Chickens at the White House

With the Presidential inauguration nearly upon us, we’re all focusing our attention on the White House as President Obama gets ready to move out and President-Elect Trump gets ready to move in.  So of course the question foremost in my mind is “What about chickens at the White House?”  A natural progression of thought, right?

Amazingly, there’s a dearth of information on the topic.  For instance, when I Google, “Chicken White House” I get a lot of results for the “White House Chicken” restaurant chain.  That’s followed by some fried chicken recipes by various former residents of the White House.  And then there are a few articles where the writer thinks that the White House is displaying cowardice.  Which brings up the question, “Why did ‘chicken’ come to mean the same thing as ‘coward’?”  The person who created that meaning for the word never met my brave little rooster, Emile!

Anyway, I challenged myself to uncover what I could regarding Presidential chickens, and was eventually able to uncover a pretty sizable trove of material about White House pets, but unfortunately, only a paltry bit of information about White House chickens.  But here goes.

Battening Down the Chickens

A faithful reader of this blog asked this question during last July's heatwave, "Dear Randy's Chicken Blog, What are you and your chickens doing to beat the heat? Your fan (who is now in front of a fan), Katie" Her question resulted in the blog post I called "Hipster Hens Hate Heat!".

And now it’s December and how the weather has changed!  Last night we hit 24 below zero and the predicted high for today is destined to wind up somewhere in the negative numbers. So the time has arrived for me to write a blog entitled "Hipster Hens Are Completely Disgruntled With Cold, Too!"  But since that title’s a little unwieldy, I’m going with “Battening Down the Chickens.”  That’s probably a more appropriate title anyway, since this post is really about preparing your coop for cold weather.

Veronica the Easter Egger turns herself into a cold-resistant
 feather ball by tucking her head under her wing.
For starters, here are the three absolute basic requirements to keep your chickens happy and healthy during the cold winter months: 


Are you considering the possibility of having a few pretty little hens pecking around your lawn?  You should!  Chickens are the best!  But before you head out to pick out some little peepers, let me introduce you to one important and necessary fact:  Chickens are pooping maniacs!  I can’t say that I’ve conducted any scientifically controlled measurements in my coop, but the estimates that I’ve read tell me that one chicken produces somewhere in the range of 50 pounds of excrement in a year.  Assuming you’ve got a hen that weights five pounds, that means that in one year she makes ten times her weight in poultry-doo.  Or to look at it another way, suppose you’ve got a really good laying hen who produces 300 eggs in a year and that each egg weighs 60 grams.  If you do the math, that hen produces about 40 pounds of eggs in a year—so I think it is safe to say that a chicken’s per capita manufacture of guano outpaces her egg production.

This, of course, is all an esoteric discussion unless you’re considering getting some backyard chickens.  Once you’ve got chickens, figuring out what to do with all that poo becomes a real dilemma.  It’s important to keep the coop clean.  It isn’t healthy for your birds to be walking around in an accumulation of their own excrement.  It’s also important for them to have dry litter.  Chicken poop is 75% water by weight, so the bedding can become soggy pretty quickly.  Also, consider the fact that chickens poop pretty much 24/7—even in their sleep.  The area under the roost can develop a pretty significant pile of droppings after just one night.  And then the chickens will hop off the roost in the morning and happily scratch through it.  For sweet and lovable animals, they do have some pretty disgusting habits.  OK, you still want chickens?  Good.  Let’s talk about how to deal with the mess. 

Lawyers Guns and Money

The last few days I’ve often caught myself humming the Warren Zevon song “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”  I think the song is playing in a loop in my subconscious mind – for obvious reasons. No, you don’t need to worry that the Hipster Hens and I are incarcerated in some foreign prison as the song lyrics would suggest.  But I did allow ads to be placed on my blog—you probably noticed.  And I did have to jump through a few legal hoops in order to do that.  So there you go—money and lawyers.  Please trust me when I say that “Randy’s Chicken Blog" is not involved with gun running.  It’s just that my subconscious mind doesn’t know any songs that refer to just lawyers and money.
Picture: Clipartsgram

So what’s up with the ads?  Let’s just say that if you ever anticipate getting some backyard chickens so you can have really fresh, humanely produced, locally sourced, high quality eggs and save a few bucks, you should go for it.  And if you do, you’ll achieve half of the goals outlined in the previous sentence.  Don’t expect that you’re going to get cheap eggs.  If that’s what you’re after, stick with the grocery store.  Everything I said about the eggs is true, though.  You’ll also discover that chickens are amazing—beautiful, interesting, intelligent, amusing—if Emma Watson was poultry instead of an actress, she’d be a chicken!  So then, if you’re like me, you’ll give all your chickens names and then when they become “hens of a certain age” and aren’t laying so well anymore, you’ll be horrified when anybody suggests the stew pot.  “Eat my sweet elderly hen?  Are you nuts?!  We’re talking about Florence here!”  And then, if you’re like me, you’ll go out and get more chickens when Florence can no longer provide the fix for your egg habit, and no doubt many of those new hens will be poor egg layers, but you’ll like them anyway because they lay unusually colored eggs or have really bizarre and beautiful crests, or really unusual feathers.  And then you’ll have to build a few more coops so everybody has enough room.  And, of course, with all those chickens hanging around, your chicken feed bills will skyrocket.  I wish the guy who started using the phrase “chicken feed” to refer to cheap stuff would pay my feed bill!  So then, if you’re like me you’ll have started writing a blog about your chickens by this point, and it will occur to you that if you monetized the blog, you could make a little spare change to fill all those hungry beaks.

