The Roving Rototiller

Friday, November 25, 2011

Pox and the Promised Rooster

     "Ooo-oo-ooo!"  Pause.

     Mr. A’s Promised Rooster is tuning his pipes in the breakfast nook again.

     Pox has hit the young birds, as it always seems to do at this time of year.  This year’s strain appears to be a re-run of the one from past years, since there have been no "second offenders."  That’s a relief, but it’s also a bit of a headache, because it's a variable strain that shows up differently from bird to bird.  And it sure did a number on my plans for these kids.
     Mr. A has had his eye on this young rooster for months.  The first time he saw the father, Abner, his eyes lit up.
     "Say.  Are you selling that one?"
     I looked at Abner the Icelandic, who was ruffling his snowy feathers in the breeze.  The odd black and rust-colored splotches over his saddle feathers were just starting to come in, promising that he would be a striking bird.  I had already earmarked him for my breeding project.
     "Sorry, but no.  I’m going to breed him."
     Mr. A sighed.  "He’s real good-looking.  If you get any chicks of his that look like him, I’ll take them!"
     Mr. A buys a lot of our spare birds, adding them to his laying flock as needed.  A fellow chicken hobbyist, he is always on the lookout for birds that are hardy and good producers.  But he also likes to have handsome birds, and he really liked Abner.  Every time he came over, he would ask wistfully,  "Do you want to sell him, maybe?"
     Originally I had planned to put Abner in with an Icelandic hen, and raise up pretty little babies.  But I only had one other hen at the time, and she was quite bonded with a different rooster, thank you.  So when Abner began getting anxious about attracting a hen, I gave him Lindy, a pretty little gold hen with brown markings, feathered legs, and a pea comb.  Lindy is one of our cross-breeds.  She’s a real odd mixture, some Polish, a little Belgian Bearded, but about half of her makeup is Easter Egger.  The two of them hit it off right away.  Abner was so happy to have a hen to provide for.  Lindy was so happy to have a big rooster dancing attendance on her every waking minute.  I had no intention of allowing the two of them to produce chicks, however.  I told myself that Lindy’s green eggs would be easy to tell from those of an Icelandic hen . . . once I got another one . . . and easy to remove from the nest.  In the meantime, at least both of them were happy.
     But Lindy had ambitions.  In July, when we were out of town, she began guarding the nest box day and night, growling at the petsitter.  By the time we came home, she had begun setting on a clutch of her own eggs.  Faced with the alternative of destroying a batch of started eggs, I sighed and left her to it.
     Lindy hatched out a startling seven chicks: five white, two brown.  Over the next few weeks, she lost two when they wandered too far away.  But the remainder grew into two white hens, one brown rooster, and two white roosters.  One of them is the spitting image of Abner, apart from the fact that he has feathered legs.  When the chicks were three weeks old, I invited Mr. A over to show him the youngsters and offered him his pick.  He immediately pointed to the little Abner-clone.
     "That one!"
     "All right,"  I laughed.  "Do you want him today, or when he’s bigger?"
     Mr. A sucked his teeth a moment.  "Better wait until he’s bigger."
     So the chick was left with his siblings to grow up.  In jest, I started calling him Mr. A’s Promised Roo, which eventually got shortened to MAPR, and then Mapper.  He was just reaching the intended size--about half the size of his mother--when his sister Caramella broke with pox.
     It just doesn’t do to sell birds that are on the verge of breaking with pox.  The stress of going to a new home brings the disease out in spades, not to mention spreading it to the new flock, if they haven’t had it already.  So when I first noticed the little purple nodules on Caramella’s face, I sighed and braced myself.  Sure enough, within a week Mapper was showing nodules too.  At this point his sister was getting pretty run-down.  Although it was taking the less-harmful "dry" form (what I call the Warty form), the pox left her fatigued and with little appetite.  She moped around the pen, getting shouldered aside by her healthier sibs.  She needed some time on antibiotics and good feeding, and there was only one way to guarantee that, so that night I opened up the box and pulled her out.  Then I took Mapper for good measure, and set them up in a cage in the breakfast nook.
     It turned out to be a good thing, because three days later Caramella was feeling much better, but her brother’s pox had turned fulminant.  The nodules multiplied all over his face and swelled to the size of peas, leaving him temporarily unable to see out of his left eye at all.  He even developed a nodule on his beak, something that I’d never seen before.  But his appetite remained good.  After a week of antibiotics, the nodules were shrinking and scabbing over, the signal that this infection was on the wane.
     When I went to put Mapper and his sister back in with the rest of their family, though, I discovered that the family had forgotten them.  Both youngsters got chased all over the pen, mercilessly harried by both of their brothers.  Mapper took the brunt of it, but even his sister received peck after peck from her amnesiac brothers.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, Abner would occasionally step in to punt a fleeing offspring back towards the pursuit.  Eventually poor Mapper buried his face in the corner and gave up.
     So I gathered up the two prodigals and brought them back inside.  They spent the next week and a half in their cage, eating and making a spectacular mess of their newspapers.  The Promised Roo discovered the fourth syllable of his crow.  He began to enjoy practicing, sounding off at less and less appropriate times of day and night.  When my husband got up for the early-early shift at work, Mapper heralded his activities in the kitchen with enthusiasm.  The fifth syllable was not far away; I could hear it warbling on the edge of definition through the pillow crammed over my ears.
     But today was the day.  Mr. A came for his Promised Roo, and was even more pleased to learn that he had become a twin-pack with his sister.  (After nearly three weeks together, I didn’t have the heart to separate them.)  Tonight they are bedded down in the barn at their new home.  I wish them well.  I wish to reclaim my breakfast nook tomorrow, too.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Chicks in the shower, week one

Some thoughts on raising chicks indoors, which seems like a good idea in principle.  And then you go to apply it.

All right, the chicken eggs are hatching.  I’ll raise the chicks indoors for the first 3 or 4 weeks.  I need to protect them from temperatures and drafts.  Where can I put them?  Garage--no, it’s too hot in there.  And there’s that giant roof rat living in the rafters; it’d home in on them like a shot.  Too dangerous.  Breezeway?  No, it’s still too hot in there.  And the rat could get in.  Laundry room?  But there’ll be no floor space left if I put a big box in there.  Let’s put that off as long as possible; they can manage in a big plastic tub for a couple of weeks anyway.  Gee, that leaves . . . the spare bathroom.  And since that’s where the cat’s litterbox, food, and water are, let’s not tempt the lazy furball into an act of rashness.  If I put their box in the shower stall, that will solve everything:  drafts, temperature, cat . . . it’ll even give us an extra level of security, for when they start jumping out of the box.  Shower stall it is.

Day one:  oh, they’re so cute and tiny!  I hope it’s warm enough in here.  There's your water, see, and here is the feather duster to snuggle under.  You guys ready to eat yet?  No?  Just sleepy.  How cute.  Get the camera.

Day two:  hooray, you’re eating!  And what a mess you’ve made of your drawer liner.  Let’s shuffle you all off to one side and pull that out.  I’ll just give it a good shaking outside . . . there you are.  No spraddle legs in this batch!  Now that the youngest is awake, how ‘bout some more pictures?

Day four:  oh my goodness.  What is that in your water.  You don’t really need this drawer liner any longer, do you?  Good.  Let’s . . . eewww . . . just go hose that down real good on the lawn, yuck.  I don’t know if this thing can be salvaged.  Here’s your fresh bedding.  You can manage on newspaper and paper towels now--your legs are strong enough.

