Opal at the Museum

A place that has displays that look like this:


and this:


doesn’t usually have this among the art:

Opal looking out

The Laurelwood Garden Club holds its monthly meetings at the Fitchburg Art Museum. I was invited to give my talk, Gardening for Chicken Keepers, to the group this morning, and I was encouraged to bring a hen. That’s unusual. Chickens give off dander and have dirt between their toes. Museum curators flinch at the idea of live birds shaking dust into their air. I’ve talked at museums before, and have never been allowed to bring a chicken. But, this room’s collection was well-protected and the room is being demolished next week for renovation. So, Opal joined me at the museum.

She was fascinated by her surroundings. She looked at the ancient artifacts, and people looked at her. She was treated like a new work of art.



While I talked, she chortled happily. Museums are cozy, she said. Then she took a nap. Luckily for me, unlike my hen, the audience stayed awake for my presentation.

I’m booking now for talks to Garden Clubs through 2015. Contact me if interested!

Chicken Frostbite and Wind

Even when winter brings a deep freeze, most chickens will do fine. They have upwards of 10,000 feathers. The downy ones provide insulation and the harder, tighter outer feathers provide protection from wind, rain and snow. As long as the hens have shelter that is dry and draft free, they’ll be plenty warm. You might be worry about those areas not covered by feathers. There’s a risk, but with proper management, it’s not big. Although there’s no insulation in these chicken feet, and yet Twiggy and the other hens are able to walk on the frozen ground.

Twiggy in snow


According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birds rarely get frostbite in their feet. This is because there is very little fluid in the cells of their legs to freeze, and because their blood circulates so fast back into warmer parts of the body that what is there doesn’t have time to freeze. They don’t need insulating feathers on their feet to stay warm. In fact, I think that my Cochin, Pearl, has the coldest feet of the lot because her feathers get muddy and then icy. She also doesn’t have those protective hard outer feathers. It’s important to have dry housing for Cochins.



That said, chickens forced to stand on ice all day will get frostbite in their toes. Your hens must spend most of their winter days on dry bedding and on roosts. Given the right options, they’ll keep themselves safe.

Combs are susceptible to frostbite. Chickens like Wyandottes, with their close to the head rose combs are called winter hardy because they have a low risk of damage. Onyx, the Barnevelder, has a small comb that poses no risk of frostbite.

hens in snow


Other hens in my flock, despite larger combs, also weather the weather fine. Their combs go grey and shrink a bit, but this is not frostbite. Misty’s comb is bright red and floppy in the summer, but this is what it looks like now.

winter comb


Jasper’s tall comb remains red, though it’s a tad smaller than her summer hat.

hen comb


In twenty years of chicken keeping, I’ve never had a case of frostbite, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. When the air is damp, moisture will cling to combs, then freeze, causing the tips to die. I’ve heard from people who have chickens that have gotten frostbite. In one case, the coop was so well-insulated that the air inside became damp; this was in northern Canada, where it is really, really cold. In that case adding vents to reduce the humidity inside of the barn, and installing a radiant heater (the safest type for a coop, as it doesn’t have coils that can spark a fire) solved the problem. Another coop was further south, but the combination of no ventilation and not enough mucking out of manure caused the problem. That was solved with management, not a heater.

I recently heard from a reader with a perfectly designed coop which is dry and clean. A couple (not all) of her hens got frostbite. This is what frostbite looks like – note that the tips of the comb are black. (The comb is shiny from ointment.)



Frostbite is not a condition to ignore. It can be painful. The dead tips can fall off and become infected. The color change can cause pecking issues amongst hens. Roosters will have a drop in fertility. This hen was treated with bacitracin, and a day later looked much better. (She did get dirt on the sticky stuff, and so the comb looks dark, but that’s not more frostbite.) You can clearly see the typical white tips caused by frostbite.



The question is, why did this hen get frostbite? After much back and forth with her owner, I think that we figured it out. The day that this happened it was blowing which caused the windchill factor to dip so dangerously low that school was delayed. Her hens stayed smartly inside. But, she still had the pop-door open. This hen is low on the pecking order, which means that she was the one delegated to stand closest to the windy opening, and so got frostbite.

