Impractical Poultry Keeping: A Beginner’s Guide

This post was originally published in the Summer Issue of Sheep Canada Magazine.

When we bought our sheep, a friend of mine who had had quite enough of sheep gave us a couple of her books. One was called The Shepherd’s Guide Book, and the other book had a blue cover with sheep on it and lots of illustrations on the inside. I read both books cover to cover. What did I learn? Oh, lots of stuff, although as it turns out, pretty much none of it was useful.  Sure, you’ll learn some things from books, but the lessons experience teaches you – those are the ones that really count.

What, then, has experience taught me about sheep? Experience has taught me that I know nothing about sheep, and probably never will.  I didn’t start my career as a shepherd until I was forty, which is simply too late in the game for all the mathematical probabilities to play out.  In the five years that we have been keeping sheep, never once has an ovine illness or mishap repeated itself: the sheep always contrive to contract new diseases and find different and ever more novel ways of dying. Begin keeping sheep in your twenties and by the time you are sixty you might actually know something.
Chickens, on the other hand, are a lot less complicated, and my experience with them goes back much further.  Yes, I own books with such titles as Practical Poultry Keeping, Bantam Breeding Genetics, and Pastured Poultry Profits.  Yet most of what I know about chickens I didn’t learn from books. I have kept chickens off and on for over thirty years. As a child I kept and bred fancy bantams. I also built three dimensional historical maps and invented my own language. I was a strange child. But by beginning early with chickens, I was well on my way to building up a storehouse of information and practical experience which serves me well now that I once again have a flock of chickens. I see illnesses which I first saw thirty years ago, and so, having the benefit of acquired experience, can say to myself, “Oh, I know what this is!”, and then am able to deal with the problem; whereas with my sheep, I am reduced to throwing my hands up in the air saying, “O- my- God -what –now?!!” and spending the rest of the day Googling symptoms and waiting to speak to veterinarians.
So if you ever want to keep chickens- and I heartily encourage you to do so – by all means get yourself a copy of Practical Poultry Keeping, but bear in mind that a book will never teach you everything you need to know.  Never fear though, for experience will be waiting to fill in the gaps for you!  Heck, experience will cram in those gaps with a trowel! And while you await the mortar and trowel of hands -on learning, I offer you some advice gleaned from my many years of keeping poultry.  
These are the twelve most important things I have learned about keeping chickens, things that you won’t find in any book.
1.       You do not need a rooster.
2.       If you absolutely must have a rooster, then for God’s sake DON’T have more than one.  A henhouse with too many roosters is like a frat house party during frosh week- minus the beer.
3.       Don’t hatch your own chicks. Buy them already sexed from a hatchery.
4.       If you absolutely must hatch your own chicks, familiarize yourself with the Rule of Inverse Poultry Proportion, a universal law governing chickens which can be summarised as follows:  Roosters will always appear in direct proportion to their LACK of desirability. For example: you hatch a dozen chicks and really don’t need any roosters. According to the Rule ALL TWELVE chicks will be roosters. Or, suppose you want to replace your old rooster with a younger one and so you hope for at least one rooster in your hatch of twelve. The Rule of Inverse Poultry Proportion in that case will grant you ONE hen- and eleven roosters. See how this works? Oh, and don’t go thinking you can fool this universal law by saying out loud, “Boy, I really hope we only get roosters this time, hahaha!”, and expect to hatch only hens. The forces of the Universe will know you are lying, and you will still get roosters. People will tell you that probability, given a large enough sample size, will eventually grant you a more or less fifty/fifty split between roosters and hens. Do not believe this; these people know NOTHING about chickens.
5.       Getting rid of extra roosters.  So you went ahead and hatched your own chicks, and now you find yourself stuck with a dozen scrawny roosters. What to do with them? Well, you could eat them, although chances are they will scarcely be worth the effort to kill and pluck them. Or you could do what I do: cultivate a wide circle of friends who also enjoy keeping chickens but who live in areas with large coyote populations. That way you will be able to divest yourself of unwanted roosters while at the same time filling a need within the community. It’s a win-win.
6.       Chickens get into things. If you leave a work cabinet door open or fail to close a storage shed, you can be sure that chickens will get in there. Before closing anything up, you might want to check to see if there are chickens in there first. This is especially important when you receive a load of hay in a pickup truck. If your hens are loose in the yard when your hay arrives, ALWAYS check the bed of the truck before the driver leaves. Unless, of course, your surplus roosters are loose in the yard. Then you don’t need to check the truck. This method of rooster reduction is nearly as successful as the previously mentioned number five.
7.       Do not wear sandals when feeding chickens.  Chickens get very excited when you feed them. Chickens like to peck at things. Chickens like to eat big, pink, juicy worms. If you must wear sandals into the coop, you should also wear socks. Yes, you will look like a fashion-challenged idiot, but you will look far more stupid minus a toe.
8.       Either fence your chicken run or fence your vegetable garden. Unless your plan was to grow summer cabbages and tomatoes for the purpose of feeding them to your chickens, in which case no fences are necessary.
9.       If you buy electric poultry fencing for your chickens, you must remember to turn it ON.
10.   In every flock there is at least one stupid chicken.  How do you recognise the stupid chicken?  It’s really pretty simple. On an evening when: a) It is raining. b) You are going out and are already late. c) You are wearing nylons and high heels.
There will always be one chicken who refuses to return to the coop, and who will resist all efforts to be herded in the correct direction. This is the stupid chicken.
11.   Coyotes always eat your best laying hens first. Then they eat your roosters.
12.   Coyotes never, ever eat the stupid chicken.

