8 December 2014

Keeping a clean nest box

There are many things I could say about a nest box, but the major point is that they should be clean of droppings! Because chickens know the importance of not pooing in your own nest, it should be them keeping their nests clean, not you picking up droppings every morning.

However, so often it doesn't work that way. There are things that can be done, however: it's a matter of good management rather than good luck.

Recently I got a message from a friend who's had her hens for a year or so now. She'd had two hens die and number three was now showing the same symptoms. Not laying, diarrhoea, and eventually a swollen abdomen and death. Number three was at the diarrhoea stage.

I went to her house. I'm not a specialist in chicken illnesses, but I've learnt a little bit about them. Mainly I look for ways to keep birds healthy, and what aspects of chicken's environment might need tweaking in order to meet their basic needs.

At a glance the bird still looked in pretty good nick. Her comb was red and erect and she moved almost normally. The vent looked fine, I thought, apart from the soiled feathers. ("A chicken's bottom looks like a mouth," says my Anna, aged 8, amazed.)

The poo was very suspect.

But then I discovered something really worrying: the state of the nest boxes! The hens were sleeping in two of the nest boxes every night, and this was what had accumulated as a result. I suspect some nasty micro-organisms were thriving in this poo mattress, then getting inside the hens and making them very sick.

I know nest box sleeping is quite common, and some people manage it by regularly clearing the box. However, it is so much healthier for birds to roost on a perch. There's less chance of mites or lice infesting the nest box and their feathers, and although a perch may seem less cosy to us, up there they can keep themselves warm better by fluffing up all their feathers to trap air in an insulating fashion. Plus, of course, they don't have nightly contact with their own faeces, which has got to be a good thing.

For them to choose the nest box rather than a perch means the perch must be adequately positioned, shaped and sized. I'll write more about this in another post, but one important factor is that the perch must be higher than the nest box. It is their instinct to choose the highest point.

What happened to my friend's sick hen?  She gave the nest boxes a major clean out, and blocked off all but one of them semi-permanently (she only has two hens left, so they only need a single nest box between them.) The open nest box was generously lined with barley straw, and blocked off towards
the end of the day. After it got dark she made sure her birds were positioned on the perch, and unblocked the nest box ready for laying time the next morning. Once it's dark chickens can't see well enough to move themselves off a perch and into a nest box.

She also gave the perches an overhaul so they were more easily accessed and comfortable for her hens. So many coops have inadequate perches!

Happily, the sick hen got better, and started laying again! No more nasty poo mattresses for her girls.

1 December 2014

Chickens AND a healthy lawn

Who said that chickens ruin your lawn?

Well, they can ruin it. But check out my friend's lawn - the grass in the chicken run is obviously healthier than the mown part. Her secret is having a big enough area for them to roam around and forage without decimating the grass.  Our section has too little lawn and too much garden for that.

I also like the approach of the permaculture blogger at ecothriftylife.wordpress.com - he has a chicken tractor which he moves very regularly around the lawn, so they mow and fertilise it for him.

Do you successfully keep your chickens on a healthy lawn?

26 November 2014

Rat control, cheap and simple

Everyone hates rats. When you keep chickens, they seem to turn up more often, so you need to know how to control rats safely and cheaply. This post will tell you how.

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the most gorgeous lifestyle block owned by a clever and resourceful couple. They are doing forest restoration and pest control in an adjacent patch of beautiful kahikatea forest.

I noticed that they were using the cleverest and cheapest little bait station for rats that I've ever seen. They told me they'd invented them and that they work really, really well.

Firstly, you need a tunnel, because rats love going through tunnels and to keep non-target creatures away from the bait. Here they have just used icecream containers with rat-sized holes cut in two opposite sides. Note that the holes (doorways) are cut slightly above ground level to keep out puddles when it rains.

Note they've pinned down the icecream container with bent wire.

Home-made wooden tunnels, and plastic piping work well as tunnels too. Place tunnels next to fencelines, buildings or something else if possible - rats are more likely to choose these than tunnels on open ground.

Slightly to the side of the tunnel is poison bait on a nail. The nail is simply driven up through the middle of the bottom of the icecream container. Then, to keep the bait dry above any puddles that do get in, they have used a small bit of narrow plastic tubing over the nail (I think a small hunk of rubber would work well too). The bait goes over top of that.

Bait often comes with a hole in it for this purpose, so the rats have to keep coming back to nibble it. With loose baits the rats take the whole bait away and hoard it. Once I bought bait without a hole in it and tried to force it onto a nail, and it just crumbled away - it was such a waste of money.

