A Mild Winter Outing

So far, it’s been a mild winter. There’s been quite a bit of precipitation, but it’s been more drizzle and rain than snow. We complained (bitterly!) about the polar vortex last year. This year we complain about how it’s not cold enough to stop the invasion of invasive winter moths. I worry about illness when the ground is wet and the air is cold. Tonka has a bit of a runny nose. Pip has developed a skin rash (more on that another time) but so far, the hens are fine.

The other day, the girls had an outing. They usually go running, pell-mell out the door, but this time, the sight of green grass stopped them in their tracks. Look at Agatha eye the ground!

Agatha eyes grass


Although I provide dust baths in tubs inside, they still prefer to luxuriate in real dirt. But it has to be dry. Beatrix and Owly found some under the wood pile.

wood pile dust bath


Eventually, the hens did go wandering. This time, last year, there was half a foot of snow on the ground. This year, the girls are pecking at bugs!

hens graze


During the growing season, the goats are grazed on the lawn on leashes. Otherwise, they’d make a bee line to the roses, the parsley, the flowers… However, in the winter, they’ll allowed to go wherever they want. At first they weren’t sure of their good fortune.

goats come out


Then they start grabbing at grass.

goats on lawn


It dawned on them that they were being allowed to eat anything! They thought that they were getting away with something — don’t tell them that I’m pleased to have them prune down the herbs.

goats in herbs


They went on to eat wilted flowers, raspberry canes, the leaves remaining on the roses, mint, black-eyed Susan stalks, and more. They have no complaints about this mild winter.

goats in flower pot

Spa Treatment Update

Since 2008, I have been advising people with sick hens how to use my Spa Treatment. The first time that I used epsom salts was to treat a skin problem on my hen Eleanor. After research and observation, I came up with a protocol that addresses far more than irritated red skin (although it’s good for that, too.) Numerous people have written to tell me that it has saved their chickens. I’ve recently updated the FAQ, and I thought this would be a good time to write a bit more about it.

You can divide chicken ailments into three categories: injuries, respiratory diseases and other. Treating wounds is straightforward. Identifying respiratory disease is obvious (wheezing, mucus discharge.) It’s the other category that is problematic. Chickens are not long-lived animals, so you will have hens become sick and die within a few years of starting your hobby. Most people come into backyard chicken keeping not from a practical, farming background, but from the perspective of a suburban pet owner, who, at the first sign of illness, hands the problem over to her vet who makes a clear diagnosis and provides a treatment plan. Going to the veterinarian is rarely an option for the backyard chicken keeper. I’ve written why here.  Instead, you have to be able to observe your birds and make decisions on your own. The honest truth is that most of the time hens show signs of illness only when they are suffering from something fatal – cancer, peritonitis, internal laying, ascites, etc. In those cases, euthanasia is a kindness.

But, once in awhile, the hen has a problem that can be alleviated, and almost always, the cure is my Spa Treatment. Simply put, it is a warm epsom salt soak and a dose of olive oil. Read why and how it works on the Spa Treatment FAQ. Here’s the thing – you’ll know if it’s been effective. A hen that previously stood hunched over will walk normally. A dark comb will turn red again. A listless hen will get her appetite back. You’ll also know when it doesn’t work. The hen will not improve. It won’t help to keep bathing her. It won’t help to force fluids and food into her. You have to know when to let go.

It’s good to have the Spa Treatment option because either a) your hen will revive, or b) you’ll know that she is too sick to save. In either case, knowing exactly what ailment has plagued your chicken is impossible. After doing twenty necropsies on older and ill birds, it’s still guesswork for me until I look inside. Don’t believe anyone who gives you a diagnosis after just hearing a description of behavior and external symptoms. But – that doesn’t matter. What does is that you’ve done what you could, and that you have a way to decide the kindest option for your hen.

spa treatment

If you’ve had success with my Spa Treatment, please leave a comment!

Note – This treatment originated on my blog. I’ve since seen versions on other sites. Some of the info is good, but some has been altered in translation. Do share this advice, but please send people directly to my FAQ. Thanks.

Tonka Says Hello

Hey, Tonka, I haven’t talked about you on my blog lately! Look over here so that I can get a photo.



Thank you. That is your good side.

side view


Show everyone how much you like your new home. Yep, those slow-feed hay nets supply you with an uninterrupted food source, which is good for your mental and physical health.

slow feed hay net


And I should mention that your good friend, Maggie can be seen behind you at her hay net. You don’t have to share. You like that, don’t you?

tonka talking


What do you think about the snow coming down?

tongue out


I thought so.

