Thursday, April 25, 2013

Learning with Chickens

Children feeding chickens (source).
Some time ago I came across an old article that reported on a school project that involved chickens. Reading about it made me smile.
The article appeared in “The Francis W. Parker School Studies in Education” published in 1912. The Chicago school (which still exists today) was founded in 1901, and it chronicled a school project with chickens.

The report talks about how the second grade class was given the care and feeding of a flock of chickens. I loved the lessons the teacher said the kids learned, and some of the comments the kids made.

They learned about problem solving. When they found that the bedding kept ending up in the chicken waterer (I can totally relate to THAT frustration), they set about finding ways to engineer new ones.

“The group discussed plans and made drawings,” the teacher reports. “Children went home and constructed models and these models were studied and criticized by the group. When finally a satisfactory one was chosen, the making of the article was turned over to an individual pupil.”

Problem solving 101, in second grade.

The teacher continues, mentioning students becoming more careful, kind, and orderly. 

“The class has become more trustworthy under its responsibility for the chickens’ comfort. If they forgot to open the hen house door for example the chickens had to roost in the run all night and had their combs nipped.
“We have seen heedless children acquire forethought. Many of them formed the habit of standing and turning over in their minds the number of different articles they had to gather together before they left the building for the chicken quarters.
“Children have grown keen too in the power of observing things: ‘The hen's comb was a good color today,’ one would remark.
“And best of all, the care of the chickens has introduced into our children's lives new joys. Every day is full of expectancy. And when baby chicks come the joy is supreme.”

And it turned out to be a multi-age project as well, with the fifth grade class engineering a carefully planned coop that met the needs of the hens, rooster, and their young caregivers. The students consulted poultry guides and bulletins, took a field trip to a poultry show, learned about inheritance of feather coloring, the process of moulting, the sale of eggs, and proper feed rations.

They tracked the number of eggs they collected, the amount of money they earned, and applied that information to learning subtraction, addition and story problems. Genetics, business, math, engineering, problem solving. In second grade.

And I loved the “Code” the children came up with as a governing statement:

“Our chickens have life in the city. They cannot range the fields to find food. They depend upon people. We must not let them suffer. We must never forget them. We must be trustworthy.”

Reading the report was like a step back in time, when chickens were a more accepted part of every day life. They were woven into a curriculum that presented such a wide range of rich lessons, and it’s clear these second graders were learning without realizing it.

Makes me wonder if the elementary school down the road might have room for a coop. Hm.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Four New Chicks

Betty Boop, a Crested Polish.
This weekend we brought home four new additions to the flock. We are hoping they are all pullets, since we really don't want a rooster. We chose four different breeds, and only one of them (the Ameraucana) is a breed we currently have.

On Saturday morning, the girls and I headed out to pick up one chick at Jax, a favorite farm and ranch store (M wanted a Crested Polish, but Jax was the only place that seemed to have them). She picked one out that will be black and white, with a fountain of feathers atop her head that will look a lot like Phyllis Diller's hat. She is a small, spunky chick, with a little poof on her forehead. M named her Betty Boop, and carried her out to the car in a small box.

We had planned to head up to Ranch-Way Feeds to pick up three others, and knew that they were having a chicken nutrition seminar. I wasn't sure we could stay for the seminar, because I didn't want Betty to get cold. But when we arrived, Ross at Ranch-Way showed us to a back room where there was a nice, cozy empty brooder where Betty could stay warm, tank up on water and food, and hang out for an hour while we went to the seminar.

Hazel, an Ameraucana.
Ranch-Way started out as a flour mill in the 1860s, then was turned into a feed manufacturer in the 1940s. It's been owned by the same family since the 1960s, and produces rations for everything from ducks and horses to musk oxes and elephants. They offer a 20 percent layer ration, which is the highest protein feed for poultry I've been able to find, with organic options, as well. I like that they are a local producer, and was so impressed with their customer service and range of products.

Nettie, a Buckeye.
The seminar was full, and really helpful. They gave us each a sample maintenance diet for poultry that works well in place of scratch. Scratch is relatively low in protein, and it tends to water down the calcium and protein in a hen's diet if she fills up on scratch instead of her layer ration. I am guilty of tossing out too much scratch to my hens. I don't generally offer scratch once the weather warms up, but do like to give it in the winter for warmth.
Rosemary, a Welsummer.

