Chicken Keeper

Chicken Keeper

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 10 January 2008
Temperature: 39 F
Ceiling: gloomy overcast
Ground: post-snow melt damp
Wind: E at 10 mph

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TT with HD: Chicken Keeper

chicken coop inside
Former accommodations for three
hens in the corner of the garage.
Note the hockey-stick perch and
the cord for the guillotine-style door.
chicken coop outside
View of the guillotine-style
door leading to the outside pen.
Yeah, that's why they call
it chicken wire, huh?

[Ed. note: CK does not currently keep chickens. But until a couple of months ago, CK kept three hens, Speedy (Bartholomewla), Comet, and Daffodil). Details of what happened to these three birds are discussed below. Even in the event that the Ann Arbor City Council does not revise Ann Arbor's ordinances to allow the keeping of a limited number of hens, CK's family would like to keep their options open. So out of consideration of their privacy, Teeter Talk has implemented measures to protect CK's anonymity. In the event that City Council eventually approves an ordinance allowing the keeping of backyard chickens, an alternate, forward-facing portrait was taken of CK for possible later publication.]

HD: Okay here we go. And I hope it's not going to decide that we need a flash. Oh, you've got to be kidding me. [The camera] says my mode dial is not in the right position. Alright, here we go, one, two, three. And one, two, three. And one, two, three. And if you want to reverse positions so that we can ...

CK: Oh, yeah.

HD: I think this will be an interesting visual. I guess I don't really need to say, One, two, three for this one. [laugh] But I want to know that you're smiling. You are smiling, right?

CK: I am smiling, yes.

HD: That part's done.

CK: Are you warm enough?

HD: Oh, I'm plenty warm. Thanks for asking, though. Alright, let's get some actual teeter tottering motion going. This going to be okay for you?

CK: Yeah, I hope I don't get dizzy. I don't know, does anyone ever get dizzy?

HD: You know, the people who have a tendency to get dizzy have just said flat out at the beginning that we are not going to really teeter totter vigorously up and down. Like Ed Shaffran, for example. He just said, Okay, we're just going to balance here on the totter, because he has issues with dizziness, or.

CK: Yeah, I don't know, because recently I have had--like I can't go on a merry-go-round and stuff anymore.

HD: Oh, really?

CK: Yeah, or those kind of rides. But I think I'll be all right.

HD: Well, let me know. Because, you know, this new teeter totter has had no finish applied to to it ...

CK: ... and you don't want me throwing up on it? [laugh]

HD: I don't want you throwing up on it, yes, I'll just be that direct. No pukin on the teeter totter! Yet. Once I get some varnish on it, then I won't care.

CK: Okay!

HD: So, you know, as I was cycling over here, as I parked the teeter totter half on your neighbor's side and half on your side of the sidewalk--they've got dogs over there that bark quite a lot. And I was just thinking, compared to the sound of chickens ... ?

CK: ... you should hear the dogs across the street!

HD: Oh yeah?

CK: They're worse.

HD: Yeah, so, obviously you're a little bit biased, having had chickens here in the very recent past, but how much noise do they really make?

CK: Well, some people will say they make a lot of noise. Some people will say they don't. I think it depends on what's happening. One time a neighbor's cat came in, a tomcat, and they made a lot of noise. They make different kinds of noise. So their sound of 'danger' or 'I'm scared!', it's a different kind of cluck. And I usually will come as soon as I hear it, and see what's going on. So we had that cat that we had to shoo away, and then they were okay. And another time a friend came over with her dog who wasn't used to our chickens and tried to go in, and that freaked them out. Yeah, and they will cluck. This fence came down in that big wind and ice storm that we have last year. And this guy has got a big huge, Husky-Shepherd kind of dog ...

HD: ... oh, and that's what the fence keeps back!

CK: And he had had experience of eating chickens before, too.