Day seven:  holy smokes.  What did you guys do?  (Ten little beaky faces look up eagerly:  "Do ya like it?")  All right, everyone out of the box.  I know you don’t want to be picked up; deal.  It’s a good thing you’re all looking for treats in my hands so I don’t have to chase you.  Oh dear, that feather duster is never going to be the same again.  I think you can manage without it now.  Phew, it’s definitely starting to smell in here.  Fresh bedding.  You two, get out from behind the box.  Now.  Why do you have to squeeze in there anyway?  No, Foster, it’s not time for treats yet.  Let me finish.  There.  Now, everyone back into the box.  Aaaand . . . treat time!  Hard-boiled egg.  Look at you guys go!  Hey, move aside there, let the youngest get some.  That’s better.  Man, you’re getting big.  You’re a rooster, and so are you, sigh.  Wing feathers are halfway grown-in already, but you’re still fuzzy everywhere else.  So cute.  Although if I’m going to get any pictures of you lot, I’ll have to do it right after I change your papers again, because . . . yup, definitely too late.  Tomorrow.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Incubator, Take Two

At the beginning of this month, when Pea left her nest, she had five chicks.  I knew, from peering through the fence when Pea took her daily stagger up the hill to eat and drink, that she had started out with five eggs.  However, halfway through incubation, all of a sudden there were seven eggs in the nest.  So while Pea inspected the newly-tidied nursery and introduced her children to the delights of tasty mush, I took a stroll down to her nest.  A pile of broken shells greeted me . . . and among them, four intact eggs.

One of the habits of peafowl that has surprised me is this cuckoo-bird tendency to sneak in while a broody hen is off the nest, and lay an egg among the rest.  It doesn't make much sense on the face of it:  unlike chickens, peahens will not linger on the nest to hatch out more eggs.  Once the first round of chicks hatches--usually her own--she waits a day or so until they are able to walk tolerably well, and then abandons the nest without so much as a backward glance.  Any remaining eggs are ignored, and unless another broody hen just happens to plop down on them, they chill and die.

Every year there have been leftover eggs in Pea's nest, and I've agonized over their fate.  No accomodating peahen has ever moved in to save the day; not surprising as peahens tend to be territorial about their nest sites and very selective.  I've tried sticking them under broody chickens; that endeavour was not well-received.  Imagine, if you will, a bantam cochin hen teetering on top of a giant pea egg that weighs nearly a quarter what she does.  The hen in question put up with that nonsense for about three days and then unceremoniously threw the egg out of the nest box.  I've tried incubating them in an elderly, temperamental incubator given to us by a neighbor; that didn't work either.  But this year, things are different.

Back in the beginning of June, I was gearing up for another try with our incubator.  The little round beast had been purring on the kitchen table for several days, waiting for me to get my nerve up to put eggs in it.  Now--thanks to Pea--I had eggs all right.  But first I wanted to candle them, a feat made rather tricky by the fact that it was broad daylight.  In the past I've used the old furnace closet, but that practice came to a screeching halt when a spider the size of a Volkswagen bus moved in there.  As it is quite fat and happy, I have declined to kill it:  whatever it's eating, I don't want in my house either.  The spider can have the furnace closet.  Instead, I have developed an alternative darkroom:  my husband's very thick, dark blue terrycloth bathrobe.  If you drape it over your head and shoulders, it blocks light quite well.

Kneeling beside the bed with the robe over my head and the eggs and flashlight in front of me, it didn't take long to confirm that all of the eggs were still alive.  Two were about two-thirds of the way through their incubation; the other two were less than a week along.  I made some quick notes on their shells in pencil, and placed them in the incubator.  Then, feeling that I might as well take the plunge, I loaded the rest of the sections with chicken eggs.

A week later, when Pea's daughter appeared with her two chicks, I checked that nest and discovered five remaining eggs.  One had gone so far as to pip.  This one went straight into the incubator, and candling of the rest showed the same type of age distribution.  In they went.

Fast-forward to today.  The pipped egg hatched eight hours later, giving us a fine brown chick.  Over the next several days three more hatched, two more browns and a white.  Sadly, neither mother pea has shown any interest in adoption, so the chicks are being raised partly indoors and partly in the nursery, where a long-suffering Pea tolerates their tiny antics amidst her older, more dignified offspring.  Also, as of yesterday the chicken eggs began hatching.  We currently have eight hatched, two pipped, and ten sitting there looking uncooperative.

Seven of eight.  Two bantam cochin mixes, and five Easter Eggers.

So the incubator is at least partly exonerated, four peachicks that would have died are alive and whistling at each other all night long in the brooder, and our spare shower stall has once again been pressed into duty as a cat-proof brooder box site.  Life is good.  Chicks are cute.  And modern technology and I are getting along better. :)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mother peas

One of the signs of summer drawing near is when Pea, our alpha peahen, reappears one morning with a flotilla of fuzzy pool balls orbiting her feet.  Pea likes to nest at the bottom of the peapen, either underneath some chicken wire or in a corner that she fondly imagines is well-concealed.  About one week ago she proudly led five new chicks up to the pea coop, four wildtype browns and a white.

In a coincidence of rare good fortune, I had just finished building the two new fence panels that I needed in order to re-establish the pea nursery.  I lugged them into place and slowly shooed Pea into the coop, and then through the nursery door.  Pea sailed gravely inside, calling her chicks with gravelly gronks and squeaky-gate-hinge noises, and settled down to brood them with an expression of been-there, done-that on her face.  This brood is Pea's fourth in this coop, and she's got the system down pat.

In the past, the only two hens old enough to go broody have been Pea and Mihoshi.  Mihoshi is a year younger than Pea, and a jealous sort; she has a tendency to pick on Pea's chicks and harass them.  Fortunately for peace and tranquility within the peapen, she always goes broody several days after Pea has hatched out her clutch.  This has been a rather convenient spacing, because by the time Mihoshi hatches chicks, Pea's are old enough to be turned out of the nursery.  However, this year it was not to be so simple.  Five hens are at laying age this year, and one of them, a two-year-old daughter of Pea's, went broody just a few days after her mother.  Yesterday, she brought her two chicks up to the coop, which has caused me some anxiety as the nursery is too small for two broody hens to share.  They're very protective of their chicks.

For now, the younger hen is managing just fine with a "frontier woman" approach to mothering.  Disdaining the coop, she instead leads her chicks through the tall grasses at the bottom of the peapen, foraging for bugs and green shoots.  It's fortunate for her that the recent rains have encouraged the grasses to put up tender new growth, and multiplied the bugs.  Her methods have me flitting through the yard several times a day to keep an eye on things, because in the past we have had peachicks go missing while wandering around the pen:  they duck under the fence where the squirrels have warped the wire, or come under fire from jealous aunties.  So far, though, their mother has managed to keep them safe.  Today I did catch her eyeing the nursery with a jealous glint in her eye, though.  I think she's starting to question the status quo.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Twip.  Twip.  Twip.

Ah, the sound of chicks at play.  Chatting with one another, poking through the dish of crumbles, receiving the occasional unsolicited body-slam.  It's a lot like kindergarten at lunchtime.  Their little voices echo slightly off the blue tiled walls of the spare bathroom shower, lit 24 hours a day by the heat lamp tied to the flexi-hose of the holstered shower head, a tiny oasis of summer's warmth in our single-paned house while yet another atypical cold rainstorm patters down outside in the chilly breeze.

These are the chicks of the first incubator hatch:  two Icelandics, three Easter Eggers, and a bantam cochin.  All six are still with us; the last-hatched chick, whom I suspected of being somewhat oxygen-deprived, has shown considerable cognitive improvement and no longer has to be reminded to eat.  Chick number four--the one on the far right--an Easter Egger who came out of the shell only with assistance and stood bolt upright like a penguin for several days, has at last shown some response to our efforts to re-educate its legs.  Chick number five, the bantam cochin, had a couple of turned toes which responded beautifully to a temporary shoe.  And numbers one through three--the Icelandics and the black Easter Egger in the center of the photo--never had any problems.  One of them has already learned how to perch on the rim of the box.

There seems to be a trend with me, incubators, and orthotic chick footwear.  The last time I used an incubator--a Roll-X, the Ferrari of incubators, borrowed from a neighbor--we had an uneventful hatch of eight out of ten eggs, but two chicks emerged with turned feet.  I struggled with them for months but never did manage to correct the wayward toes; they are our two senior roosters now, Jake and Elwood.  This time around, we again had two with leg/foot problems.  The cochin, thankfully, was an easy fix:  two days of clumping around in a snowshoe contraption made of 3X5 cards and sticky tape, and the toes straightened out.  Our little "penguin" chick, on the other hand, has been another story.

