Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dust-Bathing and Egg-Binding

It has rained here off and on for the past two weeks, but Saturday was gloriously sunny and warm, with a lovely breeze. I let the chickens out in the yard and gave their coop a thorough cleaning and drying--changing the bedding in the box, forking out all of the sodden straw in the coop and run, and letting everything dry out.

Meanwhile, the hens were having a wonderful time dust-bathing. Many animals, and particularly birds, practice dust-bathing--it enables them to clean themselves and prevents parasites. You've probably seen sparrows do this on a patch of bare ground. But chickens are the true artistes of dust-bathing.

First, they loosen the dirt by scratching it with their feet and raking it with their bills, making a little indentation in the ground. Then they stretch out and scratch with one foot while shaking the dust through their feathers.

They look pretty comical, but very happy.

I always feel like I'm seeing secret chicken behavior when I watch my hens dust-bathing. They are completely absorbed in the activity, seemingly oblivious to what is going on around them. Of course, any other time, they are hypervigilant, quick to react to a sound on the street, or to the shadow of a bird flying across the yard. Recently, I ran across an article about a research study which found that caged birds with no access to dust-bathing had higher levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, than caged birds who were allowed to dust-bathe. Obviously, dust-bathing has some important physiological benefits for chickens that we don't fully understand--but they sure do.

The hens spent almost the whole day outside Saturday, and Sunday proved to be another non-rainy day, so I let them out again to roam the yard together. But looking out the window in the afternoon, I noticed Capitola, my beautiful Buckeye hen, off on her own, oddly stationary and tail drooping. She did not look at all well. My first thought was that she had an impacted crop. The crop is kind of an expandable storage compartment at the end of the chicken's esophagus, and it can sometimes get clogged up from too much vegetation. The birds had had a lot of time to graze the day before, and our grass was long and lush from all the rain, so it seemed right.

But Cap's crop didn't seem overly full, and as I examined her further, I began to worry that she was egg-bound. Egg binding, or dystocia,  is a common but serious and potentially fatal disorder that occurs in egg-laying birds and reptiles. The egg gets stuck in the oviduct on the way out--the hen stops eating, stops defecating, and will die in pretty short order unless the egg passes.

The problem is that hens are generally always working on producing the next egg. About every 25 hours or so, the hen releases a yolk into the funnel of her left oviduct (for some reason, the right one never develops). As the yolk travels through the oviduct, which is basically a long coiled tube, the membranes and egg white are added, and then it passes into the uterus, where the shell is added in layers. The hen lays the finished egg while the next egg is already in production.

The shell is made up almost entirely of calcium carbonate, so hens need a good source of calcium in their diet. Most layer feed contains calcium, but I also keep a supply of oyster shell in the coop for my hens just in case they need it. If they don't have enough calcium, their egg production slows down or they lay eggs with soft shells.

Capitola has always laid weird-looking, irregularly shaped eggs--hers is the pale oblong one on the far left, next to two normal-size brown eggs and a very tiny pullet egg from the other hens. She has also laid some real whoppers--eggs 1 1/2 times as big as the others' eggs--and in the past few weeks has laid some "rubber eggs" with very soft shells.

All of this probably puts her at greater risk for egg-binding than my other hens. I called my friend Debbie, who knows more about chickens than anyone else I know, and after I described Cap's symptoms and history, Debbie agreed that she was probably egg-bound.

Still on the phone, I picked Capitola up to get another look at her, and she dropped some yolk. While that meant that she was starting to pass the egg, a broken egg inside a hen is not really a good thing either--it can lead to infection or even internal injuries if the shell fragments are jagged. Debbie suggested I keep an eye on her in case she passed the egg, but cautioned not to wait too long to take her to the vet.

Fortunately, by late afternoon, Capitola began to walk around and ate a little bit of oyster shell and drank some water. She expelled more yolk and white, and by dusk was feeling well enough to eat some feed and scratch for worms near the compost pile. By Monday morning she was back to her old self, the first one to march down the ramp to get some chow.

Here's hoping Cap's future eggs arrive with a little less anxiety for all of us.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pecha Kucha Chickens

This weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at Pecha Kucha Champaign-Urbana, Vol. 18. A Pecha Kucha (Japanese for “chit chat”) is a presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images. My topic was City Chickens, and was basically just a riff on what I write about here: why I think chickens belong in cities, and what I’ve learned about them in my first year as a chicken tender.

I began by listing a few of the negative things I’d heard about chickens when I was trying to get the ordinance changed--that they were stupid, that they caused disease, that allowing people to keep a few backyard hens would pit neighbor against neighbor and cause all kinds of complaints. I tried to show that chickens are definitely not stupid, and talked about how researchers studying chicken communication have identified at least 25 distinct vocalizations--including one alarm call for predators that approach from above (like hawks) and a totally different call for ground predators, like foxes. I talked about how chickens are social animals, and how the “pecking order” governs daily life in the flock.