If your chicken does get frostbite, bring her in and clean the affected area with a warm saline solution. Blow dry her. Slather with an ointment like bacitracin, or for a natural soother, aloe vera. If she appears to be in pain, you can use an analgesic cream found at your pharmacy. Then, I’d put her right back out with the flock. If the damage is so severe that the others peck at her, then you’ll have to isolate until healed, but be aware that it will be difficult to reintegrate her with the flock later, so it’s not a kindness to keep her inside if you don’t have to. Then, reevaluate your coop. Is it dry? Is it large enough so that all of the hens can be inside and active even during bad weather? Are the hens protected from the wind? In the case illustrated here, you can be sure that on days when the weather service warns about the windchill factor, that the hens will be inside (it’s a lovely coop with big windows) and that pop-door will be closed.

Egg Laying Resumes

I have sixteen hens, but only one has been producing eggs this winter. I’m not surprised or disappointed by the lack of eggs. It’s expected. Nine hens are in their third year. Late last summer they all molted and are taking a much needed rejuvenating break. Most of them will resume laying by the end of February. Six hens hatched in March of 2013. They too have molted and are restoring their internal supplies of minerals before laying again later this winter. However, one chicken has not ceased laying. Twiggy, the white Leghorn, is the poster girl for a productive hen. Despite the winter weather, the darker days, and her age (almost two), she is laying about four eggs a week. That’s down from her daily egg in the summer, but still! This is why farmers love Leghorns. Those extra eggs can make the difference in the financial survival of a small farm.

I keep the less productive birds simply because I like having them around, which makes yesterday’s bonanza that much more thrilling. Three eggs! One from Twiggy, one from Beatrix, and an egg from one of the Black Stars. When the landscape is white and frozen, those winter eggs are especially welcome and not taken for granted.

egg basket


So pretty!

three eggs


The key to this winter bounty? Windows. It’s cloudy and dreary. The wind has been bitter cold. The chickens spend much of their time indoors. But I designed the barns to let light in. As soon as the sun rises, the hens wake up and become busy. They eat. They scratch. They preen. All of that activity during every minute of daylight shortens the winter laying hiatus, and so I have eggs in the basket even when sunset comes early and there’s snow on the ground.

coop windows

Think about it – sunshine streaming into your house makes you happy, doesn’t it? Your hens feel the same way.

Y and Z

Here we are, at the end of the alphabet.

Y is for Yokohama, perhaps the most unusual of the breeds in this series.

With a tail like that, it’s not a low-maintenance chicken! Obviously, this is an ornamental animal. You’ll need high roosts, dry bedding and a covered pen if you’re going to keep these birds. I have no first-hand experience with Yokohamas. Do you?



Z is for zest is for eggs in the nest. That I have experience with!



New to this alphabet series? It’s starts with A here.

Recycling Christmas Trees

REVISED! Only feed trees that you have cut yourself. Trees are often treated with colorants that are toxic to goats. Don’t risk it.

It’s that time of year when you, your friends and neighbors, are tossing out Christmas trees, In some towns they end up in the trash and are incinerated. Others go into the landfill. In our town they’re piled up at the DPW (Department of Public Works) where they’re eventually run through a chipping machine. I can barely make a dent in the mountain of discarded trees, but I do my small bit. Or, I should say that my animals do.

Steve filled the minivan with Christmas trees and brought them home.



I gave one to the goats. Delicious.

goats eating


It makes for an aromatic scratching post.

ear scatch


I put a tree into the run with the Ladies. Phoebe was the first to boldly check it out.

first one


Twiggy, of course, was next.

Twiggy next


The Gems hesitated at their pop-door. The tree was new and scary, and besides, there was snow on the ground.



But the tree was too enticing to resist.

pecking tree


It was interesting and tasty.



The trees provide diversion, get the hens outside and active, create a windbreak and give them something to peck at and eat. Once bare and used up, what’s left of trees will be tossed into the woods behind my house to become part of the forest floor. I haven’t solved the big picture problem of Christmas trees in landfills, but I’ve taken care of a small portion of it in my backyard.

Agatha and tree