What kind of bait?
A common type is made by Pestoff. Rats love it (presumably because of the smell and flavour) and it contains the poison brodifacoum, an anti-coagulant. One ravenous nibble of it is deadly to rats. However if cats or dogs eat poisoned rats, they can get secondary poisoning. They won't die the first time - they'd have to eat a lot of them - and the vet can administer something to counteract it.

Alternatively you can use Ditrac or Contrac bait, which doesn't have the secondary poisoning effect.

The bait is available from places like RD1, Farmlands and Bunnings. Prices can be lower online, however. I've been pleased with the service from this online bait and trap shop.

What about traps?
Traps are good too. They pose no toxicity problem and you get the satisfaction of a rat corpse. The most successful type seems to be the Victor trap, baited with peanut butter. Traps, too, should be in tunnels.

Why everyone should kill rats
Aside from spreading disease and scaring chickens (have you heard the alarm call that chooks make when they see rats?), rats are bad news for nesting birds. One of this country's top bird scientists once told me that 75% of all nesting attempts of NZ forest birds end in predation, mostly by rats. They are sneaky, silent killers that are quietly decimating our wildlife.

The way I see it, we brought the rodents here, so it's our responsibility to sort this problem out!

19 November 2014

HenPower helping the elderly - a heartwarming story

HenPower is an amazing project in the UK. The  project helps the elderly combat loneliness via keeping chickens in their rest homes or pensioner villages. 

HenPower project
A photo from the Telegraph article on HenPower.
There's an article about it here, with quotes like "‘My life has been a lot fuller since we’ve had these hens,’ he says. ‘I think I’d be lost without them.’ The chicken-keeping tasks lead to social interactions, a point of interest, and a sense of purpose and fulfilment. In turn, there are reduced amounts of antipsychotic drugs in rest homes and all sorts of other good outcomes.

It's getting quite big, too - last year they were awarded £164,000 of lottery money to extend the project. Go Hens!

There's also a lovely seven minute video on the project called Hen Men here. In it, one man hasn't seen his family since 1980 and didn't talk to his neighbours until the project began. Now the local chaps get together over their chooks. (If only I could interpret the other 70% of what the men say - the accents are strong! Which is quite fun in itself - my son was gobsmacked.)

It would be fantastic if something like this could get going in New Zealand. Wouldn't it be a lovely thing for the old people to show visiting grandchildren? I can even imagine local kindergartens going on field trips to see the chickens and collect the morning's eggs, and the residents being delighted by seeing the children. Some of the children would probably start wanting their own hens at home...  what a wonderful ripple effect it could have. HenPower indeed.

13 November 2014

A compost heap in the run to delight my chickens

Chickens are absolutely a foraging species, and when they are heads are down, tails up, they are happy! In the wild they spend most of their time pecking and scratching as they forage. Today penned-up backyard chickens are exactly the same - even if the feeder's full, they want to forage. And forage they should.

Two or three weeks ago I finally got around to making mine their own compost heap in the chicken run. Hopefully one day it will start to compost properly and provide worms for my birds to find. However, from the first day of my making this heap, they've spent a lot of time in it.

Why they love their compost heap
- They eat some of the green stuff when it's fresh
- They like turning it over in the hope of finding something
- After the first night, any heap of vegetation has the effect of attracting tiny little creatures underneath it that the chickens love to gobble down. For this to happen, it's just a matter of creating a critical mass of vegetable matter.

What I put in it
It's mainly full of weeds. Ah, there are so many of them at this time of year. Leaves, weeds and whatever else you gather will work. I also throw unwanted leafy bits of vegetables in there - carrot, radish and parsnip tops, for example, and lettuce that has bolted.

I try not to add very long grass or vine-like stuff. If they swallow very long blades of grass it can block their digestive systems, and vines just make a tangled mess that it is hard for them to turn over. A gone-to-seed broccoli plant goes in there, but I pull it out a day or two later when all that's left is long, stiff stalks because they've eaten all the leaves.

What about rats?
We always leave out rat poison in tunnels, and our cat's a reasonable hunter, but I still worry about attracting rats. Therefore I'm not adding kitchen scraps (apart from things like lettuce) unless I know they'll be gobbled straight away.

Maintaining critical mass: it needs a border
As all chicken keepers know, piles/heaps don't last long under strong scratchy chicken feet - they get dispersed very fast! Therefore they need a border that the chickens can climb over, but that keeps the contents contained.

