A Bucolic Scene

After yesterday’s post about how quickly hens age, I thought that a bucolic scene would provide a nice counterpoint. When people decide to get chickens, this is what is imagined: a beautiful hen on a green lawn.


Isn’t Pearl lovely? Doesn’t simply looking at a scene like this slow your breath and lower your blood pressure? Keeping chickens is not all about the eggs.

Here are the Ladies, having an afternoon stroll.

hens on lawn

Deep sigh. There. Feeling calm?

Once you get chickens, you might decide that an even larger domestic farm animal would add to the bliss in your backyard. Here’s a grazing goat.

goat on lawn

Ah… nice. Right?

WAIT. EXCUSE ME. I have to RUN! The other goat is in the flowers.

goat in flowers

Serene they are not. Have you read those studies that show that challenging mental activities help to keep Alzheimher’s at bay? I think that goat keeping qualifies.

The Gems are Old

I call the flock of hens that you see on the BarnCam the Gems, because they are named after rocks (Etheldred honors a pioneering female geologist.) They arrived in a cardboard box, through the mail, from Meyer Hatchery in April of 2011.

post office


The fuzzy chick phase lasts but a short couple of weeks.


By late summer of 2011, the Gems were laying. They’ve now gone through two molts.

The Gems still look good.

Pearl is in all of her fluffy cochin glory.



Despite losing her tail to feather picking, and having a rough-looking rump, Jasper continues to be friendly, alert and active. (All of you with feather picking in your flock, take heart! Sometimes the hen just doesn’t care.)



Amber continues to be the perfect Buff Orpington. She has all of their good traits, but she never goes broody.



The Gems continue to lay eggs.


Despite their outward glossy and healthy appearance, the Gems are old.

It’s hard to accept that the normal-looking hens in your flock are old, but by the age of three they are. Don’t believe all of the backyard chicken boosterism that claims that you’ll have hens living and laying for a decade. A rare bird might, but most won’t. At three, laying hens are past their prime. It’s true that many of your hens will keep laying, albeit at a reduced rate. But, it’s not just that the hen is producing fewer eggs, it’s also that they have difficulty constructing sturdy shells and laying without issues. It takes a lot for a chicken to metabolize nutrients from feed and turn it into eggs. By their third laying season, their nutritional tracts aren’t up to the job. Sometimes, internal organs are tumorous. Sometimes, they’ve just not as efficient at digestion.

Early this springtime, there were days when I collected ten eggs from this group of eleven birds. But, lately, that number has halved. It’s not just the rate of laying that has slowed. Egg laying has become problematic for some of the girls. Egg shells are thinner. Some are so fragile that they break, and then the hens eat them. Once in awhile an egg is laid that is as soft as a water balloon. These sorts of glitches lead to bigger problems. The chickens strain to lay rubbery eggs. An egg might break inside of the hen. Eggs might back up in the tract and they become impacted, or the hen will become an internal layer. I’ve seen all of these problems, and I’ve confirmed them by doing necropsies after death.

If I was a “real” farmer, this flock would be gone. The shells would be too thin to pack in cartons without cracking. The margin for making a profit would disappear. But, I’m not a farmer. I have hens in my backyard that I’ve gotten to know. I can afford to keep them around. Because I know what’s going on with the Gems, I can do a few things to make egg laying easier for them.

An optimal diet for the older hen is essential. They need chicken grit – yes, you have to spend $10 on a bag of rocks. Without grit of the right size and type, they can’t grind food up in their gizzards. They need oyster shell, offered free choice. (I use a rabbit food dispenser.) Most importantly, they can no longer eat anything and turn around and make eggs. They can no longer be given all of your kitchen scraps. No more bread and pasta. No empty calories. Forgo the scratch corn, too. They should fill up on pellets before being given healthy treats such as greens and watermelon. However, finding goodies by free-ranging on your lawn and garden is still a good thing.

I’m now treating my healthy-looking Gems as the old girls that they are. Careful management will allow them to lay eggs as sturdy as they can make them. Some hens will sail through the next few years. I hope that most of them do. But, I expect that I’ll see difficulties in the months to come. This is as much a part of chicken keeping as is being smitten by those day-old chicks. This is not depressing. Being realistic about your animals’ lives allows you to enjoy them for who and what they are and to care for them appropriately. Meanwhile, it’s a beautiful day and I need to get into the garden. The hens are ready to help with the bug control and turf turning, and I look forward to their company.

Chickens and Dogs

I’m often asked, Do Chickens and dogs get along?

As with so many questions, the answer is, It depends.

Chickens are prey animals. Everyone, from the hawks in the sky, to foxes lurking in the woods, want to eat them. Dogs are predators. Right there, you have a problem. Chickens startle easily. They dash and dart. These are exactly the motions that set a dog into hunting mode. That said, not all dogs are a physical threat to your chickens. What sort of dog do you have?

