Life On Gabriola Island Stories From The Flock

A Chicken Keeper’s Snowy Holiday

2021 Ends With A Bang

Some folks eagerly anticipate a snowy holiday season. I’m not one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Grinch, nor am I a stranger to ‘real’ winters having grown up in Toronto where the ‘lake effect’ impacts the weather. The snow falling in the night sky or glistening on the trees can evoke a feeling of nostalgia for my childhood. I’ve lived in British Columbia for almost three decades and one of the factors for my westward migration was the climate. For the first seven years, I was in the small capital city of Victoria, which is surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean. I lived through their ‘Storm of the Century’, which at that time was an unprecedented dump of snow that practically shut down the otherwise temperate city and kept many folks housebound for several days.

Since relocating, in 2000, to Gabriola, a small island between the mainland and Vancouver Island I’ve become a lot more attuned to the forces of nature. I loved winter as a kid because it was all about having fun with no responsibilities. Living on an island means we are subject to the whims of the ferry, power outages, snow-covered roads, windstorms and downed trees blocking the road. You learn quickly to be somewhat self-sufficient: we’ve got a shed full of wood, an efficient wood stove, a propane stove for cooking, thousands of gallons of water stored in a cistern and loads of food in the fridge, freezer and pantry. Three years ago we experienced a phenomenal windstorm that in just a few hours wreaked havoc across the province resulting in the loss of electrical power for 750,000 customers – most for close to a week or more. We managed just fine for the five days we had no power: the only casualty was my patience, having been deprived of my computer, television, lights, toilet and shower (running water requires an electricity powered pump). Upon coming out on the other side I wrote a post about our collective experience; ironically my most viewed article isn’t even about chickens.

Over the summer we endured two heat waves and a ‘heat dome’, a new term to add to our vocabulary. Then in mid-October, our lexicon increased yet again with the addition of ‘atmospheric river’ when we were inundated with a huge dump of rain over a couple of days. Now we’re experiencing the joys of a ‘polar vortex’ and ‘arctic outflow’. Thinking back to when I was a kid I don’t recall such yo-yoing of extreme weather systems and fear this is a harbinger of our new normal.

I took 12 days off my job as a Health Promotion Education with a non-profit organization, happy not to be rising at 6am and schlepping to work via bus, ferry and car. I had planned a relaxing time writing, snapping some photos, reading by the fire and taking my dog for forest walks, but Mother Nature kiboshed that.

Christmas Eve

I was a little ahead of schedule on my task list so I decided to clean out the coop while the weather was pleasant. I was glad I’d done so because that was the last time I’d be able to use a wheelbarrow or access my stash of shavings stored under a tarp. I’m sure my birds were happy to have clean bedding for the holidays as well. Wet shavings can lead to foot problems and when frozen, hold moisture in the coop. My coop is winterized with double walls and insulation, which keeps them protected from the elements.

My partner and I offered to host Christmas dinner for my cousin and sister, both who live here. We spent days studying the weather forecast trying to figure out if the 25th was the best date and when we should thaw the turkey. We settled for the actual day, relieved to hear the snow forecast was downgraded to a mere 10cm/4” and if we made it through without issue, Boxing Day would be a breeze.

Christmas Day

On Christmas morning I went out to see my flock. It had rained and then snowed just a bit, but enough to ice up the overhead netting and tarp covered shelters in their 30’x 40’ pen. I’m experienced at knocking down snow – having discovered that if you use the wrong tool it can weaken and split the tarp, or if you’re out there in the dark you can trip, cursing the blasted white stuff. One of those times, I fell cutting my head and wrenching my thumb doing just that. It was an accident that took my hand months to recover from. Almost three years later it’s still not 100%.

A good chicken keeper doesn’t slack off, choosing to stay by the toasty fireside, ignoring the needs of our birds. No, instead I trekked out there knocking off what little snow I could. The plastic mesh was coated with a fine layer of ice that wasn’t going to budge. It was sagging, but held in place. My flock wasn’t amused, but managed to venture out as there was only a skiff of snow on the ground. Their waterers were slushy, but not frozen.

Christmas day and dinner went off without a hitch. It’s was snowing lightly by evening, but I dismissed it as light flurries. I went out to check my flock. For the first time, their automatic door didn’t close on time. I wondered if the batteries had died, but when I shone my flashlight at the motor (it’s triggered by a solar sensor) I heard it crank up but not move.  We’ve had rain, snow and freezing temperatures before, but they’ve never affected the door. I managed to coax it to close and was relieved to know my birds weren’t left vulnerable to any nighttime predators.

Given meterologists’ predictions I wasn’t concerned about getting my car out of our long driveway. Being a planful person I should have ignored their optimism and parked it up on the main road, which gets plowed and sanded.

