Thursday, December 29, 2011

Long Time, No See

It's been awhile, hasn't it? My last post was written in the days after Thanksgiving and December with Christmas parties, Christmas shopping, my son's birthday, some new creative projects I've been working on with a friend and everything that goes with those things, there hasn't been much time left to write about my lovely chickens. Now I'm back and it's nice to be back. Where we left off, my lovely Silkie died after a few days of bringing her home and my beloved rooster, Boba, had literally flown the coop. It was a sad time in chickens. As expected, Boba did not find his way back home and I'd like to think he's living it up somewhere, but he was more likely eaten by the hawk that lives in our neighborhood and who has made two appearances in our backyard to size up my chickens. I've made my peace with it. Hopefully, he's learned to crow in chicken heaven.
In other aggravating chicken news that I had previously mentioned, our chickens had started molting in early November. Well, some of them were molting. Bossy was all about molting. And she was all business about it. She lost most of the feathers around her head at once and all of her bum feathers fell out in what seemed like two days. She looked like a sorry mess. Then, Erickson decided molting was a good idea and she started looking mangy. She's about two tons of feathers, so you can imagine what our chicken coop looked like. I was cleaning it out every weekend and taking out so many feathers, I could've built a fifth and probably sixth chicken! Pouncey soon followed suit, as she seems to do with everything in life; she waits until some of the others have tried something out first and when she has decided it's safe, she joins in. That made for three chickens out of egg commission. Not good. Ochocinco was still laying a little, but not daily. One egg every three days is not going to cut it. I am proud to say I did not buy any eggs at the store! (That was partially avoided due to the two dozen eggs supplied to us by The Chicken Man). Buying eggs was out of the question. Heck no was I buying eggs when we have four hens in our backyard.
Lucky for us, as I said before, Bossy was all business when it came to molting. She got straight down to losing feathers. She also started losing some scales on her legs, which made me fear she had mites and slather her legs with Vaseline. She did not have mites. Upon further observation and research, I found out that chickens often shed their leg scales during molting. Bossy, I'm sorry for chasing you down, holding you upside down, and smearing greasy Vaseline all over both of your legs. The peeling scales did look gross, but trust me when I say you do not want to unnecessarily smear petroleum jelly all over a chicken. Her legs and feet were even more disgusting-looking with the Vaseline coated in feathers, cedar chips, and dirt. Avoid this yucky scene if at all possible. However, it is supposed to be a great cure for leg mites. I would take the nasty legs and feet over mites. Despite the leg mishap, Bossy started laying again in early December.
Now back to the molting... Ochocinco waited until the coldest weather settled in to start molting. The only nice part to this timing was that we always had one hen in egg production. Bossy was back to nearly an egg a day. By mid-December and Erickson wasn't far behind. Pounced trailed just a week or two after the other two and we're back to three eggs a day now. Ochocinco looked the mangiest of all the girls. Her neck feathers all fell out so that she looked like a naked neck, which freaked me out. She lost her tail feathers at the same time, so she was quite a sad-looking little girl. The first week we had freezing cold weather was when she decided she'd molt. I called it too. That's how she rolls. She does what she wants, when she wants regardless of what everyone else is doing. She's the only one who is not back in production mode.
The post molting egg laying has been a surprise. Our girls were so young last year that they didn't go through the winter molt. They'd too recently gone through their molt from baby feathers to big girl feathers and they weren'tlaying yet, so we didn't have any experience with this part of chickens. Since they started laying again, their eggs shave been crazy! Bossy's eggs are still jumbo, but they're often so long that you can't close the egg carton. Erickson's eggs have always been oval-shaped, but they are now dimpled or crooked or strangely pointy. What is up with the mutant eggs now? Maybe they'll go back to normal when the weather warms up. Maybe they're just laying them more slowly in the cold weather and that's why they're coming out all wonky. We'll see.
At least we live in a pretty mild climate here in North Carolina. Last year when we got snow they were quite concerned. I can't imagine what they'd do if we got a nor'easter! We have had some interesting autumn weather, so we'll see what winter brings. I've got plenty of scratch and vegetable greens. As long as they're happy enough to continue laying, I'm good.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

This Week in Chickens

Chickens are a pretty rewarding hobby. You care for these feathered little guys and they lay you a bounty of delicious eggs. They're not just farm animals; they're your pets. Having chickens is fun. But sometimes you have one of those weeks, like with anything else, that's hard to get through. They are the weeks that test you. This week has been one of those for me.

Last weekend we brought home my long coveted Silkie. She was the cutest little fluff ball chicken that I'd ever seen. My husband carried her in his lap on the drive home. We had a carrier, but she was so sweet and calm we didn't need it. My son decided on the name Princess Peach like in Mario Brothers. Princess fit perfectly. She was a delicate and sweet little thing. For two days she followed us around the yard while the chickens were all out grazing. Then, one afternoon she hunched down in the middle of the coop, closed her eyes, and never moved. I brought her inside and made her a little cozy home inside a pet carrier so I could keep an eye on her and try getting her back to normal. We were able to rouse her a little bit every now and then, but four days later after countless doses of pedialyte, internet research and constant watching, Princess had enough and my husband buried her in our backyard. I'm still sad and disappointed. I'm sad that she's gone and disappointed in myself for not being able to help her.

Yesterday, after I'd been out hunting down great Black Friday deals, I came home to learn that our last remaining chick, now the grown up Boba Fett, had literally flown the coop and was in our neighbor's back yard. Our chicken-sitter couldn't get him to come back and couldn't get into the neighbor's backyard. My husband drove the hour from my parent's house to ours to try rescuing Boba. Four hours later he headed back to my parent's house with bad news. Apparently, Boba had discovered his wings, which were yet to be clipped as we hadn't had any trouble with flying, and had flown down the street into a wooded area by the creek. There was no catching him. Another bird down.

Up to this point, we've had good luck raising chickens. Our first three chickens were healthy and have grown into wonderful and happy chickens. Well, one has grown into a wonderful rooster who now lives in the country with another flock. We were lucky that all five of our chicks that hatched in June thrived and are all (yes, all) grown roosters. It happens. I had expected and braced myself for the possibility that at least one of them wouldn't make it. The odds are against all those baby chicks making it to adulthood. I didn't expect five roosters, but what can you do. I never quite know what to expect when it comes to the chickens. And yet I'm still floored by the reduction of two chickens from our flock in one week. I loose one tiny chicken to some unknown disease and I have another living in "the wild" somewhere in the middle of the city. It's just not my week in chickens. I'm hoping Boba once again beats the odds and makes his way back to our yard. Is it likely? No. Can I hope that it works out? I sure can. Mostly, I'm hoping this coming week is much calmer in the world of chickens. I'm not made for all this emotional trauma. On the bright side, our chickens are coming out of their molts and eggs are starting to show up again in the egg boxes. I'm going to try to keep my eye on those rewards.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Occupy the Chicken Coop

The weather is getting chilly. The days are shorter. Now it's dark by dinner time. Chickens everywhere are molting. And all of these facts mean that eggs are becoming scarce commodities. Eggs have become so rare around our house that I don't check the egg boxes everyday anymore. I'm getting ready to make a picket sign and camp out in the backyard chanting, "Hell no I won't go." "Eggs, eggs, edible eggs. Lay me eggs. Don't make me beg!"

