Driving Across State Lines to Pick Up Chicks

 It played out a little like a drug deal.  We met in a park.  When I saw them arrive I casually walked over and they handed me a package.  Then I gave them some cash and we went our separate ways.  The tip-off that this was a legitimate transaction was that this mysterious package peeped.

Imprinting and the Mysterious Workings of a Bird’s Brain

Item in today’s news:  After 15 years, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is ending its whooping crane migration program.  You know about this program – it has been in the news frequently because of its noble cause; saving whooping cranes from extinction – and because of its quirkiness; people wearing crane costumes, manipulating crane puppets, and leading migrating cranes with ultralight aircraft.  Everybody loved this program – everybody but the cranes, evidently.  It has not been very successful.
The program had very good success in hatching cranes, raising the babies, and teaching them to migrate.  The cranes in the program also successfully formed bonded pairs, mated, and laid eggs.  It was after that when things fell apart.  The cranes frequently leave their nests and often never return.  They are simply bad parents. 
Bird behavior is a combination of innate instinct and learned behavior.  It has become obvious that these birds raised by people in crane costumes are missing out on important lessons on how to be good parents that they would normally learn from other cranes.
The new approach will be to have captive cranes raise the babies and limit human intervention as much as possible.  The failure of this program underscores the importance of imprinting in baby birds.
So what, exactly, is imprinting?  Remember Yakky Doodle, the adorable Hanna-Barbera baby duck?  Yakky’s question to everybody he encountered was, “Are you my mama?”  And that is exactly the question every baby bird asks - although only Yakky asks the question out loud in English.  Basically, a baby bird decides the first moving object it sees is its mom.  Obviously, it is really more complicated than this, but if you remember that, you’ve got the basics of imprinting.

The Legbar Quints know who their mama is.
The ancient Chinese made use of this phenomenon by imprinting freshly hatched baby ducks on a special stick.  The owner of the flock of ducks could lead the entire flock to the fields each day and back home each night to the duck pens simply by carrying that stick!
Scientists didn’t delve into the study of imprinting in birds until the early 20th Century.  One of the pioneers was the Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1973.  Lorenz discovered that if he raised graylag geese from the time they hatched in the absence of adult geese, they would decide that he was their mom.  They would follow him around everywhere he went and when they became adults would actually court him.  Konrad believed that the object baby birds encounter is somehow indelibly stamped into their brains.  The German term “Stamping” was translated to the English “Imprinting.”

Most baby chicks are hatched in an incubator and raised under heat lamps.  Thus, most of the millions of chickens alive today think that humans are their moms.  The Legbar babies now living in my coop know to the core of their little bird hearts that Courtney the Silkie is their mom.  And she has unhesitatingly adopted them as her own chicks.  We have a new and happy little family here at the ranch!  In my next post I’ll talk about last weekend’s saga of driving across state lines to pick up chicks, and I’ll also share some pictures and movies of Courtney and the babies!

Baby Chicks! Coming Soon To a Coop Near You!

Baby chicks and eggs have been a symbol of spring since ancient times – perhaps all the way back to the time when chickens were first domesticated.  They also have been important symbols in Christianity from the times of the early church.  The egg symbolizes the rock tomb where Christ’s body was laid and the hatching chick symbolizes His resurrection.
So it is highly appropriate that baby chick day here at the Hipster Hen Ranch will be Easter Sunday. The chick nursery is set up and ready to go and Courtney and I are both eagerly awaiting the soon-to-arrive babies.
The Chick Nursery
Some specifics on the nursery:
Chick water font filled with electrolyte solution:  The small water font is designed for babies.  The electrolytes are because the chicks may be stressed.  They are traveling from Eastern Wisconsin to Minnesota over the course of a day during the very first day of their lives.  While car travel will not be as stressful as being plunked into a box and sent through the mail, it is still  more taxing than just hanging around the spot they are hatched.
Baby chick crumbles:  Eventually Courtney will take her brood outside where they’ll learn about bugs, seeds, and scratching in the dirt, but for now they will be eating crumbles designed specifically for baby chicks by our friends at Purina.
Paper Towels:  I always start babies on paper towels.  I don’t recommend newspapers since they are too slippery.  Many people use pine shavings and while I'll switch to that when the chicks are older, I like to start with paper towels.  The chicks will instinctively scratch and peck at the floor from the get-go, and eating pine shavings is not particularly healthy for babies.  I scatter crumbles all over the floor and they will have a good time pecking at those – and the crumbles will be much easier to find on paper towels than they would if they were all mixed up with pine shavings.  Paper towels are handy because as they become soiled, I can just layer more towels over the top.  In a few weeks, when the chicks are ready for pine shavings, I can just roll up the whole mass of paper towels and put them in the compost pile.
Heat lamp:  The lamp is hanging high in the air and will provide supplemental heat.  When the chicks are cold, or want to sleep, they’ll find a nice warm spot under Courtney’s wing - their main heat source.  And while it isn't a thought I like to dwell on, there’s the possibility that Courtney will not accept these babies.  If that were to occur, I would move the heat lamp lower it would be the primary heat source.

