Thursday, February 27, 2014

A sudden vet trip...

Finding a chicken vet can be very difficult. I have been looking for a while but there was no pressing need so I didn't worry about it too much. When I finally needed one, it took about an hour of calling around to various vets to find one that would see my girls. Even the aviary vets turned me down as soon as I mentioned chickens. This puzzles me as I am fairly certain that chickens are in fact birds...

It started simply enough when I found a bloody poo in the run. The next day I found one in the yard. Then I found one in the coop under the roost... I spend an hour a day with these silly birds and despite following them around to see who was ill I never did sort it out. Since they are ten months old and haven't yet been dewormed, I wanted to start by getting a fecal float test to see if it was simply a parasite of some sort. After all, they do wander around where wild birds hang out. The vet I found would only do the test if she could examine the bird. I explained that I hadn't a clue who it was, even going out at night to see where everyone was sleeping was no guarantee because they switch spots all the time. She said that she would examine everyone for the price of one visit. So, off we went, four angry chickens stuffed into three pet carriers, my mom, and myself.

I have been on a lot of vet trips over the years, with an amazing variety of critters. I have never been on one quite like this. They wanted to see them all, so out they all came, in that tiny examination room. They managed to kick shavings everywhere. They spilled their water, not once but twice. There was an endless amount of poo to clean up, of course, none of it bloody. That would have been too easy. There was an overpowering aroma of chicken before long. That vets office won't forget us soon, that's for certain.

It was so endearing when two of the girls grabbed onto my arm and wouldn't let go. They weren't sure what was going on but they were certain that they wanted none of it! However, I went prepared. I had meal worms in my purse, and my girls will put up with a lot of indignities for a meal worm.

The vet was great. The girls were so good for her while she squeezed crops, listened to chests, looked in throats, examined vents, and finally weighed them. She gave them all a clean bill of health. The only worry is that Domino is still underweight from her molt. At the end, they patiently let me pick them up and stuff them back in the pet carriers for the ride home.

The stool sample was sent out and came back clean. No worms, no parasites, no blood. I don't know what they are finding in the yard to eat to color their poo like that, but my girls are fat, sassy and healthy. Yay!

Even though it was a worry over nothing, I am glad I finally have a vet for them and that we have a baseline weight for each. That means when and if they do need medication, the vet will have it in their chart so she can dispense it as needed. I am also glad that my girls are used to being handled. It made the whole process so much easier. I couldn't have managed it if all four were flapping and flying around that small room instead of calmly following me around, waiting for treaties!

Here are the girls, enjoying the warming weather.

Meanwhile, keeping them out of the bulb bed is a full-time endeavor!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Cast of Characters

I had no idea that the chicks' personalities would be set so early on. I held my chicks every day and I am glad I did so. It means that I can easily handle them now as grown chickens when I need to do a health check, or if I just want to give a fluffy girl a squeeze. It also gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn their personalities along the way.

Then and now.

My Little Lamb and my Einstein.

Thing One and Thing Two were very difficult to tell apart as wee chicks. Their personalities were fairly different though and still are. Thing Two is what my oldest calls my Arm Chicken. I call her My Little Lamb. She is the easiest to pick up and the easiest to hold. She will sit there clucking happily and never make a fuss until I put her down. Thing One would fall asleep in my hand when she was small, and even now she has a hard time staying awake when I hold her for a while. For a long time she hated to be held but learned tricks. They all do tricks actually, but she was the first one to pick them up. She is clearly the smartest one. She has also relaxed her anti-holding stance quite a bit.

Tricks? Your chickens do tricks? Absolutely. They figured out early on that if I have a closed fist that might mean that I am bringing them treats. Anytime they see my fist closed they all come running, so that is the hand signal I use when I call them. In fact, if I have accidentally closed my fist and gotten their attention, the only way to get them to go away is to show them an open hand... smart critters. Another trick they do is simply getting in the coop on command, but it is a darned useful one. Finally, my two lightest birds (Thing One and Thing Two) had been working on flying up onto my arm on command. We had some trouble with that one so I have called a temporary halt to the training. Thing Two decided to fly up and nestle on the back of my neck suddenly. It is very difficult to remove a determined chicken from the back of your own neck, and calling for help will only result in your 'rescuer' laughing so hard that he can't actually do anything for you.

We had some not so flattering stages along the way.

