Sunday, November 28, 2010

Free Range Surprise

My flock normally spends their nights in a coop and their days in the fenced 1/3 acre wood lot I call the run. They have turned over every inch of the run and it is now composed of trees, brush, pine needles, dirt, and poo. I am planning to sow forage and extend the run next year.
Temporarily obedient hens foraging in the run
Today the smart hen and the rooster made a run for it. I discovered this while putting up holiday decorations on the porch.

The two wanderers were foraging in the yard acreage while the rest of the flock stressed out running back and forth along the fence. Knowing a lost cause when I see one I made the best of the inevitable. I locked the front gate and opened the gate to the chicken run. It took all of 28 seconds to haze the hens out to join the feasting pair.

They ranged over the acre nearest the house, including my secret grasshopper hunting ground. Oh the chickeny joy! The alpha hen jumped to eat the seed tops from the tallest unkempt grass. The others ranged across the driveway and around the back, eating bugs, seeds, and weeds while the rooster kept watch.

When the flock was ready to go back to the coop they cleverly piled up at the fence closest to the coop instead of walking around through the open gate. Guess they can't all be brilliant. I had to tempt them into the coop with a bowl of Black Oil Sunflower Seed.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Starting production: laying and making whoopie

I bought six pullets and one cockerel from a local farm at the end of May. The ladies are layers. The roo has one job: keep the girls alive.

From May to August they assiduously converted feed to poo. They also learned that when I approach with something in my hand that they will get a delicious treat like a grasshopper or cricket. Amazingly, I still have most of my fingers.

They filled out during late July and early August. The cockerel started to look like a rooster and began crowing. The pullets began to develop fluffy butt and red combs & wattles.

Mid-August the rooster started trying to mate. He first tried to subdue a hen by biting her comb. She shrieked and I chased him off. After several similar false starts he got the hang of neck biting and hen mounting. The hens were confused and just went along for the ride.

About a week later the first hen laid an egg next to the ceramic bait egg in the nest box. It was small, had a pale yolk, and tasted a little "thin". Within a week she was producing great eggs.

Two days after the first, a second hen started laying. She also made a "start up egg" and then settled into a laying routine.

The only hen to deviate from this pattern was the Buff Orpington who had a surprise egg while on the roost. She was the only hen to cackle when laying. The others were either silent of just clucked a little.

The rooster was not idle during this time. Every time a hen came off the nest he was right there for a quickie. At the same time the hens got pretty good at running away, so he has been hit-and-miss with the mating game since September.

Except a detour for illnessand another for a feistysneaky, broody hen, my hens have been producing four to six eggs a day since early September.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Did it again, Cannibal Chickens

I swore I was not going to feed chicken to my flock until I knew more about chicken first aid. I kept my promise, sort of.

Yesterday we roasted a Butterball turkey. For the first time in my life I ate so much food for Thanksgiving that I could not eat dessert.

We had so much food that we could not store the leftovers. The turkey drippings from the bag became soup stock. We decided to toss the stripped bones rather than render them for more soup.

Frugal fellow that I am, I just had to give some of it to the chickens. This time, I put out the smaller shreds of meat, the unpopular apple slices, organs, neck, thigh bones, and unidentifiable meatlike substances.

I had to drop the bowl over the fence to avoid death by pecking.

This time everything was very small, very soft, or very big. No choking hazards!

Also, I felt a little better that they were eating a turkey instead of a chicken. I wonder, someday when it is time to feed the flock leftovers from one of their own sisters, will I still feel weird about it or will I be all matter-of-fact?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Poor Impulse Control

I have tried talking to my chickens about their poor impulse control. They nod their heads like they understand, but then they go do it again. *sigh*

I gave them leftover roast beef, potato skins, and squash seeds. They absolutely stuffed themselves.

Then to put them up this evening, I spread Black Oil Sunflower Seed inside the coop. They hate going to bed early, but they cannot bear the thought of missing out on a treat. Good thing they don't understand delayed gratification.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Washing Stinky Eggs

I have tried to keep my chicken world as natural as is practical. I feed them layer pellets, table scraps, and black oil sunflower seed. I let them roam a quarter acre chicken run all day so they can do what comes naturally.

