For Me and the Hens

Every few months I get a letter from my favorite class of special learners, Mrs. Sibilia’s students in Florida. These are kids with learning challenges, from autism to developmental delays, but they are all phenomenal scientists, artists, writers and thinkers. Mrs. Sibilia’s expectations of her students’ capabilities are high, and the kids meet them. She keeps them engaged by using the HenCam. In her most recent letter she writes:

After every 20 minutes of viewing your site, we journal (or write) about what we have noticed different or discovered new to the little farm or within the blogs. It has taught them to think about worlds outside of their own environment and encounter new perspectives about animals, weather, and weather terminology, seasonal changes, geographical locations and so much more. My principal and staff have commended us on the unique and creative idea of this kind of teaching. They have witnessed how it has affected my students’ ability to learn, retain information and apply what they have learned into their everyday living.

I’ve been delighted to share my world with these young Floridians. While I was grousing about the record snowfall, her classroom in Florida was thrilled! (Although I did email them reassurances that everyone here was fine.)

In order to keep the HenCam streaming (it costs more than a thousand a year in hosting fees alone) I ask for “coffee” money. I’m grateful for everyone’s contributions, no matter how small. But the check from Mrs. Sibilia’s class couldn’t have made me happier if was double the amount. She wrote: We even did lessons based on your site about money – they collected money for the animals, penny by penny, and counted their totals each day or so. These were kids that had no idea what the value of money was at the beginning of the year.

To complete that lesson, I cashed the check for $11.18, which paid for (almost exactly) two watermelons. So, Mrs. Sibilia’s class, your saving and counting has given this to the hens of Little Pond Farm:

hens eye watermelon


There’s plenty of watermelon for all!

hens and watermelon


Doesn’t it look as if the hens have made themselves into a wheel?

chicken wheel


Many thanks from all of us at Little Pond Farm! Keep an eye on the cams. As soon as the hens get their fill, I’m sure that Phoebe will come along and eat the rind.

Have a wonderful summer vacation and I hope to hear from all of you at the beginning of the next school year!

Lily is on Bed Rest

We had a bit of a scare last week. Lily came up suddenly, painfully lame. At first the vet thought that she had injured her back and had neurological damage, but x-rays showed that not to be the case. Still, the prognosis was not good – Lily had blown the cruciate ligament in her right hind leg. This is an injury often associated with large, overweight dogs, which she is not. She is, however, a twelve-year old dog who does not know how to compromise or slow down. Despite aging bones and weaker tendons, she still chases down squirrels. Well, not anymore.

Little dogs who have this injury are able to rest and heal. Big dogs need surgery. Lily is fifty pounds, and so between the two. We’re hoping that rest will take care of things.

Lily hates to be confined, and this will be an extended period of a few months of no stairs, no running, and of short walks on a leash. Lily is currently on medication which makes her drowsy, but she’s still miserable about the situation. She’s my shadow, and she’s not allowed to follow me.

Lily on rest


To occupy her time, I bought her a “long lasting chew toy.” That lasted 45 seconds. I put peanut butter in a kong. That lasted one minute. When she comes out of the haze of drugs, I’ll be teaching her tricks (using clicker training)  that she can do while on her bed. My friend Karen Pryor, who knows Lily well, sent me these suggestions in an email: crossing the front paws, telling big object from small, cocking the head on cue, nose target to object on the laptop screen, which hand is the treat in, etc. Karen says that such training can tire the mind and thus calm the body.

It will be interesting to see if the deer and predator situation changes now that Lily is not patrolling the backyard. Scooter is confused by all of this – instead of Lily protecting him from hawks outside, one of us hovers over him. He can’t play zoomies with his best friend, and the mealtime routine has changed. Yesterday he sat on the steps and yowled. (This video is from a previous howling session, but it’s what it was like.)

Have you had a dog on extended bed rest? What did you do?

Why Do Chickens Have Combs?

I’ve done well over a hundred school visits, lectures, and workshops about chickens. The first question that I get is not Why did the chicken cross the road? or even Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I often have a hen with me, and the most obvious thing about that bird, the thing that seems to make no sense at all, is the comb. What’s it for? is asked by children and adults alike.


There is no definitive answer. There are a lot of good guesses.

It’s red, it’s fleshy, it’s a sensitive thing and the chicken doesn’t like you touching it.

One theory is that it functions as part of the chicken’s cooling system. Hot blood pulses through the comb, which is then cooled off by air before it circulates back into the body, which is rather like how a rabbit’s long and thin ears help to keep her cool. I have noticed that my hens with the big combs cope with hot weather better than my other breeds, but that might be more about their lean body type and fewer downy feathers, rather than comb size. In the winter, those big combs are susceptible to frostbite and windburn. This is why “cold-hardy” breeds have combs that are close to the head.

Another role that the comb plays is in recognizing individuals among the flock. Back in 1953 a few PhD candidates looked into what physical trait was the one that chickens paid the most attention to when identifying members of the flock. They glued extra feathers on hens, altered the tails, dyed the heads, and changed the combs. Their conclusion was this: Alterations of the comb appeared to be somewhat more effective as a disguise than were any of the other alterations. Personally, I love the use of the term “disguise.” I imagine that if one of my hens were to wear a hat, that she could move about the flock incognito.