So that’s why there are ads.

My ads are placed on the blog by a Google advertising program called “Adsense”.  While Google claims that the ads will be relevant, I don’t have much control over what shows up.  I can block ads that I deem to be nonpertinent or offensive.  The “Date Foreign Women” ads went away pretty fast, and I’ve blocked a few others as well.  So if you see any ads that you find objectionable, please let me know and I’ll deal with them.  In addition to Adsense I’ve also joined the Amazon Associate Program, which allows me to link to specific products sold through Amazon.  The way it works is that if you click on an ad or an Amazon link, it doesn’t cost you anything, but the Hipster Hens and I get a little pocket change.

All the legal niceties are now spelled out in great detail at the bottom of each page of my blog.  I’ve tried to run through all the necessary information without being teeth-grindingly dull, so take a look!

And while you’re down there, read the new mission statement.  I did spend some time thinking about why I write this blog in order to capture it in the statement.  I think these four bullets sum up the inspiration and motivation behind every post I write:

  •        My chickens are really cool.
  •        All chickens are really cool.
  •        The majority of chickens being raised for meat or egg production, in spite of their inherent coolness, are treated cruelly. You can help make changes by your purchasing habits. Educate yourself! Read labels! Check company websites!
  •         If you have the means and desire to keep some chickens, go for it!


The Hipster Hen Ranch sits on nine acres near the St. Croix River, a pristine, protected river that forms a long section of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The house, other buildings, gardens, and chicken runs take up maybe an acre, and the rest is pretty much mature oak forest.  One nice thing about living in the oak woods is the abundance of wildlife.  Last night when Bailey and I took our final trip outside before bed,  I listened to two great horned owls having an extended conversation.  We often hear or catch glimpses of owls, eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bears and gazillions of squirrels and rabbits.  There have even been occasional reports of cougars and bobcats. 

I truly appreciate being able to interact with all these wild critters, but there’s a downside.  Most of my neighbors and I choose to live in the country for the country lifestyle.  That usually includes growing big gardens and raising a few animals.  And that’s where our interaction with the local wild critters can become tricky.  Critters can be divided into three categories:  The carnivores, like the hawks, foxes, and coyotes have a pronounced appreciation for chickens—but not in the same way that you, my blog readers, appreciate chickens.  The herbivores, such as the deer and rabbits, have an insatiable fondness for my garden and apple trees.  And then there are the omnivores, best represented by the raccoons, who would be happy to have a few tomatoes from the garden for an appetizer before settling down to a fine chicken entrée. 

We all do our best to deal with this problem.  In the not-so-distant days past, the solution was to shoot every critter in sight.  When I was a kid, I learned that the birds I now call hawks were “chicken hawks”, that they existed to eat our chickens, and when you spotted one, you reached for your rifle.  Fortunately, most folks are a bit more enlightened now.  I realize that I have chosen to raise my vegetables and chickens in habitat that was occupied by wild animals long before I arrived.  So I share the space—one acre for me and my domestic plants and animals, and the other eight acres for the wild animals.  But I prefer not to share my chickens and tomatoes.  To protect my gardens from plant munchers, I keep them close to the house, spray copious amounts of repellent, and of course I have a ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever.  And to protect the Hipster Hens from chicken munchers, I don’t ever allow them to free range.  When I’m home, they’re strolling around a half-acre chicken run, and when I’m gone, they’re in the hen pen with its wire roof, and perimeter of buried wire.  And of course there’s the ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever. 

My system to protect against predators does seem to make a difference.  Last summer, a nearby neighbor lost an entire flock in one night to a weasel attack.  A friend who free-ranges her chickens had almost her entire flock picked off one hen at a time over the course of the summer by an unknown predator.  By the end of the summer she was down to two war-hardened and apparently very savvy old Barred Rock hens.  On the other hand, I've never lost a single chicken to predators (I’m knocking hard on my wooden desktop as I write this).  There has been one hawk attack that all the chickens escaped unscathed (more on that in a later post), and then there was the July 2015 raccoon incident.

Back in early June of last year, I saw a raccoon hanging around my backyard on several occasions.  The coon was quite interested in the bird feeder and quickly figured out how to shimmy up the pole, around the squirrel baffle and to the very top.  Then it was a simple matter of sitting on top and reaching down for one little raccoon handful of birdseed after the other—directly out of the tray.  I wasn’t particularly happy about the birdseed, but was even more concerned about the chickens.  While the chickens were pretty well protected in the hen pen, it would be an easy thing for a raccoon to scoot up a tree to get over the eight-foot-high chicken run fence.  The chickens are only in the run during daytime hours when I’m home, but this raccoon was not a bit shy and had no problem snuffling around the backyard in the daylight. 