When they got ready to lay eggs I started researching egg handling methods. There are two basic approaches recommended by practitioners.

  • Wash, rinse, sanitize, and refrigerate the eggs. This is the practice of the big operations that sell eggs to the market. Small Texas farmers who sell eggs directly to consumers appear to be exempt.
  • Wash poo-crusted eggs, flick spotty eggs, otherwise leave the bloom intact. Do not refrigerate the eggs. This is the practice of many backyard chicken owners.
I went with the backyard method since it kept the natural antibacterial barrier intact. Truth be told, I have lots of important stuff to do am lazy and this is less work.

I noticed a funny smell in my kitchen near the eggs. I eliminated the kitchen chemicals, dirty dishes, and moldy leftovers other stuff. The weird "chemical" smell was coming from my eggs!

I searched around and found a handy site on egg quality. It described a number of causes and remedies. After a bit of introspection I had to reluctantly agree that I should wash my eggs.

I am going to start washing and refrigerating my eggs every day. Real soon now.

Update: I learned that the funny smell was coming from a hidden pool of gunk. I now keep my bloom-intact eggs on the counter for up to 10 days. After that, I take steps to use them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Feathered Young Cannibals

My birds are less than a year old and have no elder hens to teach them things like table manners or proper decorum. I say hens because, face it, a male would teach them stupid poo tricks.

Due to predator threats I have started tempting my birds into the coop a few minutes before sunset. Usually I use Black Oil Sunflower Seed as the bait while calling "Chick! Chick! Chick!" from inside the coop. I close the people door to avoid being trampled. I throw seeds just inside the pop door so when they race up the chicken ladder they skid to a halt and concentrate on eating.

Today I had to dispose of some leftover home-cooked chicken (from the grocery store). I chopped it up into bite sized chunks and put it on a plate, nuked the plate, let it cool, and headed out with my bounty.

When I went into the coop I put the plate on the floor and started distributing BOSS and calling. They came running and started eating the seed. I made my escape while they were busy and closed the pop door.

From outside I watched them discover and eat the chicken. It was like the scene where Bill Cosby fed his children chocolate cake for breakfast. Such enthusiasm!

Some stole pieces to eat in private (on the floor of the coop). Others ate directly from the serving bowl. The rooster went for the biggest piece and tried to down it in one big gulp. No manners!

The rooster looked pretty worried when the chunk got halfway in and stopped. He managed to drop it, but genius that he is, he immediately tried again to swallow it whole. While I was wondering how to do a chicken Heimlich, he spat it out again and started pecking it apart.

The chicken meat was a big hit. It feels immoral to feed them their own kind, but I am probably going to do it again -- right after I learn how to do a Chicken Heimlich Maneuver.

Stupid Poo Tricks

My chickens seem to take perverse pleasure in making a mess with their poo. Here are some of their stupid poo tricks. No pictures, you freak.

  • In the water bowl
  • In the food trough
  • On the food board
  • Down the fence
  • At the entrance to the chicken run
  • In the middle of the path between the food can and the feeding area in the run
  • Down the chicken ladder
  • In the nest
  • On the eggs
  • Right inside the people door of the chicken coop
  • Blue poo (from purple lettuce)
  • Red poo (from pepper flakes)
Update: Pictures, for science!

    Thursday, November 18, 2010

    Cure for thin eggshells

    My hens all lay brown eggs. Well, except the non-laying one who just broke from broodiness, and the anonymous one who has started laying pale, thin-shelled, eggs. The shells are thin enough that a hen put her foot through it while on the nest.

    Why do hens lay eggs with thin shells? I suppose it is due to lack of calcium since eggshell is mostly calcium carbonate. My hens have access to oyster shell, but show no enthusiasm for it. My theory is that the hen who is currently low in the pecking order is the one laying thin eggs due to limited access to layer pellets.

    How to deal with this? I would feed them eggshells, but they refuse to eat eggshells. However they love scrambled eggs....

    I collected up all the eggs I did not want to eat and dropped them in the blender. Put it on liquefy and then poured the frothy mess in a frying pan. I took care to stir around the egg mixture since the eggshell was a sediment on the bottom and I wanted it mixed in to every delicious morsel of scrambled egg.