The chick's first problem was contractures of the upper leg muscles, resulting in a bird that stood with its spine nearly vertical, rather than the almost horizontal posture of a normal chicken.  Two days and several bouts of physical therapy later, I noted glumly that the long tendons that run along the back of the lower leg and under the toes were starting to contract as well, arching the toes and bringing the sole of the foot off the ground.  The chick lolled comfortably on its back in my hand, waving its curved feet like a stage magician telegraphing along to "Abracadabra presto-chango."

"Seriously, kid?"

In order to stretch the tendons again, the chick needed a flat surface to bind the toes to, and also a support running up the back of the lower leg.   By a lucky fluke, the plastic casing of a double-pack of black printer ink had been molded with just the right angle.  With much measuring, and trimming--and some cursing when the chick kicked at inopportune moments, tangling the tape--we eventually got it fitted.  When stood up, the chick promptly flopped down and began pulling at the tape.  It then demonstrated that slick plastic has a distinct lack of traction.

"Peep!"  We got the massive stinkeye.

Tape treads were applied.  A piece of non-slip liner was pilfered from one of the kitchen drawers and placed on the floor of the brooder.  With these aids, the chick managed to totter about.  Later that day I discovered it sleeping on its back, bandaged feet in the air.  The tape treads had accumulated a truly shocking amount of poo.

Modelling the latest in strappy spring fashions . . . .

At the end of the third day, the chick was walking fairly well and, as an added bonus, had finally adopted a normal stance.  So we removed the braces, to the tune of much yelling from the chick:  "Sticky tape PULLS!"  Since then, it seems to have reached a plateau.  The toes haven't contracted again, and the chick hasn't gone back to standing like a penguin.  But it's not as mobile as the rest, and has a tendency to stagger and sit down suddenly.  I'm as bad as the proverbial mother hen, hovering over this kid and worrying, but at the moment there really isn't anything more that I can do, other than keep an eye on things.

And the incubator has been refilled, and set to run a second time.  Oh how I hope that things work out better this time around.  o.O

Thursday, June 2, 2011


When you've got more eggs you want to hatch than broody hens willing to sit on them, it's inevitable:  you will buy an incubator, and try your hand at setting the things artificially.  During a long dry spell recently, when none of my previously-reliable hens was going broody and "special eggs" were piling up on the counter, I too fell prey to the temptation to Do Things Myself.  I researched models, read through reviews, checked the Backyard Chickens Forum (try it, it's fun), and finally settled on one by Brower.  And so began another chapter in my book of Learning Experiences.

It's a good incubator.  I firmly believe that.  However, it and I are just not getting along.

That first round, I set a total of thirty-four eggs.  Six failed to develop, which was not too terrible a fertility rate, really:  twenty-eight out of thirty-four is just over eighty-two percent fertility, and even a broody hen can be happy with that.  The incubator whirred along, its heating light flickering on and off as needed, thermometer reading a steady 99.5 degrees F and hygrometer holding between 50 and 55%.  The automatic turner trundled, gradually shifting the eggs to and fro.  Candling at day 10 showed good development in all of the eggs, including movement.  To every appearance, everything was going along just fine.  Day 18 arrived, and I hiked the humidity, detached the turner arm, and settled down expectantly.  Day 21 dawned, the day of hatch . . . and nothing happened.

Day 22.  Nothing.  Growing edgy, I candled again.  To my dismay, ten more eggs were dead at varying points of development.  Of the rest, eight showed movement, five were fully developed, three were highly suspicious, and two--surprise!--had pipped internally.  I put the live ones back in the incubator and kept my hands firmly to myself.

The next day, two eggs hatched.  The chicks showed evidence of delayed development, but were vigorous enough.  Over the next three days, we got a slow but fairly steady hatch of four more eggs.  And that was it.  The rest were dead.  At day 30 I gave up, candled the lot, satisfied myself that they had died, and threw in the towel.

So what went wrong?  I'm putting the pieces together.  These eggs were from hens that had given us a good hatch rate before under broodies, so the problem wasn't in the eggs themselves.  Delayed hatch means delayed development, and that means that the incubator ran at too cool an average temperature the whole time.  But if a low setting was the only problem, we should have had a lot more hatch:  delayed, yes, but hatch.  The second big clue is the occurrence of scattered egg deaths at varying stages of middle to late development.  While even the best hatch will always have a few late quitters, ours were a huge percentage of the batch.  That's evidence of temperature fluctuations in excess of what the embryos could handle.  I did see temperature jumps and drops during incubation, and once or twice grew desperate enough to alter the setting.  Since the thermometers were proven inaccurate, what were the real numbers?  Did I screw things up by opening the unit too often or messing with the dial?  Why did the temperatures change anyway?

To try to answer these questions, I bought a Brinsea Spot Check, which is a digital thermometer with a probe designed to be put inside the incubator and provide a fairly accurate reading on temperatures.  It disagreed firmly with the other thermometers, reading nearly a degree and a half lower.  Based on the performance of the hatch, I am inclined to believe it.  I did some more reading and decided that another part of the problem was the cool temperatures in the house.  This incubator performs best at a room temp of 70 to 85 degrees F, and our house has been in the sixties, which could have caused it to lose too much heat.  With the help of an insulating blanket, though, the unit is rated down to 55 degrees.  We also had a heat wave and a cold snap during incubation, both of which affected the room temperature and caused it to range between 58 and 75 degrees.  That can't have helped at all, but the incubator is already in the room least affected by outdoor temperatures.  Short of putting it in the coat closet, I can't protect it further from changes in room temperature.  For now I think I'll hold off on that coat closet.

I accept that an incubator can't hold a temp at bang on the target, 24 hours a day; there is going to be some amount of temperature flux during even optimal operation.  I just wish I knew what the safe temperature range was, but that is probably something I will have to learn as I go.  The incubator is clean, disinfected, and ready to go again, now wearing a cute little insulating jacket made of a double layer of bubble wrap, and containing a small bag of water to act as a heat sink to smooth out changes in temperature.  I am collecting data points like crazy, checking temps several times a day and watching them rise and fall at unexpected times.  I am starting to think that the incubator has warm and cool spots, despite the manufacturer's best efforts.  I am also starting to think that I should have stuck with the broody hens.  You can't check their temperature twenty times a day--they bite.

So the days roll on, the incubator running empty on the kitchen table, as I search for the setting that will provide a happy middle ground and, barring unforeseen weather weirdness, get us a better hatch.  I sure hope I find it soon, because the eggs can only wait so long.  At the end of this week, I will have to cross my fingers and try again.

Monday, May 30, 2011


I've been putting it off for a while, but a few weekends ago I got started on the latest build project for the chickens.  We have three pairs of birds in small pens lately, and two of these pens are pretty makeshift:  a "fly-pen" inside the Polish pen, and a floppy, flimsy, chickenwire-and-T-post contraption built off of the Polish pen.  These are breeding pairs, so they do need separate housing, but what they're got right now is just not very good.  So I will be building a small compound of four attached pens in the southwest corner of the chicken yard.

The corner in question is a fairly nice area.  There's a tree with a narrow canopy at that corner, which provides the birds with some shade, if not a whole lot of shelter from the rain.  It's also the high end of the yard, so it doesn't get as muddy.  But at this time of year, the ground has dried out, and it is like iron.  Over the first three days of my project, I spent many hours digging four measly post holes.

The pen design calls for a free-standing wall along one long side, which will tie in at one end to the existing fence, and at the other end will have a connecting arm of fencing to tie in to the other fence.  From there, it can be subdivided into four side-by-side sections.  But that free-standing wall needs to be fairly sturdy to stand up to winter winds, in addition to providing anchor points for each of the four small gates.  I decided that the best way to achieve this would be to sink four eight-foot 4"X4" posts thirty inches into the ground, then link them with 2"X4" toprails and bottom rails.  Additional support for the short walls would be provided by good old T-posts, which can be rammed into the ground by brute force, but first we had to get the 4X4s in place.   And when I took my first stab at the ground, and the post-hole digger bucked straight up like a bronco, I knew I was in for it.

