Frozen Combs and Small Coops

This winter I’ve fielded a number of queries about frostbite on hens’ combs. A mild case of frostbite will cause darkening on the tips of the comb. Severe frostbite will cause swelling and pain. The affected parts of the comb might die and fall off. The other chickens will peck at the damage and that can cause terrible bloodshed. Roosters lose their fertility, and hens with frostbite stop laying. Frozen combs are serious, but not too common. It happens more often with roosters with particularly large combs because the boys don’t tuck their heads in when they sleep at night. But, I wasn’t being asked about roosters. I was hearing about bad cases of frostbite in winter hardy hens that have modest-sized combs. That simply shouldn’t happen.

Over the years I’ve kept a range of hens with combs of various sizes. Temperatures here can stay well below freezing for weeks. As you’ve seen this winter, we’ve had snow, freezing rain, sleet and even a blizzard. I don’t use heat. My hens, and their combs, are fine. So, why were other people having problems with their flocks? The culprit is the housing. I have been railing against small, poorly ventilated coops for years. Unfortunately, these are the ones that are advertised to the beginner poultry keeper. They are too small. They have terrible ventilation and become damp and cold. They have little headroom so that the chickens are roosting low to the ground, right over their manure. Manure is 75% moisture. Your hens will be breathing that moisture in. It will coat their combs and turn them icy cold. Also, hens breathe out moisture. I’ve read that 25 hens give off one gallon of moisture every 24 hours. A small coop can get damp quickly. Those small coops will make your hens ill.

One reader with a flock of sex-links kept her birds in this coop. There are no windows and poor ventilation.

small coop

An added factor was that she bedded with straw, which holds in moisture. Pine shaving dries out manure; straw goes moldy. Fortunately for her hens, she recognized the problem before it got severe. She has since moved her flock to a large shed and their health has improved.

One of the issues that I have with these small, dog house-like coops, is that you can’t walk in them. I go into my coops several times a day. I can tell what the temperature is, if it feels damp, if it smells rank or moldy. A glance inside one of these prefab coops won’t give you that essential information. If you have one of these small coops, put your head and as much of your torso in there as you can. Take a sniff. Feel the air. Would you be comfortable breathing in there all night? If not, the housing needs adjusting. There are plenty of good small coops out there. I have a Pinterest board with annotated photos of coops that I like. Do plan on at least 4 square feet per hen.

You can also select hens that have been bred for wintery conditions. Hens with lots of feathers and small combs will stay active and healthy throughout the cold weather –


From the Biggle Poultry Book 1913

– that is, as long as they  have a dry, well-ventilated, sunny and spacious coop.

Baked Rice Pudding

The girls are laying and I have eggs to bake with! Although eggs are an optimistic sign of springtime, the weather has been miserable. Today a hard and intermittently freezing rain is coming down sideways. The ground is still frozen, so the water stays on the surface and pools on the paths. There’s ice, water, slush and snow. This weather makes me want warm comfort food, and so I’ve made Baked Rice Pudding. Rice Pudding, cooked on the stovetop, takes some doing and watching. I love it’s creamy, satisfying goodness. But, I’ve got deadlines and errands, and so I opted for a version made in the oven. It requires no fuss and no hovering over. It’s a bit denser than the pudding made in a pot, but it is just as lovely and warming.

This recipe calls for cooked rice. Make a double batch of plain white rice for dinner tonight, and then use the extra for the pudding tomorrow.

Baked Rice Pudding

2 1/2 cups cooked white rice
3 eggs
2 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 3 quart baking dish with nonstick spray.
2. Separate the grains of rice with your fingers. This is a sticky job!
3. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk the eggs, and then whisk in the milk and sugar until the sugar dissolves.
4. Whisk in the cinnamon, vanilla and zest. When I cook with citrus peel, I make a point to purchase organic fruit. I use a microplane grater to get fine zest.
5. Stir the rice into the egg mixture and break up any remaining clumps. Pour this into the casserole dish.
6. Bake for 40 minutes, or until just set and golden on the surface.

Makes 6 generous portions (Leftovers can be warmed in the microwave. I like to eat a bowlful with yogurt for breakfast.)

Baked Rice Pudding


Tattooed Eggs

Quite awhile ago, I clipped an article from a magazine about how to decorate eggs with temporary tattoos. I’m not one for fussy or elaborate displays. I think that backyard eggs are beautiful just as they are, and that a basket of them needs no adornment. But, recently, I came across a company that makes the most gorgeous (and whimsical and artful) tattoos, and I knew that it was time to finally time to try this project.

I used their butterfly tatts. They’re very simple to attach. Just press a tattoo against the egg and wipe with a wet towel.

in cups


They looked so beautiful and cheerful in my egg cups. But, then I thought about a better place for the butterflies.



Now, despite the snow outside, I have a bit of summer inside of my house.

in leaves

For how to blow out eggs, read this blog post.

(If you enjoyed this, please share on Pinterest. Thanks!)

Siouxsie’s Big Egg

Supermarket eggs are all uniform in size and shape because they’ve been laid by hens that have been carefully bred to lay eggs that look identical. Not only are their genetics narrowly defined, but production chickens are all the same age, and eat a uniform ration. Despite that, since chickens are animals, not machines, there are variations. You never see those odd eggs in supermarket cartons because they are sorted out and used in “processed egg products.”

Certainly, the factory egg facilities don’t have chickens that looks like this:


Siouxsie is a Polish hen, turning four years old this spring. She’s a breed that sporadically lays medium-sized white eggs. After a break for the molt and for winter, she’s begun laying again. Siouxsie is rather dramatic about it. She huffs up, tail down, and looks miserable for hours. Sometimes she lays in the nesting box. Sometimes she gets into a trance and lays on the ground. The other day she laid an egg without the coating of the bloom. Yesterday she laid a huge egg, pointy at both ends, which is the egg on the left in this photo. The egg on the right is a more typical size and shape for a Polish hen.


It was a double-yolker.



Creating an egg from the start in the ovary, until it’s release out of the vent, takes more than 25 hours. A lot happens as the egg moves down the hen’s reproductive tract; for some hens the process goes smoothly day after day, for others, like Siouxsie, there’s a glitch here, an imperfection there. In this case, her ovary released two yolks at the same time. I ate this egg for breakfast. It was delicious.




Good Morning

Last night it rained the the next town over, but it snowed here, and so when my son walked to the school bus stop at 6:45 this morning, the road looked like this.

bus walk

Each branch, each leaf, was defined by a coating of snow.


These early morning moments of beauty are not uncommon here in the winter. But somehow the transformation to a clean, new snowscape never fails to make me stop in my tracks.

My backyard, a view that I take for granted, comes sharply into focus.


At first glance the colors seem to be reduced to black and white, but there are warm colors in the trunks of the trees, brown curlings of leaves, and pink in the sky. Still, one reason to paint a barn door red is to have this pop of color on a snowy day.


What’s colorful in your world this morning?