Thursday, September 22, 2011

Feeding the Neighborhood

K and I were both working in the backyard when suddenly, a corncob fell from the sky and landed at my feet after nearly hitting me on the head. I looked at K suspiciously, but he was innocently busy on the other side of the yard, completely unaware. I looked up through the ash tree above me, and saw a squirrel scurrying along the branches. He'd dropped the cob, much like my children drop their socks, anticipating that someone would come along and take care of clean up.

Birds on the run door, waiting for scratch grains.
The cob was picked clean with surgical precision. I'd made a batch of corn relish, but there was still plenty left on the cob so I'd dropped a few in the yard for the chickens. The hens were doing a pretty good job on them, but apparently the squirrels had claimed a few cobs and carried them to the treetops. I tossed the cob into the compost bin and considered that we were inadvertently feeding the squirrel population. And others.

We've had a big increase in bird traffic. I scatter scratch grains out for the chickens, and have seen small flocks of birds clustered on the ground after the hens have had their fill. At one point, on a warm day, there were so many birds in the bird bath that it looked like the wave pool at Water World.

Pigeons have been congregating on the coop roof and cupola. And I've seen a few squirrels hurrying by like fluffy-tailed looters with tidbits that the chickens have left. I've seen a few mice, which I assume is a change that pleases the neighborhood cats, who've also increased their visits to our yard.

Often, I see dozens of sparrows inside the chicken run. Some line up socially on the roost we'd put up for the hens. Others gossip noisily along the frame and perched on the coop door. When they see me they fly up in a whirling cloud--reminding me of the aviary at the zoo. Some are small enough to squeeze themselves through the chicken wire, but when I disturb them, most of them shoot arrow-like out the front door of the run, roost in the tree above, and watch me. Once I leave, they return to their perches, resuming conversation.

An interest in having fresh eggs has turned into an illustration of the food chain. I've noticed my neighbor's cat taking delight in the sudden smorgasbord of birds at her disposal. But the birds won't be the only ones drawn in by scraps and snacks. I really don't want to draw in skunks and raccoons (though they seem to be kept at a distance because we have dogs). And I don't want to attract bigger birds--who may find the chicken scratch a whole lot less interesting than the chickens themselves. 
Five impatient hens, wondering why I'm not letting them out right away.

So, while Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom is entertaining at times, we're taking a more measured approach to feeding the chickens. Instead of tossing scratch grains in the garden for them, I toss them in their (closed) run, and I give them a little less. They clean it up almost completely before I let them out to free range. Tasty treats are given in moderation so that no scraps get left behind, and bigger items--like corn cobs and melon slices--get placed in the run with the door closed, then cleaned up and covered in the compost.

It does mean that they spend more of the morning in their run. But that's not all bad. In fact, it's actually had a positive effect. Most of them lay their eggs in the morning... which might mean our free-spirit-lay-my-eggs-in-the-great-outdoors Marigold may decide the nesting box is an acceptable place to lay an egg. One can only hope.

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