HD: Oh, I see! [laugh]

CK: So I just happened to be looking out the back window and I saw that dog come lumbering over the fence towards the chickens, and I just--fortunately, the dog's owner saw what was happening at the same time, and everybody was on it. But the chickens freaked out. One of them literally flew the coop.

HD: [laugh]

CK: And I had to go around to the other side of the street and get her before she went in the road. I was lucky I got her. She was trying to get back in, she didn't go real far.

HD: So, the chicken wire is not really necessarily just to keep the chickens in, it's to keep predators from getting at them?

CK: Right, right. Although, it's just chicken wire. If that dog wanted to, if we didn't have that fence, that dog would have gotten through there. So, it's not foolproof. And I have it high enough, you know. But mostly they're like any animal, they want to be in their environment. They're going to want to be where they are safe.

HD: So, when you say the 'fence came down', was it just one panel, or did the whole thing ... ?

CK: The whole side. And the two of them re-built it--was it last year or the year before, I don't remember. They re-built it and put it back up. So, that was okay. But, yeah, as far as dogs barking, I think dog barking is more of a nuisance than chickens. And again, they'll cluck, usually for two reasons. One, if they are scared and frightened by something, and two, if they are excited about something.

HD: Like they just laid an egg?

CK: Yeah.

HD: They're proud about it?

CK: They're real proud. They want to tell you. Like humans, I want a baby!

HD: So, you know, without inviting you to disparage your neighbors, does that fence make a better 'neighbor' than the neighbors?

CK: [laugh] No, no, no, some of my neighbors love the chickens.

HD: Yeah?

CK: Yeah. And they've been real helpful. They love to be able to see them from their windows. When we go out of town, I've got a couple of neighbors who have been really wonderful about helping. And they get the eggs!

HD: That's actually something that one of the egg farmers at the market told me this last Saturday, that one of the challenges that people don't realize when they say, Oh, yeah I'm going to keep some chickens! Is that they're not like dogs and cats. You can't rely on people just to have the intuitive requisite knowledge or experience to take care of chickens.

CK: Yeah, I have to train people.

HD: So, there's chicken-specific stuff, but it's not like rocket science, right?

CK: No, it's not rocket science. And I trained two neighbors, so I'm covered. And one time we were stuck somewhere, we were coming back really late. We were able to call a neighbor and say, Could you close the coop door for us? Because that's the other thing--I have to get up early in the morning to get that coop door open, because they will cluck if they want to go out and they can't get out. That was another possible noise thing. And at one point, finally this past summer I just said, you know, I'm just going to leave it open at night. So that they can go in and out when they want ...

HD: ... at their leisure.

CK: Yeah. And they're really good. They go to bed at dusk--they're better than kids--you don't have to tell them, Go to bed! They just do it. You don't have to say, Hurry up get out of bed! They just do it! And even in bad weather--unless it's raining really hard, they'll stay in--but usually they'll go out. So they're really good about that. And I come out at least once or twice a day to check on eggs, or food, or water and, you know, they like to see you. I'm always bringing them scraps. They recognize my green compost pail, and they come running, they get excited about it. They're fun to watch!

HD: So, can you snuggle with them at all? I mean, can you pet them?

CK: When they were babies we did. We had them in the basement, we raised them.

HD: But after they become adults, they don't much care for, say, stroking, the kind of affection you might give to a cat?

CK: No. But one of them was a little more friendly. The one that died ...

HD: ... Speedy?

CK: Speedy, yeah. Her real name was Bartholomewla, but it was a little too long to say.

HD: Bartholo- ... ?

CK: ... -mewla.

HD: Bartholomewla. Is that a biblical name?

CK: No, I just picked it. She was a Plymouth Barred Rock, was her breed.

HD: Ah, okay.

CK: So, Speedy, when she was really little, she was kind of a runt and we think she had a constipation problem. So we had to call the Farmer Supply people, and the guy said, Well, take a dropper full of warm oil and squirt it up her hole.

HD: Oh, man. I was hoping for the other end.

