2 November 2018

Help, my chickens are fading!

Actually, ignore the first part of that title - I don't need help. But my chickens are definitely fading.

This is a normal part of ageing for brown shavers and Hy-Line Browns. They become less brown and more blonde as they grow older.

At two years of age, this girl has become more caramel than cocoa (in real life she looks  lighter than this)

This beautiful friend of mine, for example, was quite cocoa. Then she lost a lot of her feathers in a thorough moulting session over a few weeks, and when they grew back she'd turned into caramel!

The other two haven't moulted as comprehensively, but you can easily tell which feathers are the new ones. They are a now a camouflage-like combination of chocolate and caramel (yum!).

My two dappled browns.

Their legs fade, too, becoming fairer and fairer with the years.

So in the same way as you can tell a horse's age by the length of its teeth, you can get an idea of a brown chicken's age by its degree of paleness. Except, of course, that due to natural variation in feather colour, some are pale to start with, so don't go placing any bets on the basis of colour ...

1 October 2018

A chicken's favourite pastime

Most of us chicken keepers are keen to give our birds what they really, really want.

Well, this is what chickens love to do:

I love their total enthusiasm for kicking aside the leaves and rapidly diving in, beak first, to peck up whatever little insect or spider was hiding underneath. They'll do it again and again and again.

How do we know it's so important to them? In the wild, this is what they do for most of the day, and clever experiments have shown they'll work to get access to litter so that they can do it:

Life's sad for a chicken with nothing on the ground to scratch and peck at. At heart they're still junglefowl, so when you're creating an environment for your birds, think about what it's like at the edges of jungles (junglefowl hang out at jungle edges, not in the deep dark depths). Think piles of leaves, preferably with the deepest levels starting to decompose to feed a wealth of insects underneath.

If your birds are free-range, they'll find their own favourite places in your garden to scratch and peck. Anyone who's mulched their garden and been thrilled that it now looks like a bought one will testify to this: give the chooks 10 minutes in the garden and they'll kick aside that pretty mulch.

If your chickens are contained in a run, it can be hard work to maintain the ground to their liking. Whenever you weed the garden or sweep leaves or produce almost any vegetative matter, chuck it in their run! Throw them some spadefuls of compost. At the very least, dig over the soil in the coop to loosen it for them so they can move that around - it gets compacted quickly, especially in rainy weather, and then becomes useless for them to scratch at.

Notice in the video above how the ground level is raised. This was not intentional - it's just a result of years of throwing organic matter in there! Together with our chickens we have created a mound of goodness.

8 September 2018

The case of the bald head: why pecking isn't always aggressive

It's easy to assume that when one hen pecks another, it's an aggressive act. "Ah, the pecking order," you might think, and feel sorry for the victim.

And sometimes it is like that, but often not. And the good news is that by setting up your chicken-keeping arrangement well, you can prevent at least one type of pecking happening.

Gentle feather pecking

Recently I witnessed something I've never seen in my birds. One hen stood over the other, delicately plucking out the feathers from either side of and behind her comb. The 'victim', who looked slightly uncomfortable, stood and allowed it to happen. You can see it in this video.

There was no aggression. The pecking was so gentle that the victim's skin was clear and unmarked. She was unattractively bald, but there wasn't a patch of blood or even pink skin.

What's more, these two birds are pals. They hang out together, and dominate their flockmate quite aggressively.

The pecker reminded me of an overly thorough cleaner who just couldn't bear to leave behind a speck of dust.

Severe feather pecking

When I was studying for my PhD with chickens, I saw something far nastier. Again, the pecks were not aggressive, and the victim did not dodge the blows. The pecks were directed not at the victim's head, but at the base of her back, above her tail. However, the 'cleaners' were not gentle, and the victim's back was bleeding.

When this happens, the instinctive blood lust of chickens takes over. They are omnivores, after all! They tend to hone in on the victim and ramp up their pecking (mmmm - flesh!), and it gets very ugly. It turns into cannibalism.