Water, of course, is the universal solvent.  On that first day, when I realized that even the Hulk couldn't dig those holes before Christmas, it seemed like a great idea to fill the shallow dimples that I'd made with water, and leave it to sit for a while.  And it did indeed seep down and soften the ground; as of the third morning, I got two of the holes down to my goal of thirty inches.  But I underestimated the amount of clay down there.  Of that thirty inches, twenty-eight of it was solid clay.  And clay really, truly, doesn't want to drain.  The water table is seventy feet down, and the clay seals itself around any pocket of surface water greedily, refusing it let it trickle down and rejoin its subterranean parent.  In the process of digging, I managed to work the standing water into the dirt I chipped free, and pulled it out of the holes in the form of soupy mud, but afterwards I still had six inches of water in the holes. 

It's difficult to dig in a chicken yard.  Chickens spy you headed someplace with anything in your hands, and they immediately come running to see what kind of food is involved.  While ours are initially afraid of both the shovel and the digger, the minute you actually start digging, they mob your ankles.  Every bit of dirt elevated from the hole is inspected frantically for worms.  They want to dig through the dirt pile and kick it all over the yard, which would be helpful if I were trying to level the yard.  Meanwhile the boss rooster is orbiting both the hole and the dirt pile at high speed, torn between the desire to impress the hens with his ability to procure food, and his own greed.  Baron did do me a favor, though, when he nearly fell into the first hole while I was digging.  At that point it occurred to me--duh--that a deep hole full of muddy water equals a death trap for a chicken.  I covered each hole with scraps of chicken wire in between digging sessions, and managed to avoid any casualties.

After several days, the holes were finished.  And then . . . the storm came through.  Cold, drumming, gusting, soaking rain that properly belonged in November.  On the fifth day, when the skies finally cleared, I trooped out and took the covers off the holes, to discover them nearly brim-full of opaque, muddy water.

In hindsight, I was darned lucky that we did have so much clay.  The walls of my holes held without slumping or eroding so much as an inch.  As I bailed the water out using a quart Mason jar on a string, I contemplated how easily I could have been re-digging the things instead.  The very thought made my blisters hurt.  The next day we placed the posts, trued them up, and filled in the holes inch by laborious inch, tamping like mad.  Clay doesn't tamp well.  Poke it with a stick, and it tries to climb up it, then doesn't want to give the stick back.  Tamping creates a topography like the mountain ranges a six-year-old draws, all jagged teeth and vanishingly deep valleys.  Clay also sticks to the shovel in a thoroughly annoying fashion.  And meanwhile, there are the perpetual, peripatetic chickens . . . .

The posts are in place, the T-posts are in place, the cinder-block rests for the shelters are in place and (seemingly) level.  I am moving on towards building those shelters (large wooden shipping crates from a salvage yard, hooray salvage!) and then will put the rails up and fence it all in.  Phew.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Valentine's chicks

After a long enough wait to make everyone a little nervous--twenty-four days!--Valentine finally has chicks.  I don't know what the delay was all about; normally you can expect a hatch at twenty-one days of incubation, especially under a hen, but for whatever reason Valentine's kids took their own sweet time getting here.  Fortunately for them, Mother Knew Best, and didn't let a piddling detail like a deadline get on her nerves.  And here is her reward:  four sturdy, fat little fuzzballs showing her their full appreciation on Mother's Day, as only little kids can:

Let's all sit on Mom!

These chicks are not from eggs that Valentine laid . . . not that she cares.  They are from our barred Rock hen Checkers, and the father is Jake, one of our blue Andalusians.  The color genetics are going to be interesting this time around, I can tell.  About the only thing that the two parents agree on is that blue modifies black. 

Blue, in chicken coloration, is actually more of a steely gray; it's blue in the way that a Russian Blue cat is blue, which is to say, not exactly what you would call blue.  But it's a very entertaining gene to work with.  Basically, blue is a gene that modifies black coloration, and it's a dominant gene, so it shows its effects even if there's only one copy of it.  If a chicken has no blue gene, then that lack is shown on a genetic diagram as bl+/bl+.  That little plus sign doesn't actually mean plus, in genetics.  Instead, it indicates consistency with wild type coloration.  Chickens that are colored like their ancestors, the junglefowl, have no blue gene at all.  Therefore, a bird lacking blue isn't just written as bl/bl, it's bl+/bl+, and a bird with one copy is Bl/bl+.  

In a Bl/bl+ chicken, every place on the body that was going to be black, is blue instead.  If, on the other hand, a chicken has two copies of the blue gene (Bl/Bl), then the result is a rather grubby white with random dark gray feathers mixed in.  This coloration is called splash; I think that's rather appropriate, because it makes the chicken look like it's been doused in dirty dishwater.

Jake, being a blue Andalusian, is Bl/bl+ and he is shades of blue all over.  Checkers, on the other hand, is a barred hen:  basically a black bird, with a barring gene that gives her the white stripes.  The barring gene is located on the Z chromosome, and because birds just have to be different, the female is the heterozygous gender (ZW) while the male is homozygous (ZZ).  (In mammals, the male is heterozygous (XY) and the female homozygous (XX)).  That means that Checkers only has one copy of the barring gene to donate, so each of these chicks has a 50% chance of having inherited the barring gene.  And at this point, there's no definite way to tell which ones, if any, did.  Barred Rock chicks are black with yellow tummies and a yellow splotch on the top of the head.  Three of these have the splotch, but we'll just have to wait and see if that corresponds to barring!  Even if it does, I anticipate "interference" from other genes from Jake's side of the family that would make the barring muddy, or alter how well it shows up on different parts of the body.  I don't know if there is any such thing as a blue-barred chicken!

The chick to the far left in the photo above is a blue, and the two in the background look like darker versions of blue.  The one in the foreground is black.  The paler down on their bellies is just baby clothes and will go away when they feather out.  It will be interesting to see what markings they all develop over the next few months!  (And of course, we're praying that most of them are hens.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Green eggs

Just throwing it out there:  how many chicken egg colors can you name? 

Well, everyone has seen brown eggs and white eggs in the supermarket.  But there's a third color category that has never has caught on in the market, and I have yet to figure out why.  It's the blue- or green-shelled egg.  I have more fun with these eggs.  When somebody asks if we have eggs available, and I pop open a carton, what's the first thing they notice?  Not the cute little brown bantam eggs, not the glossy white Polish eggs, but "Oh my gosh, what laid those green ones?!"

Well, these girls do.


Meet Charger, Colleen, Bluebelle, Silver, Gladys, and Cadge.  These girls are all Easter Eggers, which is a slightly more polite term than "mutts that just happen to lay eggs that are blue, green, or olive."  All but Silver are hatchery chicks; Silver is a second-generation bird, the result of our brief fling at keeping an Easter Egger rooster in with the main laying flock.  Sadly, Brutus did not get along well with boss rooster Elwood, so he went to a friend. 

 I just can't understand why Easter Eggers haven't taken off as the Next Big Thing in the egg production business.  (Not that I would wish battery nesting on any bird.)  They're excellent layers:  although not quite as prolific as the White Leghorn, our girls average five eggs a week . . . each.  Are green-hued shells really that off-putting to the consumer?  Not from what I can see.  Even Easter Egger half-breeds are excellent producers.  Shoe, one of our oldest hens at five years, is still laying regularly, and her eggs are of the same high quality as the younger birds'.

But then, I am thoroughly biased.  I keep these birds as pets; the eggs are just a pleasant side benefit.  My very first hen was a barred Easter Egger named Nova.  She looked exactly like a production Barred Rock, except for her green legs and the lime-green eggs she laid.  At the time I had no idea that she was an Easter Egger, so that first green egg came as a considerable shock.  For years after that we would pester Mom to fix "green eggs and ham!" for breakfast.   The novelty never really wore off.

One of the most entertaining aspects of this breed is the multitude of feather colors that they come in.  White, brown, gray, blue, gold, red, black; barring, speckling, or none; striped or counter-colored hackles.  As you can see from the photos, anything goes.  Things get even weirder when an "EE" is crossbred with something else.  We have a hen who is jet black and has a single comb.  She looks much like a black Andalusian, which makes sense because her daddy is an Andalusian.  But she lays a jade-green egg. 