The Evil Eye – 6×4 painted paper and fabric collage on panel.

Trial and Error

There have been a couple of eureka moments in the past couple of weeks. One such moment came when I found a reference photo I thought I had lost forever (Filing system? I don’t need no stinking filing system!) and the other moment came to me after watching the work in progress of fellow collage artist Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson.

When I shifted the focus of my art making away from oil painting to painted paper collage, I found myself working in a medium for which I had had no formal training – in fact, I’m not sure if formal training really even exists in the art of collage. Although this was a very liberating experience artistically, it also meant that I no longer had any tried and true method or efficient working system to fall back on. Basically I have been making it up as I go along. My first collages were made on paper, which I found wasn’t really a heavy enough support and maddeningly prone to buckling.

My first serious attempt at collage: Rocky © 2007 Alyson Champ

After trying out rigid, acid free mat board and then canvas, which were better than the paper but still posed problems, I tried out medium density fiberboard, or MDF, as a support surface and this I liked: it’s rigid and stable and smooth. Unfortunately, it needs to be completely sealed to make it archival and safe.

I chose to seal the panels with black gesso because my idea at the time was to have a little of the black background show between the pieces of paper to give the collages a stained glass appearance.

Yellow Iris (2009) in progress. Note the “puzzle pieces” of collage on the black background.

The problem with the black gesso was that it was so dark that I had to work blind; I couldn’t transfer my drawings onto the black surface because no pencil, chalk or charcoal was really visible on the black. Nor, as it turned, was the stained glass effect quite as appealing as I had hoped. So, what to do?

For a while I continued working as I had simply for the lack of a better method. And then I happened upon Elizabeth’s work (shown below) and EUREKA! She draws directly on the panel and then preserves the drawing, while also sealing the panel, with a clear, acrylic sealant. Duh! Now why the heck didn’t I think of that?

Fine Feathers – in progress, ©2011 Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson, photo used with permission.

As you can see, Elizabeth works free hand on her panel. I still prefer to make my preparatory drawing on paper first, work all the kinks out, and then transfer the main elements of the drawing via tracing paper onto the panel. Having a drawing to refer to and a basic drawing of the planned collage on the panel itself certainly is making my life a lot easier! And if you think Elizabeth’s drawing is terrific, I encourage you to check out the finished collage on her website, It is fabulous!

What’s On the Easel?

Quite a lot, actually! Thanks to some generous friends, I now have many more reference photos for my Well Dressed Dog collage project – yeah, I know I keep changing the name of the series but I swear “Well Dressed Dog” is it!

I’m also continuing to work on my large collage “Mara Under Water”. Check out the drawing and prepped panel below:

Pencil study for “Mara Under Water” © 2011 Alyson Champ

“Mara” transferred to the 20×24″ panel

You can see what a help Elizabeth St. Hilaire Nelson’s method has been.

This week, I almost managed to finish another collage, my second rooster to date. The very handsome subject of this collage is our own rooster, Pretty Boy Floyd.

Pretty Boy Floyd – 9×13″ painted paper and fabric collage on panel, ©2011 Alyson Champ

He knows he is good looking. I’m not sure if my hens have an opinion.

Odds and Ends

It was a funny week here in St. Crazy, both weather-wise and art-wise. The weather was all over the place: we had bitter cold, then above freezing temperatures, sleet, freezing rain, and snow. Now we are back to bitter cold again. Winter in Quebec provides a little something for everyone, I guess.

