Oh, Agatha!

I let my hens free range only when I can stay outside with them and keep an eye out for predators. In the summer, they get to forage for long stretches while I garden, but in the winter the outings are shorter and less frequent. There’s a limit to how long that I can stand around in freezing temps watching the girls.

The old hens are as eager as the young ones to get out, but then they don’t do much more than find a place in the sun and wait to go back into their pen.

The 19 month old Gems, though, rush out and spread across the lawn to forage.

All of them, except for Agatha.

She sees me. She sees the camera. She wants to know what’s what.

This is why I’ve included three Speckled Sussex in my spring chick order. There’s bound to be another inquisitive, friendly and slightly bonkers hen like Agatha in the bunch. Every flock should have one.


Animal Friendships

Stories of “unlikely” friendships between animal species have been made into at least a half-dozen books, which all appear to be selling well at bookstores. Stories of chimps and tigers, tortoises and hippos, a dog and a pig. They’re sweet. They’re cute. But why are people surprised? Why do people think that animals only relate to others like themselves? Certainly, if you have a mix of animals in your life, even if it’s just a cat and a dog, you know that they are in a relationship (albeit not necessarily loving – even brothers and sisters can have rivalries.)

Just look around you. Or look here. Yesterday, many people commented on Candy’s regal stance in the center of the HenCam coop. (Well, as regal as one can be when one’s throne is a purple plastic kitty litter box filled with sand.)

Candy enjoys the company of the hens. In the morning she hops over to their pop-door, waiting for them to come out. During the day she watches their comings and goings from the top of the ramp in her hutch. Candy is their leader. Not a rooster. But their leader, just the same.

Candy and the goats are friends, too. Once in awhile, I let Candy out into the goat pen to have a hop-around and to eat the fresh grass. When I first did this, the goats wanted to treat Candy like another goat, with head-butting play. Candy did not like that idea, and she clearly communicated the rules of the friendship to the boys. I saw it happen, and I’m still not sure how this was done. Bunny ESP? Pip came up, ready to head butt a “hello, let’s play,” when he stopped in his tracks. I happened to be there, at the moment that this agreement was reached and snapped this photo.

Have you seen Candy at dusk, over at the fence, saying goodnight to the boys? In the summer, they hang out there on warm nights and converse. It’s an evening ritual.

It’s not only domesticated animals that have interspecies animal communities. The Beast was well aware of huge, old bullfrog that lived in her pond (it died this summer at the grand age of ten.) The wild animals, too, interact with each other. Karen Pryor has written about these animal communities, specifically her observations of birds, in an essay in her book Karen Pryor on Behavior.

Of course, we humans are also a species, and we have relationships with many other animals over our lives. I find this as wonderful and remarkable as any story about a chimp and a pigeon.

Why I Don’t Use Avian Vets

Last Friday I had a long conversation with a friend of a friend about her experience with a deadly infectious poultry disease. As horrible as that was (I’ll talk about it in another post) what struck me was how the veterinary care that she sought out made her year with chickens expensive and unnecessarily guilt-ridden, and didn’t, in the long run, help at all.

Backyard chicken keepers rarely come from a farming background. If they have any experience with animals it is as indulgent pet owners. They believe that solutions to health issues will be handed to them by a veterinarian. They have been told that a price shouldn’t be put on their pets. Veterinary schools teach sophisticated medicine, and the knowledge and resources available to vets equals that of people doctors. Veterinarians are taught to do everything that it is possible to do, but, not necessarily what is right for the animal or the owner. (I know this first-hand as years ago I was told, at a world-renowned animal hospital, that my guinea pig’s broken leg could be fixed with orthopedic surgery. That “we do it all the time.” My family was guilted into $1,000 surgery, and the little guy suffered and died anyway.)

