Thursday, December 30, 2010

Home at Last, New Plans

OK, my Odyssey is complete. I am home. In the process, I experienced long distance driving, family fun, and loss.

My trusted friend, Doctor Dolittle, found my dead hen on Christmas morning and hastily improved the chicken coop. Doc tells me the chickens are agitating for some more coop improvements.

  • The pen gets really soggy when it rains. 
  • The roosts need a drop ceiling.
  • The door catches on the bird net. (might be a human requirement)
  • The nest boxes need external access. (um, ditto?)

*sigh* Back to the drawing board.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Re-winterizing the coop

While I was away, we had a cold snap hard on the heels of horizontal rain. This tragically exposed another design flaw and my friend Dr. Dolittle found one of the hens dead on Christmas morning.

Thankfully, Doc rounded up an assistant and the two of them blocked more of the vents with plastic. They inspected each chicken for dry feathers and feet. They even provided big towels to help the chickens think about sunny beaches.

It was a lifesaving improvement. The temps dropped close to 20F. In the morning Doc had to chip out all the water bowls and make arrangements to replace split pipes and hoses.

All the chickens made it. And fresh eggs too!

If this weather keeps up I may have to order a water heater:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sad Christmas

Today, Christmas Day, I lost my first chicken.

My big australorp alpha hen, Shadow, was dead on the floor of the coop this morning. She apparently died from exposure.

It rained yesterday and all the birds got wet. By the time they went to roost, she was the only one still wet and the others excluded her.

I have to ask, did she really die from exposure, or was something else wrong that kept her body heat from drying her like the others? Have I really done everything I can to protect my birds? Should I have toweled her off? Would that even have made a difference?

One thing for sure, I am going to put a roof over that part of the pen so water does not get into the coop when we have horizontal rain.

On a day where most of us are thinking about family and gifts, this certainly puts things in perspective.
Shadow, in happier times

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Clever Little "Helper"

As I get ready to go on my Odyssey I am making some last-minute improvements to my chickeny world.

The fenced pen around the coop is 40x20. It has no top so the birds, of their own accord, have become free-range chickens. So I bought one of these doodads:

Putting my engineering background to good use, I zip tied flimsy PVC pipe to the coop roof and the fence top for structural integrity. Then I balanced on one leg atop a ladder sturdily planted in randomly placed dust baths and fluffed the bird net over the coop and supports.

My smartest chicken helped with the project. She walked under the net laying on the ground and tried to walk out through the net. Have to commend her for her determination to fit her head, tail, left wing, right wing, left leg, and right leg into a net hole. Her judgement, not so much.

So when I called the chickens in for the night with their evening BOSS bribe, she stubbornly remained out in the yard. I found her patiently sitting on the ground, waiting for me to do my superior-3D geometry thing that us primates seem to be good at. After much wiggling and jiggling and pushing and colorful vocalizations (from both of us), she was free. She casually walked waaaaaay around the net to get to the gate and then into the coop.

Maybe IQ was a good name after all.

Supporting net with PVC

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vacation: Out of Control

How do you take a vacation when you have a flock of chickens? OK, this applies to dogs, cats, horses, and other critters. But the question remains the same....

My flock of seven, six laying hens and the big guy, has been my little friends since I got them in May. In that time, we have learned together about what foods are chickeny-delicious, how to recover from a chickeny virus, how to deal with weak eggshells, proper coop construction, puberty, and choking hazards.

Through all these adventures I have become quite close to my little feathery friends and they have learned to (mostly) tolerate my presence.

But now I need to travel from Texas to the frosty wasteland known as "Up North". I have at least 40 hours of driving ahead of me before I am home again.

I have enlisted my most trusted friend to take care of my fluffy babies. Now I have the delicate task of respectfully communicating every single detail of caring for my cherished cockerel and prized pullets.

While I am away I will worry about the flock. Will there be predator problems as they free range? Will they gain a lot of weight from gourmet cooking?

I don't know what to expect. I am afraid of the unknown. Guess I need some perspective.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Weather Outside Is Frightful

Here in Texas we are having what is locally known as cold weather at 27F degrees. (I'm not from around here).

I had to take special precautions for my chickens. They already let me know they do not approve of exposed roosts during cool weather. I corrected that once I realized the entire flock had spent the night crammed into one nest box.

The coop is a masterpiece of opportunistic construction from salvaged materials. It is half plywood and half farm fence. This is great for the Texas summer, but it is as useless as something colorful on a bull when it is cold enough to freeze something colorful off a brass monkey.

To protect the birds from drafts I put 6 mil plastic sheets up with roofing nails. That, and a bit of clear duct tape, sealed things up on two sides. The narrow end with the pop door has no coverage. The long side with the people door has a three foot stretch of uncovered wire as well. All told, the coop has 35 square feet of ventilation. The rest is covered. Especially around the roost.

There is no insulation. The litter is not very deep. There is no water heater. There is no heat source.