The Raccoon


Roosters (and some hens!) have spurs – a claw-shaped projection on their legs just above their feet.  Spurs start out as small bumps on young chickens and gradually grow into long, curved, sharp weapons.  And they are weapons.  Roosters use their spurs to defend themselves and their flocks.  When a rooster attacks, he propels himself forward feet first, intending to slash his opponent with his spurs.  People who engage in cockfighting (which, thankfully, is now illegal in all 50 states after Louisiana banned it in 2007), cover their fighting roosters’ spurs with long metal spikes called gaffs.  This guarantees that the spur, which can be injurious enough in its normal unadorned state, will be even more harmful—thus increasing the blood, fatalities, and excitement for the spectators of the “sport”.  I’m referring to this brutality as sport only because that’s how it is characterized in the parts of the world where it remains legal.  But I’m getting a bit off track from the topic I really want to talk about—trimming roosters’ spurs to make them less dangerous.  In addition to removing a weapon, spur trimming also helps protect hens from being injured while mating with the rooster.  And since spurs can become amazingly long, shortening them can actually make it easier for the rooster to walk.

Last week, my wife, Kathy, astutely noticed that one of Emile’s spurs was so curved it was almost winding back into his leg.  Spurs sometimes can actually grow all the way back into a rooster’s leg, causing pain and lameness.  I don’t know how Kathy even noticed Emile’s spurs since his legs are covered in dandy feather pantaloons all the way down to his feet, in the usual Cochin style.  But when I got a chance to get a closer look, I saw the curved spur as well and decided it was time for Emile to get a pedicure, and I further decided that we would take care of all the guys while we were at it.

If you were to x-ray a chicken spur, you would see that the tip is solidly made of the same keratin-rich horny material that covers the entire spur—it’s the same material that is in a chicken’s toenail and it’s dead—there are no nerve endings or blood supply.  Starting about half-way down the spur and going all the way to the leg, there’s an inner core of living tissue, and inside this core is bone—an extension of the chicken’s tarsometatarsus.  (Watch me toss around the hundred-dollar words!  That’s the official name for the bone a chicken’s leg shank.)  The presence of an inner core of bone make spurs more analogous to horns than toenails.

It’s good to have a mental picture of the inside of a spur when you’re trimming.  If you trim too closely to the leg, you'll cut live tissue and could even cut into bone.  If you cut in the right place, it’s as simple and painless as trimming toenails.

Spur trimming is really a two-person job.  You need one person to hold the squirming, frightened rooster, and one person to wield the trimming tool.  There are three different methods—each with its own tool:

One choice is to trim the spurs with a sharp dog nail clipper.  The operative word here is “sharp.”  A dull clipper can function more like a nutcracker and actually crack the entire outer layer of the spur—not good!  You should trim about a third of the distance from the end and keep in mind if you trim too much you’ll be cutting into live tissue.  It’s a good idea to have styptic powder on hand in case you hit live tissue and cause bleeding.

A second method is to use a Dremel pet grooming tool—an electric tool with a rotating file at the end that’s designed for filing dog toenails.  There’s no chance of cracking the spur with a Dremel and you’re probably less likely to go too deep and cause bleeding since filing is such a gradual process.  The down-side of a Dremel is that it is gradual.  Filing a spur can take some time, and meanwhile you’re holding this unhappy, frightened rooster.  And then, a Dremel is a bit pricier than even the best clipper.

Another technique is to grab the spur at the base with pliers and gently squeeze the pliers while wiggling the spur back and forth.  Eventually the entire outer layer of the spur will detach and you can pull it off, leaving the living core behind.  You will definitely need styptic powder for this procedure—there will be blood.  Many resources that I respect offer “uncapping” as viable method for trimming spurs, but I can’t get past the notion that it’s on par with pulling out someone’s fingernails.  There’s no denying that desheathed spurs will bleed and that the rooster will feel pain.

I'm a proponent of the dog-clipper method, and that’s exactly what we did.  It was quick and painless.  The hardest part was managing to apprehend all three guys!  

Kathy was the holder and I was the trimmer.  Each rooster in turn got quickly and painlessly trimmed while frantically thinking, "What is HAPPENING TO ME!?"

Emile's nearly ingrown spur

 Not only is Paul the smallest of the roosters, but he's also covered in very silly frizzled feathers.  So it's so ironic that he has HUGE spurs.  Ah, life.....

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #227]

A Broody Pullet?!

Last week’s big surprise in the coop was the sight of Marissa the Cream Legbar pullet hunkered down in a nest box with her jaw set in determination as she tried to hatch eggs.  “No!” I told myself. “Marissa can’t be broody!  Legbars don’t go broody!  Pullets don’t go broody!”  Nevertheless, she spent an entire day on the nest, and when she was still nesting the next day, I decided it was time to do a little research.