If this happens, the victim will have to be removed until she heals, or even put out of her misery.

Give them litter!

Giving hens access to litter to peck and scratch at is vital for preventing this type of bad behaviour. In fact, it's not bad behaviour that's the problem, but a bad environment.

Chickens naturally spend the majority of their day pecking and scratching at loose litter under their feet. This is not optional depending on whether they are hungry or not, although it is a food-seeking behaviour. It's just what they must do, in the same way that a cat must sleep a lot, lick its fur and seek warm places to sleep in winter and cool places in summer. It is their nature.

But I had done my birds a disservice. I'd gone away for five weeks during a wet winter, and my husband had no inclination or time to care for their run the way I would have. Let's just say that keeping food in their hopper was challenge enough. The ground was bare and muddy. The autumn leaves I usually collect and spread in their run in winter had gone into the neighbours' green bins (horror).

A bare ground is abhorrent to chickens, especially if it's wet, and they turn to a readily available source of something that seems a bit litter-like: their flockmates' feathers.

You can hear more about this here, in a short educational video from the University of Edinburgh. You can't see the whole thing unless you enrol in the course, but what you can watch is useful.

It's hard to fix - but I was lucky

I only noticed the obsessive little behaviour happening in my backyard because the victim became sick (this was the foxglove poisoning episode - in fact you can even see the gnawed foxglove plant in the background of the video above!). That fact alone shows that I wasn't caring for my birds very well, otherwise I would already have noticed the bald head.

I separated the sick bird, but I expected that when she was returned she would again be plucked. I did indeed see one more plucking episode. But then, strangely, her feathers began to grow back! Now she has a new crop of feathers, and no further problems.

The new feathers are a little bit crimped.

The new feathers are also slightly more ginger. I like redheads.

These pin-like feathers beside her comb are fortunately no longer proving irresistible to the pecker.

A solution

Once this type of obsessive pecking begins, it can become an entrenched habit. It can even be copied by other birds. So always give them something to peck at that is not each other!

If you see feather pecking happening, top up their run with weeds, leaves, compost, fresh soil - whatever you can get your hands on.

Separate the victim if necessary (and definitely if there is any blood).

You can cover the area being attacked with a repugnant solution known as coal tar. This is an old-fashioned remedy for humans, and used on irritated skin in conditions such as psoriasis. It smells really, really strong, and I can hardly imagine how it must taste.

If you have some in your medicine cabinet or can find a strong version at a pharmacy, you could spread it on the victim's skin. In spite of its smell, it is a healing thing, so it won't hurt the bird, and it should repulse the pecker.

You can buy a poultry-specific version here.

Aggression is also a problem

Aggressive attacks happen. They are how hens establish and maintain the social order, and in those cases you'll see that the peck is fast, hard and aggressive, and the victim cowers and moves away, often with a cry of what sounds like fear. This happens a lot when you first mix new birds together.

Often if you keep the birds together from a young age, with no newcomers, there is no obvious hierarchy or aggression. Sometimes there is, though. Once everyone knows their place, the attacks become rare.

When new birds are mixed in with a flock, the attacks can be brutal and frequent, and draw blood. Even your most beloved, placid hen can turn into a monster in this situation! I find that the best solution is to provide:

  •  Plenty of space to escape.
  •  More than one source of food and water, spread apart, so the bullies can't dominate these resources.
  • A situation where the new birds outnumber the existing ones.
  • Age parity - birds that haven't started laying (because they are pre-pubertal) are less able to defend themselves than sexually mature birds.
  • Time - it will probably take at least two weeks for things to settle.

No matter what you do, it's a very unpleasant situation, and I try to avoid it. An all-in, all-out situation is ideal when you change flocks. That way no newcomers have to run the gauntlet of existing birds that bully them aggressively.

Does the victim mind?

To figure out what kind of pecking problem you have, ask yourself firstly whether the victim seems to mind. If she stands there and takes it, it's feather pecking, not aggression, and you probably have a litter problem. Sort that out first. In fact, sort that out right now so that the problem never occurs.