The blue egg gene pops up everywhere it can, since it's what is termed a dominant gene (meaning that even if a bird has only one copy of the gene, it will still manifest).  Like with white eggs, a blue egg's shell carries that pigment throughout its thickness.  By comparison, a brown egg only has brown pigment applied to its outermost layers.  When the blue egg gene is combined with brown egg genes, the resulting shell colors range from green to olive.  So a green egg is basically a blue shell, overpainted with a little brown; an olive egg is one overpainted with a lot of brown.

Despite its popularity, the Easter Egger is not considered a proper breed.  EEs are something of an offshoot of a couple of genuine, recognized breeds:  the Araucana and the Ameraucana.  Araucanas hail from South America and are tailless, have long tufts of feathers in front of their ears (not to be confused with the "muffs and beard" that Colleen and Bluebelle are sporting above), and lay a blue egg.  Ameraucanas carry some of the same genes, but not all.  They have muffs and a beard--they must, in order to qualify for breed standard--and they generally lay either a blue or a green egg.  But the EE is the result of hybridizing Ameraucanas with other birds, and there isn't much of a standard.  An EE often does have muffs and beard, but not always.  She generally has green legs and a pea comb, but not every time.  Their colors don't breed true:  if you breed two brown EEs, you might end up with some real surprises in the chicks, such as white or black with brown.  And the eggs an EE hen lays could be blue, green, olive, brown, or pink.  It's a lot of fun picking up the eggs at night!  Besides, depending on what other shell-color genes went into the mix, your green eggs might be flecked or speckled with brown, or finely stippled with white.  After seeing a carton full of color, plain old white eggs seem very boring. 

It's their personalities, though, that get me every time.  Charger is all up in everyone's business, and once chased a cottontail out of the chicken yard.  Colleen is Little Miss Bossy.  Bluebelle is the Night Warden, keeping order in the barn after lights-out with stern baritone clucking and cawing at any disturbance.  Silver stomps around making sure the younger birds aren't getting into trouble.  Gladys will hop up onto your shoulder.   And Cadge . . . well, she's always hoping for a handout.  And they're friendly.  When I come into the chicken yard, the EE's come at the gallop, heads low and intent while their legs and wings bounce in every direction.  They are intelligent birds; when shown something new, other breeds cackle and back away while the EE's come in and check it out.  (Since it's usually food, this serves them well.) 

Anyway, if you are thinking about getting a few chickens for your backyard, I would heartily recommend some Easter Eggers, although you would be in equally good hands . . . err, claws . . . with Ameraucanas.  Between the colors of the eggs and the birds themselves, their personalities, and the added plus of hybrid vigor--the unquestionable advantage to being a mutt--you'd be hard put to find a better "starter" bird.  And if you get hooked for life on chickens . . . well, don't say I didn't warn you. :)

Mahogany has chicks!

At last, the long wait is over.  Mahogany has hatched out five beautiful chicks, and is so proud, her little feathery feet scarcely touch the ground.  Here they are:

Mahogany with chicks one through four. 
She is showing them something to eat.
Chick number five, who was hiding
behind Mum.

The first chick was the one on the far left.  Within twenty-four hours, the other three in that photo had joined it, perky and strong.  Number Five, however, gave us a scare.  Although its egg was set at the same time as the rest, it hatched a day and a half late.  By this point, the first chick was coming up on three days old, and that is as long as a new chick can go before it has to eat.  A chick reabsorbs the remnant of its egg yolk before hatching, and uses it as energy for the next few days.  This allows the chick and the mother hen to stay in the nest and wait for slower siblings to finish hatching.  When the oldest chick starts getting hungry, it begins to fuss and try to climb out of the box, signalling its mother that it's time to go find some food.  Any eggs or chicks left in the nest at this point are on their own.  So not twelve hours after it had hatched, Number Five was left behind in the nest, too weak and young to follow the rest as they left the nest at last for breakfast.

When a chick first hatches, it spends the next twenty-four hours doing nothing very much except sleep and recover from the hard work of hatching.  It's certainly in no condition to walk--it can barely stand!  So poor little Five was really in a spot.  When I came out to feed that morning, I discovered it sacked out in the nest, already getting quite chilled but too sleepy and sluggish to peep for Mother.  So I brought it inside, and set it up in the brooder.  The whole day, that kid did nothing but sleep, tucked in underneath the feather duster with the heat lamp warming its little rump.  It would wake up and peep conversationally once in a while, then zonk out again.  It wasn't hungry, it wasn't thirsty.  Finally night fell and I took it out to the barn, where Mahogany had put herself and the other chicks to bed in the nest box.  I tucked Five in under her wing, whereupon it immediately perked up and began cheeping at her:  "Mama!  I had a big day.  I got abducted by a big alien, an' it flew away with me, an' there was this bright light, an' funny sounds, an' an' an' . . . ."  Mahogany listened with the most bemused expression on her face, beak tilted down towards the tiny voice buried in her feathers:  "Yes, dear.  Really?  Well now."  The other chicks slept right through it.

Thankfully, since then Five has caught up with its siblings, and is currently the plumpest of the bunch.  We had a little trouble the second and third nights, when it couldn't figure out how to get back up the ramp into the nest box, but it's figured that trick out now.  I have to say "it", because we really can't tell what gender any of the chicks are yet.  As they grow, we'll get some idea.  Murphy's Law being what it is, I have to suspect that this chick will turn out to be a rooster . . . after all that fuss saving his fluffy little behind.  Ah, chickens.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Secret agent bugs

One of the hazards of adding birds to a flock is the possibility that someone might get sick, either the new bird or some of the flock.  Of course nobody consciously chooses a sick bird to add.  It happens by accident, and unfortunately it happens easily, because quite a few poultry diseases are capable of "lurking".  An outwardly healthy bird may be harboring more than one surprise, and few things are worse than discovering that the new kid on the block has brought enough for everybody, as it were.

I am so nervous about diseases that run under the radar that Quercus has never been integrated with the main flock.  The coccidia that he developed at three weeks old told me that I'd taken in a small peeping ecosystem, and I swore to myself that I would be very, very careful with this bird.  The coccidia, arrgh, did make its way into the main flock after all, but so far has been little more than a nuisance.  I wince with every new batch of chicks that hits the ground, though, and fret over them until they get past the danger window.

Then, last November, Quirk broke with scaly leg mite.  I flipped out.  His legs had been fine for nearly a year, and all of a sudden the scales began rucking up over spongy, crumbly growths.  We stomped on the situation good and hard:  since he wasn't a laying hen and wasn't a meal, Ivermectin time baby!  A few weeks later the lesions were gone, but given the tenacious nature of the mite, and the blowup out of nowhere, I can't really believe that the mites are vanquished.  No doubt they've gone back to a carrier state.  I now inspect legs in the barn a couple evenings a month, dreading to see the mites appear.

I'm not the least bit surprised about the coccidia and the mites.  That feral flock adds and subtracts stray birds all the time, healthy and sick.  A rather tarnished ray of sunshine in the situation is that without human intervention, the feral flock practices survival of the fittest in its most elemental form:  when a new bug comes through, susceptible birds sicken and some die, while the resistant ones survive.  It selects for hardiness, and it does it old-school:  no medications, no sympathy, no second chances.  But the thing about hardiness is that it's rather fussy.  There are three major points to remember:
  1. A hardy bird can look perfectly healthy and still be a carrier of diseases (the Typhoid Mary principle)
  2. The hardier the bird, the greater chance that he will have survived some really funky bugs, some of which he may now carry (the Eclectic Collector principle)
  3. Hardiness is not forever  (Time wounds all heels) 
Being hardy is great on the surface:  when everyone else is getting sick, the hardy birds sail right through it.  But when faced with a tough immune system, many poultry diseases will cheerfully integrate themselves into the host and simply wait.  If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and these bugs do.  The benefit to the disease organisms is twofold.  When the carrier meets a new bird, the disease spreads to the new host.  And, eventually, the carrier's immune system will falter and lose the fight.  There are over two dozen chicken diseases that spread via carriers, some viral, some bacterial, some fungal, and some parasitic.  It's clearly a successful strategy when the host is a social, flocking species.  By leaving the host able to totter around and interact with others, there is much more opportunity for the disease to spread to new hosts.  Young birds and elderly birds are particularly vulnerable to disease, because their immune systems are not up to speed.