Marissa, her jaw set in determination, broods.
First of all, Greenfire Farms, the only U.S. importer of Cream Legbars states very clearly on their website that Cream Legbar hens “are rarely broody.”  So there you go.  “Rarely” is not the same as never, but the odds certainly seem against broodiness in this breed.
So what’s the scoop on broody pullets?  This little hen is barely out of her teens!  Doesn’t she understand the risks of having kids at such a tender age?  I couldn’t find anything from any of the experts I depend on regarding broody pullets, but when I checked the “Backyard Chickens” forum, there were several discussions regarding broody pullets.  One flock keeper reported that one of her buff Orpington pullets started laying eggs at five-months-old and went broody three weeks later.  Of course Orpingtons do have a reputation for going broody at the drop of a hat.  The general impression I got from the information I sorted through on the forum is that any time a chicken is laying eggs they can certainly go broody, but that isn’t the usual behavior for pullets.

Basically, my research confirmed what I already thought I knew.  Pullets rarely go broody.  Cream Legbars rarely go broody.  Combine those two things into one hen and it would be extremely unlikely that she would go broody.  So I passed this information on to Marissa.  She responded by puffing her feathers waaay out and dismissively stating, “Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck.”  Typical broody hen behavior.  So that’s when I put her in the broody crate.  I only kept her in there a couple of days.  Even toward the end of the first day she was shaking her head and muttering, “What was I thinking!?”

Now she’s back with the flock and is a totally reformed hen.  She’s not laying eggs, though, and may not for a bit, which is too bad since so many of the other hens are not laying because they’re going through their fall molt.  Was this a sign that this little hen will continue having bouts of broodiness?  That’s something only Marissa can answer, and in time, I’m sure she will.

One postscript:  If you’re new to my blog or new to chickens and you’re wondering what all this broodiness stuff is about, I’ve written this post, and another one here that will fill you in.

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #226]

A Dog Story

It’s after midnight and I’m pulling into my garage.  It’s been a long day with lots of driving.  My sleeping daughter groggily stirs to wakefulness in the back seat.  She’s been at music camp for most of the week and this was the day that my wife and I drove there, attended a concert put on by the camp kids, then loaded our daughter and all of her stuff into the car and headed home.  My wife, daughter, and I all get out of the car and stretch.  While my wife helps my daughter unload her cello from the car, I fumble with my keys as I walk to the front door.  The house is dark—my son is apparently out for the evening since there’s no way a nineteen-year-old college student would be in bed at midnight.  I unlock the door and swing it open.  The two dogs run out of the dark house and cavort happily on the lawn.  There is something so wrong with this scene that my wife, my daughter and I stand and stare in gape-jawed disbelief.  We don’t own any dogs.  “Are we at the right house?” I query in disbelief.  “Um…do we have dogs now?”  “Are those dogs?” my daughter asks in confusion.

Yes, they are definitely dogs—two big dogs snuffling around our yard.  They look like labs—one is black and one is yellow.  They are both wearing collars with weird little boxes on top.  I go into the house and find a note from my son.  “Well, there’s not much we can do about this right now.” I tell my wife and daughter.  “These dogs are going to have to spend the night with us.  In the morning we’ll call Animal Control.”

“Meet the Flock” Roundup—September & October, 2016

Meet Darcy Barred Rock, the fourth hen in the quartet of Barred Rock hens that rule the Hipster Hen roost. Darcy isn’t super friendly like Arlene, she isn’t super clever like Barbara, and she isn’t super bossy like Charlie. She is, perhaps, one of those individuals who would be characterized by all observers as “the other one”. But I don’t think Darcy cares. I think she knows that she’s SORT OF friendly and clever—and maybe just a little bit bossy. And other than that she’s happy to be the hen that goes about her business of laying one of those nice brown eggs nearly every day!

Meet Emile, the birchen Cochin rooster. Well, actually, you’ve already met Emile. This is a recent picture that I like quite a bit that I had to share—Emile in all his roosterly splendor!

Meet Emily, the plump and personable black Silkie hen. Emily really does have eyes but they’re hard to see because they’re sort of hidden in her fluff and they’re black--just like the rest of her. Emily’s eyes, and the rest of her for that matter, are hard to photograph. She just sort of absorbs all the light and ends up looking like a silhouette. I haven’t ever taken a picture that I feel does her justice, but she’s so darn cute I’m gonna keep trying!

Emily the Silkie stares contemplatively through the chicken run fence on a nice fall day.

Meet Maran the cuckoo Marans hen. She’s pictured here with her constant companion, Carmen Maranda. Maran and Carmen are in their third year—these two girls and Angitou the golden Polish hen joined the flock as babies in the summer of 2014 and came from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. Marans can come in nine different colors, but Maran and Carmen’s cuckoo color is the most common in the US. In addition to being pretty birds, my Marans hens lay beautiful dark chocolate brown eggs.

