Twiggy’s Egg

Supermarket eggs come from hens that are the same age (young!) and the same breed. Still, there are variations, but you never see them because they’re sorted out before packaging. Any egg with spots, inside or out, are diverted to processed products. Because of this, consumers believe that eggs must be uniform, or they’re not good.

Those of use with backyard hens know that eggshells can have bumps and odd colors, and that eggs can be strange shapes, elongated or pointed, and still be healthy to eat and delicious. However, it is true that the older the hen, the poorer the quality of the egg. I’ve found that eggs from hens older than three years of age tend to have a grainy texture and that the whites are thinner. They’re fine for use in baked goods, but they’re not good hard-cooked or poached.

Twiggy’s eggs are another story. She’s three years old. The other hens that age lay beautiful eggs – upright yolks, sturdy whites and thick-enough shells. But, for more than two years, Twiggy hasn’t had a break in her overly-ambitious laying schedule. Her egg shells are dull, not glossy, and they’re thin, too. Inside, I’m seeing some odd things.

weird egg

 

A fresh egg should have a stringy white bit called the chalazae. This is what centers the yolk in place. (As an egg ages, it disintegrates which is why you seldom see the chalazae in older eggs from the supermarket.) But this? This chalazae is all wrong. It’s a mass.

Cracked into the pan, you can clearly see the difference between Twiggy’s egg and that from Beatrix, who is exactly her age.

Twiggy egg

 

They have access to the same food, and yet Beatrix’s yolk is a deeper orange. Look at how thin and clear Twiggy’s white is. You usually see that in an egg that has been stored for weeks, not in an egg laid the day before.

Are these eggs edible? Yes. But I feed them to the dogs.

I don’t know how long Twiggy can keep this up. I found one long white feather in the run. A sign that Twiggy is going into the molt and will be taking a break? I hope so!

Twiggy Eats and Eats

It’s fall and so the hours of daylight lessen, the leaves and the feathers fall, and the hens stop laying.

All but Twiggy.

dirty Twiggy

 

Yesterday I collected only one egg from the Big Barn – Twiggy’s. She produces a very large white egg, distinct from what the other hens make, and so I am sure that it is hers. But even if I didn’t recognize the egg, I’d know that it was from this White Leghorn. Why? Because she’s the ravenous hen, and in my experience it’s the hungry hen that is the best layer. All healthy chickens should be active foragers and eager eaters, but Twiggy takes that to the extreme. She needs to consume more food than the others in order to lay more eggs than the other girls – a 2 1/2 ounce egg, six days a week.

A hen like that needs a lot of fuel to have the energy and raw materials to make those eggs. Unlike the other hens, she takes advantage of every moment of daylight. She’s the first to the feeder in the morning. It’s a good thing that the coop has big windows and the sun comes in as soon as it’s up. If she were in a darker coop, and slept later, I doubt that Twiggy would be able to eat enough. She’s also the last to grab a few more bites before hopping up on the roost. If I go into the barn at night and turn on the light, while the other hens murmur and blink and hide their heads under the feathers, she jumps down, hurries to the feeder and starts eating. This is a problem for me, because if I turn the light out, she’s stuck there on the floor, unable to see her way to the roost. So I’ll turn off the inside light and leave on the exterior, and wait until she can find her way back to bed.

I don’t know how long she can keep this up. I’ve yet to find white feathers on the ground from the molt. If she doesn’t molt, she won’t get needed rest. She barely took a break last year – just a slight slowing of production and then two weeks off. Her eggs are showing signs of weakness (more on that in another post.)

Has anyone had White Leghorns that went through normal, full molts? Took breaks from laying? This is my first large leghorn. My bantam leghorns (Snowball and her cousins) weren’t great layers, and they all molted. Let me know your White Leghorn experiences in the comments!

Before You Use a Clicker

Not quite twenty years ago, I had a dog that needed something to do. The sport of agility was beginning to gain popularity, and so I took classes and joined a club. I’d been a horsewoman, but found the change to a dog sport difficult. I wasn’t sitting on the dog and so couldn’t communicate by touch. I couldn’t use a leash or collar (the dog runs naked in the competition.) And in my club, we weren’t allowed to use the word no. It was all about positive reinforcement, and the principles of what we were doing were laid out in a book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. Over the years, this type of training became more sophisticated and codified, and morphed into what is now known as clicker training. Using a small plastic noise maker, called a clicker, the trainer marks the moment that the animal does the right thing and then immediately gives the animal a reward (often, but not always, food.) Using clicker protocols, the training is efficient, precise and enthusiastically embraced by the learner. Decades of scientific research backs up why this method is so successful.

Terry and Nimbus

Nimbus and Terry on the agility course.