Quirk has lived long enough without symptoms to make me less concerned about many of the diseases on the list, but I still worry about Marek's disease (range paralysis), which is a viral disease that attacks the nerve tissue and is famous for lying doggo in the body for years before making its presence known.  Marek's is alive and well in the feral flock, flaring up periodically in young birds and older carriers.  Marek's can even travel on stray feathers from a carrier bird, and we have several older hens who like to eat feathers, so during the molting season I spend a lot of time picking up shed feathers and making sure that Quirk's enclosure stays where the prevailing wind will sweep any stray bits away from the others.

The best defense is a good offense:  quarantine.  Generally it is recommended to quarantine new birds completely for a full month, and watch them with extreme care.  Even when it comes time to begin introducing them to the main flock, it may be practical (if rather cold-hearted) to first introduce them to a few expendable, more susceptible birds for another month.  This gives most diseases plenty of time to show up (except for a few jokers in the deck, like Marek's).  Knowing the source of your new birds is another important defense.  A "closed" flock (one that doesn't add new birds) is safer than an "open" one.  Likewise, birds that attend shows or otherwise interact with unfamiliar chickens are at higher risk for exposure.  Day-old chicks from a reputable hatchery are another means of adding birds that are disease-free.

<chuckle>  When I started this post, I thought that I would only discuss subclinical disease, but of course one train of thought leads to another, and there's a lot more to disease control than simply being aware that some bugs are good at hiding from you.  With that thought in mind, I may just have to come back to this!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hello, Quercus

Chickens have a tendency to multiply.  As I've commented before, it's awfully easy to end up with a rooster, especially if you are soft-hearted (in extreme cases like mine, perhaps that would be soft-headed).  But there's something funny about a flock of chickens that makes it behave like a very particular black hole.  It exerts a mysterious pull that sucks in new chickens from the doggondest places.

There's a little town near my old workplace that has chosen a rather unusual distinguishing characteristic:  its feral chicken population.  (As with feral cats, the term is strangely apt.  Officially, "feral chickens" refers to birds foraging and living successfully within the town, without human intervention.  It does not mean bands of poultry hoodlums roving the streets and terrorizing the populace . . . but that depends on who you talk to.)  The town points to its proud farming history, and traces its current feral flock of about 200 back three decades to a founding stock of one rooster and three hens that were allowed to roam.  Since then the “bloodline” has been augmented by wandering birds and some outright escapees from backyard flocks, bringing in some startling and intriguing colors and shapes.  (Crele gene on a White Leghorn base with red and black patches and some Japanese Bantam thrown in?)  The birds wander all around the center of town, stopping traffic and even soliciting scraps from restaurant-goers sitting at outdoor tables.  Everybody loves those chickens, or if they don’t, they keep very quiet about it.

So back in early December of 2009, during a vicious cold snap that brought snow to much of the area, I was practicing in a small-animal/exotics hospital that also takes in wildlife.  Late in the morning, the phone rang.  The receptionist covered the mouthpiece with her hand and waved at me. 

"Can you take another chicken?"

“Sure.”  (Never mind that at that point we had over sixty birds.)  “Injured?”

“No, the hospital down the street says somebody has an orphaned chick.”

I glanced at the black sky outside, treetops whipping in the icy wind.  “Weird.  Okay, send it over.”

Over the next fifteen minutes or so I steadily upped the age of the bird in my mind’s eye, and messed with its species.  No hen in its right mind would brood at this time of year, and the feed stores don't carry chicks during winter, so what could this thing be?  Chickens are pretty unmistakable, but perhaps somebody had found a young duck?  Maybe a gosling?  Or no, this would be somebody’s end-of-summer feed-barn-clearance-sale chick, some poor leftover Rhode Island rooster on gangly legs and with no down left even on top of its head, only peeping because its voice hadn’t settled yet.  Probably they lived in an area not zoned for chickens, and someone had complained.  Yup.  Undoubtedly.

I happened to be up front when the lady carrying the very small box arrived.  "I found a chick,"  she said hesitantly.

Good grief, did she have a sparrow in there?

“Well, you’ve come to the right place!”  the receptionist said encouragingly.  I leaned over the box as the lady raised the lid.

Poing.  The tiny ball of brown fluff popped its head up, squinting in the light.  “Peep,”  it said miserably.  The egg tooth on the end of its beak sparkled briefly.

“I work in the Old Town,”  the woman explained,  “and I was walking out to my car when I heard peeping, and there he was standing in the driveway crying his eyes out.  I looked everywhere for the mother but I couldn’t find her.  I can’t raise him, he’ll never make it . . . .”

She needn’t have worried.  I already had the bird in my hands.  The chick was uninjured but quite cold; I would have taken him in even if he’d been missing a leg.  The fact that he was alive at all was something of a between-holidays miracle.  At two days old, as witnessed by that egg tooth, no chick could be expected to survive longer than half an hour in the frigid, rainy weather outside.  For that matter, his siblings would be in some trouble even with their mother’s care, but there was nothing I could do about them.

Fortunately, I still had some stale chick feed sitting on the shelf over my desk.  We set the little squirt up in a tank with a heating pad, a rice bag, a heat lamp, and the requisite feather duster.  Within half an hour the bird had recovered enough to start shouting his abandonment to the entire building.  But to our surprise, once he got a good look at the people moving around the room, he settled down and began to eat.  Humans, apparently, were his new flock.

Throughout the next few months, the chick grew and thrived at our house, living in a homemade brooder on top of the washing machine.  I was annoyed but unsurprised when he broke with a rather snippish strain of coccidia at his third week.  It was resistant to the coccidiostat in his feed and the lab never did get it properly typed, but the chick bulled his way through it without so much as a dip in appetite.  One of the more unusual things about him was the fact that after that first day, he never cried.  Generally a solitary chick is an extremely unhappy bird, and will peep and call incessantly.  This kid chirruped and talked to himself, but not once did we hear the "peep-peep-peep-PEEP-PEEP!" of a lonely chick.  In the evenings he watched as we brought in Uncle Hoppy and Auntie Sonar, who also sleep in the laundry room, and in the mornings he would watch unperturbed as they were carried outside.  He was a remarkably self-possessed little fellow.  We named him Quercus, Quirk for short.

Quercus sitting on his feather duster

Since then, Quercus has grown into a remarkably handsome rooster, smallish and compact with a single comb and bright orange eyes.  He has orange and yellow hackles and saddle feathers, red shoulders, orange chest and belly, green legs, a black tail, and a little black striping and spangling.  He crows the first three bars of "Pennsylvania 6-5000," for some reason.  Having been hand-raised his entire life, he is extremely tame towards my husband and myself; matter of fact, I had had some anxiety about that, because he is so used to humans that he isn't afraid.  He did indeed go through the typical young-rooster-being-a-jerk phase, but it didn't last:  after a little trial and error, he learned what  "Stop that!"  means and, rather amazingly, he listens.  He spends his days in a chicken tractor on the lawn, yelling back and forth at Uncle Hoppy and the pair of Icelandics in the side yard, and every evening comes out of his hut to be taken indoors and put to bed in the laundry room.

So, another rooster has found his way into our home, and this one a real character.  I think we were both lucky.

Grumpily defending his pen from the camera

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March and that lion

Spring, yes, spring is here.  You know the old saying about how March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb?  In this part of the country, March never seems to get past the thrill of being a lion.  It prowls across the valley on giant puffy stormcloud paws, roars its rain against the roofs, bats houses and trees playfully with sixty-mile-an-hour gusts of wind.  The only lambs around here are the ones shivering underneath their mothers' bellies, wishing they'd been born in April, which is a much nicer month all around.

Of course, we really, really do need the rain.  I may grump about it--leaning against the window, peering out through the descending gray curtains, bitterly regretting that leak in my right barn boot--but we honestly need it and it is a blessing.  I just wish, sometimes, that it wouldn't choose to bless us all at once.

