This blog is about one family's attempt at moderate urban homesteading in Austin, TX.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Built Like a Brick Henhouse

Allison and I have wanted chickens ever since our Berkeley days. When we moved into our Hyde Park duplex in January we finally had a chance. Our landlord actually encouraged us to get a flock. The last tenants did, and our neighbors in the front of the duplex do. Actually, the last tenant left one of her chickens with the neighbors, but she still hangs out in our yard and sleeps on top of our gate. So we sort of consider Honey our adopted hen.

Here's Honey getting ready for bed on her perch right outside our front door.
So after we committed to having our own flock, the first step was to decide where we were going to put them. I had some pretty lofty ideas for the type of coop I wanted to build. We had seen a few in the neighborhood that looked pretty awesome.

Here's one down the street.

At first I wanted to build something pretty big with a run, a window, and a flower box. But Allison helped me remember that we rent and might not be able to take it with us whenever we move. So we opted for something a little more mobile. Nothing seemed more mobile than a chicken "tractor." These are coops that are built on wheels that you can move around your lawn to allow the chickens to keep the grass aerated and fertilized. We don't really have grass in our backyard, but a man can dream. I eventually found some plans online that I liked and decided to go with this. I didn't really want to buy plans, but after the lumber and other supplies, it was really a drop in the bucket.

Here's Honey helping me get the lumber ready. 

After a few too many trips to Home Depot, we started to put this thing together.


Eventually we had ourselves a finished product!

Here it is from the back.
Here it is from the side.

And here it is from the front.

The next logical thing for us to do was to go get some chickens. We had done a lot of research and weighed the pros and cons of raising chicks versus full-grown pullets. We made the reasonable, rational decision to get adult, already egg-laying hens. So we went to the feed store to get some supplies and look at the pullets. Then we saw the baby chicks....

How could we resist?

We ended up leaving the store with three, two-week-old chicks. The store happened to have the three breeds that we really wanted (Barred Plymouth Rocks, Easter Eggers, and Red Sexlinks). All three of these breeds are supposed to be friendly and eggcellent layers (pardon my pun). We cleaned out one of our remaining moving boxes, lined it with paper towels, got a heat lamp, a feeder, and a waterer, and they were good to go. We had to keep them indoors for the first few weeks until they got all of their feathers. It was kinda weird waking up in the morning to the glow of a heat lamp and the sounds of chirps coming from the living room. It sure was a lot of fun having them in the house though.

Their names (and breeds) from top to bottom: Maisy (Red Sexlink), Bertha (Barred Plymouth Rock), and Ilse (Easter Egger... she's supposed to lay green eggs).

Allison trying really hard to look natural.

Me as mother hen/jungle gym.

She pinned me.

A rare shot of the floor without poop on it. I had to follow them around with a roll of paper towels.
After their feathers started coming in we figured it was time for the chicks to move into their new digs outside in the coop. We got them some wood shavings and moved the heat lamp for them.

As they rapidly started to grow up and develop their own personalities, we remembered something that the feed store clerk told us. These chicks were sexed at a 95% accuracy rate. But the clerk himself had found a few roosters-to-be in some of the chicks he took home in the past. So he had us kinda freaked out that we were going to end up with a bunch of loud, 3am-crowing, neighbor annoying cockerels. I started to Google how you could tell the difference between the boys and the girls. One of the earliest indicators I found was a display of timidness in the females and aggressive behavior in the males. Well, we might have had a problem.

Whenever I opened the coop to change their food or water, Ilse and Maisy wanted nothing to do with me:
"Keep absolutely still. His vision is based on movement."
Note the terror in their eyes.

Bertha, on the other hand was always charging the door and pecking at my wrists:

Think miniature, ferocious Velociraptor. "T-Rex – he'll lose you if you don't move. But no, not Velociraptor. You stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that's when the attack comes." Bam! Two Jurassic Park quotes!

Eventually, however, Bertha started to calm down and fatten up into your classic hen shape. She's not quite grown up yet. She still has some of those chick feathers sticking through on her head.

We were both having bad hair days.

As we became more serious about this chicken business, we decided to attend the Sustain Center's annual Spring Chicken Festival. We talked to different vendors and watched some informative chicken lectures.

Beautiful day. The festival was located right next to Callahan's Feed Store. I wonder how many bright-eyed, gullible people walked right over and bought some brand new baby chicks.

So now we're just waiting for them to get old enough to start laying eggs. Their due to lay their first around the same time Allison's due to lay her's (mid-May... Allison's pregnant with our first). Until then they just get to grow, run around the yard, and eat all the bugs they can.

Maisy running away from the other girls with the "prize" she found (a rubber band).

Another glamor shot.

Now that we let our adolescent chickens run around a lot, we just leave the coop open during the day. Last week our old (and somewhat jealous) friend Honey decided to wonder into the coop. I'm assuming she wanted a taste of the sweet "grower" feed. I didn't even see her in there when I put the chicks up. She started squawking until I eventually coaxed her out through the egg door while the other chicks stayed below in ignorance.

She wanted her freedom back.
But I think she was kind of jealous of the chicks' new digs.

That brings me back to the discussion of eggs. Ever since we moved in, Honey's been laying about one egg per day in our backyard under a pile of old tools that our landlord has graciously left behind. Our neighbors don't actually eat their chickens' eggs (kinda weird if you ask me), so we've been helping ourselves. But now that we let the little hell-raisers out all of the time, they've been tearing up every square inch of the backyard looking for crawling little treats. Honey's former "nest" has not remained sacrosanct. So as her nest disappeared, so did the free eggs. And since our little freeloading chicks haven't started producing yet, that left us in a pickle. So I came up with a solution. I moved some of the bricks in our backyard (which our landlord also graciously left for us) and decided to build her an egg fortress:

Fort Huevos.
I guess all that glitters isn't gold, however. She hasn't willingly gone in there once. I say "willingly" because I've even tried putting her obstinate ass in there to show her how awesome it was. But I guess we'll just have to wait until May. I'm thinking about starting a pool to see who's gonna lay first: Allison or one of the chickens.

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