Friday, June 28, 2013

The Companion Cage / Massacre at Keet Creek

As you may or may not remember, I made me buy 4 Guinea Hen Keets a few months back.  Keets are the chicks of the Guinea Hen world.  They were already good sized babies when the feed store seduced me into buying them, so their time spent in a cardboard "brooder" with light on in the garage was short.  I only had a few weeks to create a space for them to bloom into adulthood.

Fortunately, I have had a blooming plan for this for a while now.  I will also need a space to bloom new hens when I start adding to our flock.  The best way to introduce a new hen or hens to a flock is to let them live near and around your existing flock for a few weeks, but separated, preferably by wire.

I have the perfect area for this.  There is a little six foot space between the fence and the chicken cage that was the perfect fit.  All I had to do was wire the roof and one short wall.  All wired connections are tightly secured every couple inches with more wire.  It's heavy gauge wire and will easily accommodate a raccoon, weasel, small alligator or even Nick Nolte if he's hopped up on Silver-Blue Krylon again.

Then I slapped up a little short term make shift gate,

Tossed in a garbage can with hay for shelter,


And wallah, home sweet home.  The perch was already there, this area had been a little hideaway for the regular flock from the get go.

The companion cage is now right next door to where the main flock eats and sleeps and cock a doodle do's.  Whenever a new hen, now, or in the future, will need to be integrated into the main flock, this is where they will begin their life after the brooder.  This way everybody gets to smell each other and know each other for quite a while, or at least a few weeks before they get to potentially touch.

It worked well.  The keets were scooted out there in late April and grew quite handsomely.  To my dismay, their voices changed and their delightful little keet chirp banter turned into the clack and snarl of a punk rock band.  Every once in a while all four of them would engage in a frenzied cacophony of unearthly sounds, sort of like an encore at a Clash concert.

I also noticed that their bodies were becoming cloaked in a beautiful array of gray and white feathers.  Then there was a little bit of a lovely blue hue leading up the neck towards their absolutely freakish looking prehistoric heads.  Teradyctals don't have anything on a Guinea Hen.  Neither do Jabba the Hutt or Phyllis Diller.

I wanted the Guineas to be about the same size as the other hens in the flock before I integrated them.  The hens and Goldie, the Rooster, would stop by the companion cage from time to time to check the keets out.  Then, when the hens would come in to roost,  the keets would be drawn to the always cluck cluck cluck boisterous affair going on six inches from their little prehistoric heads.

It's especially boisterous now.  I have recently discovered a wonderful new trick for locking the flock up a little earlier than dusk, which always causes an extra rousing round of boisterousness.

As you may have noticed, dusk comes later and later this time of year.  Hell, the sun's going to be setting past my bed time soon.  And that's when it's a drag to lock up the flock.  When you're on a sleep walk.

 So I inadvertently started bribing them with some grain feed called "Scratch".  It's called "Scratch" because you toss it on the ground and the chickens will scratch around and pluck it up.  Chickens also need to inhale some dirt and grits, as well actual nourishing food.  Since they have no teeth, their food gets down in their gut somewhat whole.  Having some little rocks rolling around breaks up the food and helps them digest.  When they're in the brooder, I add some grits to their feed, just like a good southern host should.

The flock is generally very self regulating.  Even when they were allowed to roam, as soon as the sun starts to set they enter their secure area and perch up.  I started tossing in a little grain to give them a bed time snack and soon discovered that treat will lure them in just about any old time.

Their Hilton accommodations already include an unlimited amount of champagne and caviar.  They also have access to several indoor perches, as well as a total of five indoor nesting boxes.  There's hay everywhere.  They also enjoy another three or four perches outside, but within bullet-proof security.

This is where most of them can be found at night, perched up in their cage, even when its twenty-eight degrees outside.  One or two have actually spent the freezing nights in the warmth and shelter of their house, but the majority sleep outside.  The total secure area for them would be like living in an entire thirty-fourth floor suite at the Peppermill in Reno, or hanging out in the Candleabra Ballroom at the Radisson in El Centro.  Depending on your point of view.

I think there was a point to all this.  Oh yes, the bed time bribery snack.  They love it and scoot right in, rabbling and rousing and enjoining in a rousing chorous of cluck cluck cluck.  I think the keets really wanted to be a part of that action.

It would be like if you were a teenager, and you lived next door to a bunch of folks that drank beer and ate food and smoked pot all the time.  And they were laughing and singing and having a blast every night.

Or maybe it was like a really rollicking quilting party, or Parcheesi party, or any other kind of outlandish social occasion that would look enticing.  Whatever your proclivity.  And it all looked so very fun and you really wanted to be a part of that action, but you were fenced out.  You were a Guinea non Grata.  That's how the keets felt.

When the keets were close to hen size, and on a whim, I opened their gate on the 4th of June.  They were hesitant at first, but soon enough one and then two ventured out.  And then they were all out.  And it was such a non-issue it was amazing.  It was as if the hens and Goldie didn't even know they existed.  The four of them pretty much hung around together, but they would all intermingle with the main flock as if they had been there all along.

I was mostly concerned about how our Rooster would react, and he hasn't even blinked.  He hasn't gone looking for anything strange either, if you know what I mean.

As you may or may not know, the Guinea Hen's pest control prowess is legendary.  That's why I wanted them.  Besides bugs, they do snakes and rodents.  I was also piping in subliminal messages to their garbage can nest at night to get them palpably excited about the prospect of terrorizing deer.

