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by Margaret Hartley


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Too cold for the chickens

My thermometer read 5 below zero, but I didn’t believe it. It’s in a very sheltered spot.

My nose said it was 10 below, or colder.

I had my hood pulled up over my hat, and a scarf tied over most of my face. Still, the inside of my nostrils froze as soon as I got to the end of the driveway. I know that feeling, and it means 10 below. Freezing through the scarf, though, meant it was probably more like 12 below or 15 below.

I was warm enough, layered in long johns and fleece and gloves under my mittens. The dog wore her usual fur coat and seemed comfy, but I cut our walk a little short so her paws wouldn’t get too cold.

Cold feet are no fun. My husband can’t seem to do anything to keep his warm when it gets this cold. And one of our half-grown hens, one of the flock that Mrs. Hen hatched out at the most untimely date of Sept. 24, froze her little feet midweek.

We’re not sure how it happened. Did she run into the water tank when that goshawk swooped in and tried to grab a hen? We’re pretty sure the goshawk was unsuccessful — there were a lot of feathers scattered but no one seemed to be missing. But later my husband found the little hen, Dilly, hopping about on her frozen feet.

It seems he found her in time. Our son brought an old rabbit hutch into the house, and the two of them made Dilly a cozy room to warm up in. As with any frostnip or frostbite, it’s important to let the tissue warm up slowly. Dilly doesn’t look to have any lasting damage, but she’ll stay inside until it warms up.

The dog, after trying to enter Dilly’s hutch and getting a sound peck on the nose for her impertinence, decided that lying in guard nearby was the most useful thing she could do. We put a blanket over the cage at night so Dilly would go to sleep, and by morning she was walking, eating and drinking.

We try to keep our flock comfortable in the winter. We put plastic over their window to keep the coop a little warmer, add layers of bedding, increase their protein feed and bring them warm water to drink.

But we have this foolish, half-wild flock that will not be caught and will not move into the henhouse.

They are all descended from six wild banties a neighbor caught at the Saratoga Race Course maybe 10 years ago. They were the children of chickens some track workers had brought in at the beginning of track season and then left without — probably because they couldn’t catch them.

For the first few years, the banties and their progeny roosted in pine trees, breeding prolifically and refusing to be caught. Over time, they’ve bred with our domestic fowl, and have become a bit calmer, a bit tamer and a bit bigger. A few have decided, all on their own, to move inside and join the flock.

Mrs. Hen, the mother of the seven that hatched out in September, will not go into the coop, but she does stay in the ox shed. Her children are friendlier and tamer than most of the wild ones, and little Dilly will allow herself to be picked up and petted. (It’s the ones who make themselves pets that end up with names.)

We worried at the fall hatch-out that the chicks wouldn’t be big enough to make it through the winter. It’s tough on a tender-hearted chicken raiser when you can’t catch a chicken to keep it warm.

So we add bedding to the ox shed, and clear paths in the snow — or tramp them down with snowshoes — so that the chickens don’t have to wade through the snow. Getting wet will hurt their feet.

We haven’t had too many problems. Once an old hen died, froze to death inside the chicken coop on a bitter night.

Or so we thought. Over my protests, my husband brought her stiff body inside, and put her in a box by the wood stove. The next morning she stood up, laid an egg, hopped out of the box and strolled around the living room while the kids, who were little at the time, laughed uproariously.

Don’t ask me how it happened. The lesson we learned from that hen was don’t give up on them.

And that’s worked for little Dilly. Even if she has to spend the rest of the winter inside, she’s not going to lose those feet.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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