I firmly believe that the most important knowledge for chicken keepers is not what this sickness or that sickness is, but how to avoid problems in the first place. Give your birds litter, as much space as you can, a private nesting spot and a perch to sleep on. Those fundamentals will go a long way to stop you having to look up what's wrong with them, because they will be healthy and lovely!

8 August 2018

How I poisoned and choked my chicken - and she survived

This week I have three vigorous, healthy hens. Only one is giving me eggs, but these are only year-old birds, and I know that as the days lengthen, their egg-laying hormones will switch on and omelette time will be with us again.

But last week I was ready to dig a big hole and bury all three of them. One was mysteriously sick, one was obsessively plucking the sick one's head, and the other was just coming out of a severe moult.

I had been away from home for weeks, and they had lacked the extra TLC I usually give them over winter. There were even a couple of days when their Grandpa's Feeder was empty. Woops.

The poisoning

After my return home, I spent a sunny few hours weeding the vegetable garden and tossing the weeds into their run. It was paradise for them, as they nibbled and pecked and scratched! I love their happy, busy sounds at such times.

I also threw in a foxglove plant. Those things come up like weeds around our garden. The plant got well chomped by at least one hen, and looked like a bigger version of this:

A common foxglove plant in winter. They like to grow in sunny spots.

The next day, I noticed one of the girls was sitting still and hunched. At one point she moved quickly to get some chickweed I threw them, and she stumbled and fell.

The health inspection

I haven't had to deal with a lot of chicken sickness in the eight or so years I've been an urban chicken keeper, but I checked her for what I know to look for:
- her vent - but it was pale pink and clean.
- her throat area - but it was not fluid-filled, and no liquid came out of her when I tipped her upside down.
- her legs and feet - were they red, swollen or broken? Nope.

I did notice she had a bald patch on her head. The exposed skin was perfectly clean and undamaged.

Mystery upon mystery.

The realisation

On day 4 she looked so miserable that I decided I had to put her out of her misery. She was skinny and still. Her feathers were fluffed up and her tail pointed towards the ground. Her comb, however, was very red and pert, which confused me. At the last minute I decided to check with Dr Google about sick chickens with no other symptoms.

There it was: digitalis poisoning. I had known foxglove contains digitalis, from which the heart drug digoxin is made (or modelled on these days, possibly). But throwing foxglove into the coop? This apparently used a completely different part of my brain. Doh.

Digitalis alters heart muscle contractions, in a way that can help if you are a human with heart failure or an ineffective heart rhythm, but in a way that is very unhelpful in the wrong dose to a creature or person with a normal heart.

I had poisoned my hen.

Fortunately, one helpful message board said that it would take a few days to clear her system, and that she should be separated from the others and kept warm.

Nursing the sick hen

Each night I brought her inside, sitting her in our roadside recycling bin lined with barley straw. I covered the bin with an old woollen jumper with the corner folded back to provide an air hole. This cover made it dark for her, and therefore kept her calm (she wasn't well enough to jump out, but I didn't want to frighten her).

The night-time hospital bed.

I sat her just inside our back door, because although beside the fire in the lounge is warmer, I decided she wasn't used to such temperatures and it might be too hot for her.

During the day I put her in a pen next to her friends to keep her happy. Sometimes sick birds need to be completely separated, but her illness wasn't contagious, and hens like their friends. She had food and water on offer, but barely touched it. She got skinnier and skinnier.

Recovery and a terrible near miss

After a week I noticed she was eating a bit and producing a bit more poo. Next day, I took her outside in the morning, and before I put her down I offered her some of her regular pellets from my hand. She was hungry, and ate!

Then things went wrong. Her head twisted to one side, and soon she started twitching. I put her on the ground and she lay on her back spasming. Her eyes were closed. I was sure she was dying in front of me.

Oddly, my brain kept working calmly. She had been getting better - she was hungry - she ate a solid pellet. Could she be choking?