 

Clicker training has the potential to be very kind. There are no physical aversives – no whips, shock collars or twists to an ear. There are no verbal corrections. There should be (and this is hard to do) no negative body language by the trainer, no time-outs, no upping the criteria until frustration hits. Clicker training promises that you will have a mutually rewarding, generous and gentle relationship with your animal. For horse owners who have been told that they have to hit, yank and restrain their mounts, it can be such a relief to find out that there is another way.

But, horses are different than dogs. They are large and dangerous. A scared horse can swing into you and break a bone before you have a chance to react. The risk to all needs to be minimized by sensible and thoughtful handling and management. There are, of course, other differences between the species – from what motivates them to what they find frustrating. (A topic for an entire blog post – or several!) That said, bringing clicker training into your horse training works. Just like clicker training can be used to teach a tiger to offer her tail through a fence for a blood draw, an elephant to lift a foot for a pedicure, and a border collie to do a course of fifteen obstacles accurately at lighting speed, so can clicker training work to get a recalcitrant horse into a trailer, a young horse to willingly accept the saddle, or a dressage horse do a flying change.

But, before you pick up a clicker, learn the science behind it. (This book is the place to start.) Using the clicker takes some coordination and observational skills. Before applying it to your horse, train your dog, your guinea pig, your cat (oh, yes, it works!) Play the training game with your children. Embrace the perspective that it is the reward, not the correction, that drives behavior. Have fun.

Finally, before picking up the clicker, evaluate your relationship with your horse, and also your horse’s lifestyle. Most horses are kept at boarding barns, where other people do the feeding and handling, and so even if you switch to all positive reinforcement, that’s not your horse’s entire world. What the rest of his day is like will impact on how receptive he is to the time that you work with him. Is he hungry or able to graze 24/7? Does he have friends or is he kept in a separate paddock and so has no one (other than you) for mutual grooming? Is he bored? How much exercise does he get? What is he fearful of and why?

For most of us, our time with our horses is limited. Unlike our dogs, our horses don’t sit on our laps when we watch tv or climb into bed with us. Our relationship is reduced to an hour or so a day when we can get to the boarding stable. We don’t have the on-going and casual communication that happens when you live with your pet. Some horses get attention only when tacked up and ridden. Even if you clicker train, your time with your horse can be all about getting and training behavior. Sometimes we are so into the training that we lose sight of how demanding it is. Horses are cooperative animals who thrive on friendship. Given their druthers, they would spend hours a day, companionably grazing next to a friend. We can’t do that. I can’t do that. But I can carve out an extra half-hour to hand-graze my horse, not asking anything of him.

hand grazing

 

Then we can get to work.

Sudden Death of a Hen

Warning: This post contains graphic images.

One day your chicken is happily scratching in the pen and laying eggs. The next day you find her on the floor, head tucked into a corner, dead. Industrial-scaled farmers expect mortality. They don’t like it – it affects profitability – but they know it will happen. Backyard chicken keepers, especially those who recently got into it, not only mourn the loss of each hen, but each death comes as a surprise. What isn’t said by all of the keeping backyard hens is so easy! boosters is that there will be losses, and they’ll be sooner than you think.

After twenty years of having a flock in my backyard, I’m no longer shocked to find a dead chicken in the yard. This happened yesterday. Nancy Drew had tucked herself into a corner of the coop, where I found her dead, though still warm, at 7:30 am when I arrived to take care of the animals.

She had shown no sign of illness.

Nancy

Nancy Drew, just two days before she died.

 

Her comb was full and red. Unlike some of the other hens, she hadn’t yet gone into the molt. She was still laying a sturdy brown egg about every other day. Her appetite and activity level had been normal. A sudden death, although not uncommon, is cause for concern. It’s rarely contagious, but with avian flu now in the US, could it be that? Could it be something else that could have been prevented if only I’d known?

To find out, I did a necropsy. Her reproductive tract was in beautiful condition. In fact, there was a perfectly-formed egg on the way down out of shell gland. Her digestive tract looked great, too, with normal manure in it, and no parasites at all (I’m always pleased to see this – it’s a sign both of the health of the flock and of good manure management.) The gizzard had food, grit and oyster shell in it, all indicators of a hen with a healthy appetite.

But, there was something glaringly wrong. Her abdomen was filled with yellow fat.

chicken necropsy

 

This is a sign of liver disease.

When handled, the fat crumbled apart. I have no idea how long it takes for a hen to produce this fat, but Nancy Drew must have been living with this condition for awhile. Further investigation showed a seriously diseased liver. The left lobe had hemorrhaged, and there were lesions on it. When I tried to remove it to examine it further, the whole thing fell apart. The term used in the medical books is friable. Before I could photograph it, the liver had disintegrated into a puddle.

There are a number of diseases that cause such symptoms, the main one being fatty liver disease. There are also viruses and bacteria that cause lesions. But, my knowledge is limited. I haven’t found any research done on older hens. Although diet can be a cause of liver disease, I think that something else is going on with the aged birds. I’m sure that genetics plays a role. The large hatcheries are breeding for feather and egg color, and hatch success. Perhaps some traits, like vigor and health are going by the wayside?

