This guest post comes from my friend Sarah. She’s wonderful, you’ll love her. XO, Erica
Once upon a time, I wanted backyard chickens. Fresh eggs, active composters, pseudo-pets. What’s not to love? I was an early 30-something DINK with a corporate job, a 1⁄4 acre plot just outside Seattle city limits and dreams of independent living.
So, I took a class at my local Tilth organization, I studied breeds, I repurposed my garden shed into a pretty damn cute coop using mostly recycled materials (naturally). I set up a brooder box in my laundry room and lovingly hand raised my chicks, naming them after carefully chosen pop stars. (There was Gaga, Shakira, Britney, etc.) I built a chicken tractor so my chickens and dogs could peacefully share space on the lawn.
I was a tender-hearted urban chicken keeper
Beyonce turned out to be Jay-Z, and I shed a little tear when he had to go. Try as I might, I couldn’t eat that chicken without tasting the guilt in my mouth. I fed most of the resulting luscious risotto concoction to my dogs.
Fast forward. Like on your old school VCR, when you can still see the images going all squiggly and breakneck fast.
Fast forward through jobs and pregnancies. Through the reality of parenting small children. Through many rainy, rainy Seattle winters (and springs and falls). Through successful growing seasons and not so successful.
My first batch of pop star girls age out and are replaced. The new flock is less lovingly raised and not trained with mealworms to come when I call out with a high pitched “chook, chook, choooook.”
I put my eggs in the Sex-Link basket (literally and figuratively) to drastically reduce the odds I’ll have to deal with culling roosters. They are all female and vigorous egg layers, but mostly interested in eating and with limited “Chicken Personality.” (That’s a thing, I swear).
The new girls have no names.
Fast forward. Now I’ve got 2 kids under 5, 6 dogs and 8 chickens. I’ve definitely got this under control. Yeah, right.
Still, I don’t give up on my backyard flock! I strap my infant to my back for egg collection. I dutifully let the ladies free range, even as it becomes more and more of a shitshow to get everybody back up into the run.
My 4-year-old is a chicken wrangler, of sorts, but it’s hard to find the line between help and hindrance. I try not to accidentally whack him as I chase the hens around my backyard with a broom or a rake or a shovel like a crazy person.
I have no time to chase chickens!
All this would have been fine. Except for the rats.
Fast forward with me again. The 65-year-old garden shed starts to rot from moisture – internal and external. The skipping images on our screen start to look like scenes from the Secret of Nym, an onslaught of increasing numbers of rats.
For years we had chickens and no rats. Sure, I heard the stories. I knew the risks. I dutifully kept feed in locking metal bolt buckets. I only fed as much as the ladies would eat in 10-15 minutes. I took precautions, dammit! And I patted myself on the back for my rodent free success!
Then there was a shift. A mild winter, plus a neighbor’s demo project of an old outbuilding, very likely a historical rodent stronghold. Maybe they were always there and it was just a population explosion? Whatever the reason, the rats started their assault on our Chicken Fortress. And it never ceased.
There are two notable incidents. Ok maybe three. Well, three if I leave out the ones involving pellet guns and hatchets.
One involves the discovery of a mystery hole in the chicken coop wall. Mystery in that the hole just showed up one day. Right above the feeder. Huh. I stood there, pondering the hole. And then the insulation started to move. That was the beginning. We patched up the hole, liberally applied hardware cloth, pondered many theories about entry points. But hey, we’ve got this under control!
During egg collection, with a now-toddler on my back, a second discovery is made. Rats. on. the. ceiling. No, no not like externally, on the roof. But above my head, clinging, scurrying paw to disgusting paw in death defying parkour acrobatics, thwarting any efforts made to contain them.
Scream. Exit. Explain to children.
Consider a flamethrower or possibly moving.
The third and final incident started like a victory, and ended in a realization. See, we had trouble trapping these fu… creatures. City rats are wise to your ways. They’ve got generations of imprinted knowledge about what is and is not a threat. They know how to avoid a traditional snap trap. And a bucket trap. We invested in an electronic arsenal. That worked until the extended family saw the victim. By way of a wake, they put the word out to the rest of the clan. After that we only caught slugs. Useful, but not the intended foe.
Enter The Black Mamba. Not her official name, but that’s what we called her. Lovingly even. During the course of this war, we sought non-traditional looking solutions, something this population hadn’t seen before. At under $5, Black Mamba was worth the risk. She paid off in spades.
When first deployed, the Mamba struck every 12 hours, sometimes more frequently, for 4 and a half days. We caught 9+ rats, during that time. Sometimes we pulled them out of her jaws while they were still warm. (BLECK!) After she sat empty for a full 24 hours, we took her inside for a week, then re-deployed her. Repeat performance. We added one to the arsenal in another location. Three more strikes. This was gratifying! And horrifying!
There’s an adage about if you’ve seen one rat, there’s really ten. So what if you have over 20 confirmed kills? It’s pretty easy math. Math I initially resisted. Maybe I don’t have this under control?