I picked her up and held her upside down, head first, gently rocking her repeatedly downwards. She stopped spasming and became very still. Sadly, I laid her down on her patch of dry barley straw. Her eyes were closed and her head and beak lay flopped on the ground.

Then I noticed she was breathing hard. She took huge, laboured breaths as if she had suffocated and was recovering. I think she had been choking, and it had cleared.

A few hours later she was wandering around, tail perky, pecking at things as if nothing had happened!

There is nothing wrong with me now.

Today, she is wildly healthy, and I suspect it's her giving me the daily egg. Her head feathers are growing back. That was another mystery I solved - she had been at the mercy of her flockmate's beak - but I'll save that for another post!

Have you dealt with digitalis or other accidental poisoning before? Does foxglove grow in your garden? When it's flowering, which is in summer, it looks like the image below. Bumblebees love it, and I think it's beautiful. But it's also terrible.

Thanks to TERRAIN.net for this image.
They have more photos, and good close-ups of the leaves: click here for their full report. 

13 February 2017

The foodie who keeps chickens: pavlova and omelet

Sometimes as I beat eggs I imagine an alien watching the process. Wouldn't he/she/it be amazed that a simple egg can be transformed into something so unrecognisable and delicious - and into such a range of dishes?

It's something we take for granted, but I love to look at things as if I came from outside our culture in order to get rushes of pleasure from the many wonderful things we see as ordinary, just because we see them all the time.

One of those things is the ability, even on small urban sections, to keep feathery livestock and grow our own fruit and vegetables. The part of me that is still a little girl sees that as a fairy tale opportunity, and longs to do that when she grows up. The part of me that is turning 45 this year hears that child, and gets out there to tend the chickens and plant the seeds to make sure I make the most of the opportunity afforded to me, even when there a million other things to do in this busy life. Some things I just will not compromise on!

Chickens for the Foodie

I'm also unable to compromise on good food. I am a thorough food lover and cook, and this works well with a bit of urban homesteading. Yes, I may be eating plums for the 20th day in a row, but they are only ripe on the tree for a few weeks, taste far better than anything you can buy in the shops, and I'm going to damn well make the most of them!

Our Luisa plum tree today

Last weekend I made a large pavlova (with our own eggs) for a neighbourhood barbeque, and topped it with our own sliced deeply red and flavoursome Hawera plums. I forgot to photograph it, but the top photo of this post shows a little extra one I made for my family at the same time, so we could enjoy it the next day. It's decorated with our homegrown blueberries. I'm a bit of a pavlova queen, and use Nigella Lawson's recipe in How To Eat. I'm sorry I can't share a link to it; it's not one of her online recipes. I'm sure your local library will have the book. She has more elaborately flavoured pavlova recipes on her website, https://www.nigella.com/, but I haven't tried them.

My daughter, niece and nephew taking turns beating the
Christmas pavlova last year, under my instruction.
It was one of my favourite parts of Christmas!

Top tips

My top pavlova tips are to beat in the sugar thoroughly, just a tablespoon or so at a time, and to use somewhat aged eggs. You want them to be at least a week old - not a problem for supermarket egg buyers, obviously, but a matter of management for chicken keepers.

Another thing to think about from a fresh perspective: how about those electric beaters, eh? Aren't we lucky? Our grandmothers used egg-beaters, the muscle-powered kind! I once made a pav like that, with a couple of other women taking turns beating, because the electric beater was nowhere to be found. All agreed that it was the best pavlova we'd ever had.

My next use-up-eggs recipe is to be the Buckwheat and Cherry Cake recipe here. It comes from the January 2017 New Zealand House and Garden magazine. It's basically a classic sponge cake with buckwheat flour instead of cornflour and plain flour - a bit Black Forest Gateaux-ish. I'll use our homegrown berries instead of cherries.

The perfect omelet

The omelet - something so hard to spell correctly, I find, but so quick to make to use your backyard protein source. I pack my omelets with vegetables, herbs and cheese for a great lunch. Mine aren't overly photogenic, but after just reading this article on bite.co.nz, I think they're about to get better. I hope you find it inspiring, too.