Mama hen:  I have great faith in this sweet little bird.  She’s been patiently sitting on golf balls for weeks!
The Ever-Patient Courtney

Spring: Yay! Season Creep: Not so Yay

Glorious Spring Bursts Forth! - Or more prosaically, a Minnesota maple tree buds in early March
I have a chicken run about a half-acre in size for my flock of twenty-some chickens.  It’s amazing how this handful of birds manages to peck the whole thing down to bare dirt by the end of the summer.  The whole run is shaded, so it’s not like it is thick with plants as it would be with full sun, but the chickens take care of the ferns and other shade tolerant plants that grow there in pretty short order.
This year my experiment is to plant a cover crop of oats in the run.  If I plant the oats early, they can get a running start before the trees leaf out, then somewhere around mid-May I’ll open the gate from the smaller run and the chickens can get into the big run and go crazy on the oats. 
So last weekend I spent a couple hours in the chicken run with a 50 pound bag of seed oats.  I hand cast the oats throughout the run and then raked the leaf litter around to cover the oats and hoped for the best.  It was a beautiful day to be outside – the thermometer topped out at 70, the chickadees were singing their spring song, and I could hear yellow bellied sap suckers hammering away somewhere off in the woods.  I stopped seeding oats to chat with my neighbor who was hauling buckets of maple sap down the hill from the trees he’s tapping on my property, and stopped again to watch a large flock of Sandhill cranes fly noisily overhead.  Then I went in the house and rewarded myself for my hard work with an entire box of Girl Scout cookies.  It’s the time of year for them as well, and I’m just a little addicted.  Once a box is opened I can’t stop until it’s gone.  Each cookie is pretty small, right?  And they just melt in your mouth.  I avoid looking at the nutritional information on the box.
All in all, it was a great day.  And yet, here’s why it was not great:  Seventy degrees in early March is unheard of here in the St. Croix Valley of Minnesota.  The average high for this time of year is the low forties.  We’ve been consistently breaking records for high temperatures.  The maple syruping season usually gets under way in mid-March.  This year it may be ending already.  My neighbor complained that it hasn’t been getting cold enough at night for the sap to run and he’s only had a few good days.  And the buds are already swelling on the trees, so even if the sap runs again, it will be past prime and will have an off taste.  The very fact that I’m seeding oats in early March is telling.  The USDA Agricultural Statistics Board lists the typical start date for planting oats in Minnesota as April 10, with the most active planting dates running from April 25 to May 14.  So while spring is always joyful, these early springs temper that joy.
Last year, of course, we had snow cover until April.  Maybe that will happen again next year and we’ll be hearing a lot of “told-you-so’s” from the climate change deniers.  Which is why climate scientists tell us it’s important to look at long term trends.
Phenologists, those folks who keep track of annual cycle events – when plants bloom, when birds migrate, and so on, refer to changes in the timing of the seasons as “season creep.”  It is a well-documented phenomenon.  According to US Geological Survey ecologist Jake Weltzin, “When you gather together all the scientific studies…we can see that about 80 percent of the species are changing earlier in the spring.”  This has been observed all over the world:  Cherries are blossoming earlier in Japan, northern hardwood forests are leafing out earlier and keeping their leaves longer, English oaks are producing acorns earlier, and ice is disappearing earlier from North American lakes.  All of this can lead to ecological catastrophe.  One example:   The English Oak, a ubiquitous and well-known tree in Britain, is leafing out earlier which means that the caterpillar of the Winter Moth is hatching earlier to feed on the leaves.  Pied Flycatchers, a bird that feeds largely on these caterpillars, are now arriving from their spring migration at a point when most of the caterpillars have already pupated into moths.  The Pied Flycatcher population has declined sharply.
And of course, in the larger picture, season creep is just one more indicator of global warming and all of its consequences:  Record hot and dry weather, drought, crop failures, dwindling water supplies, illness and death from heat-related health conditions, drowning polar bears, disappearing glaciers, rising oceans, flooded coastal areas, and extreme storms.
But as I stand in the chicken run and cast seeds to the earth, it is so hard to think of all of that.  The return of spring is something we all count on and anticipate year after year.  Our joy at the melting of the snow and the springing to life of the world around us is both primal and innate.  I can intellectually appreciate that this early spring is wrong.  But it is just like eating too many Girl Scout cookies – it’s bad, but it feels so good!