    I learned during my sick chicken ordeal to NEVER give them insanely delicious treats when they can trample me. So I put the plate of crunchy scrambled eggs in the chicken run before opening the coop.

    They raced to the plate and attacked the eggs with gusto. Oh the chickeny joy! The smart ones grabbed big bits and ran off to dine in relative peace. The less smart ones stood on the plate and pecked at the eggs.

    The rooster tried a clever trick. He took a big piece of egg away and stood over it clucking about how great it tasted. Within seconds he had two hens sharing his treat. He put on his "Hey baby" dance, but was rebuffed. *sigh*

    So does feeding eggshell correct the thin shell problem? Wait and see....

    Update: Feeding eggshell definitely cures the problem, if they eat it. And they sure do eat it when the eggshell is part of the scrambled egg platter! I have also starting adding dry crushed eggshell & oyster shell to all the feeders as well as placing oyster shell in the oyster shell station. If I am very careful to limit the treats, and load the treats with calcium sources & layer pellets, then the thin shell eggs and shell-less eggs disappear to be replaced by robust well-formed eggs.

    Update: BYC member Imp provided a list of foods that are high in calcium:

    • Spinach
    • Turnip greens
    • Mustard greens
    • Collard greens 
    • Blackstrap molasses (not recommended)
    • Swiss chard
    • Yogurt
    • Kale
    • Mozzarella cheese
    • Milk (goat's milk and cow's milk)
    • Basil, thyme, dill seed, cinnamon, and peppermint leaves
    • Romaine lettuce
    • Rhubarb (not recommended)
    • Broccoli
    • Sesame seeds
    • Fennel
    • Cabbage
    • Summer squash
    • Green beans
    • Garlic (not recommended)
    • Tofu
    • Brussel sprouts
    • Oranges (not recommended)
    • Asparagus
    • Crimini mushrooms 

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    Earning his keep

    My rooster was acquired at the same time as my chickens. They are all just 8 months old.

    I do not care about eating fertilized eggs. I do not currently want little chicks.

    I allow him to pleasure the ladies. That is his reward, along with food and shelter, for doing his job. My rooster has one job and I have been waiting patiently for him to do it.

    I expect my rooster to keep the flock alive. He can fight predators, intimidate predators, warn me about predators, or be a target for predators. I am not too picky, so long as the girls keep laying delicious eggs.

    Today I was out in the chicken run when I heard a hawk overhead. I saw it land in a tree right over my chickens. I ran over and hassled the hawk away while the ignorant fowl continued to chow down. One more check in the "useless" box for the roo....

    Later that day, the rooster got up on the fence and started crowing. I was out in the yard and about as far from the chickens as I can be on my land. As I watched, he strutted up and down the fence line and crowed every few yards while the hens kept under cover. Next, he hopped down and took cover with them. Then I saw the hawk as it gave a cry and flew off.

    I was so proud of the cockerel that I gave him black oil sunflower seed for a treat. He graciously shared it with the girls.

    Sunday, November 14, 2010

    Sexy hens, headaches, Viagra

    I have noticed that my rooster is pretty fond of hens fresh off the nest. When they cackle and come out after laying an egg, he is "Johnny on the spot" and does his "Hey Baby" dance. They generally let him on for a quickie.

    Some hens always seem to have a headache. The hen who was broody (but cured) totally refuses to have anything to do with him. Another hen runs away as soon as she gets off the nest (and runs faster than him).

    The thing that really bothers me is that the rooster does not seem to be so effective at roostering. I had him in a tractor with a broody hen, but he was easily dissuaded. It would be inappropriate in human terms, but why did the rooster not press his case? Does he need Viagra?

    Not sure how much I need a wimpy rooster....

    Broody hen break confirmed

    One of my hens went broody on October 28th. I tried a variety of solutions. Here are the results:
    • Kick hen off nest -- extremely ineffective
    • Put hen in tractor with alternate nest -- hen ignored new nest and went straight back to main nest as soon as possible
    • Confine hen with rooster -- she rebuffed the rooster's advances
    • Confine hen in elevated cage for a week -- eventually worked!
    The formerly broody hen is now sleeping on the roost, hanging with the hens, and dining with the flock. She is still ignoring the rooster though.

