Jonathan Livingston Chicken and The Dog Who Would Be King

By Cam Mather

Okay, I went with the “The Dog Who Would Be King” title when really it should have been “The Dog Who Would Be a Chicken.” But I liked the movie “The Man Who Would Be King,” about the British learning it’s hard to win a war in Afghanistan. Didn’t go too well for the Russians either. I guess the Bush administration didn’t employ any historians.

Anyway, our animals are taking after their human caretakers in the independent thought department. Our dog really wishes he were a chicken. I’m convinced of it. He would spend his whole day in the chicken pen if we let him. At first we just thought it was because they were the only source of entertainment when we are in the house. He sat outside their pen, watching them endlessly. When they moved, he moved, herding them from outside the fence all day.

We weren’t sure how he’d behave without a fence in between, but when they were out wandering he was pretty good so we let him mingle more and more. And now, even when they’re out of their pen, wandering around freely, he sits in the pen waiting for them to come back. And once they do, he could sit in there amongst them all day. He has really found his “Zen in the Pen” as it were.

chicken-dog

Jasper has definitely bonded to Michelle and me and we are his pack. But the chickens are a pretty close second. When I’m out tossing the Frisbee with him, as soon as he senses that our game time is over he disappears to the chicken coop. As we get back from walks in the woods he sprints to his place by his ladies. So do Border Collies start fraternizing with the sheep that they herd? It’s like the Stockholm syndrome where people kidnapped by political groups eventually start to sympathize with them. Jasper has gone over to the chicken side.

And not surprisingly, since our chickens are a pretty cool, independent bunch too. One has this image of chickens as just sort of mindlessly following along, eating, laying eggs, not thinking about existentialism. Wrong. Not our chickens. They’re like Jonathan Livingston Seagull; a book my Mom got me to read when I was a teenager (at a time I was essentially functionally incapable of reading). It was about a seagull who just refused to be like all the other seagulls.

Case in point. I build this brilliant coop for our chickens. It has very specific features designed for chicken activities. It has roosts for them to sleep on. It has nesting boxes for them to lay eggs in. Never the two shall meet, because they do have a tendency to create chicken manure during their sleep hours. It’s like the expression “you don’t sh*t in your nest,” which, judging by the way the state of our planet, humans haven’t learned this yet.

A few weeks ago it was getting colder so I insulated the coop. Last year I surrounded it with square hay bales, but this year we decided to use some of the rigid Styrofoam insulation that was left over when we put some siding on our house and upped the R-value. Without insulation it is easy to just open the large back door to sweep out the dirty straw. Now to clean out the coop twice a week I have to remove the insulation. I can handle this. It seems like a small price to pay for warm, happy chickens that are protected from cold drafts.

Then we noticed that egg production dropped way off. While a drop in production is to be expected with the cooler weather and reduced hours of daylight, it seemed too steep. Then Michelle discovered that they had made a nest out of their straw in their sleeping chambers. It’s like the nesting box suddenly wasn’t good enough for them. So they made their own. Problem is that I can’t get in to get the eggs without removing the insulation. Well, I can crawl in and retrieve them, but it doesn’t matter how much I stretch in a yoga warm-up-like way, trying to contort my body to fit into the chicken coop to retrieve eggs is a recipe for a herniated disc or something else equally painful.

eggs-in-the-bedroom

Michelle decided they were probably doing it for two reasons. First was that with the new insulation it was pretty warm and toasty in there. Second is that the 3 nesting boxes are in the common foyer area where the ladies mingle and mix before we let them out of their coop in the morning. I’m not rushing to let them out these days since it’s chilly. I want the sun to at least be near the horizon before I drop the drawbridge. So maybe they just wanted more privacy. Plus, once the door is open the nesting boxes are exposed to natural light, while the “bedroom area” remains nice and dark. Either way, they just have a mind of their own. Why can’t they just follow the rules? Why can’t they just do what we tell them? Just play by the rules. I swear once chickens figure out that you’re off the grid, self-employed, eat a plant-based diet, and homeschooled your kids they just think it’s open season on non-conformity. It’s like osmosis, they absorb the independent thought gene.

So I put some small logs around the edge of the bedroom to hopefully discourage nest building. Then Michelle suggested I put curtains on the nesting boxes! No really! There are rooms in our house with no curtains, but the chicken coop, oh, it has to have curtains. And nice ones. Like a nice country gingham.

OK, I made that up. I used an old feedbag. I also only put them on two of the three nesting boxes to see if the ladies do actually prefer them. The good news is that they are back to using their nesting boxes for their egg laying. They seem to use the curtained nesting boxes and the un-curtained one equally though, so I’m not sure if the curtains are necessary.

chicken-curtains

In the meantime, we’ve been having trouble training Jasper to “bark” when we want him to. We hope that his barking will scare the zombies when they attack. I use treats to reward him and I role play barking myself, but he just gets all excited and basically mauls me. I’m thinking maybe we’d have better luck if we tried to teach him to “cluck.” Or “coo.” Or “crow” like the Colonel … sooo much crowing …  soooo early in the morning!

Yup, that’s my dog Jasper. Don’t mess with him. Be afraid. He clucks like a chicken!

4 Responses to “Jonathan Livingston Chicken and The Dog Who Would Be King”

  • Connie:

    I have a sheltie and find that the dogs of the herding class get very protective of their “flock”. I think Jasper likes to keep an eye on the chickens, like he would the sheep. My dog, Sadie, herds my ducks and hens to bed at night. If I forget to put their coop door shut, at dusk, Sadie will tell me she has to go out – and we make sure the girls are all inside and shut the door. You might want to try putting a hinged door on the wall where the nesting sites are. I use dog leash style clips on a hasp, to keep my drop down door shut. Works very well and so far, the raccoons haven’t figured out how to open them. Like your idea of the rigid foam – will have to try that!

  • Glee:

    Most likely the drop in production is their natural response to shorter days and less sunlight. To keep my hens laying (I have customers who would die without their eggs) I put a 100 watt lightbulb in the coop on a timer for 14 hours a day. Production isn’t as good as in the summer, but it’s better with the light than without it. Also, I up their food because much of their energy goes into keeping warm in the winter. I also have a heated waterer to keep them drinking. Eggs are a large part water.

    My dog, Chico, a labrador mix, loves eggs. He steals them whenever he can. My fault. I supplemented his puppy chow with an egg a day. It makes for a shiny coat.

  • greelyrita:

    Another thing too, my dog, also a border collie, LOVES to find eggs!! Yum!!!

  • greelyrita:

    Any change in their environment seems to make new habits form for chickens, in my experience. You changed the outside of the house, so they started laying in a new spot. About the curtains, I notice you left the edges of the curtains unhemmed. I’d be concerned they’re going to eat fibreglass strings. You must have noticed how they like anything long, thin and wiggly. I find chickens, like ducks, eat styrofoam too.

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Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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