Chicken Keeping Workshop – Chickens In Arms!

A baker’s dozen of people interested in keeping backyard chickens came to my home this afternoon for the Chicken Keeping Workshop. You never know what the weather will throw at you this time of year in New England, and although it was cold, it didn’t rain and it didn’t snow. So, after listening to me talk about chicken breeds and the chicken life-cycle, behavior, housing and health, (and eating a bunch of cookies) we put on coats and boots and went out to get some real-life experience with the chickens. I promised that I’d show the class lice. After looking at several bottoms and not finding anything but healthy skin and feathers, I finally found a few crawlies on Tina. Next the class watched me muck manure and toured my compost piles. They got to see Buffy’s bloody head (healing nicely, by the way, and she’s quite happy in her private hen house – a spare rabbit hutch.) Then it was time to learn how to hold a chicken.

Just look at these smiling students! They’re ready for flocks of their own.

For those of you who couldn’t come to the workshop, but want to learn how to hold a hen, I’ve a YouTube video here.

The next workshop is April 14. It’s full, but email me and I’ll put your name on the waiting list. If there’s enough interest, I’ll schedule another workshop in early summer.

Abundance and Odd Eggs

On Tuesday every single one of the twelve Gems laid an egg. The Gems are a mixed flock, and none are hybrids, designed to lay daily. Most are supposed to lay about four eggs a week, so I was quite pleased with my full basket! Despite what they are supposed to do, each is an individual and there is variation. I don’t know yet who is a good layer and who isn’t – I’m sure that there are both in this flock. I certainly don’t expect a dozen eggs every day, so, I was surprised to see an almost full basket yesterday. Eleven eggs.

All of the Gems lay brown eggs, “brown” being a rather boring and unimaginative word when you peer into the basket and see the range of colors. They also lay different sizes. However, yesterday one was clearly a whopper.

Not only was it ginormous, but it was all wrinkled, as if straining to hold the insides in.

I was pretty sure what I’d find when I cracked it open, and I was right. It was a double-yolker.

Two yolks in one egg is not unusual with pullets in their first few months of lay. A yolk is released from the ovary once every 25 hours, or, more typically there’s even more time between the yolks being sent on their way. Once in awhile, though, the conveyor belt that is the reproductive tract speeds up or slows down. Two yolks end up getting surrounded by whites and then shell. It’s hard to believe, but it’s rare that laying an egg of this size is a problem for the hen. Young chickens can and do prolapse and get egg bound, but usually, they’ll lay an out-of-the ordinary egg and be no worse for it.

Last night I sauteed up tomato, sweet yellow bell pepper and avocado. I stirred in the egg until it was just set. Topped with salsa. Dinner.

What’s the most unusual egg that your girls have laid?

Buffy’s Purple Head

Buffy has had more lives than a cat, but I think that she’s on her last one.

She arrived here in the summer of 2006, given to me by a new chicken keeper who had a killer in her flock. One by one her hens were dying, done in by an aggressive chicken that pummeled the heads of her flockmates. Buffy, with no feathers left near her comb, and spatters of blood on her, was next in line. If it were me, I’d have disposed of the bully, but at least the owner knew enough to save her hens. So, Buffy joined what was then a small flock. She fit in fine. The bald spot on her forehead was a permanent reminder of her past.

A year later a respiratory disease, likely mycoplasma, swept through the flock. A side symptom was conjunctivitis. Poor Buffy wheezed and her eyes were squeezed shut with gunk. I gave her Tylan. I put drugs in her eyes. She recovered.

In 2008 Buffy couldn’t stand up. It was a mystery illness that I think was due to ingesting too much vetch in the springtime when that was the only green plant in the meadow to eat. I dosed her with epsom salts. I babied her. She survived.

She survived another bout of respiratory disease. She has survived vent gleet. She’s been broody and suffered from heat. She’s laid eggs and not laid eggs. These days Buffy has a hard time getting down from the roost in the morning, so I lift her off. She’s old. Buffy sun bathes more than scratches. I have been keeping my eye on her (or, as Wendy calls it, “lookering.”) About two weeks ago I noticed that her comb was dark and shriveled. This week I noticed that the comb had been pecked at. When a hen that is not normally bullied shows signs of being low on the pecking order, you know that something is amiss.