Boxing Day

Waking up the next day, I was surprised to see a winter wonderland and my car appearing as a snow-covered bump. Since we usually have so little snow I was a tad unprepared for the amount I had to contend with. I had recently retired my lace up waterproof winter boots and heavy winter coat. My replacements weren’t quite up to the task. I’ve got a great pair of Bogs ankle boots which fit the bill 51 weeks a year. I threw on an oversized pair of wool socks, tucking the bottom of my jeans into them as a snow guard and stuffed them into my boots. I carried out some fresh water and eschewing the need for a proper snow shovel, took along some brooms to clear the snow. They actually did the trick, given the snow was light.

My birds were locked inside the coop, their auto door still not working. It hardly mattered because just the sight of the white stuff is enough to keep them from even venturing out. I eased the door open and left some water outside in the 4’x 8’ covered area off their entrance.

With the help of my partner, we worked in tandem knocking tons of fluffy snow clinging to an icy crust off the tarps and netting. Let me tell you, at the ripe old age of 60, I don’t have the strength or stamina of, not just my youth, but even a decade ago. Ignoring the impulse to throw in the towel, we soldiered on, knowing if we couldn’t reduce the snow load the tarp and netting could get damaged and come down – leaving my birds exposed to aerial predators and me the frustrating task of replacing them. Our strategy was to release all the bungee cords holding the tarps in place, allowing the snow to slide to the ground – with considerable effort on our part to get it to comply.

We did the best we could but were chagrined that the snow kept coming. I carried out more fresh water and some holiday treats: dried cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, which I salvaged from the salad kits I get from the local food recovery program. I don’t like leaving water in the coop as they are likely to knock it over, soaking the wood shavings, but the birds wouldn’t come out even a few feet to drink. As soon as the dish was placed on the ground one of the pullets promptly used it as a foot bath while noshing down on the treats. However much we love chickens we have to admit they aren’t great housekeepers. What kind of animal poops in its food and water?

I tromped back into the house, shedding my boots, socks, coat and gloves placing them by the fire to dry out before my next venture outside.

More snow was in the forecast. I was grateful that the power was on, but the thought of not having my car for days was giving me cabin fever. I had also volunteered to do the daily pick up for the local food recovery program which was closed for the week. Just then something happened reminiscent of when the Grinch heard the Whos down in Whoville singing, an act that caused his heart to grow by three sizes that day. Not a choir, but the ringing of my telephone with a most welcome and unexpected offer from my neighbour offering to plow my 225 metre/735’ driveway. And just like the Grinch, I, too, felt like I had the strength of two (well, figuratively anyway).

He did a wonderful job scooping all the snow and piling it in such a way I was able to pass down the main part of the driveway without a hitch. The last stretch is rather tricky in that it involves a turn just when you’re required to accelerate to get up a slope. It took a couple more runs with the plow, scraping most of the snow right down to bare earth and then a couple of attempts on my part to boot it up the hill. I got stuck just at the crest, five feet from the top. Luckily, other neighbours headed over and pushed me up and I was able to park in the custom spot that was excavated just for me.

December 27th

Pre-snow my plan had been to pick up the food recovery daily, dropping some off at two different hobby small farms. I had also offered to take some to my friend Tracy who has a few chickens and for her neighbour’s ducks, who she’s looking after. Given the road conditions I asked if she’d help me out by driving and sorting the produce. She’s one of our local bus drivers and previously worked as a school bus driver in Northern Ontario so is familiar with winter weather. Besides that, she just got a new-to-her Jeep and was happy to show it off.  Just before I headed out the door my power went off – thankfully it was restored a couple of minutes later, averting a small snit on my part.

The 4-wheel drive and Tracy’s driving skills got us to the grocery store in fine form. The unsold produce is stored in a refrigerated cooler in the parking lot. I anticipated the padlock might be frozen – which it was – and trickled some isopropyl alcohol into the opening as a de-icer. No go, still frozen. Tracy, our island MacGyver produced a lighter, thawing the resistant lock. There were only five totes which fit nicely into the back of her vehicle. We stopped to do a bit of grocery shopping and while there I asked if there were any additional totes in the back room.

Sure enough, there were five more – about two too many for the space we had. We headed off to Taylor and Dave’s alpaca farm (they also have mini horses, goats and chickens) and filled up the three garbage cans they’d left out for us. We picked up the second load, dropped off some more, then split the remainder between us. Each of us ended up with two totes. I could have taken more but was limited by what I was prepared to carry down my driveway. I left the six empty totes out of sight from the road and took two trips up to the house with the produce.

