A Reader Speaks: Her Chickens Roam Free

February 27, 2011 | By | Comments (6)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post describing our search for a cheap, moveable, size-adjustable chicken tractor for our hens, who can’t have free rein of the garden because of their tendency to chomp on tender greens. We had a delightful reply, with photos, so I’m posting it here with the permission of the writer, Helen Bruzzone—who with her husband, Steve, has a backyard flock not far from Sunset’s office in Menlo Park, CA.



   The Bruzzone hens rule.

Dear Margo,

I just read your Team Chicken blog on free ranging hens and the  problems they bring to the garden. We have six birds that, in less  than a week, completely stripped the 10′ x 18′ “weed yard” we had
planned for them. They now graze for a couple hours per day all around  our backyard and will not touch the following plants: rosemary, violets, ivy, society garlic, agapanthus, ice plant, citrus shrubs,
bottlebrush and cypress. Limited as that sounds, these surviving  species give a pleasant, almost Tuscan effect. So now I pen up my  roses and let the girls romp. I do sorely miss the gazanias and I  would love to see a snail again, but hens are just the sweetest pets,  as endearing as any dogs, cats and parrots we have had in our family.

The information you provided about Ruby’s yoke peritonitis is likely  what saved our girl, Evangeline. She was egg bound last week with four soft shells. We were very careful to not let those shells break inside her. We placed the hen in a box with a heating pad under her and a  dishtowel over her back. The heat caused her muscles to relax and she  expelled the eggs intact. With calcium supplements she has since laid  three fine eggs. I think we found Team Chicken just in time as the  inevitable chicken problems are catching up with us. Now it is Hannah,  the alpha girl, nipping the others’ necks. Does anyone know how to  discipline a cocky hen?

Evangeline, the survivor.


  1. Helen Bruzzone

    Kristine, the fowl proof violets in our garden are what I call “English violets”, but I think they are actually known as Missouri violets. I’ve never seen this species offered at the local nurseries. We got our starter plants from our family in Napa. It’s a mystery to me that it is rare, because it does so well. It grows in small compact clumps, has deep green heart shaped leaves and tiny violet blooms. It transplants beautifully and spreads like mad. I’ve transplanted clumps of it all over the garden because it’s one of the few things voles and gophers won’t touch. Our hens avoid it — thank goodness, because goodness knows, we need the color! As for society garlic, our girls won’t eat it, but they do kick around the tender leaves and sometimes the whole garden smells like a pot of spaghetti.

    March 3, 2011 at 6:55 am
  2. Kristine

    My girls gobbled up my violets (they were in a pot)! And the baby rooster (who has since found a new home) ate through the chives (I would imagine they would taste similar to society garlic??)

    We’ve decided to just let them out (there are just two- named Lily and Violet ironically!) an hour or two before sunset each night. That way they have time to eat some grass, fluff in the dirt and they don’t make a huge mess or destroy too many plants. Then they wander back to their home on their own and I just go out and shut the gate after the sun has gone down.

    March 2, 2011 at 6:15 pm
  3. Helen Bruzzone

    Evangeline’s picture is on the One Block Diet blog! If only she could know… She was the runt of her flock, afraid to play “mealworm scramble” and “grape soccer”, but when the feeding games were ending, she would find a scrap of paper and run with it and the others would chase her. I guess that was her way of being part of the gang. Now she is bigger than Hannah, friendly and sweet tempered. But neck nipping Hannah is not without merit. When Evangeline was left outside the pen, scared, huddled by the fence and the sun going down, Hannah sat beside her, the fence between them. And when a red tailed hawk dropped by to check out the coop, it was Hannah who stood outside the hen house and “crowed”. I guess someone has to play the part of the rooster. Uneasy lies the head that wears the comb.

    The only other problem we’ve had with Hannah is, that being the alpha, she feels entitled to the highest and longest roost beam. She literally keeps four feet of roost for herself. So, our Wine Country Coop, custom built to comfortably house six hens, has four birds crammed on a short subordinate roost by the door. Our solution was to add a third roost. It took a few “pillow fights” but within the week the girls had their sleeping arrangement worked out.

    So far we have not been able to abate Hannah’s pecking at Lily Bee, Gypsy and Hazel, the Ameracuna hens. We have given up on the BluKote treatments and are now offering black oil sunflower seeds as Margo has suggested. Today I will hang up a cabbage “tether ball” and shop for a flock block, a sort of seed encrusted brick that the hens can chisel instead of one another. Wish us luck!

    March 2, 2011 at 5:12 am
  4. Diane F

    I can add to the list of plants that our hens seem to ignore. 🙂 Lavenders, Salvias, thyme, oregano, parsley, green onions,succulents…my drought tolerant/native plantings or things with a strong scent/taste seem to escape their attention. The hens are content to scratch around in the mulch under them. Now the stuff in my veggie garden is another story…so once the spring plantings go in – the girls will be confined to their run unless I can babysit them (best done on a warm summer’s evening with a glass of wine in hand) or I construct this year’s version of chicken fencing around the garden. 🙂

    March 1, 2011 at 6:12 pm
  5. KathyG

    I really enjoyed reading about the Bruzzone hens. Lucky girls! And I am interested in the comments on the ‘cocky’ hen. I have a hen, Lucy by name, who has been pecking on my bantam, Babe, and lately has started on my silver-laced Wyandotte, Olive. Lucy was a spitfire even as a chick. She stole food from everyone and seemed ill-tempered right on through to today. She was supposed to be a Plymouth Rock (columbian color type) but is more like a silver-laced something with a black collar. When I complained about her to the guys at the feed store, they said they had had nothing but trouble with all of the chicks in that shipment — quarrelsome, terribly pecky. Hmm. Yesterday, when I looked at Olive’s poor featherless bum, I decided i had had it with Lucy. I put an ad on craigslist and today she is going out to somebody’s nice farm with a large flock, where her bitchy tendencies will, hopefully, not be a problem. I should have named her Lucifer. I hope I can catch her — she pecks ME every time I get near her.

    I know you are supposed to isolate the peckee/s but in my small yard that’s not possible. I know the girls are a bit crowded, and I plan to expand their run this spring, but until the snow melts enough to allow excavation and building, they’re where they are. My garden is shredded after a month of winter free-range, and I just can’t afford to take my only vegetable-growing space out of production for girl play.

    Again, thanks, Team Chicken, for all the posts. I am going to invest in some BOSS as added insurance against a new hen taking up the pecking.

    February 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm
  6. Margo True

    I’m so glad that Ruby’s predicament helped save your chicken. You’ll want to keep an eye on Evangeline (lovely name), since egg yolk peritonitis tends to recur….what a good solution you came up with. It sure beats probing around the poor hen’s vent with an olive-oil -slicked finger.

    For Hannah, I’d say try lifting those other hens above her. Literally. In the air–whenever she nips them. It seemed to help our much-pecked Honey. She got to play Alpha Chicken for a few minutes every day. Although honestly we’re pretty sure that the pecking had more to do with the fact that Honey was broody–the brooders (chickens who like to sit on the eggs) tend to be pecked. Lord knows why. Maybe the other chickens are telling them to get back on the job.

    Also, black sunflower seeds supposedly curtail the appetite for feathers. We have a big stash of them, and toss out a handful in the afternoon as a treat. We haven’t had any pecking problems in ages, so maybe the seeds are working.

    February 27, 2011 at 6:00 am

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