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.