Gardening with Free-Ranging Poultry
Hens have become hugely popular these days, even in the suburbs. Here on the farm we currently have fourteen guineas and a dozen chickens, though only eight of the latter are female! At least, that's how many we did have. A couple of the hens hatched eight more chicks this week.
Our birds make valuable contributions, in addition to decorating the landscape. The guineas have reduced the Japanese beetle population drastically, and we hope they are also protecting us from Lyme disease by keeping the ticks cleaned up. The chickens, for their part, furnish very nutritious orange-yolked eggs--provided, of course, that we can find the nests! And the birds can be fun to watch, especially the guineas. In the spring those unlikely-looking creatures zoom over hill and dale, making their feet go at a rattling rate while their upper bodies remain aloof.
Barnyard birds like to scratch, however, in their quest for dinner--especially in freshly-turned soil. They usually don't bother large plants which are well established. But they can play havoc with seedlings.
The chickens are the biggest problem, simply because most of them are, well, big. The majority of our hens are Barred Rocks and the roosters are black, possibly Australorps. When we just had guineas and more petite hens, I could protect new seedlings by placing a large stone close to each one. The smaller poultry seem to skirt anything that might hurt their feet.
But apparently large chickens are less sensitive. These days the stones are more likely to get pushed on top of the seedlings. Fortunately, I've found that the heavy breeds are also lazy. They don't like to fly unless they have to. So I use bamboo stakes and old pieces of trellis to "fence off" some sections of the garden until the plants there grow larger. This might not work for those of you with limited space. But, if your chickens have plenty of other acreage to explore, they will generally circle around obstacles.
Laying dead branches on the soil around the seedlings can work too, as long as helpful family members don't pick up what they think is windblown debris. I've heard that placing pieces of chicken wire or bird netting over the little plants will provide some protection as well. But all of our netting is currently deployed to cover the blueberries!
Pots or other containers can lift your plants out of harm's way. The chickens kept uprooting my hen and chicks succulents (Sempervivums), perhaps in politically correct dudgeon over the plants being named after them! So I finally dragged a couple old cement blocks up close to the porch, tipped them on their sides, and filled the holes with cactus soil. I then planted the succulents in that raised position, where they have remained above the fray.
But birds do need shallow holes filled with loose, dry soil, where they can dust their feathers to get rid of parasites. Fortunately, ours found a few hollows between the roots of trees that suited them. If yours don't have any such "sandboxes," you might want to provide some, before the chickens decide to excavate your flowerbed instead!
They will also require a safe place to roost at night. Our chickens currently sleep in the barn, though we had to train the newest hens to do that by carrying them there every night until they caught on. We've found they seem to be safest from predators when sharing a building with larger livestock such as pigs and cows. A friend of ours learned that lesson too, when her old goat died and her chickens started getting snatched shortly thereafter.
No method of protecting either your plants or your birds is going to work all the time, however. That's when you realize that having it all requires some sacrifices.
After all, my elderly Border Collie does her share of damage too, as she looks for shade when she accompanies me into the garden. And, if I don't notice what she's up to, she will often flatten all the plants that happen to be growing where she wants to lie. So I have to tell myself, "Yes, you might be a better gardener without all the animals. But would you be a happy gardener?"
I would recommend, however, that you limit the size of your flock to what your landscape can sustain without excessive damage. And I'd advise you to stick to hens unless you live--like we do--a distance from the nearest neighbors. Roosters indulge in a lot of cockle-doodle-do-ing at unearthly hours of the morning, and guineas screech when alarmed. Once a whole flock of them gets going, they can literally make your ears ring. And, as they are highstrung birds, it doesn't take much to set them off.
Fortunately, sounds dissipate quickly out here in the country where there aren't as many walls. But, if you town folks don't consider the noise factor, the biggest danger to your poultry could be the irate neighbors who want to wring their necks!
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