Robins, Day 14, Good-bye!

By the end of day 13, all of the robins had left the nest. Not that there was much of a nest left. What was there was flattened and looked like a trampled, packed patch of dirt and dead grasses.

empty nest

The black specks on the window box are mites, and so the old dog beds got sealed up in garbage bags and tossed off of the porch – I didn’t want to even walk them through the house! The flowers and tomatoes in the window box, and all of the dirt that it contained, also got thrown out.

dog beds


I scrubbed with soapy water.



Once dry, the porch got sprayed with permethrin. I’ll be keeping Lily off of there for a week, as any remaining mites will be hungry and looking for a host.

Good-bye robins! And good riddance!

Robins, Day 13, Two Remain

I am not stepping onto the porch until the robins are gone and I can scrub it clean. I opened the bathroom window to get a photo of the parent,

robin box



and a fledgling leapt out of the box, landed on the deck, squirted poop, and flew off into the smokebush (that gorgeous plant below the porch.) I was so surprised that I was only able to get this one photo. Obviously, even without the mite problem,  I’d be out there with a scrub brush once all of the birds leave.

on porch



As it is, two remain. I’m hoping that they’ll be gone by tomorrow!

two left

Chickens Get Bored

Chickens are charming because they are innately curious, busy-body birds. They’re in constant motion, investigating new things (is this shiny droplet food?), socializing, scratching, pecking, dozing, and chasing (each other and anything small that moves that might be edible.) Unless they are outside in a large and complex environment, they get bored. Boredom, as with all animals, leads to trouble. With chickens, that trouble leads to bad behaviors, like pecking each other, and pulling out feathers (their own and others). Chickens that would otherwise be high-status hens become bullies. Chickens that would otherwise be wallflowers are cornered and pounded on. When that happens, you end up with a flock that has more in common with its dinosaur ancestors than with the delightful farm animals that you’d imagined.

In many backyard situations, chickens are housed in a too-small confines, with a dirt yard and nothing to do. They’re fed treats, like cracked corn, that they fill up on quickly. This is bad for their systems, and they get fat, which leads to egg-laying issues and disease. Add boredom to the mix, and it can be a lethal situation. But, proper housing and management can alleviate all of these issues!

Assuming that you have enough space for your flock, (I’ve written about minimum coop and pen sizes here) what follows are ways to keep your hens from being bored.

Uppermost in a chicken’s mind is eating. A hen is hard-wired to search for food by looking and scratching. It’s not enough to provide pellets out of a feeder, as that need to hunt and peck will end up being focused on something else (like a hen at the bottom of the flock’s status or eating feathers.) Provide places to scratch and things to peck that will last hours, if not all day.

Watermelon, pumpkins, and other large, hard-shelled foods can be put out for your hens and will keep them busy for hours. These foods are also a healthy addition to their diet (unlike the sweet high calorie feed blocks that I don’t recommend.)



Provide a decomposing log for them to peck at. Move it around once a week or so to expose the soft ground and bugs underneath.

bug log


What keeps my hens the busiest is the compost pile inside of the chicken run. This photo shows a mess of green weeds that I’ve just put in there. The girls will pick out bugs, eat the greens and shred the rest. They’ll dig down and turn over the compost. It is an endlessly fascinating place for them. They’ll get good things to eat and stay busy, and I’ll get rich, loose dark dirt in a month.



Provide something new for them to investigate. Simply putting in a pine branch will make their day.

new branch


Although chickens don’t fly (at least not well, it’s more like the dancing hippos in Fantasia) they do like to get up off the ground, and they like height options. Provide outside roosts. (Not every chicken gets to have conversations with goats, but they do like interacting with other species.)

outside roost


They also like stumps.



Dust baths are essential both for health and for the social life of the flock. The run should have a loose pile of dirt to get into.

dirt bath


You have to give your flock things to do during inclement weather. Just like children can drive a parent crazy on a rainy day, so too, your chickens will need distractions when stuck indoors. A kitty litter box half-filled with sand and some food-grade DE will give them something to do.

inside dustbath


Greens tucked into a suet feeder will also keep the chickens out of trouble.

suet feeder


And, of course, you can always set up a rousing game of cabbage tetherball.

cabbage tetherball


It doesn’t take much to engage your chickens in activities that will keep everyone happy – including you, because, really, being a spectator to the antics is part of the fun.

Nursing Home Hens in the News

Today’s Boston Globe has an article about the project that I’ve been involved with at the nursing home. You can read it here. Nancy West, the reporter, did a lovely job explaining what we’re trying to accomplish, and the photographer took some evocative photographs. Don’t miss the one of Beulah, the pullet, meeting a 101 year old woman.

Please share the article. Nursing homes are businesses, and change will come when they see that these projects have tangible benefits.


Robins, Day 12, Mites!

The remaining three robin babies are making a ruckus, and they’re so demanding of food that the window box is shaking.

window box


They’re eager to finish growing and leave the nest.

in nest


It’s no longer a comfortable home. It’s more than just overcrowded. It’s swarming with mites.



There are several varieties of mites that infest wild bird nests. They are all blood-sucking. They need a host for their meals, and their entire lifecycle is on the birds. But, as you can see, their population can swell beyond what the birds can contain. The mites will look for new hosts, and although they prefer birds, they’ll jump to dogs and humans. They’ll invade your house, looking for a meal. It is a good thing that I’ve banned Lily from the porch.



This is why you don’t want wild bird nests in your coops. Once your flock gets mites, it’s very, very hard to eliminate them entirely. In almost  20 years of chicken keeping, I’ve never had a mite infestation, and I don’t want to start now. I’m worried that, unknowingly, I’ve already exposed my hens to these mites. From now on, the porch door remains closed. Once the last three robins leave the nest, I’ll be removing it, and the entire contents of the window box, including the dirt (and, sadly my yet to ripen tomatoes) into a plastic garbage bag and throwing it out. The dog beds are old. They’ll be discarded, too. The porch will be scrubbed. I will not allow robins to nest on my porch again. There are plenty of other places for them to live.

Nature is not always pretty.