Half our heap is surrounded by fences, and the half they get in and out of has small tree stumps and old bricks as a border about 30 cm high. That way they can kick at the vegetation as much as they want and it still stays pile-shaped. The vegetation needs to be held in a heap in order for the insects to accumulate and nature to do its decomposition magic.

I can't see this needing much work over time, except:
- sometimes turning it over with a pitchfork or similar, so that the little creatures right underneath are exposed and to add air to the heap.
- if the contents start to spill over the border, I'll make it bigger. I could move the border out or build the border higher with something like rocks. (I probably won't build it higher or my sneakiest chicken would realise that it brings her closer to the top of the fence and she can jump over to eat our vegetables.)
- I might need to add straw or dead leaves as 'brown matter' if it gets a bit slimy and stinky.

Have you experimented with compost heaps in this way?

4 November 2014

Typical chicken health problems in a nutshell

Last week Angie from Battery Hen Rescue and Rehoming wrote the following post on her Facebook page. It has a summary of some common health problems that might be helpful. It's also interesting to note that not all commercial free-range birds live in the conditions you'd hope for when you buy their eggs.

"Apples and OrangesThat's how I feel after my experience last week rescuing 120 hens from a free-range farm. [Note, Angie usually takes battery (caged) farmed birds.] They are certainly happier, more confident, well-rounded birds. They are dust-bathing the HECK out of my front yard! They have lived in flocks of 1000 and the majority are of great body weight and feathered condition. 

However, I felt slightly like I'd been thrown under the bus when I first unloaded these hens. I was unprepared for how long it would take to treat individual hens for the range of ailments they carried, due to the nature of their living environment, and how long some would need to recover before rehoming. 

1. Lice

All hens had lice. Some had severe infestations of lice around the vent area. Lice are small straw-coloured critters that lay and hatch around the vent, spreading to other areas of the body. They feed on the skin and feather shafts causing heavy irritation to the bird. In my experience the key to preventing and keeping lice under control is this: CHECK, CHECK, CHECK. Weekly checks of the skin around the hen's vent area (where the lice like to lay eggs), parting the fluffy bum feathers to see. Also, ensure hens are able to dustbathe. TREATMENT: a gentle shake of either Pestene, or Diatom (can be ordered online, or purchased from your local vet/animal feed store). Lice are species specific and they can not live off the bird. Once a hen has lice, the weekly check is even more important, to keep on top of eggs as they hatch. 

2. Scaly leg mite

Not all of the hens at this farm had SLM. And those that did, didn't have it 'that' bad. However, it is highly contagious to other birds and left untreated can cause discomfort, pain, lameless and damage to the legs. Scaly leg mites are microscopic insects that live underneath the scales on a chicken’s lower legs and feet. They dig tiny tunnels underneath the skin, eat the tissue and deposit crud in their wake. The result is thick, scabby, crusty-looking feet and legs. TREATMENT: 1) soak the feet and legs in warm water, 2) dry with a towel, gently exfoliating any dead, loose scales, 3) dip feet and legs in oil, (linseed, mineral, olive, vegetable) which suffocates the mites, 4) wipe off linseed oil and slather affected area with petroleum jelly. The petroleum jelly (vasoline) should be reapplied several times each week until the affected areas return to normal. It may take several months for mild to moderate cases to resolve. In severe cases of scaly leg mite, oral or injectable forms of Ivermectin may be prescribed by a veterinarian.

Scaly leg mite.
[Note from Keeping Chickens NZ: Sometimes this condition
 can get so bad that the whole leg is thickened and misshapen.]

3. Worms

Most of the hens had roundworms. I know, because I had the pleasure (not!) of seeing their poop post-worming treatment. This poultry farm worms their hens every 3-4 months, however due to large numbers of hens pecking and pooping in the same paddock, worm eggs being expelled and re-ingested is inevitable.

4. Bumblefoot

Bumblefoot can be caused by a cut, scrape or injury to the foot pad, commonly occurring from a splintered roost, repetitive landings from heights or poor litter management. The compromised skin allows an entry point for bacteria, which can then lead to a pus-filled abscess. The affected foot should be cleaned thoroughly. Mild cases can take a "wait and see" approach, but they tend to get worse. Some cases can be treated with the removal of the scab and the application of a wound-care cream 2-3 times a day until healed. More advanced cases may need to be surgically treated and some cases may require a course of antibiotics."

Thank you to Angie for allowing this post to be shared here. All the photos are hers, too. It's worth liking her Facebook page to keep up to date with her latest rescues, especially if you're in the Auckland area (she's in Waiuku) and are interested in taking rescue birds. She charges a very low price, just to cover her costs. Some of her birds are from commercial operations, and others are just unwanted but often lovely.