Rainy Day Hens

Yesterday a nor’easter blew through. The name of the storm refers to the direction that the wind is coming from – the north and east – which around here means it’s whipping off of the Atlantic Ocean. This nor’easter brought drenching cold rain, with stretches of sleet and snow. For more than 24 hours, the rain came down in torrents. The pond is near to overflowing.

overflowing pond


The animals stayed inside. Damp air, wet ground, and enclosed chickens pooping in one place, are all a recipe for illness. I can’t count on the sun to dry things out. Rain, drizzle and snow are all predicted for the rest of the week. I usually pick out the manure every few days, and do a good coop clean on the weekend. After yesterday’s downpour, and with more to come, I decided to be proactive in my flock’s care. I got up early and did what I could.

I can’t dry out the runs, but I can rake up leaves and manure. I don’t want the girls to be milling about on rotting vegetation.

rake up


Next, I used the fine-tined pitchfork to muck out manure. I also shoveled out a wet area that Phoebe used as her litter box. She usually does her business outside, but when it storms, she goes in a corner. She’s tidy, but that pee just adds to the moisture in the barn, so I cleaned it out.

rabbit in coop


I put down lots of fresh bedding, which not only dries things out, but also gets the hens active, which helps to keep the girls healthy.

dry coop bedding


During a nor’easter, you have to close the doors, or everything would be soaked. However, the last thing that you should do during bad weather is to shut the barn up tight. Both of my coops have excellent ventilation, but even so, I opened the doors wide this morning while mucking out. Even though it was drizzling, fresh air is essential.

open up coop


I also encouraged the girls to get outside. I rarely feed scratch grains, but this morning they got a handful of cracked corn.

chickens in pen


In order to keep external parasites in check, and to keep their feathers in good shape, hens need to dust bathe. Obviously, if the run is a mucky mess, they can’t roll around in dirt outside. That’s why I provide them with a sand-filled litter box in the coop. It only works if it’s kept tidy, so I scooped that out this morning, too. (You can see how unappealing it was in this photo taken before I sifted through it.)

dirty dust bath


Lastly, I’ve been keeping the hens busy with pumpkins, which they peck at all the way down to the skin. They hadn’t quite finished the butternut squash (seen on the right in this photo) but, with the above-freezing temps and dampness, that veg was about to rot, so I tossed it in the compost pile before it could add to the moisture and mess in the coop.

pumpkin and squash


All of these chores took less than a half-hour this morning (including cleaning the goats’ stall which is a story for another day!) It was time well spent.

Fisher Cat Tracks

The first real snowfall of the year was a beauty. It came on Thanksgiving, which made it seem like a holiday gift (at least for us, as we weren’t traveling.) The snow was just wet enough to stick and outline every branch and leaf. Heavy snow can cause damage, but this was only a few inches, so it was pretty but didn’t wreak havoc here in my small corner of New England.

snow in meadow


Some snow is too icy, or conversely too fluffy, to hold tracks, but this snow, early in the morning, gave off the secrets of the animals that were out and about.

There were footprints by the stone wall.

tracks by wall


There was a distinctive pattern of four footprints, and then three and a hint of a tail drag. This was a large animal.



A close look supplied ample details: claw tips and furry paws.

clear fisher cat tracks

Fisher cat.

The fisher cat is a large weasel and is a fearsome predator. It has massive claws, sharp teeth, and a habit of killing everything that it can and caching the extra in a vee in a tree. (If you come across a dozen dead squirrels wedged between two branches in a tree trunk, you’ll know who put them there.) Fisher cats will rip down fencing to get into a coop. In one hunting spree, a fisher will kill all of your chickens and all you’ll find are a few feathers in the morning. Fisher cats are known to scream. My neighbor’s old dog treed a fisher and the sound was chilling. She pulled her dog away and put him inside. You don’t want your dog tangling with an angry fisher cat.

I followed the tracks. This fisher cat skirted by our fence, but didn’t go in. It thought about it. This fisher cat loped through the front yard and our side woods.

fisher cat


It stopped and circled a few trees, and here you can see it deciding what to do next.

fisher cat circles


Then it went on it’s way.

I’m sure that the squirrel who left these tracks on our stone wall was relieved to see it go.

tracks on stone wall


Note: A big thank you to Steve who I woke up to take these pictures (it’s tricky photographing in snow.) Tracks don’t remain sharp for long. Another fifteen minutes, and a few degrees warmer, and the tracks would no longer have been clear.