3 lessons learned – Forgetting to shut the coop May 18, 2012

It was my fault, I admit it. I forgot. It was the first time, and hopefully the last! I forgot to shut the coop that night.

Now, there are myriad reasons to make sure to shut your coop up at night—especially if you free range like we do—and most of them have names like weasel or raccoon. This isn’t one of those stories, thank goodness.

We were going away for a long weekend, but didn’t have the chicken sitter until Saturday; we were leaving Friday, though. So, the plan was to leave the chickens in the coop on Friday, because we wouldn’t be there that night to shut them back up safely. Simple, right?

Mind you, I have an incredible ability to make simple things very complex, and this was no exception.

I forgot to shut the coop Thursday night.

We were lucky, really. No predator got into the coop and ate my favorite hens. No one died or was injured. There was a casualty of sorts, though.

So picture this: there I am on Friday morning, having a hot cup of coffee and musing about what time we’d be able to leave, and what I’d have to remember to do before we took off. For example, I’d need to make sure the plants were watered and that the chickens feeders and waterers were full. We needed to leave some empty egg cartons and the cat food out for the sitter to find easily. We’d have to make sure …

Wait a minute.

I heard hen noises just outside the window and peeked out. There was a hen outside, eek!

At first I thought she had just eluded us when I shut everyone else up the night before. Perhaps she was sitting broody on a nest outside somewhere, and I hadn’t noticed it, yet. We have 45 beautiful West Virginia acres, so there is plenty of space for a hen to hide. But then I saw another hen outside, and another. And then another, and more–the whole flock was out! How did that happen? Finally, I saw the coop door was open, and I realized what I’d done. I’d forgotten to shut the coop last night: how could I have done something so stupid?!

Even scarier, I realized the two things I now had to do. First, I had to somehow wrangle all the chickens into the coop before we could leave. Second, I had to admit to my husband what I’d done, and enlist his help to fix it!

Quickly, I downed two more cups of coffee. Numerous bathroom rest stops be damned, I needed the energy! Then I got a bowl full of sunflower seeds, called the girls and went into the coop.

We had about 30 birds at the time, and most of them followed me. I sprinkled sunflower seeds in the feeders, and scattered them around the coop, where they happily began chowing down. When as many birds were in the coop as I thought would come, I slipped outside again and secured the doors. Then I surveyed the damage.

Eight. There were eight still out, and one was a skittish young rooster that had never much liked being handled. One was a hamburg pullet, fast as lightning. Those worried me. But the rest, the rest I might be able to get: Rhode Island Reds, some barnyard mixes, and Bunny the Brahma. However, I’d need my husband’s help. We’d have to corner them somehow, or take them unawares. My friendliest chickens were already back in the coop.

My husband, bless him, is not a morning person like I am, so I had to wait until he woke up. I was getting nervous; maybe all that caffeine was not such a good idea!  After a while, though, he woke and blearily stumbled his way into the kitchen looking for coffee.

“I love you,” I blurted, by way of starting this uncomfortable conversation.

“Love you, too,” he grunted in his gravelly morning voice, blissfully unsuspecting of the bad news I was about to lay on him.

“The chickens,” I continued. “I forgot to close them up last night. Everyone is okay, but they got out this morning.”

“That’s not like you,” he said, looking for his mug. “But I’m glad everyone’s okay.”

Clearly the morning fog had not lifted, yet. He didn’t understand what was coming. He didn’t’ remember that they were meant to stay in today when we left on our trip. So I persisted. “I got most of them back inside the coop, but eight are still out.” I paused.

“Huh?” A look came over his face, a look of dawning realization. He put down his coffee cup, empty. “The chickens are supposed to stay in today.”

“Yes,” I said.

“But there are eight chickens out.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Who?” he demanded.

I counted them off on my fingers, “Bunny, Flora, Rose, Prissy, Jean-Jacques—” his sputter of horror briefly stopped my inventory,” —Ophelia, Martha, Robin… and Dottie,” I finished weakly.

“Dottie? DOTTIE?! We’ll never catch her.” Dottie was our hamburg… and he was right. She was going to be hard to catch. But it didn’t occur to us to be worried about Bunny the Brahma at all. Little did we know.

