I just love having chickens. They are such wonderful animals for so many reasons and can benefit you and your garden if kept properly. They also can beautify your property, be very entertaining, and contribute to a picturesque setting around your home. 

This beautiful group of young chickens is getting their adult feathers. The blue laced red Wyandottes can be seen here. Note the variability in the blue color (some blue, some very light, and some black). Some Black French Copper Marans and Lavender Ameraucanas are present as well. Photo by mrl2021.

The first and most obvious benefit to chickens is their eggs. Fresh eggs taste better than anything you can find in a store. They are generally more visually appealing as well with a nice orange-yellow yoke instead of the pale-yellow. If you prefer, you can feed your chickens organic feed and therefore produce organic eggs. The cost of organic feed is considerably more expensive, however. Chickens also like to eat kitchen scraps that normally go onto a compost pile. This prevents wildlife from having a food source on the pile, and converts it immediately into manure.  Chicken manure and old bedding enriches your compost pile and when incorporated into the garden the following spring will make for wonderful soil.

The best part of fresh eggs is that there is no need for refrigeration! There is a protective layer on the egg when it is laid. This allows the eggs to be stored at room temperature for a few weeks without harm. When you are ready to use them, wash the eggs in warm water first. This is very important as cold water causes the egg insides to pull in dirt from the shell, which causes bad tastes. Warm water will prevent this and make egg washing easier. The discarded shells should go right into your compost pile as they are a great source of calcium for the soil. If eggs are dirty and you wash them, store them in the refrigerator. Whichever way you store them, somehow note the date collected and use the older ones first. If you lose track of the collection date, put the egg in a glass of water. If it sinks, its good. If it floats, compost it.

Keeping nest boxes clean by adding fresh bedding when needed (pine shavings, hay, straw, etc.) helps keep eggs clean. Any heavily soiled eggs should be discarded. Commercially produced eggs are stored for an extensive period of time. Because of this, and the distances they are transported, the eggs are washed (therefore removing the protective layer) and refrigerated. The eggs also will lose water, and therefore have an expiration date. 

To reduce feed cost, you may want to free-range your chickens during the day. This is where you let them out of the cage to wander your property. This can be a troubling feeling at first, as you are basically opening the door to your pets’ cage. Chickens generally do not wander too far from home and will return there each night. You must get them used to their new surroundings for a few weeks before allowing them to free range to ensure they know where home is. 

Chickens will eat all sorts of bugs, worms, and anything else that we find disgusting. This can be very beneficial for the homestead. The birds are extremely useful at the end of the growing season where they can be left in the garden to clean up any insects, larvae, weed seeds, etc. They also scratch up the soil which interferes with insect pest life cycles. The whole time they are foraging, they will leave behind their manure which adds nutrients to the soil as well.

There are some challenges with chickens, however. If you free range (and you should), you must understand that the chickens do not understand the concept of a property line. There really is no good way to train them for this, and unless you have an extremely tall fence, they will go where they please. You should make sure your neighbors are okay with a stray bird or two in their yard.  Sharing some excess eggs may be just the thing needed to help them tolerate the occasional trespass. Flower beds, vegetable gardens, and lawns can be damaged by the scratching process.  Movable chicken housing will encourage them to explore other areas of your property. Fruits and vegetables will also be eaten by chickens, so care must be taken to protect your plants from your roaming birds. Chickens can easily jump a typical three foot garden fence. I have had some success with running/yelling at the birds that enter garden areas. This “scary experience” helps them avoid the area for a while. 

When out of their housing, your birds will be vulnerable to all sorts of predators. During the day, hawks are by far the biggest threat followed by dogs or coyotes. Either expect losses, and add new chickens to your flock periodically or figure out ways to create movable pens to protect them. Chicken egg laying slows after a few years. Old birds lay very few eggs and are not worth the cost of feed. I have had certain hens that continued to lay very well even at five years old, so it will just depend on the genetic quality of your birds and the diet they are fed. You should decide ahead of time what you will do with older birds. In the commercial world, they are replaced with younger ones. Some people will make a stew out of old birds, but many times we get attached to our small flock and just tolerate lower production in older birds. Having a flock of mixed age birds can help with this. Older birds sometimes end up eating eggs. Many times it can be linked to a nutrition problem, but these birds need to go before they “teach” the younger birds how to eat eggs.