I stopped giving a shit. The chickens were on their own! I mean, not really. They were still fed and cleaned up after, of course. Mostly by my husband. I still ate the delicious eggs. But as we appeared to be losing the rat war, I retreated emotionally from my hens.
During a prior culling, a wonderful dear friend of mine had handled everything. We delivered a box of old but very much alive chickens. A few weeks later we picked up many quarts of golden chicken broth. It was honestly one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
This time around, the timing wasn’t quite right for such an involved favor. With mixed emotions, I offered my flock free to good pot on a couple of local groups. It was time. Winter was coming, as they say. I had no desire to continue to do battle through another season where R.O.U.S.es were actively seeking cover.
To my surprise, my Chicken Ladies were all added (alive) to existing local flocks. No pot needed. We boxed them up, stacked them in front of the garage door and sent them on their way. I wasn’t even home when they were picked up. Bon voyage, gals!
So what do I do now?
I buy eggs. I’m a bit of a connoisseur, in fact. At first, I was sorely disappointed by the commercial landscape of flat, pale yolks. But, we’ve found our way. At about .36/egg (but no schlepping food or cleaning poop out of a water dish) it seems like a runaway deal.
I use my yard waste bin a heck of a lot more for food scraps. That makes me a little sad. Conversely, I’m also more inspired to eat those leftovers if I can’t recycle them into eggs via bottomless pit chickens.
We have plans to completely disassemble the garden shed this summer – with a backhoe. I’m sure our “neighbors” are still living out there, growing in number, plotting their revenge, even without a readily available food source. Turns out, I wouldn’t recommend a vintage garden shed with a root cellar as a chicken coop.
Our chicken season will come again. When my kids are older, with a new coop that is more resistant to attack (i.e., they can’t live in the walls). I’d love a few more Buff Orpingtons (hands down my favorites) to chat with over my backyard coffee in the mornings.
Until then, urban chicken-keeping was a useful exercise in animal husbandry, but one I do not regret letting go of. My homestead isn’t “failing” for lack of chickens. My 1⁄4 acre is less productive, sure. It is also more reflective of the realities of my life. While I’m sure the rats are still there, I don’t have to interact with them, or even worry about interacting with them, every day, multiple times per day.
That right there is worth some pale yolks.38
Miser Mom says
Sarah!!!!! I miss the Dogs-or-Dollars blog, and still think of you. I’m so glad for the update . . . although sorry to hear about the rats. Oh, and about Beyonce being a dude-in-disguise.
Sarah Forrest says
Miser Mom!!!! I still peek in at you on occasion as well! And I always think of you when I am tempted to say that my life is “busy”. 😉
Lisa W. says
OH!! It’s like reading my own story!!! Right down to the sex-link issue & one that turned out to be a Rooster, and my love of Buffs. Also learned how bad scratch (chicken crack) was for chickens when used as a treat frequently. No matter how clean things were, we received a rat problem from a closed down chicken farm over a mile away – 6 months in. I actually became un-scared of the little stinky furry nightmares and had a mean pellet rifle aim after a while. I miss my birds and have been thinking of starting another flock here at the new place, but have been warned by others that the nearby river means rats. Ugh. Loved your story!
long time reader and admirer, first time poster here. I completely relate to your rat problem – I had the same issue and have come to hate those things with a passion. I’ve tried every kind of trap, spent hundreds of dollars, all to no avail, until I finally found a product that worked:
This thing is the bee’s knees. Basically it provides a way for your ducks and chickens to feed minus the rodents. After getting several of these, I’ve noticed the rats no longer hanging around the coop, although they have started to nibble at the base of several trees probably because of no longer having access to easy food. I have no relation to this company or product other than being a satisfied customer. Hope this helps you and/or your other readers. Really enjoy your blog! Thanks, mike
Thanks very much Mike!
Wow… this sounds so similar to my own chicken life… LOL only about 10x more intense. I used the Rat Zapper to get rid of rats. Worked very well… starting with 1 every 3 hours the first evening. I got rid of 14 rats in 5 days. I had a game camera running in the chicken yard. When I saw 7 rats in a 10 sec clip, I freaked out. It took me 5 days of searching to figure out how they were getting inside my coop… climbing straight up the walls and going in thru the roof.
I still have my chickens. No more rats. For now.
I also miss Dogs or Dollars!!! Now I’m wondering about the rest of your dogs 🙁 But great to hear from you!
Sarah Forrest says
Alas, they aged and left us. We lost the last member of our OG pack this last January actually. Our old man terrier, pictured above, and he was 15+. We now have a Newf, a Doberman, and a Bull Terrier. They are patient, wonderful creatures.
Sarah Forrest says
And thank you for mentioning/remembering D or D. That made my day! 🙂
You don’t need to post this… but I didn’t know how to ask via direct email… what breed is your dog? I just adopted a puppy that is uncannily identical to yours. (They told me border collie/pit mix.)
Sarah Forrest says
He was a leggy, poorly bred Jack Russell. Supposedly.
