Longtime local journalist Bill Radford and his wife, Margaret, live on 5 acres in the Falcon area with chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats, two noisy parrots, goats and two horses. Contact Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our chicken flock has doubled in size, from eight to a record 16. And it's all the fault of my wife, Margaret - with a little help from the chicken underground railroad.
Our eight were down from a peak of 12, as old age claimed some of our chickens. (We let our chickens retire when their laying days are over, rather than throwing them into the stew pot. Margaret, who was interested in getting some unusual breeds, got four chicks from Stephanie Gagnepain, the "chicken lady" Ive previously written about. Then, at the critter swap held regularly outside Big R, we got two more youngsters.
So with the mix of new and old, we were up to 14 - I would have been happy with a limit of a dozen - and we agreed we were done. Until one evening not long after Margaret said she had a confession to make.
She had told me before that she had been following a Colorado guy on Facebook who had gone out to Utah to help rescue hundreds of neglected battery hens and was now on a second rescue trip. (Battery hens are egg-laying chickens kept confined in small wire cages.) What she hadn't told me until now was that she had adopted two of them - and would be bringing four home in all, with the other two destined for a neighbor.
I couldn't begrudge her a couple more chickens, though, when I saw what shape they were in. Naked backs, tail feathers gone, beaks trimmed. Just basically beaten up.
They deserved better. They deserved a home.
So where did these chickens come from? It's a bit of a mystery, as even the people who came together to rescue thousands of the hens aren't sure.
"The whole story is weird," said Michael Ulrich, the Colorado rescuer. The original story he heard was that a farmer, amid the COVID-10 pandemic, just walked away to let 5,000 hens die, and a group of people stepped in, buying the chickens to save them. Since then, he said,"That story has changed I don't know how many times." At one point, a hatchery was rumored to be involved, but it has denied any role.
What is not in doubt is that there were thousands of neglected hens in need of saving. For Ulrich, it began with his sister, who lives in Utah and has her own chickens. She had heard of the rescue effort, told Ulrich and wondered if he might want a few chickens.
He decided he did - 10 to be precise. He had never raised chickens before, and figured adults would be easier than chicks. (The battery hens are alleged to be at prime egg-laying age.) And he decided if he was going to drive all the way from his home in Larkspur to the farm in West Valley City, Utah, he should check on Facebook to see if anyone else was interested in giving these neglected hens a loving home.
There was. A lot of people. So he ended up getting 125 hens in that first trip. And the ensuing interest led him to make a second trip, this time with 255 hens, although he only had to go as far as Grand Junction to get the second batch. (Seven hens out of the hundreds in the two trips did not survive.)
All those chickens now have new homes throughout Colorado. And did Ulrich still end up with his 10?
"Well, I'm sure you're aware of chicken math," he said, with a laugh. "I have 14 now."
It's that same kind of "chicken math" that has led us to our flock of 16. They're not all together yet. The four rescue hens are still in quarantine in a pen in the garage while we make sure they don't have mites or some other health issue they could pass on to the established flock. The six younger chickens, now rowdy teenagers, are in another enclosure in the garage but are just about grown up enough that they can live outside.
Of course, our current coop can't hold that many chickens; we figured a dozen is about the max. But Margaret, knowing for a long time that she wanted to grow the group, had found a second, custom-made coop for sale last fall. We bought it, disassembled it and have had the pieces in the garage ever since. (Yes, with chickens and pieces of a coop and many bales of hay that we haven't yet moved to the barn, the garage has not been a place for cars.)
Now, we finally have the second coop assembled, so the new group of old and young chickens will have a home to share. When everyone is ready to be outside, they'll be in a pen separate from the established flock for a time, then we'll see how everyone gets along as they establish the new pecking order. Will there be slumber parties? Will chickens go from one coop to the other?
And with that crazy chicken math, will we end up with even more? As a precaution, I'm hanging up the "no vacancy" sign.
These three rescue chickens arrived in rough shape. (A fourth, not shown, was camera shy!) Photo by Bill Radford