As for art projects, there was also a little bit of everything. My plan was to continue with my Clothed Dogs series of collages. I was waiting for an opportunity to photograph a friend’s mini-Dachshunds in their sweaters but the weather conditions and my schedule were not co operating. I did get as far as photographing one of my own dogs, though. Here is Toby looking smashing in a royal blue, form fitting, little knit number.

Toby in Blue – photo by the artist

With my dogs- in- sweaters plans thwarted for the time being, I shifted my attentions to making the preparatory drawing for a big collage that I had been planning for several months. I was having a good time working on that one until I realised that I wouldn’t be able to get beyond the drawing stage. The reason? My big garage/studio does not yet have proper heating (not good when it’s -20 degrees C) and my indoor spare bedroom studio lacks adequate workspace to accommodate the large panel. So…what to do?

Happily, mid-week my husband came home with a bag of cast off neckties- a gift from his father (thanks M.) – to add to my Cache of Truly Hideous Neckties, bits and pieces of which regularly appear in my collages. Check out these babies:

Photo by the artist

Now, when you look at these ties, I don’t know what comes to your mind, but to me they said, “Rooster!”. Lucky for me, I had already made drawings for some rooster collages which hadn’t gotten beyond the planning stage, (Hmm…anybody else beginning to notice a pattern here?) which meant that a fair bit of the work was already done. I simply had to get a-gluing. Here is the result:

Rooster – 9″x8″ painted paper and fabric collage on panel ©2011 Alyson Champ

There are still some small details on the image to work out, but he is very nearly complete. And, I am pleased to add, he is already sold.

Rooster detail -front end….

…and back.

Something to Crow About?

If you found yourself passing by our yard on a summer evening sometime in the mid-1970’s and heard a cry of “WILLIAM!”, followed by a frantic scattering of children, you might think you were witnessing a game, perhaps some local variant of tag or British Bulldog. But in that notion you would be mistaken. “WILLIAM!” certainly wasn’t a game; he was a rooster.

For reasons I can no longer remember, in my childhood I developed the strange hobby of breeding Bantam chickens. Certainly they were pretty birds, coming as they did in a wild variety of colours and with all manner of fancy plumage. I had Cochins and Silkies, a black Polish hen, a beautiful pair of Mille Fleurs, and…. William. I don’t remember what breed he was, but he was tiny and multicoloured: gold on the neck, dark on the breast, with rusty wings and back, and he had a long opulent tail of the most exquisite dark iridescent green. He truly was a handsome little fellow. Yet only a fool would have been deceived by his lovely appearance and diminutive size. Simply put, William was a nasty piece of work.

An interrupter of games and a spoiler of fun, determined to eradicate all forms of childhood entertainment, William was a ferocious flurry of hackles, talons and spurs. Fast and devious, he would surprise us coming around corners or spot us from across the yard and then run at us full tilt. Nowhere was safe. He chased us. He jumped at the backs of our legs. And worst of all, if he could manage it, he flew right up at our faces.

Not only was he a misery to me and my family, but woe betide any visiting cousin or neighbour. The last straw came one day when I was playing outside in the yard with my best friend- a girl with waist long hair. William spotted us enjoying ourselves from some distance away. He ran at my friend , launching himself at her head and somehow in his fury, he got himself tangled in her hair. She was screaming and crying; he was flapping and fluttering. To remedy the situation I did the only thing I could think of: I grabbed a stick and swung.

Luckily, I missed my friend’s head. Unluckily for William, I did not miss his. The rooster dropped to the ground like a stone and lay there too stunned to move. I thought I had killed him. After what was probably only a few seconds (it seemed much longer), he got back on his feet. Humiliated and chastened, he made a staggering exit from the scene. And his pride wasn’t the only thing that he left without: he also left without his tail. Every single one of his beautiful tail feathers had fallen out and lay in a small heap on our lawn. William was never quite the same after that. Perhaps his change in personality was due to that blow to the head, or perhaps he was simply embarrassed. Either way his reign of terror ended. His tail never grew back either.

Almost William– preparatory line drawing, ink on paper ©2010 Alyson Champ

What’s on the Easel

I have a series of commissions looming- all collages. One will be my first ever large-scale landscape. I am both excited and a bit apprehensive about that. Soon I will also start work on a couple of dog portraits. Those are always fun. I’ll post photos of the work in progress as I go. Strangely, the collage commission which has piqued my interest the most is an order to produce a series of roosters. I’ve gotten as far as making some preliminary drawings, shown here above and below.

Pretty Boy Floyd– preparatory line drawing, ink on paper, ©2010 Alyson Champ