Housing for chickens needs to be predator proof. It is beyond the scope of this article, but needless to say, there should be no way for predators to get in – especially at night. Chickens should have a coop with adequate ventilation, but tightly sealed against predators. A covered run during the day will provide protection as well. I like to only free-range when I am home to keep an eye on the birds, and an eye on the sky. I also do not use any treated lumber in the construction of my coops. As my family and I eat the eggs, it is not worth the risk of consuming the chemicals found in treated lumber.

The birds themselves can come in all sorts of colors and styles. There are bantams, which are about half the size of a regular bird, but so are their eggs. Pick a breed that you prefer, or get a combination of birds for the most eye pleasing flock. Roosters can be loud and crow early in the morning. You may not want to wake up to that, and your neighbors may not like this either.  Roosters will protect your flock of hens from predators – often to the death, so they can be beneficial. They are also beautiful to look at, but may be mean and possibly attack you or small children. A mean rooster is dangerous and should not be kept. There are laws and regulations in regards to keeping chickens so you should check into that before purchasing your birds. Certain breeds like the blue laced red Wyandotte can be interesting to keep. The blue coloration is tricky genetically speaking, and it can be neat when you have that perfect bird with a great looking pattern.      

So I hope this article inspires you to try chickens. A few hundred years ago every house would have had some. It is only in our modern day lifestyle that most people do not. Chicken keeping has been getting more and more popular though, and many towns allow a few hens on a small lot. Mail order requires shipping a larger amount of birds for safe shipping. In the warmer months the number may be reduced, but you will pay a small order fee. Heat packs are sometimes used to make up for the smaller number of birds in the box. The alternative is to find a feed store nearby that sells some birds, and you will be able to pick up a small group.  Regardless of how you acquire your birds, is typical to lose one or two as you raise them, so plan accordingly. Also, if you order hens, the sexing accuracy is about 90% at best, with some breeds being less, so you may end up with a rooster (or two), so be prepared for that as well. In the end, there is nothing better than the taste of a home grown egg! Why not add some chickens to your property?  

The author’s new group of “hens.” See the young rooster? Photo by mrl2021.

Matt Lisy

snow and tree

As I sit here inside, watching the cold wind blow and snow pile up outside the warmth and safety of my little writing spot, I wonder just how all those living beings outside are surviving. Trees are swaying in the wind, and birds trying to visit the feeder are forced to alter flight plans while sporting ruffled feathers. The only animals I see are hunkered down squirrels. And just where did the insects go?

A little research tells me all of the annual plants are dead. They completed their life cycle in one year going from germinating a seed to producing seeds which are waiting winter out to make new plants in the spring. In my vegetable garden I call them volunteers. You know those tomato seeds that germinate from last year’s rotted tomato fruit that dropped to the ground and its seed volunteered to grow where I didn’t put this year’s crop. The seed survived through the winter, not the plant. Annual weeds drop seed in this manner, too.

IMG_0877default

Perennial plants are a different story, although their seeds can do the same overwintering as annuals, the existing plant can live through the winter to grow another year, hopefully for many years more. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials that have woody above ground structures and roots that overwinter. Herbaceous perennials overwinter their roots and crowns only. The above ground portion of the plant dies back, but the crown and roots are alive at level or below ground. Perennial plants go dormant, living off of stored food until warmer weather returns. Storage organs of plants are the thick roots, rhizomes and bulbs. Just how they prepare themselves to make it through the winter happens at the cellular level long before freezing temperatures begin.

Plants are triggered by the amount of light and the amount of dark they experience, and lower night temperatures signal to get ready for winter rest and dormancy. Different species have varying light and temperature levels signals. Deciduous trees and shrubs must begin the process of losing their leaves by first stopping the production of their food. We notice it in slower growth and in the leaf color. The leaves are the food factory of the plant where photosynthesis happens. Carbohydrates are made then stored in roots and woody parts of the tree or shrub. Lots of light and water results in good growth and food storage, but when light amount lessens, leaves slow down production. Chlorophyll is also produced during photosynthesis, giving the leaf a green color. Once the leaves stop working, no more chlorophyll is produced and the other plant pigments of red and yellow are exposed now that there is no green chlorophyll to cover them. This is when we see beautiful fall foliage. The next change happens in a specialized layer of cells at the point where the leaf stem (petiole), attaches to the twig called the abscission layer. These cells enlarge and harden to choke off water flow to the leaves and the leaf slowly dies and falls off.

tree in fall

The next cellular change is called cold hardening. It happens within the vascular system containing the plant juices and water. If water inside the cells freeze, it will rupture the cells, permanently damaging the plant. The cold hardening process increases the sugar content of the water, and makes other protective chemicals, lowering the freezing level of the plant liquid. Basically the plant makes its own antifreeze. Cell walls are also changed to allow water leakage into spaces just outside the cell so if crystals do form, damage will be avoided. The acclimation of all these changes makes the plant able to tolerate below freezing temperatures. Fall pruning or fertilizing with nitrogen during August and September stimulates new growth interrupting the cold hardening process.

