Betsy

Yesterday Betsy found a sunny place to doze. While napping, she slipped peacefully to death. As sad as I am to lose her, I was relived that she went as she did. I did expect that she would die this winter. She’d reached the venerable age of 7 1/2 years, and in the last few months had slowed down considerably. It’s rare that a hen dies of old age without horrible ailments to complicate her end. She was a lucky one.

In her day she was a feisty hen, skittering between the big girls, and telling each of my rabbits who was the boss (her!) Betsy was my favorite school visit hen. She fit in the palm of my hand. Even the smallest child felt confident meeting her. She seemed to like to travel, and didn’t mind leaving the flock at all.

Terry 2

 

Betsy stopped egg laying years ago, and I retired her from school visits when she turned five. She deserved her retirement.

Here is a photo of Betsy at her prime, with that classic bantam stance.

Betsy

 

She was the last of my four small bantam White Leghorns. Snowball, Coco, Eggers and Betsy. All were delightful birds with distinct personalities. At this point, heading into winter, I have no intention to get more bantams. My coops are quite full enough. The hens are all in compatible, no drama, flocks. It won’t be the same without her, but it’s still good.

 

Note: I did a necropsy which showed no obvious diseases. No tumors, no bizarre fat deposits, no internal parasites. Her crop and gizzard were full and normal. She wasn’t skinny. However, stretches of her intestinal tract had stopped working. She was old. I’m glad she passed away peacefully in the sun.

Roosts for Chickens

Many people are surprised to learn that chickens don’t (and shouldn’t) sleep in nests. Rather, chickens sleep on roosts. If we humans tried to sleep while balancing on a bar, we’d fall off, but birds curl their feet around the roost, and lock their flexor tendons, so that even when thoroughly relaxed, they stay put. (Think about it. This is why you don’t see birds falling out of trees when they take naps!) I take chicken anatomy into account when building roosts for my coops. I like round bars – it’s easier for the hens to stay latched on. Some people advocate for flat roosts, thinking that the hens can better cover their cold toes with their feathers. My hens hunker down just fine on round roosts, and they haven’t had frozen toes yet.

inside roost

 

You might think, but wouldn’t they be cozier in nests? The answer is no. Chickens produce manure all day and all night. They poop. A lot. If they sleep in the nesting boxes, then they’re sitting on a pile of damp manure. Eggs laid in those nesting boxes will be filthy. When chickens sleep on a roost, their manure drops down into the bedding and the hens don’t breathe in moisture and ammonia fumes all night. This is why roosts should be up high and why coops built like dog houses are a bad idea. If your chickens are roosting only a few inches off of the floor of the coop, then they’ll be prone to respiratory ailments all year round, and frostbite in the winter.

Despite the benefits of roosting, some chickens might decide to sleep in the nesting boxes. An ill chicken may take to a nesting box. Sometimes a hen that is molting will stay in a box because she is feeling (literally) prickly, and her pecking order has been shaken up because of her exposed skin; the box will feel like a safe place to her.  Broody hens will also sleep in nesting boxes. You can take a hen from a nesting box and put her on the roost at dusk, and often (but not always) she’ll stay put. Young birds need to learn to roost. I’ve written about that here and here.

Plan on at least six inches of roost per bird. In the winter they’ll huddle up for warmth, in the summer they won’t crowd so tightly together. Hens are fussy about who they sleep next to, so plenty of space will prevent squabbles.

Note that this roost is attached to the wall with hinges. I can lift it up to clean underneath it. Also note that it leans against the wall at a slant. That way the hens on the lower rungs don’t get pooped on by the girls above. I like tiered roosts because the old hens use the steps to make their way to the top, and to get down again in the morning.

roost

 

Roosts are also used during the daytime. Betsy, who is a very, very old hen, rests indoors while the others are out and about. It’s a peaceful place for her.

old hen on roost

 

I provide plenty of outside roosts, too. It’s a way to create more usable space in a small pen. Roosts are especially welcome when it’s muddy and snowy as the hens appreciate perches that are high and dry. Branches make for attractive and interesting roosts.

cold morning roosts

 

Roosts also enrich the environment. I keep stumps in the run, and move them about every week or so. The hens seem to like the change of scenery.

stumps

 

Veronica likes the top of the ladder.

chicken ladder

 

Phoebe also makes use of the roost. The inside corner protects her from bothersome chicken feet, but still allows her to be right in the middle of the action.

rabbit roost

Egg Yolk Color

One of the things that we small flock keepers tout about our fresh eggs is the vibrant color of the yolks. Supermarket eggs are pale, but look at these! we say, pointing to the upstanding orange centers.