With our girls being procrastinators, we only have one chicken, Bossy, in full molt. She looks like a hot mess. Her bum is nearly bald. She looks like she has a receding hairline, and she has feathers falling off of her constantly. She may be completely bald by next week at the rate she's going now. Erickson, our Brahma, is shedding her leg feathers, so it looks like she's wearing spats (think Spats Colombo in Some Like It Hot), but she doesn't seem to feel like molting anywhere else. She still lays eggs intermittently - maybe twice a week, three at best. Pouncey is heading into full-blown mangy molt. Her feathers are beginning to drop like flies. I could build a bantam hen out of her feathers alone that I picked up out of the coop and run this weekend. She looks a bit pathetic, but nowhere near as sad as Bossy. Then we have Ocho. She may have only lost four feathers so far. I'm not kidding. I fear she has decided she's going to put off molting as long as she possibly can. She has willpower. What will happen is she'll be half naked when winter comes and she'll freeze her bum off. Then, I'll feel terrible that she's out in the cold. My mean husband says no house chickens though, so she'll be out there freezing. I'm sure she'll tell me all about it when I go out to open the coop in the morning and bring them treats. My problem right now is that she is also not producing eggs. I mean, the least she could do while she's putting off her molt is to keep me in eggs. And last but not least, the little bantam rooster is still not crowing, but he's not an egg producer either so right now he's just adding to my egglessness. Not cool, Boba.

I absolutely refuse to buy eggs in the store. I do not have four hens in my backyard so I can buy crappy, watery, factory-produced (I already went on my rant about that one, so I'll spare you the details) eggs for $3.29 a dozen. I mean, after eating fresh eggs for a year, I don't know that I'd be able to identify the yolk in one of those junky store-bought eggs. I've been spoiled. I have come to expect a certain level of quality in my eggs. I like to walk outside and come back in with enough eggs to make a three-egg omelet anytime I want. With the holidays fast approaching, I'm concerned that I'll have to break down and actually pay for eggs so I can bake and cook the things I love to eat this time of year. I want to make fresh egg nog for my hubby. You can't make good, quality homemade egg nog with weak store-bought eggs!

So I propose a mass protest against backyard chickens across America. These chickens can't run us! We run them! They're our chickens! Don't let them take advantage of us anymore. Put on your warm clothes. Make a few picket signs. And settle in for the long haul. It's time to start protesting. I'm already working on my chants, "Eggs. Eggs. Where's my eggs? Lay my eggs or I'll eat your chicken legs!" Who's with me?

Monday, October 17, 2011

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a…Rooster?

 It's always a rooster.

You latch onto one of your little chicks or five-week-old pullets. You decide she's your favorite. You love her. You give her a cute name. You call her things like cutie pie, fluff ball and fuzzy butt. You know you're little girl is a hen. I mean, look at how cute she is. Then all of a sudden she either sprouts a giant tail, doubles in size, or suddenly lets out a noise that is by no means a cluck. Yup, she's a he.

When Rooster Disaster (RD) happened to us for the first time, it happened to strike our first batch of chickens. We had gotten three "hens" and each picked one out to name. RD struck my husband's chicken. The ironic part of the whole thing is that his name was Mrs. Nesbitt. The name came from the movie Toy Story. In the second half of the movie, Buzz and Woody are stuck at Sid's house and Buzz has been recruited for Sid's little sister's tea party. He is dressed up in a hat and apron and has lost one arm in a fall. When Woody finds him in this state, Buzz says, "I'm Mrs. Nesbitt!" But, I digress...Maybe it's not so ironic, since Mrs. Nesbitt is actually Buzz, who is a boy. Maybe my husband doomed his chicken with the name.

I am now in the throws of this same problem once again. Well, I may be in the throws of this problem. We are down to one of the adopted little bantams that Erickson hatched out in June. Two went off to a friend last month. This weekend we dropped off two more with The Chicken Man. So we're down to Boba (as in Boba Fett from Star Wars). We were supposed to be dropping off a rooster and a hen with The Chicken Man, but he suspects we had two little roosters for him. Then, I started looking at the one we have left. Three of the chicks were identified as definite roosters pretty early in life. They had large combs and obvious rooster tails. The two little white and black chicks have always been definite girls. They had perfect little straight-in-the-air tails and small combs and wattles. Suddenly, however, I notice that our two girls each have two long tail feathers that look suspiciously rooster-esque. It's going to be RD all over again.

Being the fervent researcher that I am, I just finished combing through all of our pictures of the chickens on our computer as well as googling images of Japanese and Old English Game hens. These crazy boyish tail feathers have materialized in the last month. They did not exist in the pictures we have from September. The problematic part of this story is that I found no pictures online of hens with these long tail feathers. Ugh! I did find a few adolescent roosters who look similar to my cute little "girl."
A cute little girl?

I need a farm in the country where it's not an issue to have giant (or in the case of Bobba - tiny) roosters cock-a-doodling around the yard. Then, I wouldn't be so worried about this sexing mess. She/he has just hit 4-months-old, but I'll keep you posted on whether or not I get a first egg or a first crow.
Or a Roo? 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.

Chickens are a gateway drug. You think to yourself, I'd like to have a few chickens in my backyard... I want to be closer to my food... It would be much healthier to have fresh eggs... I can teach my children about where our food comes from... It would be fun to watch chickens pecking around the yard. Then you get a handful of chickens to fulfill whichever of these thoughts you had. And that's your big mistake.  Next thing you know, you have built an addition onto your coop and have three chickens over your city's legal limit. I'm just saying.

Chickens are cute. They're fluffy. They're fun to watch. They eat bugs that would otherwise be crawling around your backyard and eating your flower or vegetable garden. They make you eggs. Some of them are so sweet they act like lap dogs. What's not to love? My husband could think of plenty of things not to love. When I first broached the subject of chicken-owning a little over a year ago, he was not as gung-ho about it as I was (that's an understatement).

I have always liked chickens. My grandfather had chickens when I was a kid. My uncle and aunt had chickens when I visited them in Wyoming (I still remember their beautiful little golden hen named Goldie. I took her picture while she was sitting on her nest.). However, my personal love of chickens was previously contained to inanimate chickens. I had chicken salt and pepper shakers, a chicken candle, a few chicken statues, and a chicken pitcher, but no actual chickens living in my yard. I live in the downtown area of my state's capital city. I enjoy the city life. I generally think of myself as a city girl with a little hometown flair. So live chickens never crossed my mind. That is, they never crossed my mind until I met The Chicken Man. I met him through work, where I found out he had chickens and where he brought a four-hour-old baby chick to visit us one day. I fell in love with that little fluff ball and wanted to take it home right then and there. Not long after that day, The Chicken Man donated more than a dozen chickens for us to raise money for a charity walk for which we were trying to raise around $5,000. A few of us went out to his house to see his 40 or more chickens. As I was driving home from The Chicken Man's house I decided this was a perfect way for me to raise the money I'd pledged for the walk and get a few chickens for myself. I just had to convince my husband.

At first, my dear hubby thought I'd drop the idea. This was just another hair brained idea I had that would never come to fruition. Then he tried putting obstacles in my way when I didn't forget about "the chicken idea." Can we have chickens? How many? We have to ask the landlord. I've said before that I'm a researcher. I didn't spend four years of college studying English and writing papers for nothing. I spent hours on the internet. I checked out books from the library. I talked to the landlord. Then one day he asked when we were getting the chickens. Actually, I may have said something about how we had about two weeks before the chickens were coming and the coop needed to be built. But who cares about those little details?

At first he was fine with the chickens. He liked them, but wasn't in love with them like I was. I'd go out first thing in the morning to open the coop and give them a treat. I went straight out to check for eggs and say hello when I got home from work. He would sit outside with me in the evening or on the weekends and watch them forage and sometimes he'd check for eggs. He wasn't so in love with them that when Erickson, our buff Brahma, went broody he thought getting eggs for her to hatch was an awesome idea. It's not that he hated the idea, it's just that he needed to warm up to it. He looked at me like I was a lunatic when I brought home seven fertile eggs for her. Then I got to hear about how we couldn't keep all of them. First, I convinced him that keeping one was okay (I really would've loved to keep three), then I had him up to keeping two, kind of. Now, we're keeping one and swapping the second one we were going to keep for a Silkie. Sigh.