Courtney the Silkie Again – And a Word about the Upcoming Baby Chicks

Here’s a video clip of my broody hen, Courtney, doing some interesting chicken behavior.  Notice how she picks of bits of pine shavings and feathers and puts them on her back.  I've seen other hens engage in this behavior before and while I've not been able to find a definitive answer as to why hens do this, some suggest that it’s for camouflage.  In the wild, a nesting hen staying in one location for an extended period of time would be a sitting duck (um….chicken) for predators.  By covering herself with grass and other nearby material she better blends in with her surroundings.  Poor Courtney would have a tough time blending in with her surroundings in the wild unless she was nesting on a fluffy white rug, but she can rest assured that she’s very safe and secure in the coop.
It is nineteen days and counting until I pick up the babies that Courtney will be mothering.  The babies are coming from Wick Place Farm, a small, charming farm in southeastern Wisconsin that is home to alpacas, turkeys, bees, and several breeds of chickens.  The babies will be Cream Legbars, a breed of chicken that is relatively rare in the US. 

Cream Legbars have silver-gray barred necks and bodies, salmon colored breasts, a half-comb in the front of their heads and a unique cream and gray crest of feathers on the back of their heads.  Their eggs are sky blue.  One unique feature of Cream Legbars is that they are autosexing – the male and females chicks can be differentiated based on the pattern of their markings. They were developed at Cambridge University from a variety of breeds, including Leghorns, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and Auracanas and were introduced at the London Dairy Show in 1947.  Greenfire Farms, the only legal importer of Cream Legbars to the United States, brought the first breeding groups to this country in 2010 and Wick Place Farm acquired their stock from Greenfire Farms.  These little guys will grow into normal sized chickens, so they will rather quickly reach a point where they’re bigger than their adopted mom.  It will be an interesting sight to see if they’re still trailing along behind her at that point!

Broody Hens Again: Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Broodiness But Were Afraid To Ask

I got some questions about broody hens after yesterday’s post, so here’s more, plus an update on my broody hen situation.

To recap what I said yesterday in a couple of sentences: Chickens are really bad moms. The maternal instinct has pretty much been bred out of most breeds of chickens.

Typically the egg laying cycle goes something like this: (1) Just prior to laying an egg the hen’s pituitary pumps tons of a hormone called prolactin into her bloodstream and she clucks, “I’m gonna lay this egg, and then by golly, I’m gonna sit on it for 21 days until it hatches – I’m gonna have me a baby chick!” (2) Hen then lays previously mentioned egg. (3) Hen’s prolactin levels return to normal. (4) Hen says, “Wait….what was I thinking?” hops out of the nest & goes about her business of pecking and scratching. (5) Somebody collects the egg and we all get omelets.

It is actually a good thing hens are bad moms – if they started pining about all those lost eggs, got depressed and stopped laying eggs, we would all suffer. Also, a hen sitting on eggs is not necessary for the propagation of chickens. Some hobbyists still get baby chicks this way but the poultry industry relies on incubators almost completely.

Occasionally, though, after a hen lays an egg, her pituitary continues pumping prolactin and she gets very serious about sitting on the nest for the requisite 21 days and raising babies. That phenomenon is known to poultry people as broodiness. The term broodiness was coined to describe chicken behavior and only later was borrowed to describe people. But you can imagine how a broody hen acts. She sits alone in a dark place, growls threateningly at any chicken or person who comes near her, stops laying more eggs, and takes maybe a 5 minute break once a day to eat, drink, and poop. Otherwise, she just sits there 24/7.

Sadly, in most domestic poultry situations, because there is no rooster, a broody hen is sitting on sterile eggs that will never hatch. Also, more than likely her eggs are collected as she lays them, so she’s actually sitting on an empty nest and in deep denial.

