by sight. She is not a fan of it, I imagine it stings since it is an antiseptic. As soon as I dip a Q-tip in it to apply some, she grabs the Q-tip out of my hand and tosses it across the room. So naughty! And messy! But very clever.

Gloria seems to be liking Frances and Alberta more and more, and they are getting braver running around the yard with her, but they are definitely not peers yet, and Gloria chases them quite a bit still (no pecking, she just scatters them or herds them).

gloria-chasing-chicks

They don’t like this game, and will quickly seek shelter behind me, or jump in my lap if I’m sitting down… help us Mama!

frances-looking-at-me

And we’ve started clearing an area for our new coop. The kids had a great time digging up an old brick border, and then creating a sort of ruins out of it.

building-brick-ruins

They also found some old chalk and drew a made up language on the fence, so our yard now looks like an an alternate civilization.

future-coop-site

We still need to figure out what to do with that bush. It’s kind of pretty, actually, but I don’t know what kind it is, or if it can be transplanted. Anyone know? Here’s a close up of the leaves:

shrub-leaves

I started digging around it to see how deep the roots were, and I found all of these little bulbs. (At least I think they are bulbs) The chicks really wanted to eat them, but I don’t know if they are poisonous. (see what a terrible gardener I am!)

bulbs-in-shrub-roots

I think they may actually be from these little white flowers that come up in the spring and smell like onions. If so, I want to keep them, so I’ll need to move these somewhere else as well. Next up… staking out and starting a foundation for the coop! These girls can’t wait!

dress-back-on

Chicken Fashion Show

Despite our efforts with the Blu-Kote, Frances still was losing feathers (whether by her own beak, Alberta’s, or both remains unknown). So I decided to fashion her a chicken apron of sorts (thanks for the idea, Laura!). I’ve gone through 4 design revisions, starting with one I modeled after hen saddles I’ve seen on the internet, a simple cape with elastic to go around the wings like a backpack. I used a light soft cotton flannel for comfort and breathability (and in lavender since it would be soaking up the purple stain from the Blue-Kote), and I took my time measuring it and seaming it. It turned out pretty cute:

chicken-dress1

But it seemed very awkward for her to walk around in. She couldn’t quite get her balance right, and I figured it was the elastic straps. They were just too big and bulky for her little developing wings.

So then I made a vest out of a simple rectangle, cut with my zig-zag scissors so I didn’t have to bother seaming this time, and I measured and fitted it with her sitting on my lap, cutting slits to fit her wings as closely as possible. It also looked pretty cute and she acted much more comfortable in it. And it looked more light and airy over her back, which would probably feel nicer as she’s trying to heal up and grow in her itchy new feathers:

chicken-dress2

But it didn’t take long for her to figure out how to get it off. So I tried sewing on bits of ribbon in the front and knotting them together under her breast. A single knot was quickly pulled apart, but a double knot tucked under seemed to do the trick. This held together all night, although it had come over one wing in the morning, but once adjusted, it stayed on all day today:

chicken-dress3

However, it still seemed a bit short, and as you can see, it got very dirty from being pulled off and trampled on before the ribbon addition. They had also managed to still pull out some tail feathers and some blood got onto the skirt. Also, I wondered how comfortable she slept with a knot under her stomach, even from a small satin ribbon. So I made a new version of this using a bit of elastic with a snap enclosure at the front. I also made it longer and cut curved edges at the back to follow her bottom feathers and perhaps keep it cleaner. This is definitely my favorite look so far… and hopefully it will keep her sweet back protected so she can grow her feathers back in soon!

chicken-dress4

chicken-dress5

We also have great news about our integration efforts. Gloria seems to have accepted the new girls now! Last night I was able to stop using the rake as a mama hen to protect the chicks, we even were all up on the hammock together at one point, and tonight everyone was free-ranging together with no issues. Gloria even started acting like she wanted to hang out with Frances and Alberta, but whenever she would get close, they would scream and run away. I guess the couple of pecks she got in early on got her message across. But I’m fine with this dynamic for now. No blood, no foul. Gloria also is acting protective of them, I think. Whenever I need to go inside, I put them under their cage top, and she gets really worried when I leave them and starts squawking and pacing around the cage. And of course they are protesting being cooped up in there and freaked out about Gloria’s circling, so there is much squawking all around. Also, when I was rounding up Alberta and Frances to take them into bed, Alberta (per usual) tried to get away from me, but Gloria helped (gently… no pecking) herd her into the carrier. I think she’s going to make a very good Auntie after all!

 

Violet Frances

Alberta’s nit-picky neat-freakiness + Frances’s submissive desire to relax and let it all hang out + boredom from having to spend most of their time in a guinea pig cage waiting for their new big sister to accept their presence = a back plucked raw of feathers. :-(

Can’t a girl get a break? Why are chickens so mean to each other? Do I now have 3 chickens that supposedly want to be together, but would possibly be better off living separately?

I’ve coated Frances with Blu-Kot to heal her wounds, hopefully prevent more injury, and give her a stylish new punk-rock look, and I plan to try to give them more entertainment (things to peck at) during their many hours they have to spend in their cage, and I spent several hours today playing mother hen, so the little ones could free range in the backyard and get some much needed exercise and entertainment, managing to keep Gloria away with a rake… despite her seeming desire to occasionally charge at them. They are just too vulnerable right now, especially poor Frances. But I’m exhausted and discouraged. This little integration experiment is turning out just as stressful as I feared. I’m not sure how any of us can keep this up for another 3-4 weeks.

violet-frances

violet-frances2

violet-frances3

peace negotiations

Well, it’s been 4 days, and we remain at a stand still with our peaceful flock integration. Gloria is still acting pretty freaked out / curious / territorial / excited whenever we bring the new girls out (a few hours each day). I tried once to open their door, and poor Alberta got a couple of hard pecks from Gloria for her audacity in leaving her cage, and Frances was extremely worried about her the whole time (well founded, I guess). Alberta seemed unphased and unharmed, but I freaked out and screamed at Gloria… even though I know that she is a sweet hen, and this is part of what they need to do. I couldn’t help it… they are just so little and I feel so protective! So I’m going to give it a few more days before attempting any real contact again. And in the meantime, here’s how I’ve set up our peace talk conference room:

peace-talks

Quite intentional side-by-side feeding and watering, and even a shared “dirt bath” patch. Frances and Alberta both seemed to relish their first real dirt baths:

dirt-bath-frances

dirt-bath-alberta

alberta-dirt-bath2

I don’t know why, but I love how this pic turned out. Happy Feathers!

alberta-feathers

 

dream house

Now that we seem to be expanding our chicken family, I’m thinking it’s probably time to invest in a bigger, better coop. In about 10 weeks, we’ll have 3 laying hens, and I think expecting them to share one nest box is a bit much to ask. Even our two hens had some dramatic moments with this arrangement. Also, I’m sure they would appreciate a roomier, dryer pad in the winter. This local builder (Animal Houses) that I’m thinking of hiring makes these walk-in coops especially designed for Portland weather, and they look really sturdy and cute to boot… complete with 3 nesting boxes. Pretty sweet, right? Now… is the paint job worth it? It’s crazy cute. But will it protect the wood and make it last longer?

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