30 October 2014

Lead poisoning in urban chickens - should we be worried?

An alarming story appeared on the Stuff website recently: Beware of backyard chickens, read the headline.

In Auckland there have been two cases of urban chickens suffering from lead poisoning. Their eggs were contaminated, so the owners were eating lead-laden eggs.

Sick chickens were the owners' first clue that anything was wrong: the chickens were like canaries in a coal mine. Instead of keeling over after breathing poisonous gas, however, they were eating poisonous heavy metals as they foraged on lead-contaminated soil.

Chicken feet on soil

It was only thanks to the owners being so besotted with their chickens that the problem was revealed. Instead of dislocating their necks, they took their sick birds to the vet, and the extent of the property's contamination - and their own - was revealed.

Why we need to think about lead

New Zealand has been terrifyingly slack about lead. The primary problem is not keeping chickens on contaminated soil, but the degree of contamination in the first place. If it's in your soil - or your neighbour's - it will be in the dust in your house, and it will be inside you. Lead damages brains, its effects are irreversible, and as a heavy metal it never biodegrades. It has no smell or taste. Possibly its IQ-lowering effect is why lead paint wasn't banned here until the late 1970s, but was banned in Austria in the 1930s. (I did say terrifyingly slack.)

Having children myself, I get jittery about this. Their brains are very precious.

(Also note that we still allow tonnes of another heavy metal, cadmium, to be applied to our land every year - it's in superphosphate.)

Little girl peers into chicken coop

Chickens are not the problem

As I see it, the problem is not the chickens. This should not be an anti-chickens issue! The problem is the contamination. New Zealand has a lot of painted weatherboard homes. Your house may no longer be coated in lead paint, but what happened to the paint when it was removed? Is the paint peeling on your neighbour's house? Or is a house upwind of yours being renovated? There are also industrial and farming sources of lead contamination.

There is a fantastic article on lead here in the New Zealand Listener from earlier this year.

If you are concerned, you can get your soil tested at Hill Laboratories. (Disclaimer: my husband works there. I understand they are the main company that does this, though.). It costs around $60 + GST. You'd need to contact them for a proper price and instructions on how to take the sample.

16 October 2014

Weaving chicken feathers into Maori cloaks

My dearest, oldest and most beautiful hen died last weekend. A black Orpington, she was the size of a smallish dog, with iridescent black feathers. You can see her in the header to this blog.

Black Orpington hen
The deceased hen, a few months before her death.
What to do with a dead chicken? There was more to think about than the practicalities this time around, because I loved her, that magnificent Victorian lady of a hen, who was adoptive grandmother to the flock. Still, I wanted her body to be well-used.

Fortunately the weekend before I'd met a woman who weaves Maori cloaks, and she told me how chicken feathers are desirable for weaving. Therefore, my daughter and I plucked those stunning feathers, pleased that someone else would enjoy them. Never before will the weavers have used such gorgeous feathers, I believe!

Korowai (feathered cloak) made with chicken feathers
A korowai (Maori feathered cloak) made with chicken feathers

I was intrigued by the different types of feathers.

Black orpington hen exterior vaned feathers
Contour, or vaned feathers
Insulating feathers black Orpington hen
The insulating down feathers
filoplumes of black Orpington hen
Filoplumes (hair-like feathers)
The filoplumes are, I've read, mainly to allow the bird to sense the position of the contour feathers. You need to know if your feathers are ruffled!

To ensure thorough use of the carcass, I fed some of the large maggots that were on her undercarriage to the other hens. I hope that wasn't making cannibals of them. They do love maggots.

Then I dug a hole in the garden and buried my dear old friend. I planted poppies above her, and plan to put in a passionfruit plant, too, to soak up all that Orpington goodness.

For more about this grand old chicken lady, and the circumstances surrounding her death, you can read this post on the Peaceful Green blog.

7 October 2014

Dealing with a broody hen

Broody hens can drive you crazeeee! They're not doing anything 'wrong', of course, just trying to be good mothers. However, most of us want them out of the nest box and back to laying eggs.

Broodiness is of the big drawbacks of having a traditional breed of hen, as opposed to a modern hybrid breed like a brown shaver. Some beautiful big traditional breed hens - so feathery and well designed to incubate eggs - never go broody, but many do.

Broodiness is when a hen switches into mother mode: she wants nothing other than to incubate eggs so she can hatch chicks. Many of us keep hens without roosters, so their eggs are infertile. However, chicken instincts are strong, and the broodiness switch gets triggered regardless. It most often happens in spring.