This is exactly the situation that has been going on with my two little Silkie hens, Emily and Courtney.  Courtney has entrenched herself in a nest box with her head facing a back corner and looks just like a giant cotton ball from outside the nest box. Emily scratched out a depression in the straw on the floor in a back corner of the coop. Neither of them are sitting on any eggs, but there they sit. The perfect solution when a hen goes broody would be to give her some fertile eggs, or allow her to hatch her own, but of course then you have baby chicks and that is usually not a practical outcome. A less perfect solution is to break the hen’s broodiness.

If you surf the net, it isn’t hard to find all sorts of suggested methods for breaking broodiness. Some of them, such as dunking the hen in ice-cold water, seem extreme. I use a method that seems less cruel. I put my hens in jail. I put them in a wire crate, so they can’t go back to their nests. There’s nothing to make a nest out of in the crate, so they are unable to nest. In theory, after a few days in this situation, a hen’s raging hormones will abate and at that point she can go back in the coop with the other chickens. Normally, after some initial complaining, hens don’t seem to be too distressed to be in the crate. Eventually, they start eating again, and drinking, and roosting at night on a roost within the crate.

After a few days, they get out of jail, and are totally reformed chickens, their broodiness gone and forgotten.  In a couple of weeks they start laying eggs again.

This time, though – for the first time ever, I wanted to maintain the broodiness so these little hens could be moms for the baby chicks I’m bringing home later this month. To that end, I first decided to improve Emily’s situation. I created what I have dubbed a "luxury nest box" by turning a plastic waste basket on its side and putting a cushy excelsior pad in the bottom. Then I added a handful of golf balls – just like having real eggs to sit on! I removed Emily from the little nest she had made in the straw and put the luxury nest box down on top of her nest. Emily went to find some food and water – something she does only a couple times a day when she’s broody – and I went about my business. When I checked in with her later in the day, she was out in the main part of the coop clucking and scratching with the other hens. She had completely lost her broodiness. I was astounded. Considering the difficulty I’ve had in the past breaking Emily’s broodiness, I was amazed that I had accomplished it simply by covering her old nest with the luxury box.

One failure – on to the next hen. I took the same luxury nest box that had not provided any inspiration to Emily and put it in a small separate coop along with food and water, and then removed a protesting Courtney from her nest box and placed her in this coop. When I checked back later, Courtney had buried herself in the luxury box so far that all I could see was her fluffy white butt. And she was sitting on the pile of golf balls with great contentment. Yes! Success! Hopefully she’ll continue her vigil until the chicks show up!
All you can see is Courtney's fluffy backside as she tries with great determination to hatch golf balls .

Broody Hens

Buffy the Buff Orpington Demonstrates Broodiness

There is always an adjustment period when you add new hens to your flock.  Flocks maintain a strict pecking order and when new chickens are introduced the entire pecking order has to be reestablished.  This can be a brutal process.  You can expect pecking hard enough to draw blood – and the new hens usually take the brunt of it because they are young and inexperienced, they are smaller, and they are outnumbered.  There have been a couple of occasions where I have actually removed a chicken to prevent it from being injured or killed. 

I have always raised baby chicks under heat lamps and introduced them to the flock when they are old enough to defend themselves. With new babies showing up here at the end of the month I’ve been mulling over what I can do to make the process easier.  Right now I’m considering raising the babies with a broody hen.  Since the hen is already a member of the flock there is the potential that the flock will accept her chicks more readily than they would “strange” chickens.  And potentially the young ones will have a mom to protect them from the other chickens.  This is all great in theory.  First, though, I need a broody hen. 

A broody hen is simply a hen that sits on eggs until they hatch and then takes care of the babies.  Broody hens are as rare as hens’ teeth.  Broodiness has been bred out of most modern breeds of chickens because broodiness costs commercial egg producers money.  When a hen goes broody and decides that she wants to hatch a clutch of eggs, she stops laying more eggs and sits on her eggs almost around the clock with only very brief breaks to eat and poop.  If there is no rooster, she’s sitting on sterile eggs, but that doesn’t deter her.  If you take away all of her eggs, she will continue to sit in the empty nest, pining away.  If you are in the business of producing eggs, this hen is useless.  Not only is she not laying, but being broody is physically taxing since she’s not eating or exercising adequately.  So breeders have selected for hens that don't go broody and today most breeds simply never do.  They must be propagated entirely by artificial incubators.

There are some heritage breeds, though, that retain the propensity for broodiness – Marans are one such breed.  Orpingtons also frequently go broody.  And there are Silkies.  Silkies go broody at the drop of a hat.  The smallest trigger- changes in lighting, leaving eggs in the nest boxes too long, looking at them wrong – will make them go broody. It’s a problem.  While Silkies generally aren’t kept for egg production anyway, it is still unhealthy for a chicken to be broody all of the time.  So when my little fluffy girls go broody, I usually try to break their broodiness.  There are a several tried and true methods to break broodiness – more on that in a later post.