Farmers understand that all lives intrinsically have value, but they accept that it is not right to bankrupt a farm for an animal of small monetary value. Farmers understand that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. People new to chicken keeping don’t have that perspective, or even if they do, don’t have the experience to know how to apply it. Backyard chicken keepers, when faced with a sick chicken, still want to turn to a vet. They quickly find out that the average suburban veterinary practice won’t even look at a hen. So, they search for and find an avian vet. Yes, avian vets take care of birds, but generally, their specialty is for parrots and other exotics. Not chickens. (Avian vets who specialize in poultry took college courses that prepared them for working for the commercial poultry industry, not small-scale flocks.) Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find an avian vet who admitted that he or she knew nothing about chickens. I have had a vet feel my hen’s comb, say it was “warm” and then look up respiratory diseases in her college textbook. That visit cost me $65. The friend of a friend had six very ill hens. Her vet didn’t take chickens, so she called a veterinary college that is in her area. She was told that she could bring in all of the sick chickens. Each would cost $165 to look at. I am aghast that the vet school would even give this hen keeper the option of spending almost $1,000 to look at all of her birds, when examining one would supply the same diagnosis. She did decide, on her own, to bring only one, purely due to financial considerations. She felt guilty not to have brought them all. The vet did not do any blood work, and the diagnosis was one that could have been determined with a quick on-line search.

If you do need medical care for your flock, I recommend that Instead of finding an avian vet, look for a large animal practice, preferably with a vet on staff who keeps a flock of chickens on her own farm. Every few years I run fecal samples to make sure that my chickens don’t carry a load of parasites. The avian vet, two towns over, insists that first I need to bring the “patient” in for an exam. Obviously, she doesn’t understand about flock management. Instead, I take the samples to a large animal practice (they take care of Pip and Caper) and, for $25, their lab tech looks at the manure under her microscope that afternoon.

When you are faced with a sick chicken that you love, you want to ease her distress and hopefully save her life. If she has symptoms of respiratory disease, it is caused by either a virus or bacteria. Lab tests are very expensive, and by the time you hear the results your entire flock could be infected and dying. Although there are charts online for figuring out what infectious agent is affecting your hens, I’ve found them unreliable. (Out of curiosity I’ve used those expensive lab tests and discovered how off those charts are.) So, I recommend starting with a course of antibiotics right away, which can be bought on-line or at your local feed store. If they don’t work, you probably have a virus. When it comes to these respiratory diseases, a vet’s diagnosis is of no help. Either antibiotics will work, or they won’t. (More about what I do for respiratory disease is in this FAQ.) The only exception that I’ve had is when mycoplasma caused crusty, infected eyes, and I needed prescription eye ointment for my hens.

If you have an individual chicken that looks sick (often described as hunched and walking like a penguin) you will want to know the cause. Everyone’s first guess is “my hen is egg bound,” but that is rarely the case. The hen could have any number of diseases, including ascites, heart disease, tumors, cancer, and internal laying. Despite the underlying cause, the external symptoms will be similar. Even a vet can only guess at what might be wrong. Only after death, and upon doing a necropsy, will you know what really killed the chicken. Many of the diseases that cause a hen to look sick are incurable. Sometimes the chicken dies soon after looking ill. But, in other cases, the hen can live on for months or years. If she is lucky, though, the hen does not have a lethal disease and can be cured by doing my simple Spa Treatment. In no case would veterinary care help.

I expect that at this point, that there will be a number of readers who have had very good experiences with avian vets and are eager for the end of this post so they can leave comments about how essential their vets are to their flock management. I know those vets are out there, and I’d love to hear your stories. But, realize that they are the exception, as are the chicken keepers who are able to afford them. In almost all cases, your flock will be well-cared for if you rely on your own commonsense and compassion.

The Beast In Winter

It’s been below freezing at night and so a thin sheet of ice has spread across the surface of the little pond. Underneath, the fish float, barely moving. Their fins swish back and forth, holding them in position for their long half-sleep through the winter.

The pump works all winter. Water flows up and out of the big rock (there is a hole drilled all the way through it) and circulates through the pond. This keeps the water from freezing solid. It also give the wild birds a drinking fountain even during the worst weather.

The 17-ton rock in the center of the pond was installed on top of two large, oblong boulders, forming a cave. The Beast’s lair. She is a savvy old fish, and while the small goldfish float in the center of the water feature, too cold and slow to move away from danger, she lurks in the shadows, safe all winter.

Chicken Christmas Card


Other than printing Merry Christmas in balsam green ink, this doesn’t look at all Christmasy to me. I’m not sure who would send it, or to whom it would be sent, but, who cares when there’s a charming chorus line of hens in love? The A Novo Laugh company sold humorous cards from the 1950s into the 1970s. Does anyone remember “harvest gold” kitchens? This would have looked right at home taped to a refrigerator from that era.