How to tell if she's broody
You'll know your hen is broody when she spends all her time in the nest box, sitting on her eggs and whatever other eggs she can fit under her warm, cosy body. Her desire to be on her nest will be powerful.

She'll stop laying eventually, but only after she's laid her 'clutch', which could take at least a week.

Notice how her comb is no longer red and has turned pale pink
 - she's obviously not in a fertile state.
She'll also look and sound a bit different. She has, after all, been taken over by some powerful hormones. Her feathers will look fluffed and somehow more pointed, and she'll probably give an angry little cry when you try to turf her out of the nest - a sound she doesn't usually make.

Why broodiness is a problem
Hens don't eat or drink much when they're broody. Incubated fertile eggs hatch after three weeks, so the mother's health doesn't suffer. Without the relief provided by hatching eggs, broody hens can get very thin.

Plus, she stops laying, and you want her eggs, right?

How to fix it
I'm all for keeping life as natural as possible for chickens. It's not natural, however, to have no rooster and infertile eggs, so in this instance we have to accept that what we have to do to fix the broodiness is also going to be unnatural. The hen will hate it.

Some broodies are more easily snapped out of it than others. The gentle route is just to block her out of the nest box with substantial fortifications. Lift her on to her perch at night if she's nesting somewhere.

This barricading approach can be a problem if other hens need to get into the nest box. I managed to rig up a system that excluded my huge broody Orpington while still allowing my slender brown shavers a little nesting spot.

Often, though, you'll need to separate the broody hen. The standard approach is to put her in a cage with a wire mesh floor set on blocks so she can get 'air under her skirts', and leave her there until she snaps out of it. She'll need food and water and to be protected from the weather.

Some people advise leaving her there until she lays again, but I think you can tell when she comes right. She looks normal again. It will probably take days, not weeks.

When to strike
Get her out of the nest box as soon as you notice her getting broody. The warm nest stimulates further broodiness. The longer you leave it, the longer it will take her to snap out of it.

Putting fertile eggs under her
Once I had an Orpington with a chronic broodiness problem (the one in the photographs on this page). I gave in and bought her some fertile eggs. Three weeks later we had a chick - it was magnificent!

When the chick was six weeks old the mother started attacking it. Then she went broody again. I gave up and sold her as a broody to someone who wanted to start a flock. For such people, broodies are desirable.

22 September 2014

Solutions for a muddy chicken run

All this spring rain makes for a muddy, horrible chicken pen, don't you find? I tipped stored autumn leaves and plenty of weeds into my fenced run over the weekend to cover the soil and give the hens something to scratch and forage in. They were very grateful.

There's a great article by Janet Luke here on keeping a healthy chicken run. She angles it towards keeping the run smell-free, but the principle of chucking in lots of organic matter applies just as much to keeping it mud-free.

17 September 2014

Chicken coop tour

One of the first questions to come up when people decide to get chickens is "What kind of coop shall I get?"

Here's ours, with plenty of photos. Sorry, I didn't clean it for you - I don't do much of that! This is a low-input coop. My husband built it using mainly leftover fencing timber. It houses four birds comfortably, five at a pinch. They spend most of their time outside in their pen, coming into the coop just to sleep, lay, eat and drink.

There's a gap at the top where the hinged roof opens up for access. The gap is covered with a bit of old floor vinyl to make the coop watertight. The brick stops the flap blowing open. This is the goofiest part of the coop. Note the ventilation gaps at the end (you can only see one). These are very much needed in summer.

Nest box
Then to the business end, the nest box. The floor of this about 50 x 50 cm. Sometimes two hens squeeze in there at once. I line it with paper (an old potato bag at the moment) and barley straw. If an egg gets broken the whole messy lot of it can be chucked in the compost, and a new spud bag and straw laid down. Access is easy, as you can see.

Hens really need a private nest box - they have a strong desire to tuck themselves away when they need to lay. It needs mouldable nesting material in it. (Makes me feel so sorry for those battery hens.)

Aim for one nest box per 4 hens. That said, apparently if you have more hens they often all seem to want the same particular nest box, even if the other ones seem identical!

Indoor essentials
Inside are the other main essentials: a perch, food and water. You can see we also have a little space for extra equipment - grit storage, gloves etc. This sits above the nest box.

The perch is about 5 cm diameter and wooden, wrapped with rubber from an old bike tyre inner tube. Scientists have even thought to ask some chickens what they prefer to roost on, and a design similar to this won the competition. Five centimetres is thicker than you'd think is necessary, but they do have big feet. Note that it's square timber rounded off at the corners with a rasp.

