Trouble with Free-Range Chickens (A Comedy of Errors)

When we moved to our home in California, it was our first place with land. I had grown up with chickens and even showed bantam Brahmas and Buff Orpingtons in 4-H, so a nice little laying flock was our first purchase. We chose Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Sex Links– all fairly standard selections.

We were situated with the unusual “luxury” of a farm in the midst of a city that had grown up around it. All drawbacks aside, this meant the only predators are dogs and hawks, and neither are a threat at night when the birds are roosting. Therefore, the chickens sleep in the rafters of the barn and browse the entire three acres throughout the day.

Once the hens were laying, a few months later, we thought it would be swell to add a rooster, mainly for the novelty as well as flock management. We had chatted lightly about harvesting chickens for meat down the road but didn’t dedicate much serious discussion to the plans.

So with total disregard for practicality, this is the rooster we got:

A white-crested black Polish. We named him Kowolski.

Kowolski was a charming fellow who did his jobs well. And before we knew it, we had cute little fluff balls running around. Their puffy feather hats were amusing. We kept the mother hens and chicks confined until they were larger, then they joined the roaming flock.

This next generation was wilder than the first, since they were never handled, and with an odd mix of  features. They laid consistently, though the eggs were small.

The trouble was, these hens brooded on rogue nests in the tall grass in what seemed like all seasons. One clutch that appeared unannounced was 17 motley chicks strong!

And even after we got a second rooster, a rescued Old English Game cock once used for fighting, and still after Kowolski’s untimely demise, several generations later the birds continue to boast tufts of varying magnitude.

Now, with a flock growing to epic proportions, and with our increasing interest in self-sufficiency, we began harvesting the roosters, which seemed to comprise a disproportionate number of each batch of offspring. Mixed breeds that they were, and ornamental lineage at that,  the birds were gangly, the feathers dense and difficult to pluck, and the meat sparse and tough.

The only way to capture them– and I consider myself a more-than-competant chicken-catcher– was the go into the barn at night and climb onto tractors and fences to try to select them from among the hens in the dark.

Chickens are practically comatose at night, hence the reason foxes and the like can pluck bird after bird from their coop without disturbing the lot. Yet after only one attempt at this method, the roosters already extremely wary of me for the numerous attempts to snare them in daylight, began sleeping on edge and would fly squawking into the night the moment I appeared within reach.

It took me months– many, many months– to catch the populous group of roosters as it continued to expand.

But finally, there is one. And as the weather warms and the hens grow inclined to find a nice place in the grass to hide a pile of eggs, there will have to be none.

When the chickens are moved to the new property, the myriad predators will require that they be cooped. We’ll keep these hens for laying, mismatched as they are, and start a second flock from scratch (no pun intended) for meat. And they’ll all be the same breed. Lesson painfully learned.