Here's Carmen Maranda and Maran the cuckoo Marans hens as kids in the summer of 2014, along with their friend Angitou the golden Polish hen.

Meet Marissa the Cream Legbar. I captured this picture of Marissa in August—about the time she started laying eggs. Since then, Marissa has laid a pretty little blue-green pullet egg almost every day, and each egg is incrementally larger than the previous one. My older hens have scaled waaay back on egg production lately, since they’ve started their fall molt. So many days the four eggs I get from my four young Legbar hens outnumber the eggs I get from the rest of the flock!

Here’s Jennifer, my fourth year white crested black Polish hen.  Jennifer was so sick that I removed her from the flock for a while in late September, but she did a rapid and spectacular bounce-back and I’m happy to report that she’s completely recovered now.  I was sure that Jennifer would be eager to model the new chicken sweaters, but she apparently felt otherwise.

In Memorium:  Sweet Roxie the Rhode Island Red.  Gone but not forgotten.

Sweater Girls

This post is about chicken sweaters.  It is also about anxiety. Because sometimes chickens get anxious.  But it's mostly about chicken sweaters.  But first I need to tell you about Emile the rooster. 

Back a few years ago, when Emile was a mere teenage cockerel, he got a bad case of sour crop.  He reached a point where he was all hunched up in a corner, staring into space and literally near death.  Happily, I was able to bring him back to good health and full recovery.  He became an amazingly docile and friendly little rooster after he recovered, maybe because of all the handling that was necessary when he was sick.  But I like to think that perhaps there was also an element of gratitude involved.

Anyway, over the last year he’s undergone a huge change in attitude.  He makes it clear whenever I go into the coop that it’s his coop, not mine, and that he’s in charge not me.  There have been a few instances where he’s taken me on—actually lunged at me feet-first with those long pointed spurs.  This usually happens when he feels I’m harassing his hens in some way, but sometimes it’s just because I maybe look at him wrong, or possibly only because he’s in a foul (um, fowl) mood.  Being attacked by an enraged rooster could be disconcerting if it weren’t for the fact that Emile is a bantam Cochin roo and the biggest thing about him is his ego.

When he goes on the attack, I usually respond by putting on a pair of gloves to avoid contact with those spurs, then I pick him up, pet him, and tell him that he just needs to think calm thoughts and concentrate on his breathing.  This really does seem to calm him, although for all I know he may just be icily plotting his revenge.

Around the Coop and Beyond

Fall is here.  The calendar tells me this.  And if I didn’t have a calendar, I could just step out the door.  The maple trees have peaked.  Their leaves are a solid red and yellow and are falling continuously like colorful snow.  And while the leaves are falling in the woods, the feathers are falling unabated in the coop as the fall molt I talked about in Tuesday’s post continues.
One of the projects I work on this time of year is my on-going battle with buckthorn, an invasive alien plant.  Buckthorn was first brought here from Europe in the mid-1800’s for use as a hedge plant.  Buckthorn makes a great hedge because of its long thorns, its ability to form an impenetrable barrier and its ability to grow prolifically almost anywhere.  It has become a terrible scourge because of its long thorns, its ability to form an impenetrable barrier and its ability to grow practically anywhere.  Once it becomes established, it outcompetes practically everything so no other plants grow and eventually you have a forest of buckthorn.  And it’s so thick and prickly that nothing can get through it—it isn’t even suitable for wildlife habitat.  You know the thick enchanted forest that grew around the castle in Sleeping Beauty?  I think that probably was buckthorn.

Here on the ranch, I’ve managed to keep buckthorn completely under control on part of the property.  There are other parts where it’s partially controlled—all the remaining plants are small, far apart, and periodically rooted out.  Then there are about three acres of wasteland—oak forest above with an under-story of solid buckthorn hell.  I’m in my second year of full retirement and during the last two falls I have laid siege to the wasteland.  It is a battle.  This is essentially a three-acre hedge—the buckthorn plants are spaced, for the most part, less than a foot apart.  And the big ones have grown way beyond hedge size—some are 25-30 feet high.  These are literally buckthorn trees!  There’s no way these monsters can be pulled by hand, but my trusty John Deere handles them.  So with tractor, brush cutter, chainsaw, and the sparing use of herbicide, I’m making progress.  And it’s not unpleasant work.  Eradicating invasive plants has the aura of important and meaningful work.  And it’s the sort of work where I can clearly see the progress I’ve made.  Plus it’s just pleasant to be in the woods this time of year.  Today there was a flock of hundreds if not thousands of migrating robins poking through the underbrush to keep me company while I worked.