CK: There's only one hole, it serves all purposes. So we did that. She was maybe used to being handled more, and so she was not afraid when you came by or anything. My daughter also gave the chickens flying lessons when they were younger.

HD: Mmm, and this was with your support and approval?

CK: Yes, she would just pick them up--and this was before we had this coop and they were kind of loose--she would pick them up, stand on the deck, which is two steps, and go, Here you go! Fly!

HD: So she would just toss them into the air?!

CK: Yeah. And they would fly. Which they could do anyway. There wasn't any ...

HD: ... it was not by hardship on the chickens.

CK: No, no. They probably enjoyed it, because they were getting to go back to the ground.

HD: I bet you could launch a chicken off the end of this teeter totter pretty good, just set it there on one end and jump on the other.

CK: Yeah. They can fly, they can. They could get up as high as a tree branch and sleep there at night. That's what I've read about chickens.

HD: So, the plan is to replace the three that you used to have sometime in the spring if things work out?

CK: Yeah, if things work out. If things work out, I would even like four. Because I would like to have more eggs to give to my neighbors. And when I was down to three eggs a week, I wasn't even sharing them with my family. [laugh] It was just for me!

HD: Oh, so you would eat the three eggs a week yourself, huh? So, how do you like to prepare eggs?

CK: We--my younger daughter and I--got hooked on just poached eggs and toast. And there's a big difference, you know [between store-bought and backyard eggs]. [Ed. note: After the coop dynamic changed with Speedy's passing, the remaining two were gifted to a local petting farm, Domino's Farm.] The day I took them to Domino's, the last two [chickens], it turns out there was one more egg left. So I had to go buy eggs for the first time ...

HD: ... did you do something special with it, that last egg?

CK: Yeah, I poached it!

HD: But I mean, did you sort of commemorate the event in a special way?

CK: Yeah. We compared it to another egg from the store, which was organic, free range. Still, no comparison. The color of our egg was this really rich orange, deep orange color. And the store-bought was pale yellow. So we compared them, and yeah, we relished that last egg.

HD: So was there anything particularly ceremonial, prayers said at all, or anything like that?

CK: Maybe, in ...

HD: ... sort of an internal reflection?

CK: Yeah, an emotional feeling about it.

HD: Well, you mentioned the breed of--which one was it, Speedy?

CK: Speedy was a Plymouth Barred Rock. Comet was a Golden Comet and Daffodil was a Buff Orpington.

HD: Do you know something in general about chicken breeds?

CK: Not too much.

HD: Alright, well, my neighbor, it's sort of a delicate negotiation that's happening now. If the City Council were to pass an ordinance allowing the keeping of chickens, I would definitely like to give it a try. My downhill neighbors, I think, if they had the only vote, they would vote against it. But they're good neighbors, they are friendly about it.

CK: You live on Mulholland?

HD: Mulholland, right. As I currently understand the status of these delicate negotiations, if we were to get a particular breed, which is--I wrote it down, because I had the spelling wrong for the longest time--Araucana?

CK: Araucanas, because the color of the eggs is so pretty!

HD: And my impression is, that if we were to get those, that they would take that as sort of an even trade for the annoyance of having chickens.

CK: Because you would give them some of these eggs?

HD: Yeah, that's a foregone conclusion, but I think they need to be these special Araucana eggs.

CK: Your neighbors actually said that to you?!

HD: Well, not in so many words. I'm trying to remember how Diane put it. Something like, If you were to keep chickens, it would be really nice if they were in this particular kind. So I figured, you know, I can read between the lines there.

CK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I've heard good things about Araucanas. I have a friend who has some of them, too.

HD: Oh, really! So, it's not like they are really rare and hard to find?

CK: I don't think so. I think you can get them. Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of sources for eggs. We got ours from Chelsea Farmer Supply in the spring when they had a whole batch come in. We got them when they were a day old. And they sexed them, we were lucky, they were correct. All three were female.