But for now, in this case, there are lessons to be learned about how to care for the hens that we currently have. If your hen dies suddenly, there was likely something very, very wrong inside of her. You couldn’t have done anything to save her. If your hen stops eating and loses all vigor try the Spa Treatment. That might work. I heard from someone today who had a lackluster hen that revived from that protocol. But if your hen doesn’t perk up, there’s likely something very, very wrong inside of her.

I know that I’ve written about this before, and I’m sorry if this blogpost isn’t cheery, but we need to do right by the animals in our care. Sometimes it means that we have to accept that we can’t fix everything. Sometimes we have to let them go.

Cue, Threat or Punishment?

This whip holder is at the entrance to the indoor arena where I board Tonka. There’s nothing unusual in this. In my sport of dressage, a rider carries a whip.

whips

 

We’re taught that if the horse ignores the leg aids (a squeeze, perhaps a jab or a kick) that the next step is to flick the whip across the flank. We’re told that if the horse is lazy, that a whip will wake him up.

A whip can be a cue. Some riders have weak legs. Some riders are so sloppy that a horse can’t possibly figure out what those swinging limbs are telling them to do. A tap is precise and clear. Tap. Go forward. Used in that way, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It isn’t.

However, it’s rarely a tap. The problem with teaching a horse to go forward from the whip is that it’s not taught as a cue – if you move on after you feel this you get a reward. Rather, it’s taught as a threat. Get going and if you don’t, you’ll get hit harder. The problem inherent in this system is that if the horse doesn’t respond to a little tap the only option is to escalate. Tap again. Tap harder. What if he doesn’t respond to that? You whack. It’s no longer a cue. It’s no longer gentle pressure. It’s punishment. It’s a slippery slope that too many riders go down. Thirty-five years ago, I watched my riding instructor get so furious at a horse that he whipped it until he raised welts across that mare’s back. Although I lived in the same staff house with this man for the rest of that summer, I never spoke to him again.

But, I still rode with a whip. I carried a whip while riding many horses, over many years, and I can tell you that it is rewarding for the rider. When you use a crop, the horse, which had been moving sluggishly, surges ahead. This makes you feel successful, but what of the horse? Does the horse enjoy that moment of forward movement? In dressage, we talk about dancing with our horses. If I were dancing with a man, would I dance with him if he hit me? Of course not, and yet we accept this when dancing with our equine partners. My training perspective has changed. I’ve learned that there are other ways to get behavior, ways that are mutually enjoyable for all of the parties involved. It’s a perspective that I learned through clicker training and that I’m now applying it to my work with horses.

But I’m not throwing out everything. What makes riding different from training other animals is that you are sitting on the horse. Body to body contact. It’s complex and nuanced, and that to me is one of the great joys of riding. It’s like this: I feel him swivel his head as we walk through the woods. I know that deer is there before I see it. He feels me change my position an iota, a clue that we’re about to go faster. At a show he sees a flowerpot that scares him. I take a deep breath and he relaxes. As a girl who dreamed of being Dr. Doolittle and talking to the animals, riding is as close as I can get.

Using clicker training techniques, I could train my horse to turn left on a cue – perhaps a word or a touch on the left shoulder with a finger – but I wouldn’t want to. I want to continue to communicate in that complicated, yet hopefully subtle way, from the saddle. For example, when I want to turn to my left, I look that direction, my head moves, my spine rotates, the weight goes down into my left sitting bone, and through to the sole of my boot and into the stirrup. My left leg becomes the support pole that Tonka pivots around. He goes left. It’s not aversive. We’re simply listening to each other’s bodies. The horse remains relaxed and willing.

warmup

Tonka turns to the left in response to my legs.

 

Add the reins, and we can talk to each other with more finesse. With very small changes in my contact, I can ask for more balance, for a change in rhythm, for a lifting of a shoulder. What I’m talking about takes athleticism and skill. When I first learned dressage, my instructor had me close my eyes and tell her which hoof was hitting the ground. Was the horse breathing in or out? Tune in like that to your horse, and the horse tunes into you. The communication can become instantaneous and magical. I’ve asked a horse to go from a halt to a canter by shifting one sitting bone. It works.

trot

A relaxed, but engaged warm-up trot.

That finesse, though, is hard to come by, and we riders get demanding and impatient, and we end up resorting to pressure (or worse) and then release, and we feel okay about it because we’re told that the release is a reward. Sometimes it is. But how rewarding can it be to the horse to have the same person who has hit him, say “good boy” and – maybe – allow him to take a breather? Not only does punishment has many fallouts (another post!) but this sort of training is not particularly effective. There is a better way. Go ahead and ride using your body, legs, seat and hands, but while you do, pay attention to the good strides and reward them immediately and with clarity. I’ll talk about rewards and how to use them when riding in upcoming posts.

You can put away the whip. Isn’t that a relief?

Tonk