I also talked about how the history of the modern chicken is intricately linked to human history--people have been keeping chickens for more than 10,000 years. And yet, in 21st century America, few people are lucky enough to get to know any chickens up close and personal, since most of the 10 billion chickens in the US are kept on factory farms, in flocks of 50,000 birds or more. If chickens have become disease agents, it’s because of our practices, not theirs.

So, I reasoned, chickens do belong in cities, and not just because it’s good for them, but because it’s good for us. Far from alienating me from my neighbors, having chickens has actually helped me build community in a myriad of ways: by giving away eggs, showing neighbors my coop, organizing coop tours with other chicken-tenders, and connecting with lots of folks I never would have met otherwise.

It was fun to talk with people afterwards, many of whom had great chicken stories of their own, and I really enjoyed getting to meet the other presenters and hearing their presentations. That night alone, there were talks about ghosts, public art installations, Godzilla movies, body image, cucurbits (that’s a fancy word for gourds), aviation, and paper made from agricultural waste. I love the democratic, bottom-up nature of the Pecha Kucha--anyone who has an idea or a story can propose it.
I’ll definitely be attending the next Pecha Kucha on July 18--and I’m hoping to persuade that Environmental Almanac guy Rob Kanter to present!

Today I also started planning this summer’s Tour de Coop, so will write more about that next time. 
In the meantime, here’s a recent photo of the girls enjoying some leftover rice (last night they got to try their first baked potato). 

Turns out they like starchy foods as much as I do!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

One Year Ago . . .

Yep, it was a year ago today that I received that peeping box of chicks in the mail.

It's hard to imagine they were ever that tiny!

Friday, February 27, 2015

R. I. P. Lucille

I lost one of my hens today. This morning I went out to the coop to open up the box, and found Lucille, my pretty barred Plymouth Rock, lying by the door. She had either fallen or jumped down from the roost during the night, and the cold must have been too much for her (the temperature was -4 at 6:30 a.m.).

I don't know what else could have happened. She seemed like the most robust hen in the flock, always pushing her way ahead of the other hens for treats and attention. I didn't notice anything amiss with her yesterday--she definitely seemed fine last night when I shut them into their box for the night. If I worried about anyone during these cold, cold days, it was Nettie, my skinny little Rhode Island Red, who has already experienced two close brushes with death, from a hawk and a fox.

I'm just so sad today. I keep thinking I should have put a light out there to warm them, or insulated their box, or checked on them more often, or . . . something. But then again, chickens are mortal creatures, and just like us, they sometimes go too soon.

Lucille and Fanny, in warmer times.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Break in the Weather

What a difference a day makes. Today it's a sunny 23 degrees outside, and the chickens seem pretty happy about the change.

I mixed up some oatmeal for them, which was a big hit.

That yellow thing in the picture is a little container for scratch. The chickens kick it around and release a little bit at a time--kind of like a chicken Kong.

I'd read somewhere that if you put Vaseline on the chickens' combs and wattles it protects them from frostbite, and since the temperatures are supposed to plunge again this week, I thought I'd give it a try. Rob volunteered to help, and it was definitely a two-person job--I caught and held the hens while Rob applied the grease.

The hens tried to wipe off the Vaseline in the straw, and the results were kind of comical.

After the spa treatment, I put a big pile of straw in the annex for them, and they were delighted. They immediately set to excavating.

Thanks to our friend, Cara, for the generous donation of straw!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Cold Chicken

This week has been a cold one. Really, really cold: lows of -3 and -10 the past two nights (not counting the wind chill). And it seems that everyone asks me, "How are you keeping your chickens warm in this cold?"

I don't know that I'm keeping them warm--the only way to be sure of that would be to bring them into the house with me, and I know I won't be doing that. I also won't be putting a heat lamp in their coop. Most chicken folk I know agree that putting a heat lamp in a coop with straw and other combustible materials is not only unnecessary but dangerous; just last year, in fact, a coop in our neighboring town of Urbana burned down because of a heat lamp.

I try to remind myself that songbirds with a lot less body mass are out there in the cold all day and night, and we don't often think about how they stay warm. Last year, when I was ordering my chicks, I was careful to choose breeds that were especially suited for cold-weather life--"cold-hardy," as they say in the poultry business. And when we built our coop, we made sure it had an elevated, enclosed box with good ventilation. Hens can get frostbite when too much moisture builds up in their coops, not just from the cold alone.