We're on clay out here; good, thick, water-resistant stuff with a heavy leavening of iron oxides that gives it the staining power of raspberry jam.  Although the ground gets pretty thirsty during the long dry heat of summer, and sucks up the winter rains like a Labrador retriever after a day on the trail, by March it's full up.  During the last storm I looked out across the pasture, which is largely a natural drainage basin surrounded by higher ground, and observed water flowing out of the shallow hillside and forming a lazy, wandering stream across the lot.  There must be some fairly extensive, tightly-packed layers of clay buried in that hillside.  When digging the garden, we've encountered some deposits dense and fine enough to make a rustic potter dance with delight, but it sure can turn a shovel blade.

There are cows on that pasture, although they aren't our cows; the landlord and the rancher down the road came to an agreement last spring, and the result has been Natural Weed Control, Large Scale.  We really did have a pretty serious weed issue before, with nearly nine acres of unused pasture rife with buried treasure:  old real estate signs, fence posts, sections of log, rusty metal hardware, and in the center of the largest field, a gigantic glorious snarl-up of several hundred feet of four-strand, heavy-wire-and-carbon-fiber-post fencing that must have served some purpose in the distant past before it all fell down and the weeds grew over it.  All I know is, it sure tore the stuffing out of the disker that the landlord hired to turn the weeds under two summers ago, and it would have been a grade-A leg-breaker for the cattle if we hadn't clued the ranch hands to its hidden presence.  It was so buried and overgrown that human hands couldn't budge it; the men finally wrenched it free with a tractor.  Currently there are about thirty cows and one bull roving around out there; they appear to be a mixture of Herefords and longhorn crosses.  The calf count is up to twenty, I think.  It could be higher; they're pretty squirrely.

But oh, that mud.  The top end of the pasture looks like it's been used for a bombing range.  The mud up there is at least eighteen inches deep.  Cows, of course, will churn up the ground; they really can't help it.  When the ground is saturated and there are pockets of slippery clay everywhere, several hundred pounds of animal stilting over it on four narrow sharp hooves has an effect rather like a lawn aerator.  Each hoof is placed with extreme care, particularly where the ground slopes, and as the weight goes onto it it sinks well out of sight.  Then, when the cow wants her hoof back, the mud doesn't want to let it go, clinging and resisting until the cow, with an aggravated snort, yanks her foot free.  Schhlorppp.  And again, and again, and again.  These girls are going to have amazing leg muscles by summer.

The calves are another story.  They skitter right over the top of it, using momentum and their lighter weight to full advantage.  Lucky little devils.

The mud of the chicken yard is a lesser creature, although still worthy of respect.  Chickens can do a real number on the ground too, with their enthusiastic scratching and trampling.  Once they have destroyed the turf, the water just pools wherever there's a shallow depression, and those pockets can slurp a boot right off your foot if you're not careful.  I've actually had less trouble with that this winter, since having a hole in one boot means detouring around anything that looks puddlish or squelchy.  But it's slick as ice out there; one foot placed wrong and there's some serious laundry to do. 

Currently we are enjoying a warming spell, which has me throwing windows open everywhere.  The barn is getting a much-needed airing, and the pockets of damp that form on the dirt floor--oh, such a bad idea, a dirt-floored barn on a slope, but you use what you have--are reluctantly firming and drying.  In another few days I'll need to check the birds' feet for the little earthen balls that tend to glue themselves to their claws as they scratch in the drying clay.  In the meantime, we'll enjoy this sign of local spring:  a brief respite from the tyranny of the mud.  I expect there will be a few more storms as we get into April, but the cycle has turned at last.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Those darn boys

One of the biggest problems with keeping chickens is dealing with the roosters.  Of course you can have a flock of hens that lay faithfully without ever seeing a rooster.  Chickens have been selectively bred for centuries, and one of the traits that has been universally encouraged is the hen's propensity to lay eggs whether or not she has a rooster.  The eggs aren't fertile without a rooster, of course, but tell that to the hen.  For that matter, if she's not genetically inclined to broodiness, she will not give a solitary darn about fertility of the eggs she works so hard to produce. 

The trouble is, it's so easy to end up with a rooster.  Although there are a few breeds of chicken that have color-coded chicks, making it easy to ensure that you are buying only the gender you want, most of them aren't nearly so accomodating.  To help their customers out, many hatcheries offer chicks that have been inspected and sexed.  These judgements are accurate between 90 and 95% of the time . . . and believe me, that five to ten percent rate of "oopsy" will crop up.  Some hatcheries also will throw in a free chick or two, and even though they may be pulled from the box of unsexed chicks, darn if they don't tend to be roosters.  There's also the phenomenon of the itinerant rooster who one day hops over your fence and makes himself at home in your flock.  Often he is wily, refusing to perch with the others at night and bolting from the yard the minute he sees a net.  In short, roosters happen.

Our first roosters were, in a word, legion.  When starting out with chickens, we placed an order with a well-known hatchery.  To meet the minimum order size of 25 chicks--the hatchery's way of guarding against the chicks getting chilled while in transit--we split the order with a co-worker.  The hatchery then made a kind-hearted effort to maximize customer service.  To keep the two groups of chicks distinct, they shipped them in a two-chambered box and "filled in the gaps" on each side with carefully-marked Red Star rooster chicks.  Instead of twenty-five chicks, we received fifty.  That was one noisy box, let me tell you, and a very lively one with one hundred little four-toed feet stampeding around in there.  The local USPS sorting center phoned us at half-past midnight when it reached them; the man was laughing so hard he could barely articulate.

It was a gesture of great generosity by the hatchery, but when those little Red Stars started growing by leaps and bounds, we quickly learned that roosters are not all sweetness and light.  Even when immature, chickens compete with one another for dominance in many unkind ways:  pecks, shoving, sneak attacks, and sparring.  Roosters take all of these behaviors and amp them up by a factor of two to ten; the losers may then go and take it out on lower-ranking birds, including the hens.  In two brief months, we had a serious problem on our hands, one that was ultimately solved by first separating the Red Stars into another pen, and then giving them away to a neighbor who promised to be quiet about turning them into chicken dinners.

But we still had too many roosters:  five, to be exact.  Only one of these was due to an error on the part of the sexing inspector.  One, an Andalusian, was a bird we had ordered.  The second Andalusian and the Easter Egger were "bonus chicks."  The last was the lone Red Star that had had too decent a personality to send off with the rest.  After putting word out among the local chicken fanciers, we found homes for three of them.  At this point I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that the matter was settled.  The remaining pair--Blue the splash Andalusian and Conrad ("The Terrible") Sussex--seemed to have reached an agreement that they would share the twenty-three hens between them.  We decided that we rather liked having roosters around.  They keep order within the flock, they guard the hens, and they are very pretty to look at.  And the recommended rooster-to-hen ratio is one rooster per ten or eleven hens.  We had the perfect balance.

But on Valentine's Day we went out to discover both birds dyed in holiday scarlet, rolling across the sand in a tangle of angry feathers.  The sad truth was, even having an abundance of hens wasn't good enough to smooth things over between these two.  Since then, I have observed that situations like this one seem to depend largely upon personality.  Some roosters are more territorial than others.  When neither rooster is willing to back down, you get an ugly fight.  But if one bird eventually turns tail, then it's all down to the winner.  If he's smart, he'll let the matter go, and permit the loser to remain within the flock.  In my flock, if the winner decides he wants to kill his opponent, he will be summarily removed from the gene pool, one way or another. 

I dealt with the matter that day by separating the two permanently.  Blue went on to become the flock patriarch, and when we lost him to dogs I incubated a set of eggs and ended up with four daughters and two sons of his.  The sons are Jake and Elwood, both sporting the blue coloration and handsome carriage of the Andalusian breed.  Unfortunately they hate each other with a fine old passion and had to be separated, creating a need for yet another pen. 

You would think that I would have learned my lesson, but no.  The following summer I took a wild hair and bought a wide variety of chicks from the local feed store.  Some of these were of famously broody breeds, like Mahogany, who I mentioned in the last post.  That led to home-grown chicks the following year, and naturally chicks always come in either male or female.  I re-homed most of the resulting roosters, but somehow there always seemed to be one or two extras that I really didn't want to get rid of.  Maybe they were prettier than the rest, or had good personalities, or sported some other trait that I liked.  But sooner or later it would come down to a decision:  either get rid of the extras, or build another pen.