However, as grown girls they are quite beautiful. Here is a shot of Thing Two's neck feathers. She has greenish iridescence to her dark brown feathers in her neck and tail.

This video shows either Thing One or Thing Two enjoying a dust bath on her first exploration out of the brooder box. This video shows all four dust bathing together when they were quite a bit older but still had their baby peeps.

My Little Goose.

Domino, until recently, was my problem child. She wasn't the smartest chicken in the coop, and as top hen she could get mean to the others. She actually spent three days in chicken jail because she was being quite vicious. On top of that, she never liked to be held and spent her time at arm's length, staring suspiciously at me no matter how many treats I tried to coax her with. I am not quite sure what turned her around. She had a rather serious molt at the wrong time of the year and had to spend nights indoors. Recently, she chipped her beak and I had to bring her in and clean up some blood. Now she follows me around honking happily, stopping in front of me to Egg Squat, and is generally being nice to the other girls. She really does honk like a small goose. She has a low 'voice' and I can always tell her apart from the others by sound alone. She has the prettiest green iridescence to the black part on all her feathers since she finished her molt. I used an image of her feathers as the background for the blog.

Domino has always been difficult to get pictures of because of her standoffish-ness. She is a large chicken, and sooooo fluffy! I do love to hold her.

The Cheeky Chook.

Ahhh, Feisty! I had no idea how aptly her name would fit her. She is not overly keen on being held so holding her is a bit of a struggle. She is also the first one to test if something is edible. She tests ME periodically to see if I am edible, hence her nickname and the name of the blog. I always scoop her up and give her a squeeze in spite of her protests. I figure either she will stop pecking my knee or get used to the squeezes. Perhaps it is her way of being asked to be picked up?

Most of Feisty's early pictures look like this because she was testing to see if she can eat the camera.

She still does this!

Now this is a stately looking girl!

Other characters in my little zoo include Willow and Hobbes, two domestic short hair tabbies, and Om, the Russian tortoise. They are not allowed in the backyard unsupervised however. Willow is quite elderly and goes out on a leash because her dearest wish is to go over the fence where there are dogs quite happy to eat her. She thinks that she is still a young, fast kitty when in reality she is old, and has arthritis and asthma, and the best she could do is wheeze on a potential attacker. She gets along quite well with the chickens, by the way. Om gets out for a scuttle now and then, but because he could easily dig right under the fence and be gone, we only put him out when we are spending time with the chickens. Hobbes is absolutely terrified of the great outdoors. On the rare occasion that he makes it onto the front porch, he is too scared to do anything but sit and hiss at the world. I have to go rescue him from his own silliness!

Despite the leash, Willow enjoys a bit a warm in the middle of winter.

Hobbes, the Great and Terrible!

Finally, Om (named for a Terry Pratchett character in Small Gods)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Why chickens?

Why chickens, you might ask. I don’t know myself. Over the years I have kept about every type of small animal except birds. I thought it would be easy (I was wrong). I thought it would be cheaper than the free range eggs in the store (OH BOY, WAS I WRONG!). More about egg prices and ‘free range’ marketing on another day.

Anyway, I needed a project, and that was the source of my quest down the rabbit hole. My two sons are grown and ready to fledge out of my home. They don’t need mom hovering constantly. They need to do MAN THINGS, whatever that means to the men in question. However, I have been a mom longer than I haven’t, and I didn’t quite know what to do with all this excess maternal energy I have. Chickens seemed like a harmless substitution. For the most part, it has been an absolute success.

At the end of last April, I brought home two chicks and my oldest son started building mom a coop. We carefully researched breeds that would fall within our specifications: easy to handle, able to tolerate being in a coop, and great egg layers. We had great success using the Breed Selector tool at My Pet Chicken. We settled on Buff Orpingtons. Alas, I had no idea what I was doing. In spite of repeatedly explaining to the feed store owner that I was new to this whole chicken thing, she didn’t explain about dunking the chicks’ beaks in water when I got them home and one died right away. It was smaller than the other and probably would have died anyway. However, this led to my first experience with chicken math. I started thinking,- “If I get just one more chick, what if it dies? I can’t have just one chicken… I should get two more.” So off I went the next day to search feed stores for Buff Orpingtons. No such luck. I ended up looking at some Silver Ameracaunas and Barred Rocks. Somehow I ended up in the car holding a box of three… My intended flock of two turned into four literally over night, and that, dear friends, is chicken math.