It's hard to see the trees for the forest, but this is all buckthorn
My trusty John Deere sits in a cleared area of the buckthorn thicket -
This 25 ft. tall beauty is on the way to the brush pile

Another project that’s underway is the building of a new hen pen.  The chickens in the two coops take turns, every other day, going into the half-acre chicken run.  On the days that they’re not in the big chicken run, the 15 chickens in the big coop spend their outdoor time in the 450 square foot hen pen.  When the 9 chickens in the small coop aren’t in the big chicken run, the outdoor space they have to hang out in is the 16 square foot “chicken patio”.  That space was fine when it was just Snowball, Emily, and Angitou.  But then Courtney came along, and then her four surrogate Legbar babies grew to adulthood, and then Willow the buff Orpington was having interpersonal issues in the big coop and got moved to the small coop, and suddenly the outdoor space that was OK for three small chickens is embarrassingly inadequate for nine birds.  So I’ve finally got started on building them their own outdoor hen pen.  It’s going in along the side of the pole barn, and since it’s at the base of a steep hill, the first thing I had to do was excavate some dirt to make a level space.  Next I need to put up a retaining wall and haul in some class five gravel.  Only then can the fence go up.  The leaves are falling.  Will this project be done before the snow falls?  Stay tuned.

Some of the hens explore the trench that I've excavated along the side of the pole barn for the new hen pen.  They don't have a clue what I'm up to, but they certainly enjoy all that fresh dirt to scratch in!  The trench is filling with falling leaves.  Hopefully some progress will be made before it fills with falling snow.
On to the chicken news:  They are all healthy now, thank goodness!  But there have been a couple of weird traumas this past week.  On Wednesday, when I was cleaning the coop I noticed that some of the bedding under the roost was bloody.  Then when I looked carefully at the roost itself, I noticed a fair amount of blood smeared on the rungs of the roost—a disturbing situation to say the least.  With all the molting that's going on, I expected that the blood would be from bleeding pin feathers.  Pin feathers have a copious blood supply bringing nutrients to the forming feathers and they can become injured quite easily.  I gave the chickens a once over and didn't see damaged pin feathers or any other sort of injury.  They all seemed fine.   It took until bedtime for me to figure out that the blood was coming from a deep cut on the toe of Carmen Maranda the cuckoo Marans hen, and that it was still oozing blood.  On closer examination I saw that not only was there a deep cut on top of the back toe on her left foot, but that the toenail was completely cut off.  I decided to wait until morning before taking any action.  And in the morning a good solid scab had formed and it looked like it was on a positive track to healing.  And so far there’s no sign of infection.  Since chickens spend their lives scratching in the dirt, they’ve evolved a pretty robust immune system, and as Carmen demonstrated in this situation, often an injury or abrasion such as this doesn’t need any outside interference, but will do just fine if left alone.  The question that remains is how she got cut in the first place.  Some random piece of glass or other sharp object buried in the run?  It’s a half-acre run, but I’ll keep my eyes open.

Carmen Maranda the cuckoo Marans hen:  Wounded, but walking
The other bizarre chicken run situation happened yesterday.  The run is enclosed with a four-foot high wire fence topped by an additional four feet of netting.  On my way to the coop for my post-lunch check-in with the chickens (aka “the chick-in”) I saw the alarming sight of a chicken hanging from the fence.  It was Nicky the Cream Legbar pullet.  Somehow she must have flown right at the fence and gotten herself tangled up in the netting.  The netting had sagged a little under her weight, so she was being supported somewhat by the netting “pocket” that her body had formed—but mostly she was hanging by her leg.  I quickly grabbed her and the netting and set her free.  She is fine.  The netting, unfortunately, needed some splicing.  No chicken has ever done this before.  Was this a learning experience for Nicky?  Time will tell. 

Nicky the Cream Legbar pullet:  Sadder but Wiser??

“I’m Molting. Mooollllting!!!”

The biggest topic of conversation amongst the Hipster Hens these days is the fall molt.  As summer wanes, the shortening days are a signal to chickens everywhere that it is time to drop their feathers and grow new ones that will help them get through the upcoming cold winter.  Each chicken has thousands of feathers, and each one will drop so it can be replaced.  Needless to say, the coop is taking on the appearance of the aftermath of a pillow fight gone really wrong.  And then there are all those hens wandering around looking embarrassingly disheveled.  Not all hens start molting at the same time, nor do they all molt at the same rate, but many of them have bare patches of skin right now and others look like porcupines as the pin feathers that will eventually grow into real feathers emerge from their skin. 

Feathers in the Dust Bath:  The hens can "wash" off a lot of feathers while dust bathing
The rule of thumb is that the ugliest hens at molting time are the best egg-laying hens.  Egg and feathers are both mostly composed of protein, so a hen needs lots of protein to produce both, and if she’s making a lot of feathers, it would be really hard to make eggs at the same time.  So egg production falls off dramatically during the molt.  The good layers drop a lot of feathers all at once and get their molt over with in a couple of months, while the poor egg layers molt more gradually—they can take as long as six months.  They eventually resume laying eggs when they’re completely satisfied that each feather is in place and their plumage is impeccably perfect.  So all those pretty hens with the sleek and glossy feathers are generally real slackers in the egg-laying department. 

