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: 

1-Close that coop!  A draft is a bigger problem than cold temps!  Chickens are bundled in insulation.  If you’ve ever experienced the amazing warmth of a down jacket on a cold winter day, you know how down can keep you warm.  Well, chickens are wrapped in a layer of small down feathers under their large exterior feathers.  The down feathers keep chickens pretty toasty, but become less efficient if they’re exposed to a winter gale blowing through the coop.  So in the winter you need to close all those open windows that let in the cool summer breeze.  And you need to stop up all those holes.

2-Keep them dry.  If down feathers get wet and matted, they just don’t work.  The secret of down’s insulative quality is the air pockets.  Fill those air pockets with water, and all that superb insulation becomes nothing more than soggy feathers.  Keeping your birds dry means providing deep layers of dry bedding that you change out on a regular basis.  Chicken poop is mostly water, and chickens, as we all know, are pooping machines.  You also need to make sure that your coop is well ventilated so all the moist air from evaporating chicken poop can escape.  Ventilation may seem in direct conflict with my first point about keeping the coop free of drafts, but you can do both.  Some sort of vent in the ceiling or near the top of the coop works well to allow moist air to escape without creating a draft on the birds.

3-Now that you’ve got them dry, add water.  Wait…..what?  Yeah….I’m talking about water to drink, which is more complicated than you may first think.  Water freezes. So if the temperature inside the coop is below freezing you either need to come up with a plan to change out the frozen water several times each day, or rig something up to keep the water warm.  I know there are a few flock keepers out there who expect their chickens to maintain hydration by eating snow and that horrifies me.  Those poor birds are already working hard to maintain their body temperatures, and eating snow obliges them to work that much harder.  Plus, cold chickens will eat a bare minimum of cold snow because it is cold and become dehydrated.  And dehydrated chickens will stop eating.  Then they’ll become malnourished, stressed and sick and that’s just not good.

Here are a couple other things that I do in the winter that I know some flock keepers will disagree with.  These practices may be a matter of personal preference, or perhaps it’s a matter of geography.  I trust that you’ll form your own opinion on what’s best for your situation after reading them over and will use your own judgement:

1-Let there be light.  Chickens are light sensitive and stop laying when the days get short.  Some people feel that chickens need this “rest” from laying.  I suggest that chickens stop laying in the winter because the original purpose of chicken eggs was to make baby chicks and chicks would probably not survive if they hatched in the winter.  A non-molting hen getting good nutrition can lay eggs in winter with no more issues or problems than would occur in summer.  Providing extra light will keep her laying and also provide more hours of wakefulness for her to eat, drink, and maintain herself against the cold.

2-Let there be heat.  Other chicken bloggers will tell you that heating a coop is not necessary or perhaps even bad.  I suggest that none of those bloggers live in Minnesota.  Here in the Northland, we’ve had long stretches of days like today—where the temperature drops to 20 below zero every night and the high doesn’t reach zero.  That’s cold.  Chickens evolved from tropical birds with bodies designed to throw off heat.  Combs are essentially blood-filled heat fins designed to radiate heat and large combed chickens kept in cold climates can easily suffer from frozen combs.  There are, of course, small-combed cold-tolerant breeds, but even with these chickens it’s a matter of how much cold they can tolerate.  I prefer to keep the coop temperature above freezing most of the time.  The hens appreciate it and I don’t have to worry about the eggs freezing.  But during those times when it’s 20 below outside, it’s maybe ten degrees in the coop—not very warm but still 30 degrees warmer than outside.

And that’s the basics.  Doing these few things will get your flock perhaps 90% prepared for winter.  The other 10% is the tweaking you need to do depending on your preferences, your flock, your location, and your specific situation.  Here’s the scoop on the specifics for my coop:

Closing up the coop: My coops are built inside my pole barn and the walls are four feet of plywood at the bottom topped by fencing to the ceiling—that allows for lots of good air movement in the summer.  In late fall I cover the entire wall—both plywood and fencing—with foam insulation.  I leave small gaps at the very top to allow for ventilation.
 
A picture from the November day when I was
 wrapping the coops in foam insulation
Keeping them dry: I use pine shavings for bedding and I thoroughly clean the coops once a month.  I also have poop trays under the roosts to collect droppings.  For a complete discussion of all things poop-related, take a look at my recent post on poop.

Keeping water from freezing:  I use heaters designed to go underneath double walled metal water fonts. They’re thermostatically controlled and turn on at 35 degrees, so they only run on the coldest days when the coop air temperature drops below freezing.  The other advantage of the heater is that it elevates the water font off the floor and keeps the chickens from scratching pine shavings and debris into the water tray—I leave the heater in place year-round just for that reason.

Providing light: The coop lights are on a timer—the hens get 14 hours of light every day, summer and winter.  Even then, some of the older hens stop laying in the winter, but some don’t—and the young hens lay right through until spring.

