Notes from Windward: #70
Chicken Trampoline and the Philosophy of Containers
So much of my time here has been spent dealing with containers. Containment seems to be a critical component of everyday life. Containment of water pumped from a well, containment of surplus food at the time of harvest, containment of tools in the workshop, containment of chemicals and materials such as wood chips, containment of vehicles and machinery in storage, containment of animals in pens and pasture, containment of heat with clothing and insulated buildings, containment of cold for food preservation. Principles and usage of containment are all around us, and are an essential part of human life. Even in the most "simple" earth based cultures, containers were a matter of life and death.
Without containers, we loose a significant measure of control and security. But there are draw backs as well as benefits to containment. Food for example, if stored improperly or in too large a quantity can spoil the whole batch. (The prodigal "bad apple" in the bunch).
When trying to contain living systems, we run up against certain barriers. One of the most recent examples of this is our chickens. We have many chickens, and lack housing for all of them in suitable densities. We have been running into a whole host of problems with cannibalism, or chickens pecking at each others feathers. We have lost several chickens in the last few months, and we have been unable to decipher exactly why this keeps happening.
Sick roadie hen in isolation cage
The whole situation seems to me to be evidence of some of the drawbacks and unintended consequences of containing living systems. Without a solid foundation of how the living components of the system think and operate, and having the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances, animals can die. It is heartbreaking to know that you are responsible, but it also a pertinent lesson in the realities of nature.
I am guessing that our chicken problems stem from several factors occurring simultaneously. We have hens that are aggressive layers, which equates behaviorally to an increased tendency to feather peck. Additionally, the nature and size of the housing may increase these. By this I mean that they may be bored and slightly overcrowded‒as well as receiving too much light from shutting off our winter lighting system too late into spring‒AND they possibly lack of some essential nutrient(s). I feel, but don't know for certain, that the problems stem from a "perfect storm" of sub-optimum environmental conditions manifesting as severe pecking. And that the pecking is what is ultimately killing the birds.
But, problem is even more complex than this, because we don't even know that the feather pecking is the cause of death. It may be something that they are eating that is cutting up the tissue near the cloaca (the place where the intestines and reproductive system meet). Or it may have something to do with the chickens having a taste for freedom because they were free to roam outside in the early winter/ early spring. We did not have these problems until penning them up. It could be that they were used to the lifestyle and are having a severe reaction to being their new home.
But, again I do not know. But, in an attempt to remedy the situation we are trying several approaches. First we provided them different kinds of supplemental calcium -oyster shells as opposed to egg shells - to see if either the egg shells weren't enough calcium OR that they were cutting them up.
In addition to the changing the calcium supplement, I took up the project of making a chicken tractor to alleviate a possible density problem in the Chickplex, and to give some of the birds the opportunity to supplement their diets with bugs and grasses.
taking a break from converting the trampoline
A little bit about the chicken tractor...it is a neat thing in itself. What I found interesting about the experience of building it was the problem solving aspect of using reclaimed and repurposed materials. The chicken wire and most of the wood actually came directly from Ebb and Flow, an older chicken coop that was disassembled last year. From chicken coop to chicken tractor. The rest of the wood was scrap pieces from various other projects. The hinges for the nest box access was made of an old tire inner tube, and even the screws were reclaimed from cleaning up the workshop area.
I hope that the tractor helps alleviate the stress on the birds in Chickplex, and that we see an end to fatal feather pecking in the near future.
The nest box side of the completed
trampoline chicken tractor
Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70