    Friday, November 12, 2010

    Light at the end of the tunnel -- less broody hen

    The broody hen has been a little more cooperative recently. Yesterday she was off the nest and waiting to exit the coop with the other hens. She went through her dust bathing and eating routine. She rejected the rooster's advances again.

    Last night she got on the nest for a while, but later perched on the roost. Yay!

    I wondered if she was pulling another sneaky trick, but today she was out with the hens again today.

    Tentative verdict: cooler cage works, but it takes a week or so.

    Tuesday, November 9, 2010

    Sneaky Broody Hen

    My broody hen was on the nest this morning, warming the eggs put there by all my other hens. I took advantage of the full production by putting her in the run and closing the coop.

    She acted like this was her fondest wish. She ate the black oil sunflower seeds and the scrambled eggs from my breakfast error. She lolled in the dust and generally gave every impression of sybaritic pleasure.

    At first she was careful to stay with the flock. But as the day wore on, she started trying to slip into the coop unnoticed. When she heard me nearby in the yard she would casually vacate the top of the chicken ladder by the closed coop door and casually walk as fast as she could back to the chicken run.

    Knowing the outcome in advance, I opened the coop and went to work on another part of my yard for about 5 minutes. When I returned she made no pretense of staying with the flock. Instead she boldly remained on the nest.

    I placed her back in the cooler cage. She seemed unsurprised and maybe a little smug that her subterfuge had worked once. Once.

    I am starting to consider some additions to my coop. I may build a shelf to hold the cooler cage by the roost. I am also thinking about building another nest box above or below the current nest box. I need to think about this some more as my carpentry skills are similar to my breakfast skills....

    Friday, November 5, 2010

    Broody, broody, broody

    The hen is still broody even though she gets put in the cooler cage every day. I think I need to keep this up for a while, certainly longer than I expected. At least she is not blocking the nest.

    The rooster is innocent in all this. I kicked her off the nest last night and the rooster did his "Hey Baby" dance. She growled at him and ran away. Guess she had a headache.

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010

    Broody hen in the cooler

    My earlier plan to break my broody hen by locking her up with the rooster failed. I guess she was not sexy enough for him and he did not rise to the occasion.

    My options were dunk the broody hen in cold water or to put her in a suspended cage to chill out. With the recent rain, I decided that the cage was a safer choice.

    Locked the broody hen in a wire cage sitting on top of the wire tractor. This gave her nothing to stand on but wire and let the cold wind blow up her bottom. She was stressed by flock separation until they started climbing on the tractor. Once she was the center of attention, she proudly consumed her private bowl of oatmeal.

    One hen that she had just kicked out of the nest got her revenge. She perched on the cage top and sat over the broody hen's head. Ah, the subtle pleasure of symbolic communication!

    The broody hen was still interested in the nest box when I let her join the flock in the coop. She decided to roost instead when I threatened to make ugly faces at her, but I suspect she will be the nest tyrant by morning.

    Try try again....

    Update: She was on the nest in the morning. I put her in the "cooler" and the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, she did not cooperate at nightfall. When I let her out she went right back to the nest. Sticking with the plan....

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Testing the "Rooster Cure" for Broody Hen

    One of my hens has gone broody. This is a nuisance since she is kicking the other hens out of the nest box.

    So far the following things were tried and failed:

    • Physically remove the broody hen from the nest. She simply returned when I was not looking.
    • Isolate her in the tractor. She just made a nest in the tractor. As soon as she was released, she dashed to the nest box in the coop.
    • Put her in the tractor with the rooster. Test in progress.

    Maybe she is not alluring enough or maybe the rooster needs Chicken Viagra. The rooster has not mounted the broody hen while I was watching, so I will give it one more day. If she is still broody, then there are two more ideas I read about.

    Both ideas are based on the theory that warm hens are broody or something. So if the hen is cool, then the broodiness will pass.

    • Dunk her in cold water. This ought to be comical in a Three Stooges kind of way. 
    • Put her in a suspended wire-bottomed cage so she gets a lot of air up her hind end. This should be less stressful than the cold water, but may take a lot longer.

    For now, just wait and see. Stay tuned for the outcome!