Here in the USA, it’s the week of Thanksgiving. Children are home from school, family and friends visit, and a lot of cooking goes on. As I do every year, I’ll be making pies for my annual Pie Party. (I’ll give an accounting of that at the end of the month. For now, suffice it to say that I’m making at least 15 pies!) This is also the week to store flower pots inside before the snow hits and do the final winterizing in the gardens. (Unless you’re in Buffalo – then it’s a lost cause.) So, I’ll be taking a blogging break until after Thanksgiving. Have a wonderful week, everyone!
Yesterday Betsy found a sunny place to doze. While napping, she slipped peacefully to death. As sad as I am to lose her, I was relived that she went as she did. I did expect that she would die this winter. She’d reached the venerable age of 7 1/2 years, and in the last few months had slowed down considerably. It’s rare that a hen dies of old age without horrible ailments to complicate her end. She was a lucky one.
In her day she was a feisty hen, skittering between the big girls, and telling each of my rabbits who was the boss (her!) Betsy was my favorite school visit hen. She fit in the palm of my hand. Even the smallest child felt confident meeting her. She seemed to like to travel, and didn’t mind leaving the flock at all.
Betsy stopped egg laying years ago, and I retired her from school visits when she turned five. She deserved her retirement.
Here is a photo of Betsy at her prime, with that classic bantam stance.
She was the last of my four small bantam White Leghorns. Snowball, Coco, Eggers and Betsy. All were delightful birds with distinct personalities. At this point, heading into winter, I have no intention to get more bantams. My coops are quite full enough. The hens are all in compatible, no drama, flocks. It won’t be the same without her, but it’s still good.
Note: I did a necropsy which showed no obvious diseases. No tumors, no bizarre fat deposits, no internal parasites. Her crop and gizzard were full and normal. She wasn’t skinny. However, stretches of her intestinal tract had stopped working. She was old. I’m glad she passed away peacefully in the sun.
Many people are surprised to learn that chickens don’t (and shouldn’t) sleep in nests. Rather, chickens sleep on roosts. If we humans tried to sleep while balancing on a bar, we’d fall off, but birds curl their feet around the roost, and lock their flexor tendons, so that even when thoroughly relaxed, they stay put. (Think about it. This is why you don’t see birds falling out of trees when they take naps!) I take chicken anatomy into account when building roosts for my coops. I like round bars – it’s easier for the hens to stay latched on. Some people advocate for flat roosts, thinking that the hens can better cover their cold toes with their feathers. My hens hunker down just fine on round roosts, and they haven’t had frozen toes yet.
You might think, but wouldn’t they be cozier in nests? The answer is no. Chickens produce manure all day and all night. They poop. A lot. If they sleep in the nesting boxes, then they’re sitting on a pile of damp manure. Eggs laid in those nesting boxes will be filthy. When chickens sleep on a roost, their manure drops down into the bedding and the hens don’t breathe in moisture and ammonia fumes all night. This is why roosts should be up high and why coops built like dog houses are a bad idea. If your chickens are roosting only a few inches off of the floor of the coop, then they’ll be prone to respiratory ailments all year round, and frostbite in the winter.
Despite the benefits of roosting, some chickens might decide to sleep in the nesting boxes. An ill chicken may take to a nesting box. Sometimes a hen that is molting will stay in a box because she is feeling (literally) prickly, and her pecking order has been shaken up because of her exposed skin; the box will feel like a safe place to her. Broody hens will also sleep in nesting boxes. You can take a hen from a nesting box and put her on the roost at dusk, and often (but not always) she’ll stay put. Young birds need to learn to roost. I’ve written about that here and here.
The dowels should be about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Plan on at least six inches of roost per bird. In the winter they’ll huddle up for warmth, in the summer they won’t crowd so tightly together. Hens are fussy about who they sleep next to, so plenty of space will prevent squabbles.
Note that this roost is attached to the wall with hinges. I can lift it up to clean underneath it. Also note that it leans against the wall at a slant. That way the hens on the lower rungs don’t get pooped on by the girls above. I like tiered roosts because the old hens use the steps to make their way to the top, and to get down again in the morning.
Roosts are also used during the daytime. Betsy, who is a very, very old hen, rests indoors while the others are out and about. It’s a peaceful place for her.
I provide plenty of outside roosts, too. It’s a way to create more usable space in a small pen. Roosts are especially welcome when it’s muddy and snowy as the hens appreciate perches that are high and dry. Branches make for attractive and interesting roosts.
Roosts also enrich the environment. I keep stumps in the run, and move them about every week or so. The hens seem to like the change of scenery.
Veronica likes the top of the ladder.
Phoebe also makes use of the roost. The inside corner protects her from bothersome chicken feet, but still allows her to be right in the middle of the action.
It’s been a particularly beautiful fall. There are people who study the science of it – colors are more or less vibrant due to the amount of rainfall and the variation between day and evening temperatures. The colors don’t always last. A storm with high winds can cut foliage season short. This year, everything fell into place. For more than a month, the trees glowed.
By the first week of November most of the leaves had turned brown and branches were bare. But, early in the morning, when doing barn chores, the Chinese beech trees, which never put on a show, looked like this:
I thought that those beech trees were like the last flourish of a fireworks event. But I was wrong. This coda was still to come:
What unexpected beauty have you seen in your neighborhood?
One of the things that we small flock keepers tout about our fresh eggs is the vibrant color of the yolks. Supermarket eggs are pale, but look at these! we say, pointing to the upstanding orange centers.
Of course, there’s always more to the story. Here are two eggs.
One is pale. One is deeply colorful. Both came from my flock.
The egg on the left was laid this week by Twiggy. The one on the right was also laid by Twiggy, but that one was laid ten days ago, when she had been gorging on pumpkin. Both were delicious.
Many fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids, which are orange pigments that pass right through to the yolk. They’re also nutrient powerhouses. So far, research has shown that it is best to get carotenoids from your diet, not from pills. Egg yolks are a good source! The brighter the orange in the yolk, the more nutritious those eggs are. Maybe.
Industrial egg producers have caught on that consumers want dark yellow yolks, which they equate with the health of the birds and the nutrient quality of the eggs. However, those producers do not free-range their pullets and feed them pumpkins. They use supplements. I read about one source here. This is part of the article:
Whenever the market demands for more pigmented egg yolks the oxycarotenoids concentration in layer hens’ feed can be increased. Oxycarotenoids present in Rubrivivax gelatinosus biomass grown in industrial wastewater have already proven their ability on enhancing yolk colour.
Only slightly more appetizing is the industry’s use of paprika and marigold to color egg yolks. I feed my hens marigolds – right before the first frost I pull the plants and feed them to the hens, roots, flowers, leaves, stems and all. That’s far different than feeding extracts. But now that we’ve had several hard frosts and even snow, there’s not much growing and colorful for the hens to forage. So, I feed alfalfa. After writing this post, I think I’ll splurge on another couple of pumpkins for the girls, too!