Nancy E. Sutton says
You were right, again, Erica! Love Sarah ; ) (Not that you’re ever ‘wrong’, hardly…. maybe just tastebud differences once in awhile : )
I’m glad to get a chicken recommendation… Buff Orpingtons.
And, fyi, there are a number of DIY rat-proof chicken feeder plans on-line.
She’s for real one of my favorite people.
Sarah Forrest says
Ditto friend. Thanks for letting me say some words.
Alas, our Buff Orpingtons went to other homes as well. Largely due to the Rats. Our best rat treatment was a foster dog we had for a while — some kind of Terrier mix. She was an awesome rat-killer. Pounce, shake, shake, done. It was like Wild Kingdom!
Sarah Forrest says
Our Bull Terrier has killed a couple just like that. Pounce, shake, shake! He’s the only dog in a long line of a lot of dogs, who’s “earned his keep”. 😉 But his skills are no match for the tide of rats!
Heather Shaver says
Ha ha! We have had success with the “Black Mamba” too! BUT we have also had 2 of them disappear. The first, we found on the other corner of our lot, behind our shed, with ONE RAT PAW stuck in it. And yes, we do now regularly see a 3 legged rat around our chickens. Now we stake them down. 🙂
The rat thing is by far the worst part of the chicken experience. We also got a barn cat last year, but she now lives down the street at an abandoned house that probably has more rats than we do.
My husband says we should get a rat terrier, but since I can’t handle any more kids, I figure I can’t handle a dog either. And honestly, as long as they aren’t in MY house, it’s okay. Although I feel like our time is limited for whenever that happens. 🙁 It is Seattle, after all. Rats rule the city.
Thanks for sharing your experience! And yay for knowing your limits and setting boundaries for health and personal sustainability.
Sarah Forrest says
My husband had an unfortunate experience with a victim caught in the Mamba, by its face! ::shudder:: That is when the hatchet made an appearance.
And terriers can’t keep up with this level of rat. That barn cat is probably sitting pretty.
Susan Knilans says
I keep three muscovies in a urban yard. The coop is a good one–large and very secure. I’ve had them for five years, and am blessed with NO rats that I know of. I used to keep chickens, but strongly prefer this muscovy trio. They are totally quiet and VERY calm. Unlike chatty hens or psycho ducks (which, to me, is all ducks…), and can free range in my gardens without ruining my plants or turning the yard into dust bowls. Their water needs are met with a small size kiddie wading pool. And their eggs are ambrosia! No more chickens for me. I’m sold on my muscovies.
I use the same traps as what you called the Black Mamba with pretty good success, though poison blocks deployed in secured bait stations has been by far the most effective.
Rats are a nuisance around chickens, but have never found them particularly dangerous to them. I try to keep the population in check but I’m under no illusions that I’ll ever get rid of them, I’m simply in too urban a location for that.
Rat snakes are often regarded as the best biological control. Haven’t tried them here.
I use Sex Links and while they’re not particularly docile, they’re quiet and I’ve found them easy to train to go back into their coop. Will be trying some heritage breeds next year just to do something different.
Love your blog. Just started as a first time chicken keeper. The rats freek me out. My chicks are still in the brooder so no rats yet. Time will tell.
Thank you so much for this post. It brought spontaneous laughter on an otherwise dismal day in the corporate jungle. While I don’t have chickens, a garden or even a yard, I do understand rats and their apparently ongoing plot to take over the world, as we have a very robust population at the barn where the rabbit rescue organization I volunteer with stores its hay, and in the Lower Mainland where many municipalities have instituted a green bin collection program to divert household food waste from the regular garbage stream, rats seem to be the only residents not worried about the future viability of a city where only the 1% can afford to live.
Erica, hope you’ll consider adding more Sarah to your blog… it’s easy to understand why the two of you are friends given your common gift for storytelling, and ability to see the somewhat dark humour that abounds in a life well-lived.
Sarah Forrest says
Laura – I’ve been in that dismal corporate jungle, and I’m so happy this brought some levity to your day,
Rats and compost are a whole ‘nother thing entirely.
Katie N says
Thank you for sharing this! We recently re-homed our last hen because of rats. I tell myself it was because she was lonely, but its because of the rats. Well, rats and babies! When my older daughter was a newborn I looked out my window in all my post-partum glory and saw rats running to the feeder. Immediately called an exterminator and poured a concrete floor. Fast forward to my twins being born and I can see new rat burrows around the coop and decided I was done. (Also decided while pregnant I must be a terrible chicken-keeper). A local family took in our last remaining lady and I’m blissfully chicken free! Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to break up and get rid of that damn concrete floor.
Oh man, this is almost my exact story! By the time I had a aged dog, an aged cat, a 2-year old and a 4-year old, and 6 chickens, I was tired from keeping creatures alive. So I rehomed my chickens, and the rats moved along. We’re retrofitting our coop now, because we just got 4 chicks. They are being lovingly raised by my 8- and 6-year old children. I expect now that they are older, they’ll be more help.