Do you see the trend here? Well, besides my drug-like addiction to the chickens? Not long ago, I noticed my husband was almost always the one who collects the eggs. He gets them before I've gotten a chance. He's always telling people how great it is to have chickens and how relaxing it is to watch them pecking around the yard. During the work week, he lets them out when he comes home on his lunch break so they get some nice foraging time. He brings them treats everyday. And when our not-so-bright bantams decide to sleep outside on the perch when it's raining, he's the one who goes out and puts them inside the coop so they stay warm and dry (I say if they're that dumb, let them sit out in the rain. They'll learn or get wet.).

The scary part of chickens is they're so addictive that even the reluctant chicken owner gets sucked in. You can't help it. Now, my husband wants to move out to the country and start a chicken farm. I'm down with it. He says it's the only way I can get a goat.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It's All in the Egg

Of course, any person who has been in a grocery store knows that hens lay different sizes of eggs. Some hens lay large eggs, which some lay medium-sized eggs and some lay small eggs. And everyone knows that eggs come in different colors. The standard grocery store eggs are either brown or white. Chicken aficionados know that eggs can also come in olive, chocolate brown, and varying shades of blue, green and pink. You might find it interesting to know that hens also lay eggs of different shapes. We can tell which of our hens has laid which egg when we collect them from the nest boxes. It helps that we only have four laying hens at the moment. Though it won't be hard when the youngest two start laying because they're bantams and will lay tiny white eggs -  not hard to distinguish from the larger brow eggs we're already getting.

You might be wondering how chickens can lay different shaped eggs. Well, it's not like one hen lays oval-shaped eggs and another lays rectangular eggs. Except for that one time, but maybe I'll save that one for another post. An egg is shaped based on the passageway out of the hen. Some eggs are narrow, some are pointy, some are quite round, and some are just odd looking. Seeing is believing, so here are examples of our girls and their delicious, yet differently-shaped eggs.

Meet Bossy. She's a Barred Rock. Some might call her a Plymouth Rock.

She lays large brown eggs. They are always the biggest of our four hens' eggs. Though the others are catching up in size.

Next, meet Pouncey. I call her an Ameraucana, but she is more accurately a mutt. She's an Easter Egger crossbred with something else.

Pouncey's eggs are a little smaller than Bossy's and are severely oval in shape. They're sometimes almost pointy at the top. They're lighter in color too. Lately, they've gotten a bit larger and are getting almost too similar to Bossy's to tell them apart.

Then there's Erickson, named by my son after his best friend. She's a fluffy and fat buff Brahma. Her eggs are fat. They have a roundish shape to them.

Last, but not least, we have Ochocinco. She's an Iowa Blue that's probably got a little something else mixed in there too.

She's was making quite a loud barking noise when this photograph was taken. That's how she rolls. Her eggs are the smallest of the four girls. They are cute and little. Her eggs usually have little raised spots all over them. They're little buildups of calcium. Apparently, this trait is hereditary. 

It's interesting how varied eggs are. What you see in the grocery store is a mass-marketed product of what someone decided was egg "perfection." Wouldn't it be cool to go to the store and be able to buy chocolate brown or pastel blue eggs? Or there could be like a grab bag carton that had a variety of colors, sizes and shapes. I'd buy them. Well, I'd buy them if my own hens weren't laying me a third of a dozen eggs a day nearly for free.  

Monday, September 19, 2011

Coop of Personality

Here's my ultimate wisdom from my near year of raising chickens. Wait for it. Wait for it. Every chicken is different. Aren't you amazed? The thing is, I mean it. I'm a planner and a researcher. I majored in English in college and went on to perform a short stint as a high school English teacher. I love writing a good research paper. More than writing the paper, I love researching for a paper. I carry this skill with me in my regular life (as I'm sure you're starting to pick up on if you've read any of my other blog posts). I read a bunch of books and did hours of research online before we got chickens. I read about their development, the different breeds and their characteristics, coop design, predator problems, feeding chickens, and anything else I stumbled upon in my quest for chicken knowledge. I'm still reading and learning about chickens and I'll have gotten chickens a year ago come October. Along with all that I've learned during my research, I've also learned that everything you read is not going to be true for your chickens. Hence my epiphany: every chicken is different.

What I mean by this remarkable piece of knowledge is that just because a chicken is a particular breed or gender, does not mean that he or she will follow the standard protocol you've read. Take the Brahma. They are a dual purpose breed (meaning they are raised both for eggs and meat) who are medium layers (in terms of frequency), are often known to go broody, lay well throughout the winter, have a docile temperament, and bear confinement well. My buff Brahma hen, Erickson, was docile until she went broody and hatched her clutch. Now, months later, she is trying to usurp the top spot in the pecking order, is mean to the hens lower than her in the pecking order, and clamors to get out of the run whenever someone goes out to open the door (to let them out or not). She is an excellent layer, laying a medium-sized brown egg at least 6 days a week. So she follows the standard protocol about half of the time. On the other hand, you may have a breed of hen that most people say are great layers and never go broody and yours lays half the time and has tried to go broody twice in as many months. I've learned that it's nice to read the information and get a baseline for the kinds of breeds in which you're interested, but don't be discouraged when things don't go the way you've planned and know that it doesn't mean your particular girls (or boys) are going to do what the internet says they should be doing.

We, as adult human beings, are wired for disappointment. We get all excited and set our expectations for one thing and have a long way to fall when those expectations aren't met. I say, don't do that with your chickens. But honestly, I think they're so cute and so much fun that they make it pretty hard on you to be too let down. Will you be sad when half of your chicks turn out to be roosters and you can't keep all of them? Yes. Will you hate it when none of your chickens are super duper friendly like you've seen on BYC and you think you've done something wrong because none of them will jump up into your lap? Uh, yeah. Will you be disappointment when your "Easter Egger" lays brown eggs instead of blue or green or pink eggs? Big time - I know about this one first hand. Will you love all of your chickies more than you thought you could love birds that live in your backyard? Sure thing. And that's what happens to just about everyone who starts a backyard flock. Then one day, you'll be a salty old veteran chicken farmer and you'll roll with the punches. I try to keep my sodium levels down, but I'm pretty excited about getting to the salty old stage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Crazy Chicken Lady

Let this be a warning for people who want to start raising chickens or who are just starting to raise chickens. You're about to embark upon something that is bigger than you are. I say these things because I am in love with the website I check in there nearly every day. Okay, every day. I'm obsessed. My favorite part is the forum where members can post questions and other members can reply. People share pictures and stories of their chickens. Other people ask questions about raising chicks, chicken behaviors, illnesses, breeds, and anything else you could ever imagine that deals with chickens.

One recent thread on the forum made me realize something about myself. I'm a crazy chicken lady.

Someone started a thread with the following phrase, "You know you're addicted to chickens when…" Of course, I clicked on it, read many of the responses, and then added my own. But it got me thinking. I have a serious chicken problem. I'm not to the level of crazy where I have any live chickens in the house (though I might be if I were single or if my husband was not adamantly against having a chicken in the house. He won't let me get one-day old chicks - yet - because they'd have to live in a crate in the house for quite some time). Even so, I'm pretty sure I'm already one chicken over the legal limit for where I live, which is inside city limits; however, that one is getting ready to go off to live with The Chicken Man, and another may be going to my parent's flock, so I don't feel bad about it. I'm already working on my husband about getting a Silkie. I desperately want one. You might say, "Well, LovinChiknFarmin, that's not so bad. Lots of people who raise chickens want more than they're supposed to have and favor particular breeds." My Crazy Chicken Lady-ness is not solely based on these two things. I've compiled a list. You're going to judge me.