Providing heat:  Heat lamps are easily available and are a popular way to provide heat for chickens and other livestock.  I don’t recommend them.  There are just too many reports of heat lamps exploding or starting fires that destroy coops and entire flocks.  Full disclosure:  I do own a couple heat lamps.  The last time I used one was when I nervously set it up for supplemental heat for my baby chicks for a few days this spring during an unusually cold period.  The main source of heat for the chicks was a broody hen and in normal circumstances, not only is a broody hen a sufficient heat source all by herself, she’s a bazillion times better than a lamp.  And I’m not aware of any reports of a broody hen ever blowing up or starting fires.  You can check out this Chicken Chick blog post for her assessment of the dangers of heat lamps and her suggestion for a safe alternative for brooding chicks. 

For my adult birds, my preferred safe alternative to heat lamps are 400 watt two-foot square ceramic heat panels.  I use them with a thermostat.  Farm Innovators makes a thermostat that’s ideal for my situation. It turns on at 35 degrees and turns off at 45 degrees.  The panel plugs directly into the thermostat with a standard electrical plug and the thermostat plugs directly into a regular old outlet—nothing could be simpler! That’s really all I need—it keeps the coop above freezing on all but the coldest days.

One last cold-weather trick worth mentioning is one that all the old farmers know about:  Give your chickens a little scratch grain right before they roost.  The extra carbs help the chickens maintain their body warmth through the cold winter night.  On the really cold nights, I take it to the next level and toss the scratch into a pot with twice its volume of water and cook it like oatmeal.  The chickens love this warm treat and it warms them from the inside out!

Postscript:  For additional tips on helping your chickens get through the cold winter here are a couple excellent posts by other folks who also blog from the Northland:  Counting My Chickens writes from Iowa about “Caring for Your Chickens in Winter” and HenCam in Massachusetts discusses “Cold Weather Care.”


Another Postscript: Many of the items that I use to batten down the chickens and that I discussed in this post are available on Amazon:

Farm Innovators 35 degree thermostat
400 Watt Two-Foot-Square Ceramic Heat Panel


Water Font Heater

Randy's Chicken Blog participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by linking to products available on Amazon.


Poop

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!

Critters

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 entrĂ©e. 

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
Raccoons are nocturnal and it has been suggested that seeing them during the day is one indicator of rabies.  This coon did not act or appear rabid at all, though, and as the Raccoon in Attic website points out, “While it is true that a rabid raccoon will exhibit a variety of unusual behaviors, activity during daytime is most definitely not a guaranteed indicator of rabies. You see, although raccoons are primarily nocturnal, they do often get some stuff done during the day. It is not at all unusual for a raccoon to be active in the middle of the day. They can't just sleep from dawn to dusk without doing anything. They may go off in search of food or drink. This is especially true of nursing female raccoons, who have a bunch of babies to take care of, and who have extra nutritional requirements, because they are nursing their young.”  And speaking of nursing mothers, I saw the babies a couple of days later—two little tykes that were cuter than heck.  Now I had to worry about three raccoons getting the chickens. 

Baby Raccoon
Over the course of June and into July I frequently saw the mom and her babies going after the backyard bird feeders.  Then one day the babies came to the backyard without their mom.  They showed up almost daily for the next few days for their birdseed, always without their mom.  Since they weren’t old enough to be on their own I begin to wonder if they’d been orphaned.  And that presented an ethical dilemma.  If they were really orphaned, it was possible that they wouldn’t survive unless I intervened.  But what if I captured them and they were really with their mom?  Maybe she was just keeping her distance as part of the weaning process.  Then again, what if they really were orphans?  The woods around my house is filled with wild animals and the drama of life and death plays itself out every day.  Was I ethically compelled to intervene in this situation just because I was aware of it?  These thoughts continued to thread their way through my head, but I didn’t act.  I was in the last days of work before my retirement, so there was a loom’s worth of thought threads running through my head then.

Second Baby Raccoon
Then my last day of work arrived.  Some of my co-workers were treating me to an evening baseball game that day and my big dilemma was that I had no way to get the chickens shut into the coop at dusk.  My wife was out of town, and the neighbor who often helps with the chickens wasn’t available.  In the end I decided I would hold my breath, cross my fingers, and close the coop door after dark when I got home.  So the hens wouldn’t get their usual tucking-in or bedtime stories (sort of kidding about that) and the coop door would be open to the night for several hours.  But when I got home after eleven o’clock, the coop was dark and quiet.  I did a quick check with a flashlight and everybody appeared to be on the roost and sound asleep, so I just shut the door quietly and went to bed.