If this was a movie, this would be the scene where the director would cut to a montage of the two of us comically diving after chickens as they nimbly jumped away. There might be a banjo playing somewhere. Or possibly Matthew Broderick would be narrating a monologue about the foolishness of the shenanigans. I found myself just wishing we could cut to the end of the montage, where all the chickens would be safely inside the coop, and we’d be on vacation enjoying some mojitos, but no luck.

And Matthew Broderick did not appear to narrate us to that happy ending.

Instead, we had to find our own happy ending. To get there, we started out by hand feeding them, then simply picking up the calmest hens and putting them back in the coop. But not all of ours are willing to be handled, and the tamest of our birds had all simply followed me into the coop earlier. Those left outside were mostly those who didn’t like to be handled, with the exception of the Bunny and the Reds. We did get two birds that way, but afterwards, the rest realized what we were doing, so they refused to eat from our hands like they normally do. Ophelia in particular was incensed. She was normally fairly friendly, but she ran from us and scolded us roundly from across the yard. I think she even used some chicken profanity.

Have you ever tried to herd chickens? I assure you, it’s not easy!

We then tried running after them, which was foolish of us, because we knew that would never work… and it did nothing but get them worried. Note to self: chickens are faster than you are, self. Do not chase.

Finally, we gave up that tactic. And as we were trying to catch our breath, I got an idea. “I have a plan!” I declared. My husband looked at me warily.

My plan was this: I would get out an old dog kennel we had used occasionally to separate a picked on chicken. I would leave the door open, and scatter sunflower seed inside. When the girls went in to get it, we’d shut the door! Then, we could simply carry them in one by one. I thought it was brilliant. I thought we would soon be on our way, sipping cocktails and relaxing at our vacation destination. This plan would totally work.

My husband politely declined to share his appraisal.

Trying to execute the plan was certainly slower going than I imagined. The earlier chasing hadn’t helped any, either; the girls were wary and annoyed with us. They’d step inside the kennel, and when we approached to close the door, they’d run and hide in the long grass at the edge of the woods.

However, their love of treats finally drove them to take risk after risk, and broke down their resolve to avoid us. Snap! We got three more of of them in the kennel: Ophelia, Bunny, and Prissy.

Here’s where I realized there was a flaw in my plan. It was not going to be easy to move the chickens from the kennel to the coop. They rushed for the kennel door as soon as I opened it, but when I tried to get a hold of one, they rushed again to the very back, practically out of reach. It would be awkward to pick them up from the position I had to contort myself into to get to them. After a tense few minutes of what may have been my first yoga balances and stretches, I was able to grasp Ophelia. She objected to the man handling, cussed at me a little more, but I was able to maneuver her firmly but gently under one arm to keep her from flapping her wings and twisting out of my grasp. Instead, she just aimed a sullen Stink Eye at me while she was carried up to the coop and placed inside. But–the plan was working! I just had to get the other two from the kennel to the coop, and then we could–

At that moment, I heard a chilling screech and a fearful, mighty flapping coming from behind me at the kennel. Someone was crying bloody murder!

I sped around the coop to see what was going on, only to find my husband holding  Bunny, one of our Brahmas, who was screaming, literally screaming like she was an old lady being mugged. “Aaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaah! Aaaaaaah!” she screeched in a loud, old lady voice. “Aaaaah! R-aaaaaah!” If she had a handbag, she would have been hitting his head with it. “Aaaaah!!!” My husband could barely hold on. Wings, legs, beak: all were flailing. Bunny is BIG, and she was letting him know she also had a BIG objection to the indignity of it all, an objection she would use every last ounce of her strength and every weapon in her arsenal to communicate.

As I stood looking on in stunned awe at the spectacle, she used her final tactic on him: poop. Yes, poop. And lots of it. She really let loose on him.

She pooped all over him; it landed on his arm, glopped down his shirt, onto his shorts, slid down his leg and plopped onto his shoe like a melted bar of stinky chocolate. My glance followed the poop-path, and I looked back up to meet his gaze just at the moment her wing tip flung his glasses from his surprised face where they fell to the gravel of the driveway below. TINK.

I had forgotten and so had he: Bunny—always docile with me—had never liked him much.