So how's that working out?  Umm . . . yeah.  Currently we have eight extra pens, each with its own rooster, plus the main flock.  Of the pens, two house bantams, one contains Polish and other crested breeds, three contain "interesting mix" birds, and one is for Quercus the Eternally Confused.   Jake reigns supreme over a small flock in the south pasture, definitely the plushest accomodations in the place.  And poor old Elwood is living in the nursery, having recently been ousted from the alpha spot in the main flock by a younger rooster.  In his place I installed his son Baron, who has been patiently awaiting this day for some time.  He rules the flock with an iron claw but tolerates the presence of the two junior roosters.  That's . . . let me see . . . one dozen roosters.  Plus Hoppy, in his wheelchair.

And no, roosters don't crow only at sunrise.  I sure hope our neighbors continue to be good-natured about all this.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

It must be spring . . . .

Chickens can't read calendars, but their internal clocks are pretty darned good.  Two nights ago I discovered Mahogany lurking in one of the second-tier nest boxes. 

Mahogany is a bantam Partridge Cochin just coming up on her third birthday this summer.  She is one of our smallest hens, and our most fervent brooder.  Experience has proven that Mahogany will not, in fact, give up on brooding once that little timer in her head has gone "Ding!"  Every March I find myself facing her down in a nest box atop a pile of adopted eggs, her orange eyes glaring and russet feathers a-poof.  And she doesn't believe in waiting until the weather warms up; she goes broody early and beats the rush.

Two years ago she went broody for the first time, in early March.  We were having a bitterly cold spring, and I fought with her for nearly six weeks.  Every night I would take her eggs, and the next night she would be back, glowering, beak set with determination.  I lectured her on the subject of inappropriate climates for raising chicks.  I pleaded with her to just wait another month, maybe two.  I pointed out that the flock was plenty big enough already, and we frankly didn't need new chicks.  The barn lacked a broody chamber.  And so on. 

Mahogany wasn't having any of it.  She tried changing boxes several times, which let her in for some serious grief when a bigger hen decided she wanted the box Mahogany was in.  She tried using the little box off to the side that only one other hen ever wanted.  Although she preferred to adopt the biggest clutch she could find, she did make a brief try at boxes that only contained two or three eggs, but when that didn't work she went back to the big clutches.  She eventually tried defending her nest from me, but she's a very gentle soul and her heart clearly wasn't in it.  At last came the night that I reached in to take her eggs, and Mahogany made no move to protect them, only uttered a heartbroken little clucking cry. 

It shattered me.  All of my resolve fell away like a sand castle under a big wave.  I let her keep her eggs that night, marking them with a pencil in case she accumulated more from the other hens.  And that weekend we built the nursery, a 5'X3' fully-enclosed chamber in the most sheltered corner of the barn.

Mahogany raised up three beautiful chicks that season, and was as happy as a clam.  The next spring I moved her into the nursery after only five nights of argument, whereupon she sat her clutch of three and adopted three other eggs "orphaned" by a hen who started setting, then abandoned her clutch.  In the fullness of time she presented us with a merry mixed bunch of chicks:  one Belgian Bearded, one bantam Cochin, Ag, and his golden-laced sister Aurie.  Once again, she was the most contented bird in the flock.  Other broody hens get anxious, or irritable (the Beardies in particular will take your hand off); Mahogany gets super mellow.  She's a dedicated mother, and I have to say that her chicks tend to have good personalities, however much "nature versus nurture" applies to chickens.

So, two nights ago, and there was Mahogany in her box--same one she chose last year.  When approached, she put up her hackles and uttered a peremptory "Keeeerrk!", then shuffled herself even lower in the box.  I put my hand underneath her and found that she had settled onto two eggs and the egg-shaped rock that has served us so well in the past as a decoy.  I sighed . . . and shrugged, and moved her and her rock into the nursery.  I know when I'm beaten.

Last night I gave her a quartet of "test" eggs:  I've been saving eggs from one hen in particular in case someone went broody, and these eggs were a little too old (at 10-16 days) to be viable.  So far she has been sitting tight, and soon I'll be giving her a clutch "for real."  And Mahogany will, once again, be doing what she loves.

Monday, February 21, 2011


Chickens come in many breeds, each of which was designed for a primary purpose.  Some were developed for meat, others for eggs, and quite a few were developed to provide both.  Then there are the ones whose ancestors possessed an interesting physical trait that caught the eye of long-ago breeders, resulting in careful combining of birds to lock that trait into successive generations.  These are the ornamental breeds.  They're beautiful to look at and often quite decent layers as well; there's no denying that these birds can be fully functioning members of a working flock.  But when you breed for looks, sometimes you end up with a few little surprises.  Case in point:  Ag.

Ag is the silver-laced Polish rooster that came of last summer's hatch.  His striking coloring was completely unexpected, and as is so often the case with roosters, convinced me to hang onto him for "just a little longer" to see if he could integrate into the flock without driving senior rooster Elwood crazy.  So I've gotten to watch him grow from a punk-rocker gangly chick with an '80s porcupine 'do into a tall young vision in black and white stripes.

Embarrassing baby photo of Ag, who is on the right.
His companion is a bantam Cochin chick.
All grown up!

Being a Polish, Ag doesn't just have feathers on his head; he has something that resembles a wilting sea urchin.  If Cruella de Vil and Phyllis Diller got together and designed a line of wigs, Ag would be the poster child.  Then there are the black beard and muffs that he inherited from his mother.  With his little dark eyes barely visible among the thicket, he looks like Bubba the Muppet, of Lubbock Lou and His Jughuggers.  Vision is not one of his strong points.  But stubbornness?  He's got that in spades.

The first real winter storm came through back in October.  We don't generally get rain during the summer, so that first rainstorm is always a big deal for the flock:  for some of them, it's a reminder of what lies ahead, but for the summer's new chicks it's an Experience.  This was a good storm, with gusting winds and fairly heavy showers.  When I opened up the barn that morning, all of the birds ran out like they usually do, but it was obvious that their hearts weren’t in it.  Elwood shortly came back inside and looked up at me firmly; taking the hint, I scattered a large amount of scratch around inside the barn, and he called the hens back indoors to eat.  I took scratch around to the other pens, noting glumly some new leaks in the roofs.  Meanwhile I spotted Ag foraging around in the yard and being blown sideways by the wind.  He couldn’t figure out what was happening, but soon scooted underneath the tarp of Donna's crate.  I figured that he would stay under cover and went back inside.

A few hours later, the weather had devolved into more intense versions of the same:  louring sky, sharp blasts of wind, and steady, steady rain.  A cautionary voice in my head suggested going out and checking on the birds again.  So I zipped up in the rain suit that lives in the breezeway, pulled on my boots, and clomped outside.

Well, every single bird in the main flock was standing inside the barn, including Donna King, who hates the barn.  Except . . . Ag, who was determinedly running around behind the barn, pacing out his turf in mule-headed defiance of the weather.  He was soaked to the skin.  Long black and white feathers stuck up in all directions, his crest was plastered flat to the top of his head, and every time a gust of wet wind hit him he would shiver, stagger backwards, and cluck crossly.  He looked like something fished up out of the shower drain, skittering around on long skinny blue legs.

Naturally when I tried to catch him, he threw a holy fit.  First the sky had tried to drown him, and now he had this gigantic blue Cookie Monster in thumping black boots chasing him around the yard with a net.  After several minutes of stalking him around the other pens, I saw him heading for the barn.  When he stepped inside, I dove after him and slammed the lower door.  The barn stayed closed up for the rest of the day.  When I checked on him again mid-afternoon, his feathers had dried out and he had stopped hiding in the corner.

Since that day, Ag has settled down somewhat.  I think the turning point for his opinion of humans came when he contracted pox--the diphtheritic, Wheezy form--and spent five days lurking in the shower stall.  I was pretty worried about him, but he turned the corner on antibiotics and before long we began putting him outside with the main flock during the day so that he could get some sun and exercise.  After a week and a half of regular handling, Ag had become downright phlegmatic about humans.  Now he hops up on top of the nursery pen every morning, expecting to be served a handful of scratch.