HD: So that's more of an art than a science, as far as I understand, right? Chicken sexing?

CK: Yeah, well, I think they can be 90 percent accurate. But I don't know how they do it, a candling process, or?

HD: I don't know. I just remember back in my grad school days, someone mentioning that chicken sexing is something you learn just by watching somebody do it, there's no explicit instructions, and you either pick up whatever it is they are attending to, or you don't. It's kind of like learning a language.

CK: Interesting.

HD: I could be wrong, though. My memories of grad school days are pretty hazy.

CK: But when you order from Farmer Supply, you can order in advance which breed. Or they will tell you, This is what we are getting, when you get here pick from what's there. And he has quite a few breeds.

HD: So you mentioned earlier, when you were giving me at tour of the facility here, that you've got an electric light for warmth and light, and then there is an electric heater for the water. How much extra warmth do they actually need?

CK: They don't. They really don't as long as they have some protection from the wind. The first winter, I kept the light on for them every night, and I was kind of over-protective. And then I talked to some other people, and they said you don't need to do that.

HD: So not for the warmth's sake, but for the light's sake, for the laying?

CK: Yeah, then that might be helpful. But for the warmth's sake, they really can stay warm. You'll notice when they're cold they'll fluff out their feathers more and they have more of a downy ...

HD: ... sort of a puff-ball look?

CK: Yes. So they can keep themselves warm, as long as they're protected from the wind. They can get in there and ...

HD: ... but they do need something to keep the water ice-free, from ...

CK: ... from freezing, absolutely.

HD: Any idea how much wattage that water heater draws?

CK: No. I don't think it's that much.

HD: I would imagine it's a trivial amount.

CK: Yeah. But you know who is a great person to read is Gene--what's his last name--is it Gene Logsdon? Do you know the writer? Farmer and writer?

HD: Gene as in G-E-N-E any or J-E-A-N?

CK: G. I'll show you one of his books [The Contrary Farmer]. He talks very eloquently about chickens, and taking care of them, and ways to do it. And he actually did it without using electricity at all, where he had like a built-in water well using a tire or something, so that it wouldn't freeze.

HD: Huh. Fascinating.

CK: I don't remember. But he also talks about all the pros of having chickens compared to other neighborhood animals--why it makes sense to have chickens. They're are productive. You know, you you get some friendship from your dog, but you don't get any of that from cats ...

HD: [laugh]

CK: We have a cat, but they are really independent. They're cuddly and stuff, but.

HD: But very easy to take care of.

CK: But with chickens, there's not that much work. There really isn't.

HD: You mentioned that part of the reason you developed a single corner of the yard for this portable shelter was that the yard was getting a little poopy?

CK: Well, chicken waste is really high in nitrogen, and it can burn the grass. We were just trying to have enough grass for the kids to have a play space. So they didn't want to have to watch where they were walking. We decided, yeah, let's keep them separate.

HD: When you had them, would you on a systematic basis shovel up the chicken manure and take it somewhere, or did you just throw it in the rest of the compost and use it for gardening?

CK: Put it in the compost, and mixed it in the compost. And then I would actually use it in the garden. We had are really good garden set up.

HD: Did you grow anything besides kale in this raised bed over here?

CK: Kale did the best, lettuce did really well, too.

HD: And both the kale and the lettuce went straight to the chickens?

CK: No, we ate the lettuce. And I ate some of the kale, too. But most of the kale went to the chickens. They love kale. And we'd have the neighborhood kids come over, and feed them the kale through the fence. And they had organic grain that I would get with a group of other chicken-keeping people from a farmer in Northern Michigan.

HD: So there is a real chicken underground in Ann Arbor, would you say?

CK: Well, this friend is on the other side of the tracks, so she's allowed!

HD: Okay. [laugh]

CK: But yeah, food was that grain, plus all the organic scraps that I had from the garden.

HD: So were you able to notice at all, say, as their diet changed seasonally, when there was kale no longer growing, any differences in the quality of the eggs, coloration or anything like that?

