It wasn't even ten in the morning and already the hens had gathered in the dirt patch under the shade of the locust trees where I had sprayed down the ground in which they liked to dust themselves knowing full well that on what was predicted to be one of the hottest days of the year they would congregate there in an effort to keep cool. Instead of leisurely pecking and scratching from their morning feeding, the little biddies quickly gobbled up their grains and headed off to find some relief. With their wings held away from their bodies as if in mid-flight suspended animation, they scratched off the dry layer of dirt until finding the cooler, damp earth over which they hovered while furiously panting, their beaks open and their tiny pointed tongues bobbing back in forth in unison with each breath.
I knew the impending markets of the coming weekend would bring disappointment to my many egg customers as they would find out that the availability of their weekly staple would be greatly reduced. Those hens had little interest in laying eggs inside a coop in this oppressive heat. Those who chose to exercise their cloacae, instead sought out the comfort of an impromptu nest hidden in the grass making egg-gathering more of an egg hunt.
Later in the afternoon as I made my rounds ensuring everyone had access to plenty of shade and fresh water, a panicked call came in from a fellow farmer fairly new to raising fowl not far from Painted Hand Farm.
"Are your broilers dying in this heat?" they asked, adding "Mine are falling over dead left and right. I've lost half of my birds since yesterday and each time I go out more are dead."
I could hear the disappoint and frustration in their voice not only for the suffering of their stock, but at the financial loss that was rapidly increasing with the death of each bird. It had been a while since visiting their farm and with everyone watered, shaded and at a stand-still here, I decided to take a drive over to see what was going on. This also gave me a luxurious respite from the triple digit heat as I blasted the air conditioning in my car.
Arriving, I found my farming friend walking in from the field with a bucket full of dead chickens.
"Help," they squeaked out as the tears spilled out from under the rims of their sunglasses.
Heading back out to the field, it took me about ten seconds to see what was wrong.
"Do you have a down jacket?" I asked.
"Yes, why?" they replied cautiously wondering where my odd question was leading. Maybe it was the irritation in my voice.
"Good. I want you to go put it on, make yourself a big mug of hot tea, come back out here and sit in that chicken tractor for the rest of the day." I know it was a mean thing to say, but sometimes I just wonder where people's common sense is when weather becomes extreme.
"Are you saying I'm roasting my chickens?"
Despite the investment into building Polyface-style chicken tractors, my friend had used black metal roofing. The moveable coops were smack dab in the middle of a lush pasture being beaten into solar submission. Furthermore, the waters where the galvanized steel variety and were in also in direct contact with the bright sun glaring down on them heating the water to the point the chickens refused to drink it.
At the edge of the pasture, a couple hundred feet away stood a big ol' shady oak tree and some shrubs.
Time for a Hail Mary.
"We need to get the birds cooler water and into the shade." Reaching for the dolly that assisted in the moving of the pens, my friend began to grumble about the distance and lack of good pasture under the trees, but I had other plans as I removed one of the waterers and headed for the hydrant to refill it with fresh water. Then much to their horror, I lifted the tractor just enough that the birds could escape and began walking toward the trees carrying the waterer with the birds in toe as if I were the Pied Piper of Poultry, the remaining birds battling furiously for the cool water.
"What are you doing?" they shrieked "You're letting all my birds loose."
"Think of this as a hurricane, a forest fire, a tornado--these birds aren't stupid. They'll go where it's safe and when it cools off later today, just take a bucket of feed out and sprinkle it under the tractor. They'll go right back in," I assured.
"But what about predators?"
"Listen, do you want to go eat a nice, hot pizza today? Heck, even I don't cook in this kind of heat! Hunting exerts energy. Do you sweat when you run? There's no way anyone wearing a fur coat is going to be out hunting in this heat, let alone eating. THINK!"
With my point taken, I didn't stick around long as I didn't want to give my vehicle a chance to fall the same fate at the chicken tractors and I wanted to get back to my generous neighbors' lovely swimming pool they graciously allow me to use despite the fact the water had hit 92 degrees yesterday and felt more like a bathtub, it still brought sweet relief from the stifling heat.
So next time you encounter extreme weather conditions, put yourself in your livestock's environment and THINK!