Yesterday I found her in the coop on the roost in the middle of the day. Notice her tail-down stance and her back to the world.

A big chunk of her comb was gone and her head was bloody. I cleaned her up and colored it with Blu-kote. Blue-kote is not only an antiseptic, but it also hides red. Buffy’s crown is now dark purple. That should help to lessen the pecking.

Today Buffy is back on the roost, and she has company. Betsy has joined her. Betsy has been looking frail for awhile. I’ve retired her from school visits. I’m keeping my eye on her, too.

When they no longer roost I know that their time is up. For now, though, I’ll leave these two old friends to their days together.

Attention To Detail

“It is well to keep in mind that poultry-keeping is a business dealing with a large number of small things which require close observation to prevent losses. This demands patience and fondness of detail.”

from Practical Poultry-Farming by Hurd, 1939

(photo from my collection)

Close observation is what makes for a peaceful, healthy flock. You should know your chickens so well that you notice a droop in a tail, a change in flock dynamics, a different timber to a cluck. Who is sitting in the sun and who is active? Who has a few missing feathers? Pay attention and you will know when something is off, hopefully in time enough to stem the damage.

Fondness for details is what keeps the waterers clean and filled, food on hand, latches secure, the run dry, and the windows clean to let in sunlight. It’s what makes the morning chores go quickly and smoothly.

This quote could simply be advice about raising chicks, which are certainly “small things which require close observation,” but there is more meaning to it, and it is true on so many levels. The quote tells you to pay attention. Paying attention to your animals is deeply rewarding. It’s what makes having backyard chickens a joy. Paying attention requires patience; time in stillness, time to watch and to know.

The other day I sat in the corner of the big barn with my camera, trying to get a photo of a hen checking out the nesting boxes. I took pictures and I listened to the girls’ chatter, and I watched them jostle for food, peck at my boots, eye my wedding ring, and dust bathe. I watched Ruby barge past one hen and peck at another. I saw Jasper’s quickness and Opal’s meekness. I saw Florence’s intelligence and Agatha’s dim-witted sweetness. And yet, I don’t know these chickens all that well. The three Buff Orpingtons are, to be honest, boring hens, with no distinctive characteristics or character. I know none of the Gems like I know the old hens in the small barn. Eleanor, Edwina and Twinkydink are seven years old this spring. I’ve had them since they were only a few weeks old. They’ve changed over time. Although all three used to be bullies, these days they are more like doddering elderly ladies. But yesterday afternoon, after an hour of free-ranging, a Gem tried to follow Edwina back into the older hen’s barn. Edwina turned, puffed up and pecked. Quite clearly she said, “NOT your place.” It was just a glimmer of her younger self, but such was the power of Edwina’s personality that the Gem, although younger and stronger, backed off. In her heyday, the Barred Rock’s aggressive nature caused me much consternation, but yesterday it made me smile to know she still had it in her. Time. Patience. Knowing. Observation. Details. This poultry-keeping business suits me just fine.

Digging to China

How many chickens do you see in this photo?

Philomena is on the left. Buffy is on the right. Look again. Eleanor is in the middle.

Here is another view:

This is the hens’ favorite dust wallow. It is dry, deep, sunny, and warm. Eleanor is so ancient – seven years! – that she no longer scratches the ground for bugs. But she does like a vigorous dirt bath.

Even Candy likes to sit in the prized corner. When she’s tucked in there it’s like she’s gone down the proverbial rabbit hole. I’ve been worried that she was truly going to disappear – she likes to dig and although the fence is installed six-inches below ground,  that hole is so deep that she could now easily burrow out. So, on Saturday I came up with a temporary solution and filled the pit with two flakes of hay that the goats have refused to eat.  Of course, once it was on the other side of the fence the boys declared the hay delicious and have been nibbling what they can pull through the wire. Meanwhile, I dumped half a bag of coarse builder’s sand in a rarely used dust wallow to the right of this one, thinking that the sand would make it more enticing to the chickens. They were not impressed and took turns kicking it all over the run. Which goes to show that you can lead a hen to a dirt wallow but can’t make them bathe.