Thursday, 23 February 2012

Snow Birds

From December 29, 2011

I have heard on good authority that many people butcher their chickens in the fall, not wanting the fuss of over-wintering them.  As novice “farmers” this might be the wise option for our birds.  However, as novice “farmers” we haven’t the heart to see Smilie Fry or French Fry in our kitchen!  Nor do I ever intend to butcher anything!  One has to draw the line somewhere...  But what to do as the mercury drops?

The exceptionally warm fall eased into winter with nary a flake of snow to be seen.  More time to prepare the farm for winter is a blessing, but sometimes there’s no better equipper than urgency.  Week after week passed as I waited for my husband to have the time to sort through his garage to find his staple gun so I could put plastic up around the chicken coop.  The heat lamp was on, but with gaping holes where the barn windows once were, the chickens’ water was beginning to freeze over at night.  Every morning after a particularly cold night I would worry that the chickens might not have fared well.  I ran out to check on one occasion, before the girls were ready, not wanting them to discover that their feathered friends had become a freezer dinner.  Clearly, it was time for action – with or without the staple gun.

So out I went, at the earliest part of the day when my motivation is at its peak, before anyone else was out of bed.  My holidaying husband was awake, so I instructed him to send someone out to help as soon as anyone got up.  I was pretty sure I could get a good start on my own, but was just as sure I’d need help before I was finished!

The weather was relatively mild that day, but being early and knowing that I would be out for some time, I donned my woollies and layered my sweaters.  I wrapped a scarf around my head, being sure to cover my ears, and pulled on my big, hefty, good-to-Northern-Alberta-ridiculously-cold-winter-temperature Sorrels, and headed out to the barn with a hammer and some finishing nails I found in the house.

The worst part of this job, the part I had been dreading all this time, was the location of the plastic.  Between the coop and the front wall of the barn is a narrow room – only about 4 feet wide – in which junk had been dumped.  Pieces of Styrofoam insulation, buckets of questionable contents, and a whole lot of plastic.  (You can see the doorway into this narrow "room" on the right of the photo, complete with insulation stucking out of the doorway.)  All was filthy.  And in that confined space, filled to the point of showing no floor whatsoever, there was sure to be a few hundred bugs nesting, hibernating, or in some other state of creepiness.  I do not have claustrophobia.  But I fear insects, and that fear grows in diametrical opposition to the size of the space I am in.  If something crawls along the wall, I want room to move FAR away from that wall!

But there lay the plastic, unreachable without entering this most frighteningly yucky corner of the barn.  Steeling myself to “just do it,” I took a deep breath and entered the narrow room.  I began pulling insulation pieces out.  With everything I moved, I looked at both sides and underneath and saw nothing move.  My fear began to subside and I plunged into the task at hand.  I pulled out several sheets of plastic of various sizes and varying quality.  Most had large tears.  Some had huge smelly stains.  All had holes poked through, perhaps by the beaks of the chickens last winter.  But I found enough for what I needed, such as it was, determined the best piece for each wall of the coop, and set to work.

The first piece went up easily.  The second was larger and took some fiddling to get it right.  I nailed part of the top and had to take it down and start over to make adjustments I should have made in the first place.  As I worked I chatted with the chickens, who were only too happy for the company, clucking almost constantly their own cheerful chicken song.  Occasionally I heard a raspy bray from Whopper who felt it was warm enough to stay outside that morning.  Animals make the best company while you work.  But they’re not much help.

As I worked along the side of the coop I soon discovered that the beam at the top of the wall was not straight.  While I had been able to nail the plastic to one end of the wall on my tiptoes, by about half way across I could no longer reach.  I looked around and found nothing strong enough to stand on, so I sent a text to my husband, who I assumed was still reading the news in the warm comfort of our bed.  “I need a step ladder or a tall person.  Preferably a tall person.”

As I waited for help, which took as long to arrive as I expected, I did what I had dreaded most:  I began working in the narrow room.  That wall needed plastic too, maybe most since it was so close to two broken, unsheltered windows that let in all the cold wind that should come across the pasture.  In I went, dragging a long piece of plastic with me.  With nowhere to set anything I held nails in my mouth like sewing pins as I hammered the plastic in place.  In this cluttered area I was not really standing on the floor, which gave me added height.  There was also a ledge where the cement foundation rose up to meet the wall, and I was able to perch on that in order to affix the top of the plastic.  The downside to this convenience was that it put my head pretty much in the rafters – a position I did not take kindly to for all the aforementioned entomological reasons.

But I am pleased to report that I survived this test, and did not have to deal with any multi-legged pests.  Just before I finished the offensive wall, my daughter showed up to lend her height to the project – height that, it should be noted, has only a few inches’ advantage over my own.  With the front wall secure, we moved back to the side wall I had had to leave half finished.  I explained what I needed her to do, and my daughter reached up with the hammer and a nail only to discover that she did not have enough inches over me to complete the job.  Wishing then that I had said I’d prefer a step ladder, we looked again to see if we could find anything we could stand on.  At least now there was someone I could lean on for balance.

We found an old ladder, but on manoeuvring it to a somewhat upright position we quickly determined that it was too tall to get into the stall where it was needed, and would be horribly awkward for us to try…  Victoria saw a bucket and asked if that would work.  I was unsure if it would hold weight without tipping, but we put it upside down and up I climbed, Victoria’s purpose then reduced to holding nails for me, which was not entirely unuseful, and which my then blackened lips appreciated.

With that last piece of plastic, the coop was secure, at least from wind.  The temperature can still drop inside the coop, but at least now the birds will be sheltered from drafts, and will be able to build up a bit more warmth from their heat lamp.  The water has been placed directly under the lamp and is added to daily to keep it from reaching a low enough level where it will easily freeze.  As soon as we can find a place to purchase hay and straw I will be completely cleaning out the floor of the coop and adding fresh straw – enough to give the hens something to nestle into on cold nights, and hopefully to give a bit of insulation to the base of the walls.

It’s all a new adventure for us.  An enjoyable adventure.  An adventure that hopefully will not lead our chickens to our dining room table!  With a little work, a little research, and some good old fashioned luck, our hens will survive the winter they are sure to spend teaching us much that we need to know about hobby farming.

***Post Script:  Since this post we have completely shoveled out the coop and replaced the dirty straw with "wood chips" which turned out to be more like sawdust.  Plenty of soft piles of wood now covers the floor of the coop, as well as two nests, and brings a lovely aroma to the hens' clean home.  We also discovered that the feeder is actually a water we repurposed it back to its original intent and this keeps their water off the ground - so clean - and in constant supply.  Their food is currently in a dish on the floor, but we will be getting hanging feeders this weekend to minimize the need to throw out soiled food from the birds wandering in and over the dish.  Also, a visiting fisher has pulled most of the plastic down...


  1. Well writ as usual. I am just as arachniphobic as you. And in the same way! I hate even reaching behind the ladder on the floor in the main part of the barn. And I can hardly stand to climb over the door to Whoppers stall as my head is near the rafters there.

  2. (That was supposed to say well writTEN)

    1. We should move the nail for Whopper's other door down lower so we could use that door more easily, hence avoiding the whole climbing of walls thing. :-)

    2. There's an idea! Although I've become very attached to lifting and moving the big... Heavy... Time consuming... Door. ;)