Guineas are considered wild, not domestic fowl.  They will alert a flock of chickens to potential danger.  They are purportedly great watch dogs, and will let you know when danger or even an intruder happens along.  I heard that you don't have to lock them up at night, that they are adept enough to take care of them selves.

On the other hand, a chicken's metabolism slows when the sun goes down.  They are essentially defenseless against any potential night time danger, like Ozzie on cough syrup or Nick on Rustoleum.  That's why I lock them up every night.

I left the keets alone their first night.  Besides their adolescent stomping grounds and garbage can shelter, they had free run of the entire enclosed area.  This included a couple more perches.  Fowl are funny, instead of scootching down in a nice, secure box of soft hay, they choose to grip a piece of wood with their talons and stand all night.

That first night, the keets all spent a lovely night on one of the outside perches.  Then about midnight on the second night, the 6th, they created a cacophony that sounded like Patti Smith was Flogging Molly with the Dead Kennedy's Sex Pistol.

I'd heard it before, many times, just not at midnight.  The time was not registering in my cranium.  Through the shrouds of fog, mist and dancing bears running around my sleepy head, I told them to shut up.  It was too late to be partying and time to go to bed.  

The next morning, around 6:00 AM, the chickens were making a lot of extraordinary noise.  That's something they don't usually do.  Our rooster will usually start crowing about 5:30 AM, but he had been extraordinarily quiet.  And the tone of their clucking was different.  Something was up. 

I went out, and, much to my dismay, there was a headless keet outside the fence.  Then there was half a  carcass of another wedged between the fence and dirt, but inside the fenced area.  One keet was missing entirely, the trail of feathers leading off our property before any slaughter was seen.  And then there was one traumatized keet hiding in the garbage can.  The chickens and Goldie were all fine.

It looked like the tattered remnants of the Alamo, or the decimation at Custer's last stand.  Or leftovers of Nolte's after he's been out on a Krylon binge.

I removed and buried the dead birds and then opened the flock's cage door.  It took them about an hour before they finally ventured out, with Goldie, the Rooster, leading the way.

From the reading I've done, I'm pretty sure it was probably one or two raccoons.  A fox or any kind of cat would be selective.  They'd grab a bird, take it away and then dine.  Then come back the next night. When a fox or cat is the intruder, there's not a Valentine's Day massacre scene to contend with, you generally just start losing birds.  

Racoons, on the other hand, love to come in and create a major ruckus.  It's like they drank a couple of Olde English 800 40's and swallowed a handful of PCP tabs and then went out to party.  I guess the only thing left to ingest was a quart of Guinea Hen blood.  Off with their heads!

For those of you unfamiliar with OE8, it harkens me back to days of yore.  A hearty malt liquor, it tasted disgusting.  But you could catch a buzz off one tall boy, and a six pack of tall OE8s cost under two bucks.  It was a very economical way for a car load of high school boys to catch a buzz on the way to a football game.

One of the racoons major tells is their methode de decapitation, and they have no compunction about obliterating an entire flock just for fun.  And then run, laughing all the way.  They have just become number two on my most hated wildlife list, with deer remaining numero uno.

I also have to take some heat for the massacre.  While they most certainly can be wild fowl and able to take care of themselves, these guys were still rather adolescent.  I probably should have locked them up at night as well, for at least another month.  Or at least until they showed a good ability to fly, which is their major route of escape when they feel threatened.

We now have one very lonely, forlorn and traumatized adolescent keet.  Poor thing.  I barred her from her original hang out, the companion cage, with the hopes she will socialize with the other hens.  She found a perch inside the hen house, and except for food and water, she didn't leave the safety of that place for about a week. She pretty much just hung out on a perch inside the house, facing the corner while visions of Freddy Krueger and Godzilla filled her head.

She finally ventured out about a week later, and is probably doing the best she can.  My lovely wife has named her Ginnie, Ginnie the Guinea.  Some nights she will sleep in the cage with the rest of the flock, sometimes she's in her own companion cage, which is also secure.  Either way, she gets locked up at night just like her cousins. 

I'm not sure if I will get more Guinea Hens, there is a noise factor I had not considered.  Most of our neighbors find the crow of our rooster charming, however, if they had to listen to The Clash at top volume at all hours of the day and night they might not stay so enamored.

Based on the following, and even though we don't let the flock out of their fantasia land anymore for their own protection, they are still cage free, free range and organic.

Omelet anyone?


Chickens are often kept in row after row of compact, wire cages. This practice allows a maximum amount of egg-laying chickens to be kept in any given space. Unfortunately, the chickens have no exercise and little freedom of movement, meaning that they are often malnourished and in the poorest of health, with the quality of the eggs they produce likely to suffer as a result. Eggs from chickens kept in cages will be the least expensive on the market. Hens in a cage-free environment have, at the very least, freedom of movement around a barn or some other form of hen house.

Free range

Eggs from free range chickens are slightly more expensive than other varieties, but these eggs are from chickens that have access to a farmyard or other sizable outdoor enclosure. These chickens are able to obtain exercise by wandering around freely and will have likely access to fresh grass, insects and grubs. This means the quality of the eggs is improved as a result.


Chickens are often fed artificial growth stimulators and other synthetic foodstuffs as a means of bringing them to killing size quicker, or otherwise making them more financially viable to farmers. An organic label means that the eggs have been laid by chickens that are fed only naturally produced foodstuffs and have not been fed or injected with any chemical substances. Where eggs are deemed to be both free range and organic, they will likely represent the upper range of the price scale.