Free Range Chickens and A Gopher Snake

chicken farm

A couple of reminders here for those of you whose short term memory may, like mine,  be fading off into the past .  Along with a few other things in life that will remain unmentioned at this time.  Or for those who have not yet read some of the other posts here and have missed some of my amazing background.  “It’s OK to laugh here, I did!”  I was raised in a agricultural setting in SE FL.  Dad was a foreman on an orange grove and part of the perks, or job, was that we lived on site.  “Why is it with an apple or peach it’s an orchard but and orange, or citrus it’s a grove?  Does anyone know?”  Anyway we always had a vegetable garden and raised our own beef and pork and kept chickens as well.  There was plenty of room and the owners did not mind so long as it did not interfere with the job and profits of course.  Now believe me when I  tell what we had was not a Hobby Farm.  Growing  food  was something Mom and Dad did.  It had been necessary all their lives.  They were Share Croppers which meant there was no pay until the crops came in and then it was split with the land owner.  If you wanted to eat you grew your own!

Our chickens were always free range.  They are more healthful you know!  YEAH.  The fact was the more bugs and worms or grass and seeds they could eat the less feed we had to buy for them.   They usually got the table scraps and maybe a hand full of cracked corn to entice them into the coop at night.  That was about it.  The idea was they provide us with food to eat not we feed them.  

This was well before the time that there was even a concern about cholesterol in eggs.  Probably the mid fifties; about the same time me and the hog took turns chasing each other home one Sunday. But anyway our chickens roamed free all day.  Usually they went in a pen or coop at night for their protection but sometime not even then.  The problem with this plan being that because they were so (free range) they also did not lay their eggs in a designated area.  If you keep chickens and bring them in each night, give them a little feed there and provide an acceptable nest box even when loose they will return, most, of the time to that nest to lay  Most times.  In this situation they chose where and it was usually not right in the yard or easy to find.  Finding the nest and gathering the eggs was one of my jobs.  Whether by choice or assignment I am not sure at this point but I did it anyway.  Also if you happen to be outside, and are listening they will tell you when they lay and if you are quick enough you can follow the cackle to the proximity of the nest.  I spent a lot of time outside, if you are underfoot someone will put you to work.   Usually of a type that is not nearly as much fun as hunting chicken nest.

Now the hunt begins.  By the time I arrived, unless I was fortunate enough to be very close the hen will have moved off somewhat from the exact location.  Was this something they did to keep the exact location of the nest secreted from predators like myself and others or just by accident?  I don’t know.  But happen it did and does.  You need to understand that humans are not the only species that enjoy a good fresh egg.  Coons or possum, wild dogs or cats and snakes even some other birds all enjoy this prepackaged food source that does not run from you.  

A couple of things you need to be aware of to fully appreciate this situation.  To begin with citrus like other commercially grown fruits are planted in nice straight orderly rows for ease of working and harvesting.  Unlike most other fruits citrus limbs start very close to the ground.  When mature the limbs from one tree will, if not join, come close to joining with the next trees on both sides of it.  I said usually.  When this does not occur it leaves space for weeds and grasses to grow and grow they do.  These are not lawn grasses kept all short and controlled.  In fact in this case we are dealing with a particular variety called Guinea grass.                                                                                                                          

Again the name guinea seems to have been used heavily during the 18th and 19th century for anything that was imported from Africa.  As I remember my reading from years gone by this was the case here.  Originally brought in as a pasture grass for cattle.  It is a bunch grass which means it grows in clumps or bunches and spreads by individual shoots on the edge of the original (bunch) as well as seed.  It grows tall.  Well over a grown man’s head .  The individual stalks can easily get larger than a man’s finger at ground level.  The stalks are close together and are an ideal spot for a hen to wiggle into, lay her eggs and think maybe they are safe from predators.  I like to think I am smarter than the average chicken so my success rate was pretty good at finding them.  But on occasion other predators were successful as well. 

The hen has laid an egg and like most people when we have done something we are proud of we want everyone to know.  She cackles!  I hear her and hotfoot it over to the general area.  But being smarter than I gave her credit for she had moved well away from the nest before she started her announcement.  so I start the search looking for likely spots.  Having found a likely spot I begin working my way to the center of this tall course and dense bunch grass.  Also keep in mind that there may be multiple bunches of this “bunch grass” all in a large group.  Now I am physically and completely surrounded in this area by thick vegetation much taller than I am.  Not much of a challenge at that age.  Ahh there they are!  And it is not just one but there must be a dozen of them.  Boy will Mom be glad.  Are you aware that chickens are Socialist when it comes to laying?  Quite often the entire ,small, flock, will by choice all lay in one nest box regardless of how many are provided. ( Remind me to tell you about the time I found a nest of 12 dozen eggs.  All one nest!) Other hens had undoubtedly been sharing this nest.  As I began to reach to gather the eggs I notice a blue black mass off to one side; and it’s moving!  Being quick like I am I quickly determine it is the biggest Gopher, or Indigo snake I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE.  I swear he was as big as that snake on the movie Anaconda!  Well he was to me anyway.  You can bet it took me a lot less time to get out of that Guinea Grass than to get in.  No doubt I also left a lot clearer trail than what that chicken had left for me.  Just a clear path now easy to find when I had to go back.  And yes I had to go back!  Those eggs were ours.  Didn’t mind sharing but it could not have all of them.

A little later in life I came to appreciate the Gopher snake for the beautiful species they are.    They get quite large, 6′ or better.  That one was HUGE!!!! LOL and are the deepest black I have ever seen on a living thing. Then when the sun hits them right a beautiful shining blue.  Very gentle, most of the time,.  That could be another story too.  Dad ran over me getting away from a harmless gopher snake.  I have not seen one in years.  Indigo snake I mean.  Here I don’t expect to but they were quite common in South Florida.

Guess that about ties this one up.  Free ranging any animal has it’s advantages and or but, it can add a little excitement to your life as well.

I hope you enjoy reading about my life in a family farming situations as much as I do the telling.  You can share yours as well I would enjoy hearing about your experiences.

Bob:  or just leave a comment if you are finished here.


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