Veronica Molts: Veronica, my most heavy-hitting green egg layer, sprouts pin feathers in a patch that was bare skin just a few days ago.
The egg count yesterday was seven, by the way.  Seven eggs for the entire flock!  And four of them came from the four Legbar pullets.  The Legbars won’t molt and should keep their production up through the entire winter.  Why?  Well, these girls are just six months old.  They’ve already gone through several “juvenile molts” in the first six months of their lives and are good to go with the feathers they’ve got until they’re 18 months old a year from now. Then they’ll have their first adult molt along with all the other hens.  And because they’re young and vigorous, I should be getting an egg almost every day from each of them until then. 

Paulette, Nicky, and Marissa:  No molt for the Legbar pullets!
While it is unusual, hens sometimes go through molts at times of the year other than fall.  For instance, I reported on Angitou molting in May and Arlene molting in July.  Chickens that molt mid-year may or may not molt again in the fall—it depends on the extent of their molt, when it occurred and a whole slew of other variables.  So far, Arlene is still laying and shows no sign of molting.  Angitou, on the other hand, is not laying and is beginning to look a little like a porcupine.  Mid-year molts are often stress-related and as I mentioned in my first post in my series on cruel hen cages, the commercial egg industry use this circumstance to force hens to molt.  All the hens in a flock don’t start their molt at the same time, and the egg industry finds this imprecision annoying.  So hens in many commercial flocks are stressed by manipulating the light, by withholding water, and by starving them.  This practice is not legal in many countries and the Egg Bill that was before Congress in 2012 and 2013 that I reported on last week would have made it an illegal practice in the U.S., but that legislation did not pass.  Needless to say, the Hipster Hens don’t get that sort of treatment. 

So what do I do with my molting Hipster Hens?  Well, the poor girls need more protein to make all those feathers.  Some folks start giving their hens all sorts of high-protein food like meal worms and even cat food.  While hens love this kind of stuff, it's kind of pricey and too much over a long period of time can actually cause kidney damage, gout, and other problems.  So I just switch to a commercial feed with a higher protein content.  And I avoid handling them a lot.  All those pin feathers are sensitive.  They're called pin feathers, after all - and when a hen has a whole bunch of them sticking out of her skin, it probably feels just like you can imagine it would feel!  And other than that, I just tell the girls to be patient and that they'll get through this - and when they're done they'll be covered from head to toe with shiny new feathers!

Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 3 - Strange Coop-Fellows

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 1 - California's Prop 2"

Read "Edging Away From Cruel Eggs: Part 2—Slogging Toward Enactment"

Consumer polls have consistently shown that the majority of egg buyers think that keeping hens in small cages is cruel, that they would prefer to buy cage-free eggs, and that they would be willing to pay more for them.  So when California voters passed Propostion 2, “Standards for Confining Farm Animals” in 2008, an initiative that mandated more humane conditions for chickens by 2015, that’s when the egg industry should have gotten to work figuring out the best way to give their customers what they wanted.  Instead, what ensued was years of turmoil and stress as most in the egg industry looked for every possible way to block the changes required by Prop 2. 

In Part 2 of this series, I wrote about how certain egg producers rolled out “enhanced” cages as their answer to the required changes.  In spite of the positive spin of their PR fanfare, enhanced cages were really still just cages—they just gave each hen slightly more space.  I also discussed a lawsuit filed in California State Court in 2010 by egg companies that argued that the new rules were too vague because Prop 2 didn’t specifically say how much space a chicken really needed.  The case was ultimately dismissed in 2011.

Chickens in Battery Cages  (Wikipedia Commons - public domain)
It took less than a year for the next legal challenge—this lawsuit was so very similar to the first one that they could have been twins.  William Cramer, a trustee of a family business that owned egg farms in Riverside County, filed his suit in Federal District Court.  He claimed that Prop 2 violated the US Constitution because its vagueness would prompt arbitrary enforcement.  He maintained that most egg farmers would stop operating rather than comply with the new regulations, which would result in skyrocketing egg prices.  The Association of California Egg Farmers (ACEF) joined this suit just as it had the previous one.

This lawsuit was not successful, either.  The case was heard by U.S. District Court Judge John Walter who sounded a bit irritated in his ruling, maybe because this ground had already been plowed in the previous suit.  Judge Walter ruled that "Proposition 2 establishes a clear test that any law enforcement officer can apply, and that test does not require the investigative acumen of Columbo to determine if an egg farmer is in violation of the statute.”  He dryly stated that "the mere fact that Plaintiff dislikes or disagrees with the policy or language of Proposition 2 is not sufficient to sustain a Constitutional challenge."

Before the dust had settled on the U.S. district court case, ACEF filed another suit, this one in the Superior Court of the State of California.  The charge this time?  That the law was too vague.  It was déjà vu all over again!  Again, the court ultimately ruled against ACEF, declaring in their 2013 findings that “The fact that the statute defines confinement limitations in terms of animal behaviors rather than in square inches or other precise measurements does not render the statute facially vague.”