Eggs = good food

So, from my tastebuds and stomach, I say each day as I collect eggs from the nest box: Thank you, ladies.

Today's haul (from three hens)

I wish you much happy, healthy eating with your own eggs and produce!

27 January 2016

How to deal with a broody hen

Earlier this month I got this question from a follower: "One of the chooks keeps heading back to the coop to sit in the nesting box, sometimes, not always, sitting on an egg. She is all puffed up & filling the whole nesting box. When I give them their mash in the evening, she's not as interested as she used to be. She looks much fatter (or fluffed up?) than the other 2. What's going on? Does anyone know?"

This is a fantastic description of a broody hen: fluffed up and refusing to leave the nest box. She might also have a paler comb and, when she does go out for a quick snack and a drink, make a quiet, clucky sound, which is why another word for the condition is 'clucky'.


To me, broodiness is like a kind of craziness has grasped the bird. She can think about nothing other than sitting on her eggs, keeping them warm. Whether they are actually fertile is neither here nor there to her. In fact, although eggs make her more likely to stay on the nest, she'll sit in there even after you've taken them away. By the time she's noticeably broody she'll have paused her own egg-laying and will be tucking the other hens' eggs under her warm belly, which has probably become fairly bald to allow skin-to-shell contact.

Competition for space in the nest box.


It takes three weeks of incubation for chicken eggs to hatch, so your broody hen is likely to be in this state for a long time if you don't do anything about it. Without the stimulus of chicks appearing out of the eggs she may stay broody even longer. She'll get very thin, as incubating hens rarely eat.

If you want chicks, of course, broodiness is wonderful. You can buy fertile eggs cheaply off Trade Me, pop them under your hen, and in three weeks they'll probably hatch. A broody hen needs a quiet nest box to herself, and a safe place for her and her chicks (i.e. where cats, dogs and adult hens can't get to the chicks). They'll also need a water container that chicks can drink from but not drown in, and chick starter food. Having a mother hen and chicks is delightful.

If you don't want chicks, broodiness is a downright nuisance, and requires attention. It will be ongoing, too, because a hen that's prone to going broody will keep doing so again and again, even if you let her have chicks. She's valuable to people who want chicks, though, so you can easily sell her.

How to break broodiness

The most important thing is to keep her away from the nest. Some hens snap out of their broodiness more easily than others, and it may be a simple case of blocking off the nest box as soon as the other hens have laid, then unblocking it once darkness falls and all the birds are roosting.

A failed attempt to block off the nest box
Once I had a huge Orpington who occasionally went broody. I blocked off the main nest box, which was slightly raised, and put straw underneath it, because the Orpington's brown shaver flockmates could get under there to lay, but she was too big to squeeze in. That way the broody bird was completely excluded from a nest box, but the others had a reasonable substitute available. After about three days the Orpington would come right - but she was a particularly easy fix.

More persistent brooders will just sit somewhere else, even if it doesn't resemble a nest. My most persistent one, a blue Orpington, once just sat in mud as the rain fell on her. She was completely gripped.
A nicely constructed broody cage (in foreground)
In this case, a broody cage is a good solution. This can be anything patched together as long as it has a roof that shades and shields, four walls (wire mesh is good) and a wire mesh floor, with plenty of food and water available. The idea is to get "air under her skirts". The hen needs to stay in there for, well, as long as it takes for her to stop seeming broody! This is a shorter time than it will take for her to lay again, so you needn't leave her in there that long, as it is a bit mean. Just look out for her standing rather than sitting, feathers sitting flat and normal sounds. If she goes to the nest box when you return her to her coop, she needs longer in the broody cage.

An alternative solution

Not having a broody cage, I recently came up with a different approach. I fenced off a paved area of our property well away from the coop, and put the broody in there, alone. She squawked terribly, and escaped repeatedly until I secured the fence properly. She was so distressed at being isolated in this way that she never sat down at all (this bird has a particularly reactive personality). At night I let her go back to her pals, and made sure she was on the perch at dusk. After three or so days of this treatment she snapped out of her broodiness.

