The Roving Rototiller

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