Right now both of my little Silkie hens are broody and rather than breaking them of it, I am encouraging them.  They are currently both sitting on a small pile of golf balls.  On the day I get my babies, I plan to sneak into the coop in the dead of night and surreptitiously remove the golf balls and replace them with baby chicks.  Hopefully, they will think that the eggs have hatched.  They will then raise their babies who will be destined to grow to be twice as big as they are.  When the time comes, Moms and semi-grown babies will be reintroduced to the flock. 

To be clear, I’ve never tried this before.  Will it work?  Stay tuned.

Emily and Courtney the Silkie Hens

Why Did The Blogger Cross The Road? To Get Started!

With my buddy, Snowball the Silkie Rooster
About nine thousand years ago, somebody in East Asia had the bright idea that they could nab some jungle fowl out of the wild and keep them in a little coop by their house.  Thus, the chicken was domesticated and keeping chickens became a thing.

My personal history of keeping chickens is a bit more recent.  I live on a mostly wooded acreage near the Twin Cities in Minnesota.  In the nearly thirty years that I have lived here, I have considered domestic livestock from time to time.  For many years we parked our cars in a 20 x 40 pole barn.  When we finally built a real garage about fifteen years ago, the pole barn became this empty and unused space.  That’s when I thought once again about livestock, and how I had an ideal building for animals.  I gave it enough thought to go through the list of possibilities.  Many farm animals are inconveniently large and ultimately get slaughtered for meat.  I decided I didn’t want to go there.  Alpacas and sheep can be kept for wool, and while my wife had a past interest in spinning, weaving, and natural dying, that phase had passed.  So, if I got sheep or alpacas I would need to find people who could put all that wool to practical use.  I could get cows or goats and put their milk to practical use myself.  But cows are gigantic and goats are, well….goats.  Chickens, on the other hand, produce eggs – another product I could use myself.  I grew up on a farm and am sort of familiar with raising chickens – although, in the interest of full disclosure, it was my mom who did the bulk of the chicken chores.  I thought they were pretty boring – a barn full of identical white hens who laid eggs for a while and then got turned into stew.  But after some net surfing, I came to realize that there were a gazillion different breeds of chickens in an amazing array of sizes, shapes, and colors.  They laid brown or blue or white or green eggs.  They were intelligent, and had fascinating social interactions.  Flock keepers were passionate about their birds.  They were anything but boring!  So maybe it would be chickens!

But it didn’t happen.  Instead, the pole barn became a convenient place to store junk.  Realistically, I was too busy with my career and raising my kids to think about animals.

Finally, in November of 2011, I started working part-time as the first step in a transition to ultimate retirement.  It was then that my daughter taunted me with, “You’ve been talking about chickens for years.  Now you’ve got spare time.  If you are ever going to get chickens, it needs to happen now.” 

I started building the first coop in 2012 and my first peeping boxful of baby chicks arrived in the mail in the spring of 2013.  I had become a chicken guy! My colleagues at work followed my chicken stories with great interest.  Several of them convinced me that it was absolutely incumbent upon me as a keeper of chickens to have a few Silkies.  I finally caved to their pressure and told them I would get some Silkie chickens, but to make it clear to the world who was responsible for these fluffy little birds becoming members of my flock, I would name the Silkies after those very co-workers.  This, of course, produced a severe case of workplace conflict which could only be resolved by my naming other chickens after other co-workers.  Eventually, my original batch of eighteen chickens all had names.  Many, but not all of them are named for co-workers.  The tradition of naming chickens has continued and now I can’t imagine owning a nameless chicken.

I finally completely retired in July of 2015.  I have been thinking about starting a blog about my chicken keeping experience since then, and today it has begun.  I have been semi-seriously blogging about my international travel experiences for a few years, so it is a natural extension for me to also write about my other great interest.  In fact, while I do a major trip about once a year, my chickens are here every day.  And they continue to be a great source of material.

My plan at this moment is to pull retrospective material about my chickens from old letters and Facebook posts and include it in this blog as back-dated posts to give a sense of how I got started on this endeavor and the trials and joys of the first few years.  So ultimately this seminal post may become lost somewhere in the middle.  But for the moment, this will be both the first and the last entry in this new blog.  There will be much more to come.