My wits returned after a moment, and I went and took Bunny from him. He’d only been trying to help. When I got a hold of her, she promptly settled down into a seethe, and aimed a vicious but ineffectual peck at him as a parting insult.  I put her in the coop.

When I came back, he was still standing in the same place in the driveway beside the kennel door, covered in Bunny poop practically from head to toe. He hadn’t moved a muscle. He was aghast, dumbfounded.

After a moment or two of neither of us speaking, he broke the silence. “I’m going to get a cup of coffee now,” he said in a quiet voice, with the most dignity I can imagine coming from someone who has just been covered in fresh–and especially stinky–chicken poop. He picked up his glasses, put them on his face (where they listed to one side, having apparently been bent in the struggle), and walked back to the farm house, with a cartoonish side kick every other step to shake the glob of poo off his shoe. The door creaked as he went inside, eliciting a chorus of calls from the coop. It was sound the girls associated with treats.

Thanks, girls, but I don’t think he’s in the mood for handing out treats right now.

I moved Prissy from the kennel to the coop without much trouble, and then I, too, went inside. I needed a new plan, but my mind drew a blank. About ten minutes later as I was sitting at the kitchen table trying to figure out how to get the last chickens inside without causing my husband’s head to explode, we got a call from our out-of-state neighbor who was going to be spending the week in his hunting cabin on the land just west of us, about 10 minutes away. I enlisted him to close the chicken coop that night.

“Be happy to,” he said.

Problem solved. So I released all the birds again after all. All that poopy struggle had been for naught.

Here are the lessons I learned from having forgotten to shut the coop:

  1. Do not attempt to herd your chickens until you’ve had at least one cup of coffee
  2. Leave yourself time for unexpected delays on days you’re leaving for vacation
  3. Close the coop at night. Close the coop at night. Close the coop at night.

Or alternatively, I just need to get an automatic coop door.  The problem is that such a tall door would take a lot of handiness to fit on our coop, since we have a window above the chicken door… and we’re not especially handy. Please help me in the comments! Do you think I’ll have much luck convincing my husband to figure out how to install an automatic coop door this year? What should I do?

Karen Doll May 18th, 2012

I think you should just…Close the coop at night !!!!!!!!! LOL
(From one who has had to herd chickens, and it ain’t pretty, to another !!!)

Brian Grafton May 18th, 2012

My chickens all go back to the coop at night
I don’t close it up but I do keep a radio playing on a talk station 24/7
That keeps the un-wanteds away. Weasels, coons, coyotes + I have a dog tied out close

Heather O'Keefe May 18th, 2012

Thanks for the morning chuckles with my coffee. You could always let your hubby catch Bunny a few more times which should convince him to put in the automatic coop door immediately. LOL!

joan May 18th, 2012

Lissa, we have just two acres and our girls are allowed out daily to free range. They are rounded up by the chicken herder and the rooster after the appropriate time. TREATS, treats, treats. WE start when they are little and by about 12 weeks they know the drill. We tap the “chicken bucket” and they come for scraps of bread, grapes, watermelon cabbage or whatever. They file into the coop yard and we close the gate. One of us closes the coop flap after dusk. We wait a little later in the summer as they wrens share the coop for nesting right now. Good luck!

krista May 18th, 2012

Oh wow! I just laughed so hard, I cried. Thank you for sharing that!

Rachael Hunter May 18th, 2012

Are you kidding….to avoid getting a poop-bath again, I would think your husband would be more than happy to work out that installation! Or….hire a handy-man to put it in. 😀

Nicolle May 18th, 2012

thanks for the smiles 🙂

Brenda Conroy May 18th, 2012

I forgot once too. And luckily no racoons got in and all our girls survived. I was so ashamed and horrified that I dared not tell anyone for ages. But, I did put an alarm on my computer, so every evening it comes up on my screen and reminds me what to do. Close the coop. Since I work at home and I’m on my computer a lot, this works for me. Also, if you have a cell phone, you can set an alarm on that. A friend has one that reminds him every evening to take a pill. He gets a special little call. There may be other ways to set reminders for yourself. Alarm clock? Good luck.

Colene May 18th, 2012

Your story had me laughing herding chickens is my least favorite especially with two of our 13 they are fast little beggars! Glad everything turned out in the end

Happylittlehomestead May 18th, 2012

I am glad I was not drinking my coffee as I read your account-it would’ve been all over my computer screen! LOL!