We used to have a metal pipe as a perch, but it was freezing in winter. It did get around the problem of red mites hiding in cracks in the wood and feeding on blood from chookie feet at night time. We've never had red mites. I hang some corrugated cardboard over the perch because apparently if they are around they will cluster under it during the day, so you know you've got a problem to deal with.

Note that the perch needs to be higher than the nest box. They like to sleep at the highest point, and if the nest box is higher they'll sleep in there and poo in it all night. The nest box should stay naturally free of poo (you know that old saying about not pooing in your own nest... it's true!).

Food extras
Chickens also need crushed shell and tiny stones to eat. Free-range birds find their own stones. These help them grind up food in their gizzards. Penned birds might not, so it's safest to provide some. These are my not-so-fancy shell and stone dispensers, made from old milk bottles. They're tied to the coop walls, which are mesh at the bottom to allow plenty of ventilation.

The coop has no floor, it just sits on the ground. I put a thick layer of barley straw over the ground, and change it when it gets too dirty - the whole lot goes in the compost bin. I have episodes of picking up the poo that accumulates under the perch every morning, which also goes into the compost. Then I get lazy and ignore it for a while.

The chickens have their own little door to go in and out of. I used to shut it every night for fear of predators, but I haven't done that for years. We do have rats around at times, for which we lay poison bait, but I've never seen evidence of them in the coop. Our feeder is a rodent-proof hopper that only opens when the chickens stand on a platform. The local cats have long since been put in their place by the hens, so they're not a problem. If I had immature chickens I'd shut them in at night, however, because they are a bit more vulnerable.

That concludes our tour. Please ask questions if you have any, or maybe even leave a link to a tour of your own coop so newbies can get some ideas.

8 September 2014

Uncle Sam expects you to keep hens

How about these posters for the good old days, in the US at least. 

They remind me of a fantastic vege gardening book I read last year, One Magic Square. The author, Lolo Houbein, is passionate about gardening because she is a war-time starvation survivor: 

"During 1944 and 45 I endured the wartime famine in Holland and, at 175 centimetres tall, was reduced to 34 kilograms of bone and sinew. I carry an abiding memory of my hometown, Hilversum (population 80,000), breaking down as war action cut off the region. All trees became firewood, as did doors, cupboards, furniture and fences. Cats, dogs and rabbits disappeared. I starved rather than eat our rabbit, Trudy. Mice, rats and birds went into the pot. Rivers were fished out. We at sugar beet, which was normally pig fodder, and tulip bulbs, which made me ill. I dug for grass roots under the snow to steady my stomach."

34 kilograms. I shudder.

She gardens to give herself some security of food supply. It's good not to be totally reliant on supermarkets, and having your own chickens is part of that. 

They do need feeding, of course, those hungry hens, and I'd be in trouble if those sacks of pellets weren't available. Over spring and summer i'm going to explore novel, cheap ways to provide your own chicken food, even if it's just for a little supplementary feeding.

1 September 2014

The bliss and function of dust bathing

Welcome spring, and aren't you wet today? But the recent spell of sunny days has seen my chickens dust bathing regularly. I love watching them do it - they seem so blissed out as they squirm in the dusty ground, usually on a sunny afternoon and often with a pal or two - but why are they really doing it?

I'm sure they do enjoy it immensely, and even some scientists suggest it is motivated by pleasure. It's certainly a major behaviour of chickens, and they can't do it in battery cages. Animal welfare scientists haven't been able to prove that they 'need' to do it in order not to suffer (they won't consistently 'work' for it, by pecking a key or squeezing through a tight space, like they will for a nest box, for example). But if they're deprived of a suitable substrate to dust bathe in, they bathe like mad when they do get to a decent patch of dry dirt, as if to compensate.

Of course most of the chickens in this world never see a patch of dirt. They dust bathe in what they can: food pellets, sawdust, woodchips, sand and other substrates that, at a stretch, take the place of a nice dusty spot. (Mine would turn their beaks up at most of those, but backyard chickens have it very, very good compared to most of their type.) Disturbingly, they also 'vacuum dust bathe' on wire floors. Sad.

The 'function' of dust bathing is also a bit murky. They are said to do it to remove stale oil from their feathers, and to dislodge ectoparasites (mites, lice etc). We've noticed our chickens standing around a dust bathing bird, pecking at it occasionally as if getting tasty morsels. That said, I've never seen a single insect on their bodies.