The following list is comprised of things I own or do that I believe contribute to my obsession.
- Rooster salt and pepper shakers
- A collage of pictures of my family and our chickens, which was a birthday gift and hangs over my bed
- Chicken and Egg, a combination memoir and cookbook (also a birthday gift). Awesome book. Read it.
- I write this LovinChiknFarmin blog (seriously, you didn't see that one coming?)
- Daily monitoring of (BYC)
- My cell phone background picture is currently of my chickens
- A chicken hat (a hat that when you're wearing it looks like a chicken sitting on your head)
- A Mosaic Rooster that is in my garden
- Plastic rooster lawn ornament outside by the chicken coop
- I keep containers of scraps in my fridge to feed the chickens
- I'm currently contemplating keeping a baggie in my purse so I can bring home any little tidbits my chickens might like…I already take home pizza crusts or any leftover bread from restaurants when getting a to-go box
- Rooster kitchen timer
- Handmade wooden chicken statue on my desk at work (there are two more at home)
- Multiple chicken/rooster statues throughout my house
- Chicken coffee mug
- Chicken serving platter
- Chicken pitcher
- Basket made of chicken wire with a metal chicken on each side
- Eggs cookbook
- Borrow any chicken book I come across from the library
- Occasionally check out to see what kinds of hatching eggs they have for sale or to see pictures/info on different chicken breeds
- Buy Chickens magazine published by Hobby Farms
- Chicken hand towels (multiple!)

Hello. My name is LovinChiknFarmin and I am a Crazy Chicken Lady. It's a disease, really. A chronic disease that you just have to learn to live with. Well, I'm off to BYC to see what all the peeps are up to today...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Crazy Freakin' Chickens

I'm finally back after a bout with strep throat. I'm glad  to be back. Today was the first day I've spent any quality time with the chicks since I got sick over a week ago. I sat with them while they free ranged in the yard and fed them treats. They were jumping around and off the ground to get the treats as I was handing them out. I even got one of the bantams, a little roo, to take food out of my hand! That's a first. The bantams are such spazs that they've not been easy to domesticate.

In terms of the spaz mob, we've had a major change since August. There are two less bantam Japanese-Old English Game roosters in our coop. They now reside in the countryside where I went to high school in Oxford, North Carolina. Their new dad, someone with whom I went to high school, is a big time chicken lover and so are his two little girls. I know those little roo's - Luke and Han - went to a good home. They were in their little temporary pen preening and checking things out when we left them. Back at home, the others don't seem to notice that they're gone. Their absence has to be good for the remainder of the flock because space was getting a little cramped with five bantams growing like weeds out there. Nighttime roosting was getting tight and treats don't go as far with five extra mouths to feed. Next month the final bantam rooster will be moving out to live with The Chicken Man. And then there will be two bantams and our four original big mamas. Here's to hoping the absence of so many tiny roadrunners will allow my girls to calm down again. They've gotten awfully pushy lately.

For some reason the chickens have become especially crazy in recent weeks. When we go out to feed them, they are all over the coop and jumping and trying to get out the door when you open it. I literally have to put my foot on Erickson's chest when I open the door to bring them their morning treats. For one thing, the dogs go out in the yard with me in the morning and we would probably have one less chicken if they got out when the dogs are out. And two, I don't have thirty minutes of leisure time in the morning to let them out to forage in the yard. They do not look kindly upon short stints of freedom. They revolt actually. They've always been fond of their treats, as I wrote about last time, but lately they've become little savages. They now try to tear your hand off when you're dolling out the treats while pounding the hell out of each other to steal each others finds. It's insanity. I'm not sure what has started the crazy savagery except what I mentioned above: treats are thin with five more mouths to feed. Yes, we generally bring out more scraps than we did when there were only four girls, but I'm sure the ratio of treats to chickens has shrunk. I only have so many scraps from a family of three people!

Besides the food savagery, the tiny bantams are balls of nerves that have to be making the big girls anxious. The littles are like roadrunners and doves all rolled into one. They fly around in the coop when they get scared or nervous and if you saw them from afar you'd think we were keeping doves or pigeons out there. Except that they are the fastest little chickens I've ever seen. Image me and my husband wrangling them up and trying to put them in a pet carrier for transport last week. It was crazy. It didn't take very long; I'm pretty good in my chicken catching skills. Our only major problem was that one escaped after he was captured and put in the carrier, so we had to start over and catch another one. I'm sure our neighbors, who happened to be in their backyard while all of this drama was transpiring, got a nice show. We must have looked like lunatics out there. Let's not talk about how my four-year-old son thought one of the roosters was dead because of the way he was hanging (seemingly limply) from my hand when I was holding him upside down by his legs until I could get him in the carrier.  It may be standard chicken handling to most chicken-savvy adults, but not to a four-year-old, albeit it a chicken-savvy one.

So I have a crazed mob for a flock of chickens and we're headed into fall and winter. Bossy, the Barred Rock and once head of the pecking order (I'm trying to figure out if she's still in charge. Erickson has become pretty witchy and is throwing her weight around a lot lately), started molting a bit. She looks a little ragged right now with her head and bum feathers a little sparse. I'm waiting for the rest of her to molt all at once so she looks like she has the mange. That would be just like her to do. Then the eggs will begin to taper off. I'm most sad about that part of the coming months. I love our delicious eggs. That's okay. I'm trying to convince my husband to add a Silkie to our flock, so seven chickens would certainly give us enough eggs to make it through the winter, don't you think?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Growing Chicks

When we decided to let our broody Brahma hatch eggs, I was terrified, as I've mentioned before. I had no idea what I was doing. And as our happy soon-to-be Mama hen sat on all of these eggs, I suddenly realized we were in way over our heads with this one. Of course, I kept that little piece of thought to myself as my husband was originally less than thrilled to get chickens in the first place. He had grown to love them and was totally behind the idea of letting our Brahma hatch some eggs to get over her broodiness, but I felt like this was my venture so I needed to know what I was doing. And, I assumed my husband expected that I knew what I was doing. Why else would I have been so hung ho about hatching chicks? I am the chicken lady in our family. So, I took to the internet and checked out a new chicken book from the library (I'm nothing if not a planner and researcher) and I've already written about hatching those cute babies.

Once they were here, I scoured all of my resources including the two chicken books I already own and could find little in terms of a timeline for my expected babies. I wanted pictures. I wanted charts. I wanted to know what to expect and when to expect it. Now, I understand that all chickens are different. Raising chicks is like raising children in the fact that all the "What to Expect" books and the parenting magazines warn you that all children are different and some develop at a slower or faster rate than others. But I seriously wanted some sort of flow chart to follow so I'd know what to expect. Why hasn't anyone written a What to Expect When You're Expecting Chicks book? It could start with the development of the chick in the egg as it's sat on by the hen. Then the chapters could be divided by week with each week having a description of the types of things your chicks should be doing and thing they might start doing. Then it could answer common questions people have about raising chickens. I mean, this sounds like a money maker to me. I've read the chicken forums. People raise chickens and hatch eggs and have no idea what they're doing. This sucker would be a huge seller in hardware and feed stores. Just saying.

I'm going to give a basic timeline for the clutch of chicks we hatched. I'm going to start at hatch and go through 8 weeks. They're a few days away from being 11 weeks old. The biggest changes happened between hatching and 8 weeks. The past few weeks they've mostly just grown and integrated more and more with the flock, so in terms of development it's not as exciting as those first 2 months. You may find that your hatching experience is different or that your breed of chicken developed differently or at a different pace. I completely expect that to be true and I'd love for you to share your experiences below. I've only experienced the hatch of one clutch, so that's all I have to go on.

This is the story of 5 Japanese-Old English Game Bantams. Keep in mind they are super tiny since they're bantams. Let's get started:

Week 1: It took three days for all of the eggs to hatch. When they first hatch out, they're super tiny and look wet, but within the first hour they become the fluffy little chicks you expect. They make constant peeping sounds.

