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It is official. I am smarter than a chicken.

Henny, our scrawny white leghorn, has been escaping from the chicken run for the last few weeks. It was annoying, especially after we closed all of the obvious escape routes, but not that big a deal. After all, chickens just want to be with the flock, so, after a few moments of running around and shouting “Free at last!” she would wander back to the coop and dig through the garden bed next door, waiting for the gate to open for her return. When I chased her around the yard, it was, really, a half-hearted chase on he part. However, when Gladys followed her out yesterday and found the collard patch, we had a larger problem. Half the flock was out.


            As anyone who has ever kept backyard chickens knows, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, even if the “grass” is actually the back alley or the neighbor’s dusty gravel parking area. You can give them free run of the entire backyard, but then they congregate (and poop) on the back stoop, waiting to stroll into the Big Coop. That grew old fast. When they are not chatting on the back step, they are roaming through the garden, digging up the just sprouted carrots or eating a collard plnat to the ground. They need to be restrained.


            Restraining a chicken is not as easy as it sounds. We learned this a few years into chicken keeping. Our first two ladies, George and Mrtyle, were full-grown barred Rocks when they arrived, and they required little restraint. They stayed in the back yard with a few pieces of chicken wire between them and the Big World. When Gracie, the Houdini of chickens, arrived, I would come home to find notes on the front door: “Your chicken was out. We chased her back in.” 


            Chickens escape by going over or under the fence. Both have their challenges and solutions. Over can translate into higher fencing, which can be expensive, or running a piece of yarn or wire higher up to create a thin barrier—cheaper, but kind of tacky. For years we banged together a complex fence from pieces of wire I had found along the roadside, but it was very tacky. I invested in some decent four-foot high hog fence two summers ago. It is a huge improvement.  It is also flexible and coils in amongst the beds in early spring, giving the ladies access to the compost pile, but not the young plants. Another solution, which we are working on, is to raise bigger chickens. Henny is a light and scrawny bird, who still flies easily. The Buff Orpingtons we brought home last spring are much bigger—and more peaceful—birds. They will be too big to fly over the fence in the spring. It is always easy to know when a chicken has escaped over the fence. She announces her landing and, if you look out quickly, you can see her shaking her feathers down before she heads for the collard patch.


            Under is more difficult to detect—but easier to solve. We eliminated the majority of under escapes by building a board fence around the back area. This stopped the chickens from even seeing the alley and neighbor’s parking lot, so they were no longer temptations. Now, when we have an under escape, we watch. Mark takes a book into the back yard as a decoy, sits down, and observes chicken behavior. Within fifteen minutes, he can find the weak spot, usually where the cats have pushed through near a fence pole. A brick in the gap, a good tug on the fence, a few staples to reattach the wire and we’re good. Toss the chicken back into the run and watch her head right for the gap once more. If she stays in the run, it is closed.


            There is a certain triumph to outsmarting a chicken, especially if she has been more clever at hiding her escape hatch than usual. This morning, when I opened the coop, I stood perfectly still and watched. Within two minutes, I had the answer. Henny was pushing her way out through a hole in the netting, which was big enough for her, but not for the larger buffs. When she was three quarters of the way out, I grabbed her and tossed her back in, then blocked the gap. She did not come out today. Victory has been declared, at least for now.


Twenty First Street Urban Homestead-- check it out for more writing about Urban Homesteading in the Pacific Northwest


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