The chickens are heated internally! They have a warm blooded metabolism. They have feathers. They have a roost that lets them keep their feet flat and settle their fluffy feathery bodies on them. And they get a double ration of insanely delicious Black Oil Sunflower Seeds at night.

Now there may be an issue with ice in the waterer by morning, but they really do not drink much water while they sleep. The big risk is that the moisture they emit while sleeping (and pooing) will build up in the coop and in their little chicken lungs.

So there is the strategy. Keep the chickens out of the wind. Keep them dry. Give them a little extra food.

Meanwhile, I am wearing a down jacket.

I lost a chicken to the cold because I failed to follow my plan. I failed to cover part of the coop where a horizontal rain could soak the birds and bedding, foiling my "keep them dry" concept. I have since put more effort into making sure the coop is dry and non-drafty. The chickens have been fine through multiple colder rainier weather events with no problems.

Update2: member patandchickens has an excellent winter coop discussion posted there.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Predators and Pests

The availability of delicious fresh chickens and delicious fresh eggs and delicious fresh chicken feed and my disastrous leftovers makes my yard a predator magnet.

So far I have encountered the following:

  • raccoons
  • hawks
  • opossums
  • squirrels
  • foxes
  • sparrows
  • moles
  • rats
  • my neighbor's cat

Some of these varmints have had a close encounter with my Havahart trap. Some others got blasted by my automatic scarecrow. My neighbor suggested that a pellet  rifle would be handy for some of the critters.

I noticed that his cat was not on the suggested target list.

NEW! Havahart Easy Set Animal Trap - The Most Innovative & Easy to Use Trap in The Market!


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Amazing Male Performance of "Mr. Big"

My rooster, "Mr. Big", had problems with sexual performance. He tried everything he could think of. He provided delicious food, but they were ungrateful. He tried his "Hey Baby" dance, but they were unimpressed. He even tried to surprise them as they were bending over to pick up some spilled sunflower seeds. The ladies turned him down again and again.

But now "Mr. Big" is a big hit with the ladies. He has turned into a sexual tyrannosaurus. Just today he had sex with three different ladies, one right after the other. What is his secret to amazing male performance?

In a word, nutrition.

The flock had been eating 16% Layer Pellets. I switched them to M-G 20 Layer Crumbles and a week later -- look out ladies!

Hmmmm, I think I'll pick up some vitamins....

Update 1: Mr. Big is not shooting blanks....

Update 2: Mr. Big starts a family

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Too Many Eggs

I love scrambled eggs. So do the chickens.

If I miss breakfast, then the eggs pile up at a rate of 4 to 6 a day. When I get a big backlog, and I don't burn my breakfast, I boil up a batch of eggs.

I have used hard boiled eggs

I need more ways to use my eggs!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wrong Roost!

I am really mad at myself right now.

I have been working on my coop, making useful improvements. Until today, that is.

I changed the roost. CHICKEN DISASTER!

The chickens were OK until it was time to sleep. They could not see the old roost, no matter how hard they looked. Eventually they got on the new roost and I left them. When I checked on them a few minutes ago there were no chickens on the roost!

I could not see the chickens no matter how hard I looked. Then it dawned on me, the familiar old elevated nest box is about a half inch higher that the new alien horrible fattening immoral roosting planks.

Every single chicken was piled into the nest box. *sigh*

Update: They were all on the roost this morning once it warmed up. Gave them better weather protection today and tonight they are roosting in style.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Lytle "Screw Ups": Coop Design

My chicken coop is a "masterpiece". As in master piece of scrap. It was cobbled together from recycled building materials before I had any experience with keeping chickens in a coop.

My daily chicken chores have given me an education via frustration. One thing I did right was to build it with screws instead of nails. (I love my DEWALT battery tools). My hammer drill and screwdriver bits got a workout.

First error: Not enough floor space. I took apart the storage "room" with the hammer drill and a crowbar. After the first day of hesitation the chickens were scratching around the "new" section like it had always been there, yay!

Second error: Not enough nest boxes. I added another nest box below the original elevated nest box. I screwed up (heh) walls around it, including a removable entry wall with a little chicken step. Knowing how much they love change, I walled off the original nest box so they would learn to use the new one. They gave me the stink eye and left five eggs in the new box, yay!

Third error: Litter falls out the doors. I cut corners off of short boards to make guide channels. Then I screwed up the guide channels to the door frames and placed baffle boards in the slots to keep litter in the coop and still allow human and chicken traffic. This was a real trial because I had to limbo under the roosts. The whole flock came in to help and it was chaotic for a while. I got mooned by a hen and collected the glare of death from the rooster, but we got everything sorted before it got too dark for me to find my way out of the coop. Now the chicken ladder and people step are both clean, yay!

Fourth error: Poor roost placement. This one was a huuuuuge mistake. The birds like it just fine, but I never want to be trapped behind the roost ever again. Ever! For now, I have removed the old roosts and put 2x4 roosts in the "new" section. This caused a great deal of consternation. They looked everywhere for the old roosts -- in the nest box, on the waterer, outside the window, and under the ladder. It was obviously hiding from them, so they eventually gave up and used the new roost. Well for a little while. When I checked on them again they were all piled into the upper nest box. Brilliant.