At the conclusion of the trial, Jonathan R. Lovvorn of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) noted that the opponents of Prop 2 had been allowed their day in court not once but three times and had not prevailed.  “Now…it’s time to get on with the process of transitioning egg operations to meet the needs of animals and the will of California voters,” he suggested.  “We sincerely hope the Court’s ruling will put this objection [of vagueness] to rest once and for all.”

It did seem like it was time to get on with it.  The inauguration date for the new law was now less than two years away, and many in the egg industry had spent a lot of time fighting it, but next to no time preparing for its institution. 

Through the whole battle leading up to the vote for Prop 2 in California, and in the years after it passed, HSUS had tirelessly campaigned, raised funds, and had successfully defended it three times in court.  And simultaneous to the fight in California, HSUS was pursuing a similar course to free chickens from cages in other states.  The biggest adversary HSUS faced in most of these battles was the United Egg Producers (UEP), the country’s largest egg production group. UEP represents egg farmers that raise over 90% of all the egg-laying hens in the United States.

So, as you can imagine, everyone on both sides of the issue was shocked when HSUS and UEP joined forces in 2011 to pursue federal legislation that would standardize cage sizes for laying hens, mandate egg carton labeling to tell the buyer about the environmental conditions in which the eggs in that carton were produced, and regulate other practices used in chicken keeping.

No doubt the reason UEP came to the table was the fact that there was continually increasing public pressure to liberate caged hens, the public pressure was manifesting itself in legislation in California and other states, the cost of the PR fight and litigation against the legislation was rising, and UEP was continuing to lose ground.

HSUS undoubtedly joined forces with UEP because it saw an opportunity to improve lives for chickens throughout the entire country in one fell swoop with federal legislation.

The bill, simply called “The Egg Bill” was put before the 2012 Congress.  It had a late start and it didn’t gain much traction, but HSUS and UEP were back in 2013 with legislation that they hoped would be added as an amendment to that year’s farm bill.  Among other things the bill proposed that battery cages be phased out over a twenty-year period and mandated that all egg cartons contain labeling that would inform consumers about the treatment and housing of the hens that produced the eggs. 

A collaboration between opponents means compromise, and compromise, of course, means concessions from both sides.  Many felt that HSUS gave up too much.  Perhaps the worst part of the bill in terms of chicken welfare was that it allowed “enhanced” cages.”  As I pointed out in Part 2 of this series, “enhanced” cages are still cages.  As author, Clare Druce, points out, “Basically it’s still a battery cage, the birds living behind bars on metal grid flooring, the cages stacked up in tiers, many thousands of hens to a building.”  While nest boxes are included in these cages, Clare Druce explains that “It is simply a curtained area, behind which the hen finds the same sloping cage floor, the metal grid now covered in matting of some kind. Not a wisp of straw, no soft material with which to arrange her nest. Some of the enriched colony cages I saw held up to 60 hens. Gleaming metal cages stretched away into the distance, and there was that familiar unending clamor of frustrated hens’ voices.”  And as is the case with battery cages, the enhanced cages are over-packed with hens.  The legislation recognized that brown hens were larger than white hens, thus brown hens were allowed 144 square inches but white hens were only given 124 square inches.  Most experts agree that a hen needs at least 216 square inches for minimal normal behavior. 

While some in the animal welfare community supported HSUS in this endeavor, many others, including PETA, the Humane Farming Association, Friends of Animals, and United Poultry Concerns opposed it and referred to the legislation as “The Screaming Hen Bill” and “The Rotten Egg Bill.”

While HSUS and UEP, the proponents of the legislation, were indeed strange bedfellows, those who jumped into the opposition bed were equally mismatched.  The animal welfare groups were joined in opposition by organizations like the American Farm Bureau, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council.  These groups representing animal farmers were all alarmed at the prospect that a federal law governing the treatment of chickens would segue into laws regulating the treatment of all farm animals. The pork producers issued a statement that they were “gravely concerned” that such legislation would “take away producers’ freedom to operate in a way that’s best for their animals.”  In their contorted logic, the best thing for their animals was not to have any laws that would guarantee their humane treatment. 

Due to the effort of the beef and pork lobbyists, a number of farm state Senators said they would work to bring the entire Farm Bill down if the Egg Bill amendment was part of it. In order to expedite the passage of the Farm Bill, Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the primary author of the Egg Bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) grudgingly allowed the Farm Bill to go forward without the Egg Bill.  In a bit of eleventh hour drama, when the Farm Bill was headed to the floor in the House, Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Rep. Denham (R-CA) proposed adding the egg amendment to it, and it quite likely would have passed, but the House Rules Committee denied them the opportunity.  So the Farm Bill was passed by both houses of Congress without any provisions for hen welfare and it ultimately was signed into law in that form by President Obama in February of 2014.  And since the UEP and the HSUS didn’t extend their memorandum of understanding, the prospect of passing any national legislation even in this diluted form  that would protect laying hens from living out their lives in cruel cages was dead in the water.

Next time:  The California Department of Food and Agriculture muddies the waters, a bunch of egg-producing states bring suit, and Prop 2 finally (gasp!) becomes law!

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs Part 4—California, and now Massachusetts!"