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.