I’ve had backyard chickens for probably 15+ years now. In the event that chickens ever come up in casual conversation, and sometimes they do, people who want to know more about chickens will invariably ask, “How many chickens do you have?”
Which is a difficult question to answer. “How many chickens do you have, right now?” is a better way to ask the question. The number of chickens is always in flux. Chickens come, and chickens go. Over the years, my adopted management technique is something slightly akin to “Survival of the Fittest. Only the strong survive.”
I built them a coop, and it keeps them warm and dry and a place to lay their eggs, if they choose to lay in there. Oftentimes, they will lay in the barn, or under the rosemary bush, or under the flat-bottom boat, or anywhere else they have a mind to. And they have a 1/2 acre of minimally manicured and 100% organic yard to free range in. So, I don’t feed them grain that often. I want my chickens to always be just a little bit hungry. Put them to work out on the 1/2 acre, and they’ll spend all day, scratching out bugs and pests. And I make sure they have clean water. Beyond that, good luck girls. My birds don’t get medicine, dirt tubs, oyster shells or any of this other stuff you may read about. They have the yard. Go to work, ladies.
As a result, sometimes we lose a chicken. Most notably, to predators. Even though we live in an urban environment, we have all the same predators as those of you in rural areas do, albeit in lesser concentrations than you. Sometimes, at dawn or dusk, we’ll see Coyote come skulking about. Mr. Hawk is easy to see in the treetops, especially in the winter, when the trees have lost their leaves. And if Mr. Hawk has found the flock, you damned sure better to be willing to keep the girls locked inside the coop and be willing to stand over them, until Mr. Hawk decides to go look for easier pickings. I don’t bear any of the predators any ill will, though. They all have their role to fulfill in nature’s web. They need to eat, too. Ultimately, I try and provide some protection for The Girls, in the form of their coop and lots of natural undergrowth, but there’s is, in fact a natural attrition rate to the flock.
There’s also an unexpected growth rate that happens, too. We have friends that buy baby chicks at Easter and then, not know what to do with them after they quit being cute. So we collect chickens in much the same way that a shelter collects cats and dogs. There’s always a period of adjustment when you bring new birds into the flock. Thus, the phrase, “Pecking order.” It’s a real thing. If added in small groups, the chickens will divide up into teams, based on their original order. For instance, it might be “The three” and then “The two.” But, eventually, they all coalesce into one small flock.
It’s a little bit like a riff on that old story of Theseus’ ship. If you replace the entire ship one piece at a time, is it still the same ship? In the case of chickens: If you replace the flock onesies-twosies over time, is it still the same flock?
The most accurate answer to the question of “How many?” is probably somewhere between 12-13 on the high end, and maybe 2-3 on the low end. The reason I bring all this to your attention is to tell you a story about one remarkable chicken and a tale of survival.
We were down to 4 chickens at the time. I think we had 2 Americanas from the original flock of 12, and a couple of add-ons. One evening, several weeks ago, when I went to close the coop door, I noticed there were only 3 heads in the roost. Huh. That’s odd. Chickens are both unpredictable and predictable. It’s impossible to know where they’re going to lay their eggs. But once they get homed into their coop, they’ll return there, every single evening, at dusk. In my mind’s eye, I’m designing an automated system, running from Arduino, for this exact reason. The chickens always come home to roost. Always. I did a cursory look around for #4, but I knew if she wasn’t right there with the others, the prognosis wasn’t good. I got a flashlight, and scanned around the yard, but she wasn’t there. I knew she wouldn’t be. I shut the coop up, and realized that this was just another bird we’ve lost over the years.
The next morning, I got up to look for the carcass, so I could bury it in the garden somewhere. Depending on the kill pattern, you can sort of deduce who got your chickens. Coyote will take the whole bird, leaving only a plume of feathers, while Mr. Hawk will only bite their heads off and leave the bodies behind. But on this morning, there was no feathers, no headless carcass, nothing. Which was weird – Even if it was Coyote, you can at least see the spot where the kill happened – Usually, right outside the periphery of the undergrowth of the trees and brambles.
“Well, this is something new. But, nevertheless, the chicken is gone. So that’s that.”
And when Mother Nature takes a chicken from you, you never get it back. Never, never, not ever. Never. And that’s final. After spending some years watching their behavior, I’ve decided it’s a big, cosmic joke: From Apex Predator to Lowest Prey in only a few million years. You can easily deduce that Spielberg used chickens as the models for his ravenous Velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park. They’re just too similar. And now, through some Grand Shift, they’ve been reduced to among the most vulnerable in the animal kingdom. So when you lose one, it’s not a joyous occasion, but let’s be honest: It happens.
Except in this one particular case. The chicken actually came back to us. About 6 weeks later, we had a neighbor reach out to us. This neighbor raises chickens, also. Somehow, our chicken had been surviving out on the streets for a month and half, scraping by on scraps, and somehow getting connected to the other chicken family.
When we first got her back, she looked like Hell. Her feathers were all ripped out and torn off, and her vent was all hanging outside of her body. Boy, did she look rough. I didn’t expect her to make it. The flock wouldn’t accept her right away – She had to find another place to roost at night. The Girls wouldn’t let her inside the coop to sleep. But I kept feeding her. And when I say feeding her, I mean, dumping some scratch in the trough. I don’t mean any kind of extraordinary feeding measures. But she was hungry, and kept coming back. The first few nights, she would vanish – But come back during the day for food. And she would stick around our yard, as opposed to going back over to the other place. They have many more chickens than we do, and their yard is 100% dirt and mud, whereas our yard is mostly overgrown. Perhaps it’s because we have better grazing here?
Regardless, it looks like she’s back from the dead, and here to stay. The others still haven’t fully accepted her yet. Right now, it’s “The Three” and “The One” but they at least let her sleep inside with them now.