But even in this extreme cold, the girls seem to be doing just fine. Every morning I go out to their coop and open the pop door to their box, and they trundle down their little ramp to hang out in the run and soak up the morning rays. They generally stay in the run until about 4:30, when they climb up the ramp to the box and hop up to the roost--all except Capitola, who for some reason always waits for me to come home from work and lift her up onto the roost. Even on the coldest days we're still getting about 3 eggs, although Wednesday's eggs actually froze solid and cracked their shells before we could bring them in.

But sure, I still worry about the hens. So I've been putting extra bedding in the box and extra straw in the run for a little added insulation. And I'm giving them extra rations and a couple handfuls of scratch every day to make sure they're getting plenty of calories to stay warm. And to make sure they always have access to water, I invested in a metal plate heater for their galvanized waterer. That will keep us from having to thaw their water during the day.

But ultimately, I'm trusting my girls. Chickens are tough enough to survive even bitter cold like this. As my friend Debbie points out, they go around wearing little down jackets, after all. And if they're really cold, I know they can always retreat to their roost and huddle together.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

How Do YOU Eat Chicken?

When my kids were little, they loved to listen to Wolf Story, a wonderful children's book written in 1947 by William McCleery.

The book centers on the story that a man tells his young son about the misadventures of a wolf who steals a chicken from a clever little boy named Jimmy Tractorwheel. Waldo the wolf soon finds himself outsmarted not only by young Jimmy but by the chicken, Rainbow, who is definitely not the "poor little twerp of a hen" that Waldo thinks she is.

In one scene that my kids especially loved, Rainbow the hen is shocked when she learns that Waldo plans to eat her without the benefit of a knife or fork:

"`I hope you weren't planning to eat me with your fingers,' said the hen.
"`How do you eat chicken?' cried the wolf.
"`I,' said the hen, `do not eat chicken.'"

I don't eat chicken myself anymore. But lots of people and critters do, and this year we've had a couple of narrow scrapes as our chickens almost became prey.

So here are two stories from 2014: one a hawk story, and the other a fox story. (No wolf story of our own yet, thank heavens.)

1. The Hawk

My son called me at work the Friday after Labor Day. School had dismissed early because of the heat, and he had let the chickens out to roam the backyard. I'd encouraged him to do this, thinking that as long as someone was home the chickens should be safe in our fenced backyard.

Will sounded worried. He told me that he couldn't find Lucille, our Barred Rock, and couldn't get the other hens out of the bushes and back into the coop. I thought the chickens were just being recalcitrant, so told him I was headed home soon and would just look for them when I got there.

When I arrived home, I headed out to the backyard, and found this:

And near the garden, I found this:

Now I was worried. Something had clearly attacked the hens, and I feared the worst as I looked around the backyard.  I soon found four of them--everyone but Lucille--huddled together under a bush, clearly a little traumatized. Both Fanny and Nettie, our Rhode Island Red, had lost feathers on their backs, but no one was bleeding or visibly injured. I shooed them back into the coop, shut the door, and called for Lucille. A minute later, I heard her warble near the fenceline--and saw she was hiding out in our neighbor's bushes. I'm guessing that when the excitement began, she slipped through the opening into their yard, where all was quiet.

I brought her home and shut all five hens in the coop. An hour later, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a big red-tailed hawk sitting on the coop roof, clearly wondering where dinner had gone.

2. The Fox

We had heard from several of our neighbors that we had a fox in our neighborhood; one told us that he had seen the fox early one morning while walking his dog on the next block. A few weeks later, while feeding the chickens around 7:00 a.m., I spotted the fox myself, as he stood stock-still outside our metal picket fence while the hens stood just as still inside the fence watching him.

At the time, I congratulated myself on our "chicken-proofed" fence. Earlier this summer, my daughter and husband had attached hardware cloth to the bottom of the fence to keep the chickens from slipping out, and foolishly, I thought this would be enough to keep other critters out.

Then, one morning in late November, I let the chickens out of their coop while refilling their food and water. I was in the habit of letting them out to forage in the fenced backyard while I ate breakfast and got ready for work, thinking that surely no big predators would attack them in their own yard in broad daylight. That morning, my husband and I were both in the kitchen when he happened to look out the window just as the fox zipped across the backyard making a bee-line for the hens. He dashed out the door yelling "Fox!" I looked out and saw the fox pounce and feathers flying and ran outside myself, just as the fox wheeled away and leaped over the fence.

Poor Nettie! Once again she had been the victim. Although she was missing a clump of feathers off her back, she was otherwise just fine. I herded the hens back into their box, and vowed then not to let them out again unless I was out there with them. There are just too many critters out there who like to eat chicken.

Here's hoping for a predator-proof 2015!