Friday, August 31, 2012

Molting Falls in Autumn

September is knocking on the door as the feathers start dropping all over the coop. It's time for cooler air, crispy leaves, and half-naked chickens who are falling down on their laying duties. I know what you're thinking: It's the last day of August. Chill out with the fall talk. Tell that to my chickens that have decided it's time to take a break from laying.

One of our girls is starting in hard on her molting. Her feathers are everywhere. I suppose I shouldn't get into a tizzy because she does deserve the break. She's a champion egg layer any other time of year. But one or two of the other girls are trying to follow her lead. I haven't seen huge piles of anyone else's feathers, but I am seeing only one egg a day when we have three girls who should be laying (#4 is still playing Mama to her babies). Sigh.

The other reason I shouldn't be freaking out is the fact that they need to molt. All chickens molt and either stop laying or slow down to a near stop. They need a break. And if I had to regrow an entire body full of feathers, I'd probably stop laying eggs too. The shorter days of fall usually trigger the molting response. I'm sure there's also some internal clock thing going on too. It's like birds migrating for winter or salmon swimming upstream to lay eggs. They just know what to do and when to do it. Since we're not a crazy factory farm or anything, we don't keep the lights blazing on them all year long, which is the only way to force chickens to keep on keepin' on instead of molting and being (in money making terms) "useless" for any number of weeks. Hey. They look mangy for a month or so; they take an egg hiatus; and, they take advantage of the fact that my five-year-old son doesn't completely like pizza or sandwich crusts yet. I owe them that much for making delicious, practically free food the rest of the year.

Truth be told, I went out to the coop the other day and told them I knew what they were up to and they'd better get to laying. But, that was before I thought about what time of year it was. Maybe I should be glad that our chickens just like to get their molting done nice and early. All except one that is. Last year we were entering into literally freezing temperatures while Ocho was halfway into her molt and still sporting a bald backside. More power to her. I just hope they hurry up and get back to laying. I've got some quiche to make.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Birds and The Bees...of Chickens

We're three and a half weeks into chickdom. And you and I both know the most anxiety producing part of this entire venture is whether you're growing hens or roosters.

Because of our city zip code, I've been wishing for two hens, but it's hard to tell anything in the first weeks. You can read all over the internet about sexing chicks. Some methods are based on trends and biology. Some are based on old wives tales. And some are based on good ole old-timer knowledge.  There's the feathering method - hens are supposed to feather faster on the wings and tails than their rooster counterparts. I've read that darker combs in certain breeds mean hen. I've also read that redder combs sooner mean roosters. Some people think that if you pick up a chick the hens will keep kicking their legs while the roosters will not. Apparently, there's a way to tell the sex of day-old chicks by checking their vents. I've also read that chicks who are more timid are hens and the bolder ones are roosters. That last one isn't sexist at all is it? All I've learned is there are just as many methods and theories of telling the sex of a chick as there are breeds of chicken.

Personally, I'm a horrible chicken sex guesser. I don't see what all these other people see. There are hundreds of posts online from people wondering the sex of their chickens. Looking at these posts, you'll usually see fourteen different comments with half of the answers saying the chicks in question are males and half saying they're females. I usually have nothing. Maybe twice I've been able to tell, but that was only because they were super obvious and the owners were in denial (i.e. the rooster already had saddle feathers and were twice the size of the hens). One time I commented on a picture of a buff Brahma that was obviously a rooster. I could tell of it's roosteriness because one of our first four chickens was a buff Brahma that was so obviously a rooster because he was the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. I knew so little about chickens that I had told my husband, "She has feathers like a rooster," about two days before The Chicken Man nicely told us that she was indeed a rooster. Talk about oblivious.

Last year, as many of you who regularly tune in know, we hatched five beautiful Japanese bantams. Three were obvious roosters from early on. They had bigger combs; they got saddle feathers; they had curled shimmering tail feathers. The other two looked like hens. They were smaller and had the straight up pointing tail feathers of the Japanese breed. We were sure they were hens and I was all ready for some tiny bantam eggs to make tiny fried eggs for breakfast. They were beautiful chickens. Until they turned into roosters! They were still beautiful, but it was like over night they sprouted curving tail feathers and the saddle feathers. I was sad. So now, I've decided not to rely on anything until I have an egg laid or I see some serious saddle feathers and tail feathers. That doesn't mean I don't speculate and drive myself crazy thinking about it.

I've already changed my mind twice about our two three-week-old babies. When they were born I figured they'd both be roosters because that was our fate last year. They were maybe a day old when I told my husband that if they indeed turn out to be roosters this year, we are going sex-link all the way next year. That way I'll know from day one what they are and won't get too attached since we can't keep roosters where we live. I also won't sit here and drive myself to drink for two months trying to figure it out! But after the first week I decided maybe we did have a couple of pullets growing up out there. If you believe the old wives tales, we could have two hens. They're pretty skittish and they feathered out on the wings and tails quickly. Both "signs" that you have hens. Well, from what I've seen online, chicks feather so differently from breed to breed and even sometimes from chicken to chicken that it's hard to place your bet on that piece of evidence alone. As for the shyness, well, last year we had five chicks. They weren't too scared of us. But we had a larger flock. They had more buddies to hang with and to help them feel protected . Five is a much larger number than two when you are talking about tiny chicks. No matter how many other chicks I had running around with me, if I were a three-day-old baby chick, I'd freak out and run away too if some giant tried to pick me up. So I'm not hanging my hat on the fact that they're petrified of us at this point.

Today, though, I have a new theory. One pullet. One rooster. The beautiful little bluer-colored Marans, Belle, now has a larger comb than the yellow-turning-to-white one, Rapunzel. So is Belle turning into Beast? Their legs seem to be the same size (Yet another indicator is the girth of the chick's legs: the bigger the legs, the more likely you've got a rooster), so we'll see. Only time will tell. But I seriously want some chocolate brown eggs, so somebody better be growing some ovaries out there.

That's Rapunzel in the back and Belle/Beast in the front.
What do you think? 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

They Must Peep in their Sleep

We've got three-week-old chicks in the backyard and they peep incessantly. If I didn't know better, I'd think they peep in their sleep. The peeping is actually pretty endearing. It make me want to pick them up and squeeze them. In the nicest way possible.

They're super shy. When you get in the Maternity Ward part of the coop where they are living with Mama for now, they start frantically running back and forth in the far corner while peeping. It's a bit unnerving. I keep thinking one of them is going to fall over from a heart attack whenever I go in there to give them fresh water or check their food. Our first batch of chicks last year were nervous about me being in their coop, but only starting the frantic running/peeping if I tried to pick them up. I read online in my never-ending chicken research that an unscientific way to tell if chicks are hens or roosters is by their temperament: skittish chicks mean hens and bold, confident chicks mean roosters. I can only hope. 

Besides the crippling fear of humans, the chicks seem to be doing great. They're still following Mama around. In all respects they're little versions of chickens. They're tiny and fluffy, but they act like the big girls. They scratch for food; they recently started exploring the low roost in their coop; they preen; and, they peck around all day. The preening is my favorite. There's something cute about a tiny chicken preening her wings.

The funny part of three-week-old chicks is the Frankenbird thing they have going on. They're half newborn chick fluff and half feathers. Belle is still darker than Rapunzel. She's a light gray color with small black spots while Rapunzel is turning white with big black splotches. They're wings are fully feathered. They have the cutest tiny tail feathers sprouting. And, since they're feather-footed Marans, they have cute little curled feathers sprouting from their legs. They can look a little scraggly at times, but they're cute none the less. Maybe it's "a face only a mother can love" kind of thing.