Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Daylight Nightlight

I've never been a fan of birds, but since Jay had to have backyard chickens, I agreed under three conditions:

1. We'd eat their eggs, not them,
2. I wouldn't have to clean a stinky cage, and
3. that they'd get love and care like our other pets.

Jay built a coop (an enclosed house with roosts for sleep and nests for eggs) on wheels with an attached run called a chicken tractor.
The coop (with the wee doorway) is in the back and the run (with the gate) is in the front.
It's not pretty, but we were advised to make our first chicken tractor from scrap.
It doesn't have a floor so the chickens can walk on the lawn, eat weeds and bugs, dig for worms, and "fertilize" the yard. We move the coop to a new spot every other day, and there is nothing to clean because the droppings dry and crumble into the grass. 
Caleb watching over "his" biddies
Since the chicken tractor is on wheels, it isn't flush to the ground (like a normal hen house). It's built with warped wood so there are gaps between boards in the coop. When the cold weather began a few months ago, I worried that our chickies would be chilled by icy drafts blowing up their tail feathers while they were trying to sleep.

I suggested we buy our hens little capes for warmth (I'm not crazy. They sell them on etsy.com. OK, it's a little crazy that I know that.), but Jay had a rather hostile reaction to the idea. It might have something to do with the fact that Zoe, our Bichon-mix, has accumulated at least nine coats of varying warmth (three of which are shown below), as well as several sweaters. At least she, unlike our poor chickens, was well prepared for inclement weather.

"But, honey," I coaxed, "it would help you tell the biddies apart. I could get a white cape for Blanche, a yellow one for Goldie, a pink one for Rose, and a green one for Henrietta! Of course, they'd need two capes apiece: one to wear and one to launder. And waterproof capes for rainy days and fleece-lined capes for snow..."

Jay was not buying it (or capes). Instead, he lined the coop with cardboard to stop drafts and add insulation. I countered by putting a thermostat inside the coop (it's hard to foil me when I'm on a mission) and found it was still only a few degrees warmer than outside. 

After I woke him several times on cold nights fretting about our girls' comfort, he finally hooked up a heat light to pacify me. We attached it to an outdoor thermostat outlet that turned the bulb on when the temperature dropped to 35 degrees F. 

Coop interior--cardboard over gaps & heat lights by the roost.
(That's Miss Blanche's backside in the doorway
Rookies that we are, we used a regular white light bulb instead of a red one (that registers as "night" in coops and submarines). Since chickens habitually enter their coop at dusk and leave it at first dawn, they were incredibly shocked when "sunlight" suddenly flooded the interior of their house around midnight. In a flutter, they raced outside only to discover, in cackling confusion, that it was still night.

Caleb, my service dog, was frantic when he sensed that "his" hens were distressed. Jay was at work (of course), so I had to put on my coat and boots and trudge out in a sleet storm to open the coop door so Caleb could see for himself that his fowls were flustered, but fine. Shivering, I calmed them down enough to roost, and Caleb reluctantly followed me back into the house.

I toweled the icy rain off of my hair and crawled back in bed. Did I get any sleep? Of course not. Every half an hour, the hens looked to see if the sun was shining outside as well as inside. How do I know this? Because they'd argue over whose turn it was to check. Their squabbling would wake Caleb. Caleb would wake me. 

The only thing I could see in the dark yard was the square cutout door glowing from the heat light inside the coop. I'd see the silhouette of one of the hens fly down into the doorway. She'd look left, look right, look up, and then she'd fly back to the perch to vociferously discuss her findings with the others: 

"It's still night outside."

"But it's day inside!"

"I know! But I checked, and it's night outside!"

"But it's day inside. How can it be night outside?"     

"I don't know. But it is night outside."

"But it's day inside!"

"I know! But it's night outside."

Finally, they'd argue themselves into a light slumber. Caleb would settle down, and I'd crawl back in bed. But in a half an hour, one of them would wake up and rouse the others, which would wake Caleb, and he'd whimper (ignoring my "They're fine--go to sleep") until I'd get up. I'd go to the window and hear the chicken version of:

"It's light. We always go outside when it's light."

"Last time we checked it was night outside."

"How can it be day inside and night outside?"

"I don't know, but it was."

"Go check again."

"You go check."

"'The early bird gets the worm.'"

"You can have the worm. I'm not budging until I know it's day. Besides, it's Rose's turn to check."

"But I don't want to check. Blanche can go."

"I checked the first time! Henrietta can check." 

"It has to be day. It's light inside."

"Fine. I'll go."

I'd see the silhouette of the next hen poking her head out the doorway, looking left, looking right, then looking up. She'd fly back on the roost, and then I'd hear their strident squawking of "It's still night outside!" "But it's day inside!"  




I called Jay in the morning before he left work to tell him that the only way he'd get in the house was if he first stopped by a pet store for a red heat bulb. I said, "The white light kept your chickens up. The chickens kept Caleb up. Caleb kept me up. But you'll be happy to hear Zoe snored blissfully through the whole thing."

The cat is now my favorite pet.

Verse of the day: (Psalm 139:12) "To You the night shines as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same to You." 

For another chicken story, see "Hidden Hen Hazards."


  1. Do American submariners get confused easily too?

    1. Without red bulbs, they definitely get confused if it's day or night. At least, that's why Jay tells me.

  2. Your chickens' arguments sound like several I've had over the years.

    1. Laughing! This post is adorable! I loved it! The pictures of all your critters make it especially charming.

      I've been interested in the idea of backyard chickens for a while, but any time I put more than two minutes of thought into it, I doubt whether the benefit of fresh eggs is worth all the work, especially since it takes me a few weeks to get through a dozen eggs. What do you think? For you, has it been a worthwhile endeavor, or would you rather just buy fresh eggs from the farmer's market?

    2. It's not bad with a moveable pen, but I, for one, would NOT want to clean out a permanent pen. The problem with a moveable cage is the winter--if you have snow, you can't keep moving it. If you can't keep moving it, then you have to daily clean up their poo. You have NO idea how much they poo. Way worse than cleaning up after dogs and cats.

      It's fun because I'm making it fun--I'm daily spending time with the girls and bonding with them, but if I were you, I'd just get fresh, organic eggs from a farmer's market and put that time and effort into more cats.

  3. Laughed out loud at this line: "the cat is now my favorite pet." Caught me totally by surprise. Thanks for the morning chuckle.

    1. That's literally what I said to Jay at the time. And I meant it!

  4. I would pay good money to see a chicken in a fleece cape. This story completely ruined my plans to eat at KFC tonight. Tomorrow however...

    1. I TRIED to pay good money to see my chickens in a fleece cape--blame Jay that none of us have that opportunity.

      He thinks I'm overcompensating because I feel guilty about what happened on the day we got our hens. As we carried them out of the car to their pen, the smell of our dinner wafted out the window into the yard. To my horror, I realized we were having baked chicken that night.

  5. It probably made a lasting impression on them. I'll bet they've been well behaved chickens from day one.

  6. *Laughing* - I loved the post, Pamela, and yours/Rick's comments cracked me up!


  7. Hilarious! (At least in hind sight, eh, Pamela?) I guess this must be one of the few times you'd wished Caleb wasn't quite so smart and protective.

    If Louie Belle gets too uppity about being the current favorite, just remind her about the vole episode. Or maybe it wouldn't be good to remind her about voles.

  8. In two weeks you'll hear another Louie story (that happened after the vole episode) that abruptly lowered her in the pecking order.