Of course, there’s always more to the story. Here are two eggs.

egg yolk color

 

One is pale. One is deeply colorful. Both came from my flock.

The egg on the left was laid this week by Twiggy. The one on the right was also laid by Twiggy, but that one was laid ten days ago, when she had been gorging on pumpkin. Both were delicious.

Many fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids, which are orange pigments that pass right through to the yolk. They’re also nutrient powerhouses. So far, research has shown that it is best to get carotenoids from your diet, not from pills. Egg yolks are a good source! The brighter the orange in the yolk, the more nutritious those eggs are. Maybe.

Industrial egg producers have caught on that consumers want dark yellow yolks, which they equate with the health of the birds and the nutrient quality of the eggs. However, those producers do not free-range their pullets and feed them pumpkins. They use supplements. I read about one source here. This is part of the article:

Whenever the market demands for more pigmented egg yolks the oxycarotenoids concentration in layer hens’ feed can be increased. Oxycarotenoids present in Rubrivivax gelatinosus biomass grown in industrial wastewater have already proven their ability on enhancing yolk colour.

Only slightly more appetizing is the industry’s use of paprika and marigold to color egg yolks. I feed my hens marigolds – right before the first frost I pull the plants and feed them to the hens, roots, flowers, leaves, stems and all. That’s far different than feeding extracts. But now that we’ve had several hard frosts and even snow, there’s not much growing and colorful for the hens to forage. So, I feed alfalfa. After writing this post, I think I’ll splurge on another couple of pumpkins for the girls, too!

Twiggy Keeps Laying

Only one of the seventeen hens in my backyard is laying.

leghorn egg

 

Twiggy.

Twiggy

She is a two-year old White Leghorn. Twiggy was the first of a batch of twenty-five chicks (that arrived here in the spring of 2013) to lay. She produced her first egg at the age of 17 weeks. She then laid one egg a day for an astounding two weeks straight before taking a 24 hour break and resuming production. She laid all through last winter, not daily, but enough so that there was always a white egg in the refrigerator.

Twiggy is now 20 months old. All of her flock mates are finishing their molts, which is when a hen drops all 8,000 of her feathers and grows new ones. All birds molt. Chickens molt once a year, the first time that this occurs is at the end of their second summer, at about 18 months of age.  Some of my hens molted way back in August and now have perfect plumage, which will keep them insulated and warm through the winter months. Some of the hens are still bare in patches, and their new feathers are just coming in, making them look like porcupine-bird hybrids. Twiggy is the only hen in my flock to not yet even begin to molt. When a hen molts, she ceases to lay. Twiggy is not ready to stop yet. But, look at the tip of Twiggy’s tail. Those are old and worn out feathers. She has got to stop laying. I’ve told her so. She’s not listening.

A hundred years ago, Twiggy’s breed, the White Leghorn, transformed poultry farms. Instead of being marginal animals, cared for out the back door by the farm wife, chickens became the centerpiece of a farm’s business plan. A farm with a large flock of leghorns could turn a profit. This book, published in 1913, is typical of the poultry boosterism at that time.

call of the hen

 

Instead of laying 90 eggs, like a typical utility chicken of that time, a purebred Leghorn produced more than 200! The evidence from egg laying contests was touted in books, magazines and through government pamphlets.

egg contest

 

Over the years I’ve had four bantam White Leghorns. They look like miniature versions of the standard-sized birds. But, like most bantams, they aren’t particularly productive. Twiggy is my first large White Leghorn, and she has more than lived up to her breed’s reputation for being amazingly prolific layers. I keep chickens not only for the eggs, but because I also happen to like hens. Personality is important to me, and I’d heard that Leghorns were “production” birds and not all that interesting. I’ve discovered that that’s not true at all – at least not if you have one Leghorn in a flock of seventeen birds of a variety of breeds. Twiggy is active and a tad flighty, but also personable, and her floppy comb makes her look a tad ridiculous. She’s curious and bold and is a fun foil to the more staid, heavier old-fashioned hens. Leghorns are not long-lived birds, but I’d like to have Twiggy around for a few more years. It’s important for her health that she rests and rejuvenates during the ten-week process that is the molt.

It’s time to molt, Twiggy. Take a break!

She says that she will when she’s ready.

Twiggy head

I’m On Chronicle

A couple of weeks ago, I caught you up on the nursing home hens, and told you about how Chronicle, a New England human interest television show, was doing a piece about the project. The producer also spent some time in my backyard.

Chronicle (1)

The half-hour show, which they’re calling Creature Comfort, will showcase unusual therapy animals. It airs on WCVB channel 5, Boston, at 7:30 pm EST on November 13, 2014. It live-streams here. By next week I’ll have a link up on my In the News page.