Dust bathing also smooths their outer feathers and fluffs up the down underneath, and dries them out. But to confuse things, even naked, featherless chickens dust bathe!

I think this is a case where scientists can experiment all they like - and sometimes it's needed, for example to provide evidence to change legislation about what farmed chickens must be provided with - but it's obvious to everybody that chickens should be able to dust bathe for their physical and mental welfare. They don't need to do it every day, but they need regular access to dry, dusty ground.

What do you do to enable your chickens to dust bathe?

19 August 2014

A chicken-killer: blocked crop

I just had to buy the latest issue of New Zealand Lifestyle Block magazine for its article on 'sour crop'. It's a fairly common way for chickens to die, and it killed one of mine a couple of years ago. Here's a photo of how my best layer looked when she first got sick.

These are clear indications of a sick chicken: a floppy comb, hunched body and closed eyes. Poor thing. She stayed very still, and didn't eat or drink.

She also had a bigger than usual grapefruit-sized lump in her chest. This is her crop: a kind of holding chamber that food goes to first when it's swallowed. You'll often notice your chickens looking engorged in the chest region in the afternoon. That's a normal thing for a bird that's been feeding all day. The engorged crop is often off-centre, and goes down overnight as the food is digested.

In this case, the crop was bigger than usual and the bird was obviously ill. What to do about it? When I rang my 'chicken adviser', a friend in his 70s who's kept chickens since he was about 8, he said "I've never saved one". "But she's my best layer!" I told him desperately. "Oh, they always are," he chuckled, with the wisdom of one who has seen much life and death.

There's a blockage somewhere in the digestive system, he said, and sometimes it's further down than the crop. Because chickens have no teeth, and the food has a while to travel before it gets ground up in the gizzard, they're prone to this problem.

Here's the official word on treatment (bearing in mind my friend's dire prediction) from the magazine. Firstly, feel the crop. If it's hard, see (1) below. If you can feel fluid instead, it's sour crop.

1. A hard blockage. Dribble a few drops of olive oil and warm water down the throat. Gently massage the crop downwards from the outside to try to break up the ball and send the contents south. Do this several times, placing the bird in a quiet resting place in between sessions. If she perks up and starts to eat or drink, isolate her and give her soft food for a couple of days, until the crop returns to normal.

2. Sour crop. Tip the bird upside down and massage the crop contents towards the beak. Often fluid will pour out. Stop every 5-10 seconds to let the bird breathe. Then, to counteract the fermentation inside the crop, dribble an antifungal treatment down the throat: a small amount of baking soda dissolved in water, or plain unsweetened yoghurt.

I've often read about the need to be careful when squirting stuff down a chicken's throat, because it's quite possible to squirt it down into the lungs by mistake. For that reason I didn't treat my bird, other than tipping her upside down to drain her out. After a couple of days of not eating or drinking, she died. I wish I'd tried, now. Also, once I realised death was inevitable, I wish I'd put her out of her misery. I''ll write more on how to manage that another day.

Fortunately, sometimes they live! I've had two birds showing signs of the same thing, one of which I tipped upside down and one that I just left. Both were totally normal again the next day. However, neither of them ever looked as sick to start with as the first one.

Why, when one of my hens swallowed a 20 cm long blade of oat grass yesterday, did I dive in and pull it out of her beak before the entire thing disappeared? Because tangles are a main cause of a blocked crop. I now always tear or cut up long grass before throwing it to my birds (I missed that oat leaf).

In nature, of course, chickens don't get chucked long pieces of grass while they live in a barren pen. They tear off bite-sized lengths of grass, which is possible because the plant is anchored by its roots. But when greens-starved birds are chucked long grass, they can't nip off bite-sized bits. They have no teeth to do so, and not enough brain to realise that if they stood on one end of the leaf they could tear off just the tip of it, bit by bit. So they swallow it whole, swallow by swallow, until it's all down there. Then, very occasionally, it balls up and tangles inside.

My friend reckons that the plastic fibres of cut-open feed bags that sometimes get mixed with pellets are also a likely culprit. I pick them out.

Finally, many have pointed the finger at grass clippings. I avoid giving them to my chickens, although apparently they love them. If you must do it, give small amounts only. Because although mostly it's fine and chickens are generally tough and healthy, you don't want to be decorating a casket for your Mrs Cluck.

14 August 2014

The best reason to keep chickens

For those of us who keep chickens, being near our feathered creatures give us a slice of bliss. I've certainly noticed myself how a sense of calm and being at one with the world descends on me when I'm in our back garden with our chickens.