This is the first baby to hatch. She's less than an hour old.

Here they are on Day 2.

Week 2: They are all out and about. They stick to Mama as closely as possible. When she finds food she makes a particular clucking sound that alerts them that she has something to eat and they come running. They still look like little fluff balls except by the end of this week their wings are feathering out and they're starting to grow tiny tail feathers. The color of their fluff is not necessarily any indication of the color of their feathers. They're easily caught and picked up, though they make frantic peeping noises when you do it. During the day they are super active. They like to scratch around a little in the dirt. They climb all over Mama's back and sit on her. Sometimes they try to burrow under her wings when she's sitting with them. They like to sit in the sun and sun themselves. They take lots of little naps during the day - they'll just plop down somewhere in the dirt and fall asleep. Peeping is still constant. At night, they all climb into the nest box and burrow deep under Mama. You can't even tell they're there.

 They're getting ready for bedtime and are about to climb in and burrow under her wings
 and in the back of the box under her bum for the night. 

Week 3: Feathering continues and the chicks' backs and chests begin to sprout feathers. The tail fathers have grown out longer. They preen themselves obsessively. They still stay fairly close to Mama and she still gives the food call. They eat and drink when they're hungry, but take a lot of cues from Mama. They forage when she does and stick close most of the time, but once in awhile one or two chicks wander off a little in the run and scratch and forage for themselves. They're beginning to realize that if they hide in the corner, they have more of a chance to eat what they've found or stolen away from the others! (Note: This week was the week of the 4th of July. We were out of town most of this week and my sister chick-sat, so there aren't any example chick pictures.) 

Week 4: They're roosting now. They've nearly tripled in size since they hatched. They are now strange chick/chicken hybrids. They have fuzzy chick heads and feathered bodies. Their chests are in the final stages of feathering, so there's still a little fuzz poking out in places. Still constant peeping from everyone. Mama is still mothering them and they mostly stick close to her, but they go off on their own a lot. They generally stick to the buddy system and have at least one other chick around near them at all times. Some of them still try to snuggle with Mama when she's laying in the sun. They even interrupt her dirt baths to get on top of or near her. Personally, we let the chicks out to free-range with Mama at this age. They stick right by her and love scratching for bugs and tidbits all over the yard. She does not let the other adult hens near them and gives a warning call before attacking if someone gets too close for comfort. Their combs are much more pronounced. If you're familiar with chickens and hatching at all, you can generally tell by the comb how many roosters and hens you have at this point (some breeds make this identifying a little harder, so it's not always the easiest task). I can tell that we have at least two roosters at this point. They're very curious. A piece of hardware cloth divided the chicks and Mama from the rest of our flock. The two areas were next to each other, so they could see each other through the wire and spent lots of time contemplating each other. 
Roosting on the mini-roost we put up for the chicks and on part of the coop structure dividing the two areas. 

A close up of one of the roosting roosters. Notice the still fuzzy head. 

Week 5: Their heads are working on catching up with the rest of their body! Feathers are sprouting, but you can still see a little fluff too. They actually look like mini chickens now and not chicks anymore. I won't be able to call them babies for much longer (though I'll continue calling them chicks throughout this entire piece to be consistent). Their combs are even more pronounced than last week and it seems that we have 2 hens and 3 roosters. When they're out free-ranging, the chicks will wander a little farther away from Mama. She's still in their sights, but they'll go quite a few feet away without worrying. One of the chicks is  a free adventurous spirit and goes off halfway across the yard by himself. At the end of this week we integrated the chicks with the rest of the flock. They've been free ranging for nearly two weeks and the adult hens and the chicks have free-ranged alongside each other without any problems (besides Mama getting cranky). A pecking order has to be established, so some pecking and chasing has ensued; otherwise, the merging of the two coops is going well for us. Oh, I almost forgot. Still with all the peeping. 

Week 6: This week is more of the same: they are growing bigger, continuing to peep, loving to forage and scratching for anything edible. They love bugs. Big time. They've gotten the routine down from the big hens. They join in with the rest of the flock when it's time for The Food Lady to appear. They love treats. They are super fast little buggers and it's an event to catch one of them. But you know I do it anyway.  

Week 7: There is no sign of fluff on the "chicks" anymore. Since they're bantams, their size is the only thing that still makes them look like chicks. The roosters have nice tall combs and beautiful iridescent tail feathers. The girls are fat little beauties. They're still growing rapidly. It's not so apparent when you look at them every day, but looking back at pictures from just a few weeks ago shows how much bigger they've gotten. They are just like any other member of the flock. They do everything the big hens do. I haven't seen them dust bath with my own eyes, but I'm sure they must be doing it when I'm not around. That's the only thing that I can't check off my list of "chickenish" things I know they do. They scratch and stretch their wings. They eat out of the big hens' feeder  (even though we still have their chick feeder in the coop) and they've started using the big waterer too. They roost a lot. It's one of their favorite pastimes. Mama occasionally makes a little food alert noise when they're foraging and they still follow her around to a point, but this week seems to show the biggest difference in terms of their dependence on her. They're almost to the point where they are just other members of the flock. (This week also happens to mark the first egg laid by Mama since becoming broody). They're now spending a lot of time establishing a pecking order between themselves. They get into little duels with their neck feathers all fluffed out. It's hilarious to watch.

Scratching in front of their big Mama.

Week 8: The chicks are now simply other members of the flock. Mama is nice to them, but she doesn't help them with food. I actually saw her grab some treats away from some of them when I was giving them their morning treat. They still have a bond with Mama though. When she goes in to lay eggs, some of them follow her into the coop to check out what's going on. They'll hang around near her when they're all hanging out and lounging in the dirt. They seem to have fit into the flock's pecking order. One of the hens, Ochocinco, still throws a peck their way every now and then to keep them in line. They stick together. The incessant peeping continues. They're growing bigger, but there aren't any major appearance changes this week. 

During week 9 I finally saw them dust bathing. It was cute because three of them squished themselves into one of the dust bath ditches in the coop (the hens generally dust bathe in one of a few determined spots in the coop's run). I like to watch them preen. It's so cute because they're so miniature. At week 10 they still have a size disadvantage mostly because of their bantam status. They're getting much bigger though, so space has become an issue in the coop at nighttime. We're passing on the 3 roosters to friends because as urban chicken keepers, we're not supposed to keep them. Next weekend, a few days shy of 3 months old, 2 of them will go off to live in the country with dozens of other chickens. I'm like a scared Mama. I'm worried about how they'll fit in and if the other chickens will be nice to them. I'm sad to see them go. They're my babies. It'll be another few weeks before the last one goes to his new home, so I'm hoping it'll lessen the blow for me.  They're the most beautiful little birds I could've imagined. They're fun to watch, as are our other chickens. They have such huge wings that they can do some pretty good flying. They're can't fly off into the sunset, but they can get some height, especially if they're taking off from our higher roost. 

 The multi-chick dust bath.

Alright, broody Mamas. I'm ready for round 2!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Food Man/The Food Lady

Chickens are ravenous beasts. They would have you believe that they are starving to death every time you come around with food. That's just because they know we're suckers. Because we are.