Evergreen trees and shrubs have thick leaves with waxy coatings to prevent moisture loss. Some broadleaved evergreens have gas exchange openings called stomata on the underside of the leaf. In very cold weather the leaves will curl as the stomata close to prevent moisture loss. Rhododendrons are a good example. Evergreen plants will continue to photosynthesize as long as there is moisture available, but much more slowly during the winter.

rhododendron curled in snow

Animals and insect have the ability to move, unlike plants. They can migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter’s cold. Certain birds migrate to warmer areas and better food sources. Hummingbirds, osprey, wood ducks and song birds fly south, and some birds from far north in Canada come south to spend the winter here. Juncos, snowy owls and bald eagles summer at a higher latitude and spend the winter nearer to us. They go where they can find food.

Some animals go into a winter dormancy or hibernation. This phase consists of greatly reduced activity, sleep or rest, and lower body temperatures while their bodies are sustained from stored fat. Bears, woodchucks, skunks, bats, snakes and turtles all have true hibernation, not waking until light levels increase and food sources begin to be available again. Bears and bats find caves, woodchucks, and skunks dig tunnels, snakes and some turtles burrow into soil and leaf litter, all in protected sites.

woodchuck at entrance to tunnel

Woodchuck at the entrance to his tunnel where he will spend the winter.

Other animals such as chipmunks have underground burrows lined with stored nuts and other food. Beavers do the same in lodges they build just above water, and line with stored logs to feed on during the winter. They sleep for long periods, only waking to eat and if maybe take a short walk above ground before returning to their den. Fur bearing animals will grow a thicker winter coat to help keep them warm, and may be a whiter color to provide camouflage in the snow.

Voles are active all through the year. In winter, they will tunnel through the snow, just on top of the ground looking for plants material to eat. They will strip the bark off of young trees and eat the roots. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers. Mice are active and breed year round, living in any protected nook or cranny they can find, including our homes. They store food in hidden spots away from human and predator activity. Check for mice tracks around your foundation after a freshly fallen snow to see if mice are using your house for their winter quarters. Moles are active deep underground, below the frost line, in an elaborate array of tunnels. They feed on soil dwelling insects throughout the winter. I guess you could say they go ‘south’ in the soil profile during cold weather of winter.

Squirrels do not migrate nor hibernate, they adapt. They are active all winter, raiding bird feeders, and feeding on stored nuts. They grow a thicker coat of fur and fat for winter. Squirrels make great nests high in trees, well insulted with leaves. Several grey squirrels will share a nest to keep warm. They are often too quick to get a close up photo!

squirrel tail

Insects as a group are very large and diverse. Some migrate in their adult stage such as monarch butterflies and some species of dragonflies. Others overwinter in pupal stages like the chrysalis’ of spice bush swallowtails or cocoons of Cecropia moths.  Others adult and immature insects, depending on species, enter a state of diapause, similar to hibernation in animals, to overwinter during the winter. Diapause is a dormant semi-frozen state for some insects.  And like plants, changes at the cellular level occur, too. These insects produce an alcohol-like chemical and added sugars to the moisture in their bodies to prevent freezing, just like vodka will not freeze when placed in our home freezers. Insects will first seek out a protected place in the soil, leaf litter or under lose tree bark or rotten logs.

The brown and orange woolly bear caterpillar burrows into the forest floor to spend the winter as in its larval stage. In spring it will come out of its dormancy to pupate, later becoming an Isabella tiger moth.

woolly bear

Other insects lay eggs singly or in mass groupings, which are equipped to live through the winter and hatch when conditions are good again. Gypsy moths spend the winter as egg masses, tolerating down to -20 F temperatures. Crickets are another insect group which lays eggs in the fall on the ground that will provide a new generation of night songs for us to enjoy the next summer.

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo

Gypsy moth egg mass will overwinter on this tree bark. Hatch will be in late spring.

-Carol Quish

tulips