Tucking in the chickens

I feel the need to document one of the more ridiculous activities in our life from the last month. A little bit of background: when we bought the new house, the contract stipulated that we also take possession of the three chickens currently residing at the house. They were cute and charming and produced wonderful colored and tasting eggs (see previous post for an introduction). We loved our new-found identity as suburban hispsters with backyard chickens. But one of the chickens had a taste for blood that rivaled Hanibal Lecter and it became obvious that she wasn’t well-suited to being a positive experience (or role model) for our young kids. So, off to another chicken-loving family she and her two companions went.

But we had already drank the Backyard Chicken Kool-Aid so new chickens were purchased. They aren’t babies (we are already raising two kids and baby chicks are just about as big of a commitment…we aren’t having a third child for a reason), but they aren’t full-grown either. In preparation for the new chickens we did our research. We learned the pecking order is a real thing and it would take a couple of weeks to sort itself out with plenty of blood and feathers to show for it.

What no one told us is that we would have to teach them to go to bed.

Really.

I still don’t have my four-year-old trained to go to bed, how was I going to train five chickens to go to bed? Which method would I use? Babywise? Healthy Habits? Ferber? Attachment? None worked with my four-year-old so my confidence level that we were suitable chicken keepers was pretty low.

After much reading (it’s scary how much is out there about raising chickens) we learned chickens have a roosting instinct that makes them seek higher ground as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, as someone pointed out to us, chickens are about as smart as a rutabaga and they aren’t very discriminating about where that roost may be. It could be on a large rock that is just a few inches off the ground. It baffled us why our chickens were choosing to pile themselves, all of them, onto a single 12″ stick that was stuck about two feet off the ground in the corner of their cage, completely ignoring the wonderfully cozy, enclosed roosting bars inside their hen house.

Rutabagas, indeed.

We were told we needed to train them to roost in the right place. For three weeks, every night, our evening routine consisted of dinner, bath for the kids, brushing teeth, singing songs with the two-year-old, putting him down, then wrestling (literally) our four-year-old, reading books, going to the bathroom, singing Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, tucking him in and then marching outside to the chicken house and grabbing each chicken, one-by-one, off their ridiculously chosen perch (on top of another chicken in four out of the five cases), gently shoving them up the chicken ladder leading to the hen house and then opening the door to the hen house to make sure they were all actually roosting on the bar and not just standing there (rutabagas!). You add the hysteric flapping of wings and chicken poop flying everywhere and suddenly our bedtime routine became a whole lot messier.

We were told it would take two weeks. It took more than three. Three of the chickens caught on pretty quickly but two hold-outs drew it out. They simply were not interested in joining their friends inside the house. We clearly had not met their demands. We were stumped.

So, I called a new friend I had made over the summer. Mike The Chicken Farmer in Sonoma. He was a bit bewildered. He’d never had problems with chickens roosting but he admitted he was a “real” chicken farmer and he didn’t have time to tuck in his 100+ chickens every night (I’m pretty sure he thought I was a rutabaga). But he did say that chickens are followers (see: pecking order) and that maybe we didn’t have the right order. We needed to get the alpha chicken to roost before all the others.

Ok. We knew which one was the alpha chicken so we tried that. Didn’t work. We were still stumped and feeling silly for already dedicating three weeks of our lives to this endeavor. Justin had been handling the bulk of the chicken bedtime and it just so happened he couldn’t do it for a couple of nights, so I did it. And guess what? After two nights of me tucking in the chickens, all five began roosting in the hen house on their own.

I guess we were wrong. I’m the alpha chicken and Justin ranks at number four in our flock of rutabagas. Yay, me!

I think.

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