My husband and I joke that the chickens refer to us as The Food Man and The Food Lady because that's all we're good for. As soon as our chickens hear the back door open, they start pecking at the hardware cloth on the door of their pen and fighting to be the one in front when we get out there. Every morning before I head out to my day job, I bring them a treat. It usually consists of a variety of scraps or, sometimes, when I don't have any good leftovers or something they'll like (they can be picky little divas about their food), I bring them a piece of bread. When I unlock the door and start to open it, I have to shoo them back so I can toss them the treats or put treats in their suet feeder - the suet feeder was a great idea. At 7:30 in the morning, I'm not trying to have to chase them back into the pen after having only five or ten minutes of forage time (they do not like to cooperate when they don't think they're getting their way, which is more diva attitude I'm afraid). I generally step inside the run (it's around 8 feet high, so I can easily walk around in there) blocking the door and throw some treats on the ground while I check out everyone and say my good mornings. The girls generally are looking for me when I head out the back door and will let me know if I'm running late by making some inpatient squawking noises. They know when it's time for The Food Lady to make an appearance.

God forbid I go out to check for eggs without a treat. They make me feel horrible about myself, like I'm a bad chicken mommy. They'll do their clucking and clamoring to be front in line at the pen's door, but when it becomes obvious that you aren't there to let them out of give them treats, they start making mean noises. I swear they get mean look on their faces too! If it's possible for chickens to furrow their brow, mine do it.

Whenever my husband or I got out to let the chickens free-range in the backyard, we bring treats. Again, it's usually a variety of leftovers and tidbits from the kitchen that we know they'll like. Favorite things include bread, rice, tomatoes, cooked pasta, meat (they are lovers or pork and beef), melon, cooked or uncooked squash, and pizza crust. Generally, we throw some pieces of whatever we've got on the ground when we first let them into the yard. A few of our girls will head out to their favorite forage spots once the initial treats are gone, but a few stick around to make sure you aren't hoarding any other delicious food items, which we usually do. We had to start bringing out a container with a lid so we could keep the chickens out of whatever we have left. See, we keep a little on hand to help coax everyone back into the run when free time is over. At one point Pouncey became hip to our jive and started jumping onto the table in the backyard and eating off of the plate or out of the bowl that held the bribe. Then Bossy followed suit. Neither hen is easily dissuaded. Hence the container with a lid.

One thing I did not expect when we got chickens was how much they have their own tastes. I assumed all chickens liked the same things. You can throw anything out for them to eat and some of them will look at you like you're crazy while others are gobbling it down. Our biggest diva, Bossy, is probably our pickiest eater. She likes carbs - bread, rolls, rice, pita, pizza crust. She does not appreciate new things and will not "take one small bite," which we tell our four-year-old son when there are new things on the dinner table. She hates squash and hard boiled eggs and nectarines...and the list goes on. Two of our hens are in the middle in terms of pickiness: Pouncey and Erickson. Occasionally they will pass on something, usually types of squash or eggplant, in order to grab up all the rice or breadcrumbs, but they'll usually get in on whatever action there is to be had. The babies, our nine-week-old Japanese/Old English Game bantams, are also moderately picky eaters. They'll eat most anything, but do favor some foods over others. Finally there's Ochocinco. She is a garbage disposal. We should have named her piglet because she likes to eat and she's not picky. If it's edible, I cannot imagine her turning it down.

It's not a bad job being The Food Lady. It's probably my favorite part of being a chicken mommy. Chickens love treats and if you have some, they love you too.  Plus, our girls will take treats out of your hand and I love it. I'm not above bribery to make them like me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Chicken Love

Anyone who raises backyard chickens loves them. They become your pets and part of your family. Chickens are like dogs or cats; each has a personality with her own favorite pastimes, food preferences, and even her own distinct voice. I can always tell when Bossy, the Barred Rock, has laid an egg because of her authoritative and boisterous calls or when Ochocinco, the Iowa Blue, has wondered off from the group by her sharp bark of a yelp. I love our chickens and so does my husband, albeit against his will.

I am grateful for the delicious eggs our four hens supply, but also for the entertainment and relaxation they provide. I cannot explain how peaceful it is to sit in the backyard and watch our little flock scratching around for bugs and tasty bits of grass and leaves. It has been an amazing journey learning about their behaviors and seeing them in action. I look forward to my morning trip out to the coop with a little treat to say good morning and wish them all a good day. I love being able to open the egg door and see who has laid eggs that day (yes, we can tell which egg belongs to which hen). I try to always make sure I tell them they did a good job and say thank you. Yes, I say all of these things out loud.

In Chicken and Egg by Janice Cole, a combination of memoir and cookbook, I stumbled upon this interesting, but not surprising (to me) piece of information:

          Research has shown that chickens are quite intelligent. Their neuron
          organization is highly structured. They have the capacity for
          self-control as well as the ability to anticipate the future based on past
          experiences. […] This ability may increase their chances of survival,
          but it also means they may be capable of such human emotions as worry
          and stress. Researchers are hoping their studies will not only aid the
          scientific community but also lead to more humane treatment of chickens.

My chickens have the good fortune of living in the lap of luxury with daily treats, a coop that's cleaned multiple times a week, fresh water and food, time to roam and forage, space to stand and walk and stretch, and people who care about their safety and happiness. Not every chicken is so lucky. Yes, I've dragged out a soap box and I sure am standing on it. I've been in situations where I was surrounded by negative, stressed out people. Those situations made me cranky, stressed out and unhappy. A chicken who is crammed in a cage or in a room with thousands of other chickens who can all feel worry and stress is not going to be happy.

If anything, what I've learned about chickens is that happy chickens lay eggs. Lots of eggs. I have hens who are supposed to be moderate egg producers and who lay eggs nearly every day of the week. My buff Brahma, who supposedly should lay an average of three to four eggs a week, lays an average of six. Next time you're buying eggs and chicken breasts think about where and how they were produced. There are organic and humane practices that are not only right, but are going to produce a better tasting, more nutritious product. Isn't it funny that the better the chicken is treated, the better it is for you? Interesting.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chick Wisdom

We knew nothing about hatching or raising chicks when we took on the insane challenge presented to us by Erickson, The Broody Mama. And having searched for information online, I know there are plenty of other people out there who don't have a clue either. Here are some useful tidbits I'm calling my Chick Wisdom:

1. Hatching by Broody Hen. I wrote an entire blog post about this topic, but want to reiterate my knowledge here. Hens know way more than you do about hatching eggs. Make sure she has access to food, water, the outside to stretch and take an occasional break and dust bath and she'll do the rest. I know it sounds crazy and you think you have to do something so you don't trust me, but I'm telling you that all you need to do is wait. Have some sort of separate area to keep the Mama and chicks for say one month to six weeks depending on the size and number of your chicks. The one thing to keep in mind (if it matters to you) is the fact that Mama does not lay eggs during this entire process: not while she's setting and not while the chicks are babies. She'll only start laying once she feels like her duty is done and the chicks are "on their own." For us, that was around six to seven weeks.

2. Pasting Up. (This one is important!) Pasting up is a condition associated with baby chicks. Their poop gets runny and cakes up on their rear and vent. It can be deadly because if the vent is blocked, nothing can come out. That's all I'll say. The good news is that it's an obvious problem. You can see if one of your chicks is pasting up as their bum is all caked up with dried on poop. You don't have to pick each one up and scrutinize their bums. Don't worry about how to tell. When you see it, you'll know. One of our chicks, Leia, got pasty. I took him (yes, Leia has grown up to be a rooster.) inside and rinsed his bum with warm water and a washcloth. After he was clean, I set my blow dryer on cool and turned it on at the lowest setting to dry him off a little before I put him back outside with Mama and the other chicks. He made a lot of noise. It will hurt your feelings a bit. Mostly, he was upset to be away from Mama. I had to clean him up twice. Then I kept an eye on him, but all is well.

3. Tiny Chickens. That phrase seems silly, but it was amazing how the chicks were born and within the first few days they were acting as if they were tiny adult chickens. Most of the things your adult hens do, the chicks will start doing in miniature. You figure, of course, they're watching Mama, but some things seemed to be all instinctive. They walk around, scratch at the dirt with both their feet and step back while they're bent over to look at the ground for possible food items. Then, they peck at the ground for little tidbits. They stretch just like the big hens with one wing out and the opposite foot stretched back. They tear at scraps and fling their beaks around trying to break up pieces of food that are too big to eat. They preen their fluff and feathers (as they come in) just like the hens. It's pretty cute stuff to watch.