We have a Labrador Retriever, Calvin, who herds the hens that are less than eager to go back to their chicken palace after we’ve let them out. He chases, then pins them to the ground until we get there to pick up the wayward birds. The funny thing is, we didn’t train him, he’s a natural. I’m glad we didn’t teach him to duck hunt or go after upland game! 🙂

Lissa May 18th, 2012

It IS funny now, but I assure you it was not funny at the time. 🙂 We were definitely ready for relaxation by the time we left for vacation that day!

mzkynd May 18th, 2012

Oh what a delightful tale you tell!! I was chuckling the whole way thru 🙂

Pam Baum May 18th, 2012


Ev May 18th, 2012

leaf rakes….thats how to herd chickens. They are HUGE and PLASTIC and blunt tipped so they don’t accidently harm the chickens. I used them like arm extenders, the rake part like a big hand. I can VERY easily herd my 75 chickens through gates and through 3 different parts of the yards. The chickens see me coming with my arm extenders and they go which ever way I direct them and not a one is ever ever harmed.We all walk calmly to whatever part I want them in. Been a life saver from playing tackle football with the chickens, the chicken being the foot ball and MUCH less likely to ever hurt them from them fluttering around again walls, cages, wire or grabbing them wrong. I discovered this after years of looking like a crazy woman trying to catch my chickens if they left their allow grazing grounds.

stacy May 18th, 2012

OMG!! thanx for this great story I’m still in tears cuase like you I’ve had to enlist the help of my hubby many times to get my girls back into their coop and and like your hubby has had his fill of chicken shsnanagins..lol..thank God for the many hubby’s who love their chicken loving wives:)

rosey May 18th, 2012

Ahahaha! That’s great. Very much like what happens at my house. Our poor hubbies 😉

Poppy hall May 18th, 2012

Ev has it right! I call them my “chicken paddles”…..but I use a plastic pitch fork and a broom. 🙂

LadyHamster May 18th, 2012

#1 rule Animals eat first (Morning and night) That means the coop opens before I eat or have coffee, in the morning, and closes before I get dinner. Sure way to always make sure it is closed.

It is a good rule even with dogs to teach kids responsibility to animals. They cannot get their own food and rely on us.

Barb May 18th, 2012

Yes, leaf rakes work beautifully on chickens and ducks. I use a rake and my Sheltie, Abby. If one is still being contrary…. I bring in our long legged lurcher, Ruby. 😉

Sherbear May 18th, 2012

Oh this was such a funny read ! I am thinking about getting a few chickens. (1st time) and I sure got alot of good info. Espec. the rake idea from Ev. Thanks for posting this story Lissa. Glad your trip was good after all this excitement!

Jodi May 18th, 2012

I did that one night. A couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, the worst happened. We make sure we close the coops at night… All 5 of them. I count them before I go in at night.

Elizabeth May 18th, 2012

Get a guard llama and a couple of sheep (like Soay or Katahdins – both are great foragers and hardy) then don’t fret about the coop door. Our chickens free range along with our sheep and llama. Coyotes abound here in Oregon and I have never shut my coop door at night. I have friends who are more than willing to come collect eggs and check on the gals if we are away! As to herding, walk slowly with your arms extended and move them into a “corner.” Best if you have at least one other person for “resistant” chickens. I’m lucky in that of my 9, I can catch them easily.

Casie May 18th, 2012

Thanks for the morning chuckle!!

We too have a window above our pop door and also have an automatic door. It’s one my husband built. He used a pulley to offset the rope over to the mechanical part that pulls up the door up. Might that work for you?

Prajna May 18th, 2012

I had to put my coffee down as I read this – I was afraid I was going to laugh it out my nose!

I have also tried to herd chickens, and Matthew Broderick didn’t show up for my montage either.

Garilyn Bardash May 18th, 2012

too funny i was rolling!

Kimberly Marshall May 18th, 2012

Oh..oh….oH..my sides hurt from laughing! But seriously, I have my pop door under a window. I bought a pullet-shut door and love it. http://chickendoors.com/ It was super easy to install, and we are using the solar panel. Trust me, if my husband can operate power tools, anyone can. My girls didn’t even wait for him to finish and move before they were running in and out of the door. Your husband sounds like a real keeper!!! Hope your vacation was wonderful…..