Do you have a large, athletic dog? Or a little couch potato? I have both.

both dogs

Scooter is not much of a threat to anything, not even a tennis ball. He would prefer to be curled up in the sun. Still, he is a dog, and despite his ridiculous cuteness, he remains a predator at heart. He could harass the chickens, even a little dog can stress out your flock. Then again, they could harass him! If Scooter did grab a hen, his gnarly undershot teeth wouldn’t do much damage.

scooter teeth


On the other hand, Lily dog is always on high alert. In all likelihood, in her first few months of life as an ignored puppy on a farm, she learned to hunt and eat rabbits and such. Added to that history is her highly reactive temperament. When she sees movement, she chases. She tears off like a streak first, and thinks later. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The local coyotes, herons, hawks, raccoons (and the list goes on) stay clear of our backyard. But, a dog with such a strong prey drive can’t always distinguish between a chicken scratching in the woods and a squirrel.

lily watching


Some big dogs are fine with chickens. My late, great Nimbus, was the ideal dog to have with hens. Nimbus was likely an Australian sheepdog and husky mix. She had a very strong prey drive, but she also had the protective sensibility of a herding dog. I owned her for a few years before getting chickens. Once the hens were installed in the backyard, I told Nimbus that they were not toys. All I had to do was say, uh-uh when she tensed to chase or try to play with them. Nimbus got it immediately, and she understood her role. In fact, I’d let the flock free-range with Nimbus there to protect them. The biggest issue that I had with her was that she’d follow the hens and eat their poop. Dogs love chicken manure. They eat it and they roll in it. It’s disgusting. It’s stinky. If that’s too much for you to deal with, don’t worry about how to let your dog mingle with your hens. Keep them separate!

Lily is another story. I knew that with her that I’d have to do systematic and on-going training. I use positive reinforcement to teach Lily that chickens are to be left alone. This is the opposite of what some trainers advocate, called aversion training, which is, when a dog goes after a hen, you yell, yank and punish. That theory holds that the dog associates the chickens with bad things happening to him, and so the dog will avoid the hens. Punishment like that works once. Or twice. The behavior you don’t want immediately stops. With some dogs, that’s enough, and they decide the chickens aren’t worth the trouble. But, for most dogs, and especially for reactive dogs like Lily, that sort of aversion training not only doesn’t work longterm, but it also causes issues that are lasting and damaging to your relationship with your dog.

Dogs, when yelled at and yanked, will build up a tolerance for punishment. So, each time the dog misbehaves, the owner has to escalate to get the desired response. Soon, the owner is physically abusing her dog, and the dog associates not only the chickens with punishment, but the handler as well. At some point that sort of dominance training creates a backlash from the dog. Fear-based aggression ensues. Or the dog shuts down, fearful of doing anything wrong at all. That might look like obedience, but it is not (you see this “learned helplessness” a lot with horses trained in so-called natural horsemanship – more on that another day!)

A better way to train a dog to leave the chickens alone is to reward him for the behavior that you want. Imagine what the perfect scenario is – perhaps your dog lying quietly while the hens mill around. Then, train for that. What’s the first step? Reward for when your dog (on a leash, so he can only do the right thing) is calmly looking at the chickens. If your dog can only be calm from fifty feet away on the porch, then start there. Slowly, day after day, get closer to the flock, all the while rewarding for quiet and relaxed behavior. This sounds like it will take ages, and it does take attention and work, but the end result will happen more quickly than you think. Soon enough your dog will be calm around your hens.

Then again, you might have a Lily. Lily is a very challenging dog to train because of her innate reactive nature. I’ve taught her not to chase the hens from the other side of the fence. I’ve trained a wait! so if she does take off after a stray hen, I can (usually) stop her in her tracks. But I’d never trust her 100% out with free-ranging hens. It’s just not worth the risk.

So, when my dogs are out, my hens are in.

hens in pens


And vice versa.

hens on lawn


Note: I’ve enrolled in the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional course. It starts in June. What I’ve talked about here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to training theory and knowledge, and is applicable not only to dogs, but to horses and people as well. I’m looking forward to sharing what I learn with you here on this blog, and by next summer I’ll be available for training consultations.

You’re Invited

I have quite a number of events coming up, and I hope to see you at one or more of them.

This weekend, on Saturday, is a Chicken Keeping Workshop. There’s still plenty of space so do sign up. The photo below is from the Advanced Chicken Keeping Class held a week ago. Notice the cookies. I’ll be baking again on Friday!

advanced class


On June 11, I’m really looking forward to being at one of my favorite places – The Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA. I’ll be doing a talk and book signing in the Limonaia, which is likely to be the most fragrant and beautiful space that I’ve ever done a program in. That event is free with the price of admission, so come early and tour the grounds. Even better, walk the gardens and then join me for dinner at the Twigs Cafe! I’ve reserved a table, so email me to let me know if you’d like to join us.

Speaking of gardens, I’ve added a new program this summer – A HenCam Garden Party. It will take place here at Little Pond Farm on July 12. If you’ve ever wished for a party where people talked about their chickens (instead of children, politics, etc.) then this is the event to come to! I’ll give a short presentation on how to incorporate a flock into a landscape, and the remainder of the afternoon will be spent relaxing by watching the Beast and hens, scratching the goats, wandering the gardens, and being able to chat about your own hens with others who get it. A full description and signup is on my Events Page.

Amber on chair

Amber is waiting to welcome you to the party!

There’s more on my schedule – take a look at the Events Page for the full listing. I hope to see you soon!

Summer Plans

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the official start of SUMMER. On Monday my little town will have its annual gathering, with a talk by a veteran, a moment of silence, and a flag raising (which my son will take part in along with several other Boy Scouts.)

Later, I’ll be riding to the state park with a friend. One of us will hold the horses, while the other gets something cold and delicious from the ice cream stand  – which happens to be in a real dairy barn. Do I live in a great town, or what?

Our schedules don’t allow for a vacation this summer, but maybe we’ll have time for a short getaway. Cape Cod isn’t too far. Perhaps we’ll stay somewhere cozy.

Cape Cod Cottage


Hmmm, maybe not that cozy.


Do you have summer plans? Do tell!