4. Mama's Help. The mother hen continues to take care of everything once the chicks have hatched. She constantly makes sure they're eating by collecting bits of food (treats, chicken feed, bugs, grass, whatever she can get) and making a particular clucking sound. The chicks know that sound means food and will come running up to her to eat. She puts the bit of food down for the chicks to eat, but if it's too big or the chicks are having a hard time with it, she'll pick it back up and tear at it with her beak before putting it back down for them to try again. She does this constantly, trying to make sure all the chicks get to eat. Now, she won't give particular chicks food. They have to jump in there and fend for themselves, but she will collect enough so everyone has a chance to eat. They still have to be strong enough and smart enough to help themselves. During all of this mama bird feeding, she keeps very little for herself. It's almost all for her babies. The chicks also follow her everywhere. They stay glued to her hips for over a month. They easily learn from everything she does and they stay protected because Mama defends them when another hen comes too close for comfort. She can also usher them back inside the coop if she thinks they're in danger.

5. Pecking Order. As I mentioned in my last post, the entire flock is thrown into disarray by the addition of the chicks. They have to work out their positions while adding to their numbers. In our case, Mama decided she needed to move up in the pecking order now that she did something none of the others had done, so she was pretty mean to the hen she was bypassing in the order. The lowest member on our totem pole decided she was feeling a little froggy and chased the chicks a lot, but it was all because she refused to move down to number nine when she was already number four (four isn't so bad anymore when all of a sudden there are nine chickens). The funniest part of the pecking order drama was the chicks themselves. They were also in a pecking order war, and there is nothing funnier than tiny six-week-old bantams getting feisty. At seemingly random times while they're out foraging, two or three (and at least one time four) chicks will stop scratching and looking for juicy tidbits and stand up straight and tall, fluffing up their neck feathers. Sometimes they peck towards each other a little, but it looks quite ineffective from the sidelines. Then, once they've decided who won, they go back to foraging and all is well. I'm still not sure of their pecking order.

6. Gaining Independence. Around five to six weeks, the chicks start to stray from their Mama. They slowly start to wander off when they're foraging and not worry so much if Mama is right next to them. Now, they don't get too feisty and wander clear across the yard from her - I'm talking six or seven feet away when they're used to staying within a foot or two. At this point, if they get too far away they still freak out and hurry back or "cry" if they don't see her right way. Around seven to eight weeks it's like a switch is flipped and all of a sudden each chick is just another member of the flock. Slowly, Mama won't call them over every time she finds food. Then, she'll start to grab food away from them just as she would from another hen who's lower than her on the pecking order. Initially it's a little sad that she's not being Mama anymore, but then you realize that they're all grown up and part of the flock! For us, the pecking order issues also disappeared at the same point. Everyone worked out their place in the group and they reside harmoniously (for now).

As I took a break from writing this post and looked outside into the backyard, I saw Erickson trying to get away from her entourage of chicks. We're going on week eight and sometimes they decide they want their Mama. All she wants is to go into the chicken house and lay an egg, but they won't leave her alone (they're staying within a foot of her right now). She'd just like some privacy. Man, can I relate.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Maternity Ward

As the hatch date for our buff Brahma's adopted clutch drew nearer, we started work on The Maternity Ward, or what some people call the brooder. We constructed a rectangular frame, covered it in hardware cloth (better than chicken wire because the holes are smaller and pretty impossible for something to reach through), added a door large enough for our 4 year old to walk through upright and attached the entire thing to the back side of our existing coop/run structure. The Maternity Ward is shown in the picture below.

We left the hardware cloth that was attached to the existing coop to create a barrier between the "big hens" and Mama and her chicks. Then my husband built a small cube on one and a half inch legs and a mini ramp for inside The Maternity Ward to serve as the nest box. During all this building, Mama was happily inside the big coop sitting on her eggs in one of the nest boxes. Once a day she'd go out into the run for food and water, a little stretch, and a dust bath before returning to her place on the eggs.

We weren't prepared for all of this construction and moving, so we finished construction and moved Mama and her eggs the night her first egg hatched! I came home from work and went out to the coop to check on our girls. I heard tiny peeping sounds when I opened the egg door, so I looked around and saw one tiny yellow peeping chick who had probably hatched less than an hour before I'd found her as her fluff was still wet and matted. After about fifteen minutes of scrambling and hammering and stapling, The Maternity Ward was secured to the rest of the coop. My husband bravely picked up Mama while I transferred the unhatched eggs and made a second trip for the newborn chick.

It was two days from the time chick #1 hatched to the time #5 hatched; Leia, #1, hatched on Monday and Bobba Fett, #5, hatched on Wednesday. (My son is in a Star Wars phase). Mama sat tight while the rest of the chicks hatched out. I lifted her up at least once a day after the move to check the progress of the remaining eggs hidden underneath her fluff and because I'm terribly nosey and couldn't help myself. We had two eggs that I didn't think were hatchable: they were either not fertile or the embryos died early on as I had amateurishly candled the eggs with a flashlight at around seven or eight days and again around fifteen days and neither egg looked like the others. I was going by the pictures in a book I'd been using as as guide for all things chicken, Living with Chickens by Jay Rossier. 

We made the hard decision on that second night after the 5th chick had completely hatched out to dispose of the remaining two eggs because Mama will sit there as long as it takes to complete her mission of hatching egg. She won't get off the nest and start caring for her chicks if there are still unhatched eggs, so based on the fact that neither egg had a crack or any sign of hatching and on my candling, which I did one last time before we disposed of the eggs, we took them out of the nest and placed them in the trash inside a plastic bag. It was pretty evident that the last two eggs weren't going to hatch just based on how the rest of the eggs hatched. Almost a day before they hatched out, the chick would start pecking its way out. You can see the start of a crack, which gets larger over time until a hole appears and a tiny beak pokes through. It's a grueling process to watch because some of them are a little slower than others. The runt of our litter took over a day to completely hatch out of her egg. A huge chunk of egg shell was cracked off and you could see her wet yellow fluff and parts of her beak and legs, but she took her time breaking the egg apart and coming into the world. I was terrified each time I went out to check on the eggs because I didn't know how quickly they should hatch out and I kept assuming that I'd go out there to find that half hatched chick had died while trying to get out of her egg. But she didn't and she's now a cute, fast little black and white Japanese-Old English Game Bantam. And she's my favorite of the chicks.

Mama and the chicks lived happily in The Maternity Ward for six weeks. The "big hens" were just as curious about the chicks as the chicks were about them. The chicks would sit and peep at the big hens and the big hens would stand and watch the little chicks peeping around. Before we took down the barrier inside the run, we started letting the big hens and Mama and the babies out into the yard at the same time. There were a few altercations between Mama and the other "big hens" when the hens would get too close for comfort around the chicks, but after a few weeks, the pecking order started to work itself back out and the other hens learned to keep a little distance from Mama and the babies. Size was part of our deciding factor for when we took down the barrier. The chicks were getting big and in need of more space and it was getting close to the time when Mama would decide that the chicks were big enough to fend for themselves.