Trish May 18th, 2012

Oh my! I laughed so hard my sides hurt! When I finally get chickens, I will be TRIPLE checking to be sure they are closed up at night, otherwise
I will be the only one chasing them while trying to enlist my dogs to help herd them!

Claire May 18th, 2012

I would skip the automatic door. It is fine for letting them out but my friend has one she has disabled for evening use. It has crushed her chickens to death. Maybe some have a safety like a garage door that opens back up if a child is in the way but hers is a chicken killer. Now she has to go out & flip a switch to close it & because she stands a few feet away while flipping the switch she has still crushed chickens closing it manually. It breaks her heart, but if she could just close the door this could have been avoided. Do you carry a cell phone? I say just set an alarm to remind you to close the door at night, if you don’t have a cell set a loud alarm clock near the part of the house you occupy in the evenings.

Michele May 18th, 2012

Our chickens are free range also but we also have a fenced in area around the coop. During the day the gate is open so that the chickens can come and go as they please. The fenced in area comes in handy when I have new chicks that take a while to learn their surroundings. Sometimes I do forget to close the gate and other times the coop door. I often have to get up after I go to bed to double check if I closed the coop door or the gate. The fence also comes in handy when I have had to herd the chickens in. The chickens will walk around the outside of the fence. I follow the chickens to keep them moving and my husband stands near the gate to open it and then close it behind them. It becomes a little tricky when I am by myself. It is also nice when we are going to be away for a longer period of time. I feel ok to leave the chickens out in the fenced in area instead of keeping them locked in the coop. Some of the chickens can fly over the fence. But, I figure if they can fly over the fence, then they can fly back in.

Cathy Eddy May 18th, 2012

Beware of using the automatic opener/closer on your chicken coop. The predators (coyotes) figured the timing out on ours. They would be there in the morning when the door opened at dawn and would grab the first chicken that came out of the coop.(We free range our chickens). They didn’t bother them during the day when we and the dogs are up and about. So we have gone back to manually opening and closing the coop door.

Lissa May 18th, 2012

Hm, so I need one with a programmable timer that will let them out about the time we usually do, 8:30am or so. They do want out earlier, but I like to give time for the predators to go to bed!

hi what kind of treats do u use i use MARMELLOWS i dont no if its good for them but they go nuttie for them ps happy all the chickens r ok

Cindy May 18th, 2012

I have forgotten to close my coop before sadly . I have a coyote some were close by I don’t know about until last winter so now i don’t let mine out until after eight in the morning when my farm hand show up

Wicked One May 18th, 2012

I use dried mealy worms to get my chickens back int the coop when I need to. I like to let them free range for a few hours a day, but I can’t leave them alone for too long or they’ll get into areas we haven’t fenced off yet and destroy the plants. They love the mealy worms so much, they start running when I shake the plastic-ware I keep them in, and the birds practically jump into my arms.

Kathy Mormnio May 19th, 2012

Hysterical! It would be in his best interest to take a class in handiness in order to install an auto pop door opener!

Brandi May 19th, 2012

I have had two different automatic chicken coop doors. The first was very basic and expensive, but I did like it until a tree falling on the chicken coop wiped it out. When I established the new chicken coop I knew I wanted another automatic door, but I did more research this time. My newest one has a built in battery so if there is a power failure I don’t have to worry about resetting the time. This one doesnt’ just have basic components from Lowe’s slapped together. It is very solid and sealed against dirt. I’m not sure of the maker, but it is a man who sells them on e-bay. He builds them well and stands behind his product. I really cannot imagine a chicken being crushed by an automatic door as someone said on a previous comment. It closes VERY slowly and chickens aren’t as dumb as some think. I really think it is worth every penny. I think everyone has forgotten at some point and I know I have gotten home later than I had planned more than twice, the peace of mind is priceless.

Kristen E. Martin May 20th, 2012

I don’t usually forget to shut the coop at night, but I did have the door blow shut once. When I went out, the hens *only have 4, all Plymouth rock barred* were roosting on the chain link fence surrounding their pen. I caught 3 easily…had to chase the BIG hen all through the neighbor’s yard at 9pm. Now we use a bungee cord to hold the door open.