The next morning, when I hiked down to the coop and opened the door, I found all the chickens bunched against the door.  As soon as I opened the door they all bolted out in a panic.  There was a raccoon hunkered down and snarling in the far corner of the coop.  I obviously had locked him in the night before.  A quick count confirmed that all the chickens were truly there.  And I soon figured out that the raccoon was one of the babies.  No doubt this little guy was in the coop looking for eggs or chicken feed when he got locked in – he was much too young and small to tackle a chicken.  Then I wondered if this tyke had made this bold move because he was really orphaned and he was starving.  I had been waffling about whether or not to insert myself into the baby raccoon situation, but now he had forced my hand by inserting himself into my chicken coop.

With the chickens all outside, I shut the coop door to keep him in and after some quick wrangling I got him penned up in a dog crate.  I acted carefully.  I didn’t want to cause him any injury, and I was also aware of the fact that while he was a baby, he was also a sharp-toothed, desperate, wild animal.  So I had a coon.  What next?  I live in the country.  Animal Control is a nearby shelter that only deals with stray cats and dogs.  There is no local police department—our police protection comes from the county sheriff.  So that’s who I called.  The dispatcher put me through directly to an officer who was nearby.  Let me just say that the folks at the county sheriff’s office are dedicated professionals.  If you report a burglar in your house, they will be there in minutes and competently handle the situation.   But as it turns out, if you have a coon in your coop, the response is not nearly as impressive.  At first the officer told me she would help me take the crated raccoon outside to release him, then she talked herself out of even that degree of assistance since she "didn’t want to get bit by a coon.”

Fortunately, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota is about 45 minutes from my house.  I called them next, and explained the situation.  I was able to convince them that this young coon was probably orphaned.  They said they would take him.  They don’t do pickups, so I loaded the dog crate containing the snarling little coon into my truck and drove the 45 minutes to the rehab center.  At the center, I turned the crate over to the folks there, and while they were coaxing the little guy out of the crate,  I filled out the appropriate forms, left a $50 contribution (they do great work—check out their website!), and then drove home.  I accomplished all this by 11 AM. I had not managed to accomplish breakfast or anything else, but the baby coon was in good hands.  The little guy seemed unusually subdued for a wild creature after I captured him and perhaps that was an indicator that he wasn’t doing very well, so I was anxious for the follow-up report.  They promised a full report in a month, but they couldn’t commit to any report earlier than that because they are so very underfunded and understaffed.  Until that report would arrive, that was the end of the story of the baby coon.

This is the point where you say, “But there were two babies!  What ever happened to the second one?” That question got answered around 5 PM that very day when I spotted him under the bird feeder, looking thin and worse for the wear. When I went outside he hid in the day lilies – but not very convincingly. If I had been a coyote, he would have been a meal. As it was, I tossed a box over him and then got him in the dog crate, the dog crate into the truck, and made my second trip of the day to Wildlife Rehab.  Again, the folks at the center assured me that the two little coons would be checked by vets and released into the wild if they were okay.  Meanwhile, the chickens were all fine—except for being freaked out by sharing their coop for a night with a predator.  And I learned that under no circumstances could I ever leave the coop door open after dark.  It could have been a lot worse.

Here’s the sad part:  A few days after the baby raccoon incident I saw another raccoon in the backyard.  It was ragged, emaciated, and had three legs and a stump where the fourth should be.  I only saw that raccoon the one time, and have no facts other than the ones I report here.  But I can speculate that it was the mom.  Maybe she got caught in a leg-hold trap and eventually gnawed her leg off, as animals caught in leg-hold traps are known to do.  And maybe she was coming back looking for her babies.

Here’s the bittersweet part:  In August, I got a report from the vet at the Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. The baby that I took in on the first trip was found to be thin, dehydrated, and had infected wounds on his neck. He died shortly after I brought him there. His brother had a wounded paw that was badly infected and also infested with maggots. Because of his condition he was still there nearly a month later, but was doing well. He was nearing a point where he could be moved to an outdoor area and the vet said that as soon as he felt he was ready he would be released into the wild.


I started this story talking about predators, and I suspect it didn’t go the direction you thought it would, but we nevertheless have come to the end.  And to finish the story, let me just say that nature being what it is, I’ll continue to protect my chickens from predators.  But that doesn’t make predators “bad guys”.  Predators are simply what they are.  Once there were two raccoons and one died as a baby and one survived and maybe will live a full life and kill lots of other animals, because he’s a predator.  The wild animals that live in the natural world around us are born, pass through the sum of their experiences and die practically unknown to us.  But their invisibility to us and the part they play in the natural structure of things doesn’t make these wild ones any less valid or in any way diminish their existence.  Each of them, the Desiderata tells us, like each of us, is a child of the universe.  Each of them, like each of us,  has a right to be here.  And while it is often difficult to parse out, the universe continues to unfold as it should.


[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop # 228]

Spurs!

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.