We took down the barrier one afternoon while all of the chickens were out and about foraging in the yard. The big hens were excited to be able to get into The Maternity Ward when they were lead back into the coop. Mama and the chicks seemed to just go with the flow. Well, that is until Mama had to work out her pecking order issues. Since she'd been away from the flock for over a month, she had to establish her place in the order, which is now #2 behind Bossy, the Barred Rock. Pouncey, the Americauna, got the brunt of Mama's attacks because Pouncey had taken up residency as #2 during all this mothering time. It was a little scary how mean Mama would get. I'm talking ruthless. She'd jump on Pouncey's back and grab ahold of feathers with her beak and peck and claw at her. We'd break them up if we were outside because it was too much for me to handle. While Mama was trying to regain her place as #2, Ochocinco, our Iowa Blue, was trying to hold on to her place at the bottom of the pack as #4. She was (and is) determined not to let any of the chicks get higher than her in the pecking order. She has spent a lot of her time pecking at and chasing the chicks away from her. It seems mean and scary that all of this fighting is going on, but it's an important part of a chicken community that you can't help.

If you watch them closely, you can see the dynamics. You can see that it's the same chickens fighting it out and that most of the time they're not doing much harm. Ochocinco doesn't hurt the chicks. She pecks at them, but for the most part she doesn't actually touch them. Erickson has pulled out a few feathers from Pouncey's back, but they have since worked things out. If Pouncey gets too close for comfort, Erickson puffs up and makes some mean clucking sounds and Pouncey crouches down until Erickson moves on. The chicks have figured out which of the big chickens are friendly and which ones to keep an eye on. They're a flock now. And a pretty nice one if I do say so myself.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Broody Mamas

It just happens out of nowhere. There aren't any warning signs or disaster signals that I can tell. One day you'll go out to the coop to collect eggs and encounter a hen hunkered down in a nesting box. I say "hunkered down" because that's exactly what you'll see: a hen sitting low and fat in the nesting box. She's not trying to lay an egg. I've caught hens a few times getting ready to lay or who'd just laid eggs and they'll high tail it out of there pretty much as soon as you open the egg door. If she sits there and looks back at you over her shoulder like you're crazy for intruding on her privacy, then she's not laying an egg; she's trying to hatch some.

My first tactic to break my Brahma's sudden broodiness was to kick her off her "clutch" (Our chickens generally like to lay their eggs in the same one of the three nesting boxes in our coop). I'd nudge her out of the nesting box by lifting her big fluffy butt to take the eggs she was hoarding and then I'd push her out of the box into the coop and say, "Go on. Get out." She'd make some mean clucking noises at me that I assume where not fit for a lady and then go on out into the run. We performed this ritual for several days with the same results (Isn't that the definition of insanity?). That is, until she started getting mean. After three or four days of the nudging tactic, she started fighting back by pecking at my hand and wrist. It didn't hurt, but it was a bit terrifying. As my husband and I debated our next move, The Chicken Man offered up some fertile eggs and some sage advice: let her hatch some eggs and she'll become a happy mama. We decided to go for it.

One afternoon I went out to the coop after work, checked that she wasn't sitting on any of our hens' eggs, and placed seven little white eggs next to her in the nesting box. I'd read somewhere during my hours of internet research about hatching eggs with broody hens that this was the best way to go. I checked on her in an hour and she was sitting on her eggs, hunkered down fat and happy.

Collecting the infertile eggs everyday was easy from then on. She'd look at you when you opened the egg door, but she didn't much mind that we were in there. Most days we weren't bothering her or her unborn brood. However, I'll warn you that if you get fertile eggs that are the same color as your hens' eggs, mark the fertile eggs with a Sharpie. We had it easy because our eggs were a different color. All of our hens lay brown eggs. Some days we'd open the door to collect eggs and Mama would be sitting on the brown eggs, leaving an empty nest full of white eggs. She's cute, but she's not the brightest. Chickens can't tell color or count, so when she'd come back into the coop after her daily excursion outside for food, water, and a good dust bath, she'd get right on the first nesting box of eggs she saw. At least four times, she got on the brown eggs. I referred back to the nudge tactic. I'd lift her butt, take the brown eggs, and close the egg door. She'd get up and go over to the right nesting box. A few times, to be nice, we'd put the white eggs in the new nesting box with her and she'd situate them all underneath herself. Since we were new to this hatching venture, we could have easily prevented the egg switching by moving her to a separate area earlier than we did, but we weren't prepared and it worked out fine in the end.

With all the egg confusion, you'd think we wouldn't have any eggs hatch, but I realized that chickens have been hatching eggs for hundreds of years. They know better than we do on this one. In about twenty days, Mama hatched out five beautiful Japanese-Old English Game crossed bantam chicks. They were the cutest and tiniest things I'd ever seen. And, she did a beautiful job hatching them.

Half of those twenty days I was busy trying to research what I needed to do to help her and take care of those eggs, but then I stumbled onto a great site This site is an amazing five part tutorial on hatching eggs with hens rather than incubators. And, it taught me what I said above: chickens know how to hatch eggs. It's that simple. You don't have to do anything except provide food, water, and a safe place to hatch her chicks. She will do nearly everything else, which includes constantly turning the eggs with her feet or beak every few minutes! It's nothing short of miraculous.

I will say that The Chicken Man was right. She hatched those chicks and she's one happy mama (more on that part later).

You may be thinking the same thing I am: a hen can't tell which eggs she's been sitting on for two weeks, but she knows exactly what to do to keep them alive and then mother them? Sure does.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dynamics of our Flock

My small, backyard flock consists of four adult hens: the leader of the pecking order, Bossy, a big beautiful Plymouth Rock (a.k.a. Barred Rock); Erickson, a fat and juicy-looking buff Brahma who is working on keeping her status as next in the pecking order; Pouncey, an Ameraucana mutt who disappointingly lays plain brown eggs when I was hoping for the green or blue eggs that Ameraucauna/Aracauna/Easter Eggers are supposed to lay (though she is still my favorite of the girls); and, Ochocinco, an Iowa Blue and the lowest member of the pecking order.

We added to the flock when Erickson the Brahma decided to go broody on us, which means she desperately wanted to hatch some eggs. Our eggs are obviously not fertile and will not hatch seeing as we don't have a rooster, so every day we would go out to collect the eggs and have to fight her off whatever eggs she managed to be sitting on that day. Let me just say that this was not the funnest of tasks. She started getting pretty mean. I'd be pissed too if someone came into my house, stuck her hand under me, and stole the potential babies right out from under my butt every day. She made the meanest clucking sounds you can imagine coming from a chicken and then there was the pecking. I was not a fan of the pecking. It didn't hurt to be honest with you, but it was scary to stick my hand in the nesting box and have her turn her head around at me and peck at my hand and wrist. She meant business. A friend who I call The Chicken Man suggested getting her some eggs to hatch so she'd stop being so mean and he rounded up seven fertile eggs. To make a long story short, she sat on those eggs for three weeks and hatched out five beautiful little Japanese-Old English Game Bantams. They're turning six-weeks old this week.

We started our farming adventure in October of last year, except our orginial bunch consisted of only three chickens: two buff Brahmas and an Ameraucana. They were around two to three months old. A few months in we realized one of the Brahmas was a rooster! He was the size of a turkey and clearly not at all like the other little fluffy puffy Brahma. He was a sweet guy, but we're not interested in the illegal keeping of a rooster in city limits, so off he went to live with a fellow chicken farmer in Granville County. That's when we gained the Barred Rock and the Iowa Blue.

The chicks have added an interesting twist to the dynamics of the flock. Erickson, having been separated from the flock to hatch and begin raising her chicks, is now making sure her underlings don't think they can usurp her rightful place in the pecking order, and Ochocinco wants to make sure the chicks realize that she's above them in all things that matter. Bossy just keeps on keeping on because no one is daring enough to try a coup. Pouncey is just trying not to get pummeled by Erickson. And the chicks: Leia, Han, Lando, Jengo and Bobba, try not to get trampled in the rush for treats.

They're the most fun thing to watch on a Sunday afternoon in the backyard. We spent an hour and a half sitting outside watching them in today's ninety degree heat. I wouldn't trade it for anything.