Roosters, of course, have the largest combs, and also those red dangly things under their chins called wattles. Research has shown that the wattles help the roo to communicate when he does “the tidbit dance” – which is when he is enticing his girls to come and eat food that he’s found. But, too big wattles put the girls off. Bigger is not always better.




The progenitor of the domestic chicken is the Red Jungle Fowl, found in the steamy undergrowth of the forests of Burma (for an excellent history of the domestication of fowl, read this book.) The jungle fowl had a modestly sized comb. See a photo of a taxidermic rooster here.

Go further back in history to the age of dinosaurs, and you’ll find upright protuberances decorated some of these creatures’ heads. Some crests were bony, but new discoveries show some were fleshy combs. Over millions of years of evolution, some of those dinosaurs morphed into chickens, which kept, among other traits, the combs of their distant ancestors.

If you go to a poultry show, or have a collection of various breeds in your home flock, you’ll notice that there is a huge variation in combs. This has nothing to do with function, but everything to do with fashion. For thousands of years, humans have been breeding chickens to look the way that we want and there is no correlation between style and original purpose. Whatever shape is on your hens (from floppy to low and bumpy) it is one of the best clues to the health of your birds. The comb is often the first indicator of something amiss with your hen. If shriveled or darkened there is certainly an ailment. Chickens are so aware of each other’s combs that the flock might see the problem before you do. If a hen who’s been getting along fine with everyone suddenly has blood on her comb from pecking, I immediately check the status of her health. Sometimes the Spa Treatment makes things right, but sometimes it’s a sign of something very wrong, indeed.


Rhode Island Red


For many years I had a preference for the classic-looking upright comb with about five lobes. The Wyandotte’s pea comb never looked right to me, and the Polish, with no comb, but instead the pouffy feathered hat, looked ridiculous. Lately, though, I am partial to the extravagant combs on Misty and Twiggy. Do you have a favorite comb style?


white leghorn


Just a reminder – if you like this blog, please share it with friends and on social media. My readers sustain this site, and the larger community that I have, the more resources I can put into the HenCam. Thanks!

Dandelion Control

It’s dandelion season. As cheerful as those yellow blooms are, they are problematic for lawns. The broad leaves crowd out grass, and when the yellow flowers die off, you’re left with patchy and rather unattractive lawn. I keep the dandelions in check with a bit of manual labor. I dig them out. I used to do this on my hands and knees, but I’ve found the most wonderful tool. My back is grateful for the “Garden Weasel WeedPopper” (is that a great name, or what?)



It twists out a plug of dirt and the dandelion, roots and all.



Every few days I go out to my yard and remove the dandelions. A task like this is somehow deeply gratifying in the way that tidying up can be. It’s also satisfying to the hens, who get the weeds and dirt. They now recognize what I’m doing, and watch with great anticipation, waiting for the tub to be dumped into their pen.

hens and dandelions


A little on-going maintenance is all that’s needed for a lawn like this. No chemicals.



There are dandelions at the stable where Tonka lives. The grassy slope on the way to the paddocks is abloom. It’s not a formal lawn, and it’s not something to try to control.

Tonk on grass


However, Tonka is doing his bit to keep that patch tidy. He likes his salad with dandelion greens and flowers.

Tonka mouth


Yesterday we went exploring over some hayfields. What a glorious day! That rise in the background is Mount Wachusett, thirty miles away.



After the ride, as a reward, I let Tonka graze along the edge of the field by the parking lot. The dandelions were knee high. Despite the timothy growing all around, Tonka went for the flowers.

T dandlion mouth


Tonka says that he’d be happy to help the farmer clear the field of the weeds anytime. Sorry, Tonka, that hayfield is off-limits!

hay field

Gardening With Goats

Some people garden as a form of relaxation. It’s a lovely thought.



This perennial bed is 10 years old. The peonies and other flowers are well-established. If I put an hour of weeding and care into it now, at the beginning of the summer, it will require little maintenance for the rest of the season.



Because the plants are sturdy, I invite the hens to help. While I use my favorite hoe, the Girls dig up bugs that have overwintered in the earth. There is the low murmur of delighted clucking. I hear birdsong. Yes, this is peaceful.

The goats’ meadow has been grazed too low. It needs a rest and reseeding. For the next few weeks the goats are regulated to their paddock, which is bare of growing things for them to eat, but the lawn can handle some grazing, and so I let them out while I garden. There’s lots of lovely green grass for them. They should be no trouble at all….

goats on lawn


Picture perfect.




Goats have amazing superpowers. One moment they are in one place and the next they are all the way across the lawn, eating delicate herbs.



With much dramatic shooing,

chasing goat


I convince Pip to head over to the water celery by the pond, and am able to finish weeding the last section of the perennial garden.

walking away


I might as well put the goats to work. The invasive mulitflora rose has made it’s way into the wildflower meadow. Goats love brambles more than they love grass (or even the herbs by the house.) I call Pip over.



Pip is an excellent gardener.



Curious who took the photos? Steve was working in his home office, noticed the bucolic scene, and decided to take a break and join us. This was not staged; it was a typical small drama in the backyard. I do a lecture for garden clubs about integrating chickens into a beautiful home landscape. I also mention goats.