Fifth error: Food and water on the coop floor. This was another huuuuuge mistake. I bought a hanging feeder and installed it. Big improvement! The double walled waterer is still on the coop floor and they often poo in it. I plan to hang it up, or else buy a nipple waterer. Argh! Hanging it was a baaaaaad idea.

Sixth error: Poor access to fresh eggs in nest boxes. OK, I am about as good at carpentry as I am at cooking. It is one thing to play with the big boy toys and drill, cut, hammer, and screw things into more or less the right place. It is quite another to make a sturdy, level, square, hinged, safe, weatherproof nest box hanging out the side of the coop. Note to self: learn this soon. Future project.

I am only half way through my list and I have already run out the battery! Oh well, I need to recharge too.

Update: Added bird net to pen. It keeps the formerly-free-ranging chickens confined!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pandora's Free Range Box

My flock has decided that they are free range chickens. This is not at all what I had planned!

My coop and run were designed to keep the chickens safe and happy. Unfortunately, my (relatively) smart chicken has had a taste of freedom.

Every day now she slips out the gate or flies over the fence. Then she roams the yard eating yummy bugs, seeds, lizards, and unidentifiable delicious things. Within a few minutes the rooster, a strong flier, joins her and together they promenade about near the house.

This enrages the rest of the flock! The little red hen is not such a good flier. She usually makes it up to an altitude of few inches below the chicken wire, which she smacks at full chicken velocity. The others race back and forth along the fence line and squawk as if I were eating ice cream in front of them.

To preserve my sanity, I let them out until early afternoon. Oh the chickeny joy! They strut and cluck and scratch and poo and run and have a great time.

Once they stretch their legs (and/or wings) a little, they chill out enough to come back to the run for a drink. About an hour before sunset I can tempt them into the coop and lock them up safely.

I was warned. But noooooo, I had to open Pandora's Box. *sigh*

Now I have free range chickens.
De, Vo, and Buffy

Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Smartest Chicken

My flock is pretty clever when it comes to getting what they want.

They have figured out how to get out of the pen:

  • by flying up to the fence rail and hopping down the other side
  • by sneaking out the gate when it has a tiny gap
  • by wiggling under the run's chicken wire

They hit a new low for sneakiness today. The squash donut left over from the previous day had been moved into the raccoon trap. You know what comes next....

I saw the smartest of my hens, named IQ, who wanted a second helping walk right in to get it. Took her 10 minutes to place her foot on the trigger plate, but it was worth the wait.

I could not resist walking over there to gloat a little. The perplexed expression on her face was priceless.

OK, that was petty.
IQ, Super Genius

Coop "Expansion"

My ugly frugal chicken coop was improvised from a salvaged piece of porch deck and random construction leftovers. At 4 feet wide and 14 feet long, it is the chicken equivalent of a shotgun shack. With roosts on one end, an elevated nest box in the middle, and a storage room on the other end, it gives fresh appreciation for the word "cozy". All told, 7 chickens share 48 square feet of coop space.

As you can imagine, my daily chicken chores have been exercises in regret:

  • Not enough floor space
  • Storage door interferes with human inside coop
  • Clumsy to put feed in storage
  • Clumsy to get feed from can in storage
  • Really clumsy to access pine shavings

I give my birds an evening treat to lure them into the coop. I often end up with birds underfoot who are very interested in supervising every detail of my access to the storage can of delicious black oil sunflower seed. Between the birds and the storage door I have nearly fallen face-first in the coop several times. I think I would have to take a Lysol bath if that ever happened! *shudder*

Last night I got mobbed by spoiled greedy chickens and it was the last straw. That storage room had to go!

Today I sent the birds out to their run and demolished the storage room. Now they had an extra roost and 8 more square feet to scratch around for nightly treats. If they subdivide, then each chicken will own a princely 8 square foot piece of real estate.

Donald Trump better watch his back.

Master Piece Coop

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kitchen disaster, chickens to the rescue

I am a terrible cook! Luckily I have chickens to hide my errors.

I regularly make scrambled eggs. For some stupid reason I burn them pretty often too. Happily, my birds love to eat scrambled eggs -- even when I include the eggshells.

I tried my hand at pumpkin pie. I burned the crust, but I ate it all because I am greedy with my sweets.

For Thanksgiving I tried to make a simple and delicious dish from my childhood. I called my mother to learn how to make her famous acorn squash and hit the kitchen.

It was awful. I don't know what I did wrong. It was so terrible that I stuck it in the fridge out of embarrassment. After a while I could not stand the shame any longer and I gave it to the chickens.

Surprise! The chickens loved my infamous squash. I went to check on them later in the afternoon and saw the silly girls had kicked in a bunch of dirt filling in the center. That night I picked it up, looked at the center, and saw my feet. I realized they had eaten through to the ground.

Glad someone could eat it.