Once the seminar was over, we hurried back to pick up Betty, along with the other three chicks we'd reserved. We chose a Buckeye, a breed with Ohio roots, and the only American breed started by a woman--her name was Nettie Metcalf. We also brought home a Welsummer, who will lay dark red eggs, and an Ameraucana (or, more accurately, an Easter Egger) because we love Pip's blue eggs.

They are now happily settled and peep-peeping in the bathtub, under a heat lamp, and doing very well. They already seem to have distinct personalities and are providing entertainment for all of us. We'll look forward to integrating them into the big girl flock when they get bigger.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Poultry in Paradise

A chicken on the Hana Highway, running from a tourist (me) with a camera.

I had heard about the wild chickens on Hawaii’s island of Kauai, but as we planned our trip to the island of Maui, I wondered if we’d see any wild flocks. It was both funny and familiar to hear the egg song on our first morning there, when K opened the window.
            First we heard a crow that sounded like a juvenile cockerel, followed by that familiar bock-bock-bah-gock clucking over an egg’s arrival. Ah, a sweet Hawaiian breeze filtering through the window, carrying scents of plumeria and the tropics…and the sounds of a happy Hawaiian flock. Music to my ears.
            Over the next week, we saw hens, chicks, pullets, and roosters, completely oblivious to the fact that they’d won the chicken life lottery and spent their days roaming all over paradise. Not much in the way of predators other than dogs and… well… tourists.
            I wanted a photo for Coop & Cottage, but rarely had my camera at hand when we saw them. The one time that I did, we were driving along the road to Hana, and had stopped to switch seats (M was feeling a bit queasy on the windy road so I had her sit in front). We pulled into the little leafy widening in the road, and there was a small hen, happily scratching and picking through the leaves under a rainbow eucalyptus tree.
I got out with my camera and said “Hi henny, henny…” she seemed to look over her shoulder, a little like an islander wondering what that crazy tourist wanted. Then she walked faster, and faster, before breaking into a flat out OMG run. I grabbed one shot, and if you look closely you can see her beak open as if in disbelief.
Meanwhile other people in their cars were probably entertained. I know my daughters were.
All week, we saw them in unexpected places. We pulled into the small parking area for Iao Needle (a 1,200-foot tropical outcropping), and the park ranger told us the chickens were probably the most wildlife we’d see. The chickens we saw roaming in town, on beaches and in the upland areas were smaller than our domesticated birds. Most were shades of brown, looking a little like Welsummers or Ameraucanas. L wondered where they lay their eggs (we wondered if we’d come across a clutch, but never did).
            So, why are there so many chickens in Hawaii? On this was one explanation:
            “Most people suggest that the feral chicken population can be traced back to when Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai in 1992. It’s been reported that the devastating hurricane destroyed a number of chicken farms.  Wikipedia also suggests another possible theory: ‘Others say that sugarcane plantation laborers in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought and raised chickens (for eating and cockfighting) and many got loose over the years and multiplied.’”
            They sound like reasonable explanations. But that’s not to say that all the chickens in Hawaii are wild, of course. At the Maui Swap Meet we went to, the girls were trying to talk me into getting a henna tattoo of a chicken, and the artist who did the tattoos said she has chickens in her yard all the time, but a neighbor owns them. With few predators, many non-feral chickens are able to free range in ways that my hens would only dream about.
            One evening at the house we were renting, I saw a black hen with about eight young chicks following her around along the property edge. I asked L to quickly take the camera and see if she could get some pictures of those wild chickens for me.
            She came back a short while later, trying not to roll her eyes at me. “Mom, those aren’t wild chickens. They live there. They have a coop.”
            The poor hen, looking a bit harassed, shepherded her family back into her yard, no doubt grumbling to her brood about tourists and their cameras.
            Yesterday, we returned home and I checked on our hens and let them out into the yard. It was a pretty nice afternoon, but I knew they had to get their free-ranging done by dark. The wind was picking up, and there were blizzard warnings calling for 10 inches of snow. 

Such is life as a Colorado chicken.
Meanwhile, I thought of those happy Hawaiian chickens foraging among hibiscus and eucalyptus, with mild 80 degree temperatures and soft ocean breezes. Talk about fowl weather.