I opted to take things the chickens enjoy and would be easy to store inside so they didn’t freeze solid: two dozen salad and stirfry kits complete with dressing or sauce, croutons, bacon bits, grated cheese, dried cranberries, seeds and nuts. Five of them included a flock favourite: noodles. I pulled out all the extras and sorted it into stuff destined for the chickens, my dog or us. All of the dressings get donated to the food bank at my work. I snagged six bags of organic limes which I squeezed and froze for later use to be added to Asian cooking or drinks.

I tossed a couple of cauliflowers and some salad fixings into the covered pen enticing my birds to venture out.

December 28th

It snowed most of yesterday, leaving another inch or two on top of the previous dump. My car floor mats were full of snow from the previous two days. I was dismayed to see that a recently discovered crack in my windshield, which had been obscured by my rearview mirror had increased overnight by more than 8″ from the frozen moisture expanding within the fissure.

I managed to get my car out just fine (although the back doors were frozen shut) and headed off to the grocery store. The roads had been well cleared and I felt pretty safe even though the temperature was -5C/23F (which was up from the nighttime low of -12C/10F).

Arriving at the locker I was pretty disappointed to see that the produce staff had left 12 totes sitting outside all night, unable to open the lock. My hatchback door was frozen shut so I had to maneuver to get 10 of them in. I used a match to heat up the lock and put the remaining two back in the cooler. I left them all at Thomas & Elizabeth‘s where they sort the produce into people or animal food and compost for community members to pick up.

I bought some batteries for the automatic coop door. Turns out moisture had caused some corrosion inside the housing. I cleaned the battery terminals with vinegar as well as I could and replaced the batteries. So far, so good – that seems to have done the trick.

I knocked more snow off the tarps and netting. I have an adjacent 15’x 30′ pen with a now unoccupied coop. The 10’x 20′ car canopy shelter had completely listed over on it’s side. I hoped that it was still salvageable and the frame hadn’t been damaged, but won’t find out until all the snow has melted. If we hadn’t released the bungee cords the tarp probably would have ripped as well.

December 29th

My chickens were still contained in the coop and 4’x9′ run. They headed to bed inordinately early – 3pm – since there was not much else to do. Folks worry about their birds needing supplemental heat in a cold snap, but they are well insulated by their feathers and inside a draft-free coop. Unless you’ve got issues with moisture and have breeds with large combs and wattles that are vulnerable to frostbite they should fare well during short-term drops in temperature.

My otherwise energetic 10-year old Standard Poodle was getting fed up with the weather. She seemed to require company to enjoy the fluffy stuff, otherwise she went out and then came right back inside. I didn’t have the heart to remove her from the leather couch that she normally never even tries to get up on.

December 30th

The weather gods were spot on with their prediction that we’d see another 10cm/4″ of snow overnight. The local bus, taxi, garbage pickup and mail delivery were all cancelled.

I headed out to the chickens: some areas of the netting were filled with snow, which I hit with a broom. FYI: it’s tricky to knock snow from overhead without in coming down on top of you. There are some fruit trees and shrubs in there, which seem to hold on to the snow. I crossed my fingers that would be the last of the snow before it melted, freeing up the netting. I didn’t look forward to reattaching the tarps.

The cooler held nine totes. The alpaca farm’s driveway wasn’t plowed so I took two for them and one for my birds. I parked at the road and walked the produce in. My flock was treated to bags of bean sprouts, blueberries, stirfry vegetables and bananas.

New Year’s Eve

Woke up to blue skies, but the air was still cold. Everyone seemed to have cabin fever: my dog was antsy to go for a walk and for the first time the whole flock was out in the pen to greet me. Up until then, it was mostly just my rooster Tarek and the young pullets who braved the elements. I decided to open up their gate allowing them to enter the big run. I wasn’t confident any of them would venture out. On my return, one lone pullet was standing in the snow looking a bit confused, so I put her back in the run. Buffy considered coming out, then changed her mind.

Treats for today consisted of more berries, banana and sprouts. I left some blueberries out for the wild birds and which they found in no time.

I know this has been a bit of a long read, but given it’s my last post of the year and I’ve been hostage to the weather I’ve had plenty of time at the keyboard. I’m glad to have endured the unexpected winter dump, but fear that more is on it’s way. The current forecast is 35mm/1.5″ of rain and warmer temperatures over the weekend, then more snow the following week.

We rely on our creature comforts no longer seeing them as luxuries, but necessities essential for our daily living. We didn’t lose power, although there were more than half a dozen small outages here over the last few days, and our pipes didn’t freeze leaving us without water. All in all, we’ve fared just fine. My chickens have been bored, but not stressed to the point it has led to bullying or pecking. They have hunkered down and seem to be waiting it out like the rest of us.

I know many of you deal with this kind of weather on a regular basis and some are contending with worse: my heart goes out to you. It’s a challenge for both us and our birds.

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