Ena Ronayne (@plantmad) May 24th, 2012

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your post and a huge thanks for following me over on Facebook. Even gave your blog post a plug by way of a thank you.

Ena Ronayne
The Garden Design Co

Michelle June 27th, 2012

We went and got 2 large fishing nets big enough when my goose insists on being a pain I can net her too We got 15 muscovy ducklings and she loves them but hates the rouens I got only a week later so she is not allowed in the duck pen at night! I tell you what though those nets work awesome!

Lou Marchbank June 27th, 2012

I thoroughly enjoyed your story, and can certainly identify with it 🙂 We have a Poultry Butler automatic door, and love it. It closes very slowly, so it would take a really dumb (as in parking on the railroad tracks dumb) chicken to get caught in it. It can be put on a timer, on manual setting, or you can use the dusk to dawn sensor that comes with it. Our coop is in the shade, so we use the timer. I set it for about 30 minutes after they all go in at night, but you can easily adjust it as the daylight changes.

Our girls free range during the day, but if we leave the house, we put them back inside their large yard which is protected by two strands of electric wire. We also leave the fence on at night to keep possums and coons from eating the leftover feed.

As for herding, that used to be my least favorite, as invariably they would decide they wanted to stay out longer when we were in a hurry to be somewhere. Now we have a Sheltie that we have trained to round them up. A lot of his performance is a result of instinct — we’re just working on slowing him down a bit. He does a great job, and after 2 years, we can depend on him to get them all (15) in in just a few minutes.

The main problem I have is that he loves his ‘job’, and if I’m out working in the garden and lose sight of him, the next thing I know he’s rounded them all up and put them away, even if I have just let them out a few minutes before 🙂 I highly recommend the four legged herders.

Sara June 28th, 2012

I believe there is a brand of automatic coop doors that swing open and closed instead of sliding up and down. Good Luck!!

Lissa August 1st, 2012

Sara, we’ll check that out, and let you know how it goes on the blog here. 🙂

Jewell September 17th, 2012

I’m now re-reading this. *SO* funny. My husband and I had a similar chicken-herding experience recently. It’s just part of the chicken-keeping experience.

carolyn February 5th, 2013

We had to go to the doctors and couldn’t get them all in the pen, so we left four out. We ended up coming home in the dark to find two under the porch, one near the pen and the fourth one on top of the pen. Luckily we had light in the backyard and friends to help find them. Lesson learned, have someone come over before dark to open the door, so they can rest in their own place!

DeAnn Scabilloni January 6th, 2014

Definatly get the automatic door! I love it! You just have to pay attention to changing open and close times according to the season.winter my door closes at 630, summer is 930

Ozark Homesteader December 28th, 2014

Ours will do anything four freeze-dried mealworms. Anything. You have to accustom them to the shaking of the bag, though.

[…] coop as soon as they see you reach for the can, or hear the scratch shaking around.  This might be helpful if you need to lock up the chickens before dark, or if a predator is […]

Debbie May 27th, 2016

3 adult layers and a rooster were given to us. They HATE us. They are so afraid of us, and squawk, and run into the coop from the outside run when we approach. We have had them for 2weeks, and want to let them free range. We thought we would let them out before sunset on the first try. They are not about to come running to us if we have treats! Will they go into the coop at sunset? We are wondering what will happen when we open the door.

Lissa June 1st, 2016

If you have a regular backyard breed and they’ve been shut in the coop for a week or so, they should have learned that it’s “home” by now, so they should return to roost there at night. (Occasionally some game bantams are very stubborn about trying to roost in nearby trees!)

Wendy Wagner October 24th, 2016

I am new to the idea of raising chickens. I am a city girl that just moved to the country. I love animals and totally drawn to chickens. I’ve been reading as much as I can to try to get it right. I ran across this story of you and your husband herding chickens and I can honestly say; I haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time. I can only imagine the trouble I will find myself in when I do get the courage to start my flock. Thank you so much for the laughs!!!!

Lissa October 26th, 2016

You’re very welcome! (I think we’re at the point of being able to laugh about it now, too!) 🙂

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