CK: I don't know, I don't think I noticed that much.

HD: You weren't really monitoring for that kind of ...

CK: ... because they were still getting a lot of scraps. I don't know if there was a real difference. They might have gotten more grass in this summer and spring, and I would pick dandelion leaves for them in the summer

HD: So, out of the yard, or would you go over to [Place One]?

CK: Wherever I was walking by, on my way home from [Place Two]. I'd just pick dandelions, you know, leaves off the curb side of the street.

HD: I'll delete those place names, by the way. [laugh]

CK: We would draw pictures of them, use them as art. We would draw them, the kids and I, did some pictures. I have one I'll show you.

HD: So is this the kind of thing that your kids would produce at school?

CK: I home-school. That's another thing. It started off as kind of a home-schooling project: Let's raise chickens! They were all excited about it, picked out their breed, we researched it, they picked out their chickens. We were only going to have two, and we were there, and they were so cute, and I thought we might lose one to an animal, or sickness, I think I'd rather get a third just as a back-up. We really didn't think that we would have three for that long. And as a matter of fact, we ended up with two, so. But we ended up getting three. Everybody got to name one.

HD: And which one did you name?

CK: I had Bartholomewla. And I'm really glad that that was the one that died, and not one of the kids'. They might have been upset ...

HD: ... oh, I thought it was Speedy who died?

CK: Speedy is Bartholomewla.

HD: Oh, right.

CK: They nicknamed her Speedy because the name was too long.

HD: Right, right. I have been paying attention, I assure you.

CK: They had Comet and Daffodil. It was really exciting, the first one that laid was my older daughter's and it was, Mine laid! There's sort of that spirit.

HD: Have you shared your theory about Speedy's demise with your daughters?

CK: Oh yeah, they've heard it now.

HD: Okay, so the one whose chicken has been identified as the prime suspect, does she feel a little bit bad at all?

CK: Yeah, a little bit at first. But we didn't make a big deal out of it.

HD: It's a chicken, after all.

CK: We didn't make a big deal, and we've never really confirmed anything. It's just a suspicion. That's all she thinks is that, Mom suspects Daffodil might have done it.

HD: And that is true, in fact. All you have is a suspicion, yet unconfirmed. And you're not going to like call up CSI ...

CK: ... no! [laugh]

HD: And have them do an investigation.

CK: I wasn't really about to go into the forensics of chickens. And it really was interesting, because there was one drop of blood right by the guillotine door on the inside and that's why I thought somebody could have come in, and left, and dropped one drop of blood ...

HD: ... and when you say 'somebody' you mean something like a weasel or something like that?

CK: Yeah. And it was also on Halloween night when it happened.

HD: Yeah, that's kinda spooky.

CK: And the fact that the chickens were just clucking up a storm that morning. And I was still eating breakfast, or I was like, Ehh, yeah, it's probably who knows, they're just being obnoxious. I wasn't really taking it seriously. And I thought I'd better go check. So when I went out there. Daffodil would not get down from her perch, from her spot. I freaked out when I saw the dead chicken, I was upset. I picked up Daffodil and put her down so she could go out, but she was afraid to go out. So that also made me think, Well, maybe something did come in, and she's afraid that there's an animal out there that's going to get her, too. She was the most 'chicken' of all the chickens.

HD: [laugh]

CK: And also I always thought that Speedy would be the protective one, if anything did come in. Because I had thought about it before. I always thought Speedy was the one who would sacrifice herself for the other two. It still could be, it still could have been something.

HD: So, it's a viable theory that it was a predator and not an inside job.

CK: Yeah. And we do have raccoons, and possums and skunks. City people don't realize how much wildlife we do have.

HD: Yeah, the raccoons, they use the storm sewers as an underground tunnel network. Well, listen, thanks for teeter tottering! This has been spectacular. It's nice to get out of my own backyard and see what other people's back yards look like.