The best time ever, I think, is when I first started to meditate and to escape the family noise inside I sat in the shade of our garden near the chicken coop. When I opened my eyes, there was my lovely black Orpington sitting as close as possible to me behind her fence, eyes closed, as if she was meditating with me! Talk about vibes!

I'm sure it's not just me who feels that way. Chris Graham wrote in Wisdom for Hen Keepers how you "temporarily lose yourself as you care for them". He went on "After a hard day at the office, or a stressful time running your children here, there and everywhere, twenty minutes losing yourself in their world can be just what the doctor ordered."

There are many reasons to keep chickens, but this, I think, could be the best.

5 August 2014

A kiwi how-to guide to keeping chickens

This is a helpful "How we do it" guide to chicken-keeping in NZ can be found on this blog. Good for anyone thinking of taking the plunge.

The blackest chicken ever

Did you know there are all-black chickens? My son reckons they should represent New Zealand! Even their muscles, bones and innards are black! Imagine the roast dinner or chicken stew. There are two types, an Indonesian breed called Ayam Cemani and the Swedish Black Hen. A mere US$1999 for a young pair of the former, and $1499 for the latter. There are more photos on the website of the people who sell them in the US. I can't see any record of them being available in New Zealand.
A photo from Greenfire Farms, suppliers of these amazing birds.

A chicken cuddle to treasure

This is amazing and heart-melting. I think you need to raise your birds from chicks, with daily snuggle time, to get this kind of result.
Have you hugged your chicken today? See the video here.

Play Video

Hand-feeding chickens

Hand feeding chickens is such fun - here is a photo of Anna feeding our old black Orpington last weekend. She was thrilled! The old girl is about four now, with the odd grey head feather, but still very beautiful.

Photo: Hand feeding chickens is such fun - here is a photo of Anna feeding our old black Orpington last weekend. She was thrilled! The old girl is about four now, with the odd grey head feather, but still very beautiful.

Giving chickens fresh ground

It's the middle of winter, muddy and grey. Sometimes on rainy days my chickens spend much of the day "in bed" - in other words, up on their perch. This amuses me greatly!

At this time of year the soil never dries out, and that really matters to confined chickens. These wonderful birds love to spend their days scratching and pecking through mulch, finding and gobbling insects and other greeblies. And my silverbeet, of course. The stalky look is not good.

And my silverbeet, of course. The stalky look is not good.

My favourite chicken, a 4 year old black Orpington, behind a
hen and chicken fern.

The vegetable munching of free-ranging chickens is a big problem. Another is that they poo on paths. (Well, why would they poo on the grass? That is where they peck and eat!) Children walk barefoot on paths and then into the house. So I fence my chickens into a pen. It's the only solution for most urban chicken keepers. Unfortunately at this time of year the pen's soil is quickly exhausted , and they end up on a hard, smelly pan of dirt.

The best option is to regularly move the pen. We don't have much space for that. Another option is to chuck lots of stuff, such as weeds or leaves, into the pen to create some mulch for them to scratch through. Every now and then I also dig over the soil, but when I did it recently my nostrils were greatly offended. I know chickens have a good sense of smell, so it must be a fairly torturous situation for them - their flooring, their entertainment and their dinner plate are all foul. It's too foul for my fowl.

But I can do better. I've come up with a way to give them a "holiday" on a bit of fresh ground. Earlier this month I went to the Fieldays (no spelling mistake, it really has only one d). I bought a bunch of horse-size electric fence posts for $40. I felt like a real farmer! I like the posts because they are light, but most importantly they are easy to get in and out of the soil, and therefore form the basis of an easily portable fence.

Back home I used strips of old clothing and whatever else I could find to tie some plastic garden mesh between the posts to make my moveable fence. The mesh is only 90 cm high - not high enough to imprison agile birds like brown shavers if they really want to escape - but I've noticed that on fresh ground they don't try.

So now my chickens have happy little breaks from their overused soil for a few hours at a time whenever the fancy takes me. I love watching them in their element, heads down and tails up, as they happily work hard at discovering goodies.

One of their favourite spots seems to be under our citrus trees. I suspect that they are eating something there does bad things to the citrus, which have whitefly and sooty mould. The slug damage to the ripe fruit weighing down our mandarin tree certainly seems to have stopped.

A tip: If you like to give your chickens fresh ground in this way, remember to give them a bowl of water in their temporary pen. They need to drink little and often, even in winter.

Can you spot the vege garden safe in the background?

This kind of ground is paradise for chickens. Remember, thousands of years ago they were junglefowl - give them a bit of jungle whenever you can!