Meet Feisty (Buff Orpington), Domino (who was supposed to be a Barred Rock but is actually a Silver Lace Wyandotte), and Thing One and Thing Two (Silver Ameracauna mixes)

Things to consider before keeping chickens!

First and foremost: Your local ordinances regarding livestock and your neighbors. Some places don’t allow chickens at all. Some have limits on how many you can keep. Some have rather strict rules requiring that coops be kept x number of feet from homes. Save yourself the heartache and call your city to find out what the rules are. You may also need to check with your Home Owners Associations.

Where I live I can have up to 15 chickens. However, my backyard is small and it takes an extra effort to keep my neighbors from being unhappy about the aroma. Chickens can get whiffy, especially if they have been cooped up (heh) due to bad weather. I don't know how they do it but after a while, they don't smell like just poultry. I swear there are shades of bear in there. One of the many surprises of chicken keeping is that several of my girls are quite vocal when they lay. I love hearing the Egg Song, but I wonder if my neighbors feel the same. I can easily hear them in the house, but then again, I can hear the neighbor’s puppy too, and she barks throughout the day. Sharing eggs with your neighbors goes a long way towards keeping them from being annoyed. I am allowed to keep a rooster, but I actually like my neighbors. So, unless I find a tiny roo with the world’s smallest crow, no roos for me.

Other considerations include: Will they be pets or livestock? The feed bill. The poo. Also, keeping your chickens safe from predators.
Getting into this backyard chicken keeping hobby, I knew that they would be pets that lay eggs. If it has a face and a name, if I held it as a wee baby and it has eaten from my hand, I am not eating it. That’s never going to happen. Because my chickens are pets and not livestock, this affects my approach towards their care. For one thing, they can live over ten years, but might only lay eggs regularly for the first three or four. I have to prepare for having a flock of elderly hens that won’t contribute to the egg-laying.

See this face? Not only would she sleep in my hand as a chick, if I hold her now as a grown chicken, her eyelids start to droop and she has to try very hard to stay awake. There is no way she is going in my soup pot!

A big surprise to me was how much grown chickens can eat. They eat all day, and to lay properly they need the specific ratios of various nutrients available in layer feed. The feed bill will be huge. My four girls go through a 40 pound bag every two months or so. If you are feeding them organic feed, that will be $30. Add to that calcium supplements, grit, treats, etc., and suddenly the organic eggs for nearly $5 a carton don’t look unreasonable. However, I look at it this way. Our chickens' ancestors didn't lay anywhere near as many eggs. Because of breeding and nutrition, my girls are turning out nearly an egg a day. That takes a huge toll on their systems and they deserve the proper feed to keep it up and still be healthy!

Another surprise with chickens was the waste. So much POO! As I mentioned previously, I have kept about every type of small animal. I thought I knew about poo clean up. I was wrong. Chickens poo constantly. They poo huge amounts while sleeping, which I confess seems darned strange to me. It is imperative to keep the living area as clean and dry as possible to keep the flock healthy and this is a challenge. On the other hand, I have been composting chicken poo since last May and last year’s garden went nuts. I live on clay and adding the shavings and the poo directly to areas of poor soil has done wonders to improve the moisture retention and fertility of my soil. I can’t wait until it is warm enough to garden. Anyway, planning ahead for easy clean up of your coop and run will make you and your chickens happier in the long run.

There are so many other things to consider, and I may try to cover more on another day. However, before starting your coop and/or run, plan ahead for keeping your flock safe. It is much easier to predator proof ahead of time and prevent heartache later. I live near a national park and quite often see critters that would be happy to have a chicken snack. Even if you live in an area where you don't see coyotes or other larger predators, many a chicken owner has lost beloved chooks to neighborhood dogs. I was fortunate to run across an excellent blog post by The Chicken Chick on how to predator proof a run. I decided to use hardware cloth on all six sides of the coop and run and haven't had any problems yet. Please remember that chicken wire is to keep chickens in, but it won't keep predators out. I also used her method with washers and screws in the corners when I realized that staples were coming loose and leaving gaps along the bottom. Another security feature in my backyard is motion detector lighting. The down side is that several times a week I find myself outside with a broom in hand hoping that this isn't the night that I find a coyote or a bobcat...