A couple of weeks later, there she was, back in the nest box all day. Intolerant as I am of broodies, and greedy for eggs, I abandoned the fight and gave her away to someone who celebrated her broodiness and let her have chicks.

Choose your breeds carefully

Sometimes modern hybrid breeds like brown shavers go broody, but it's rare. The heavy, beautiful breeds that I love so much are the worst offenders, as are the delightful little Silkies. However, even within a breed there will be unpredictable variation: some individuals just do go broody, and some just won't even if you want them to. Such is nature, teaching us yet again that we cannot control her!

Goodbye, pretty hen. You were too broody.

15 November 2015

What to grow for your chickens

In urban gardens, it’s hard to let chickens free range, although obviously that’s what they’d prefer and is better for them. But to compensate, we can grow a few easy, hardy plants that they love and are great for their health.

I don't feel guilty about this arrangement. Our vegetable garden is an extension of our fridge and pantry, and chickens cannot range through a vegetable garden that is also productive. Our chickens' lives are much happier than their counterparts in battery cages or even commercial free range flocks.

Plants they can reach

Every winter we sow oats (and other manure crops) in unused parts of our garden. We don't leave them in long enough to actually turn into oats, but the tall, grass-like leaves are sweet, even to human taste. Chickens love them.

The oat leaves are most easily seen to the right of the photo.

The ones planted near the chicken run get a thorough gnawing by our birds, because the plastic mesh of their fence is big enough for them to poke their heads through. They can reach leaves that wave close to their fence, but they can’t dig up and destroy those plants. The same goes for silverbeet and broccoli that sometimes grows there.

Last month we moved their fence a bit so the oats were growing inside their run. It was short-lived pleasure for them: the next day the plants were completely destroyed.

New access to oats!

The next day: all gone.

Plants to throw them

Most days when I wander through the garden, I tear off some oat leaves and throw them into the run. It’s not quite as easy as it sounds, because I tear them into smallish pieces (5 cm long or so). Very long bits of grassy stuff can occasionally cause blockages in their crops. (This is not a problem when they are able to tear bits off plants rooted into the ground, because they can tear off whatever size they like.)

Silverbeet and lettuce leaves are soft enough that chickens can tear off mouthful-sized portions even from loose leaves.

You can also throw them anything that has done its dash in the garden. At the moment ours have been feasting on bolted kale, broccoli, lettuce and carrot tops. (We don't rip everything out as soon as it bolts, though - it's good to leave some to flower for the bees, and to set seed and therefore turn into free self-seeded plants in the future.)


At the moment there's a clear strip of soil outside the chicken run where the fence was moved inwards a bit. Once it rains (tonight, I hope - the garden is so dry!) I plan to transplant a small bunch of self-seeded baby silverbeet plants into that strip, and to scatter some oat seeds. I might have to think of a way to protect them from hungry beaks until the plants are big enough to cope with gnawing.

The lazy way

All this might sound like too much work, but it's easy. Oats and silverbeet grow like weeds and take no tending at all, apart from a bit of moisture to get them started. 


Best of all, what's good for your chickens is good for you. Lots of greens and insects delight your birds, plus make their eggs richer in healthy fats. 

For everybody

Oat leaves may be sweet, but they probably won't make their way into your salad any time soon. However, there is another creature who might be delighted at what you've grown. Our cat eats oat leaves every day! It's funny watching his carnivore teeth trying to chew a leaf. He manages, though.

Other treats

Remember that chickens are not vegetarians. I often notice that when they escape into our vegetable garden their first priority is tossing aside the mulch to get to the tiny beasties that live underneath. Give them some wild flesh by tossing them snails, worms and insects whenever you can can get your hands on them.

Four happy hens ignoring the oat leaves for a start, while
they concentrate on the soil organisms they've uncovered
in the newly-accessed ground.