Poultry Home Companions

Jane Goodall watches chimps and observes interesting interactions and behaviors.  I watch my chickens and observe the same and I would like to think that I am just as legitimate.  I honestly believe that chicken interaction is every bit as fascinating as that of any other social animal group. 
One thing I’ve noticed with my flock is that two chickens occasionally form a bonded pair.  They hang around together, act in each other’s interest in their interactions with other members of the flock, and roost together every night – it is the chicken version of BFF’s.
One of my chicken pairs is Maran and Carmen Maranda the Cuckoo Marans.  They were part of a small group of chicks I brought home from Murray McMurray Hatchery in the spring of 2014.  They were the only two Marans in the group and they bonded.  Somehow they seemed to be tuned into the fact that there was another chickens that looked just like they did.  In the late summer of that year they were introduced to the larger flock.  There was the usual kerfuffle as the pecking order became re-established and each hen defended her place in the order of things.  During that process Carmen and Maran had each other’s backs.  If, for example, Jennifer would come up and start pecking at Maran, Carmen would be in Jennifer’s face.  By joining forces they moved about half way up the pecking order and that’s where things are at today.  At night, most of the hens roost on the big roost.  But Carmen and Maran roost by themselves on a smaller roost off to the side.  BFF’s for sure!
Carmen Maranda and Maran the Cuckoo Marans
Then there were the Mary’s.  In the spring of 2013 I brought home two Golden Campines in a mixed batch of about twenty chicks.   Mary, the daughter of a co-worker visited the chicks one day and pointed at one of the Campines.  “I want you to name that chick after me.” She said.  “Well, Mary,” I pointed out, “The problem with that is that there are two of them and they look exactly alike.  How will we be able to tell them apart?”  She thought for a moment and then brightly suggested, “Why don’t you just name them both ‘Mary’?”  So that’s exactly what we did.  Mary and Mary eventually came to be called “Big Mary” and “Little Mary.”  We needed some way to differentiate them and while they were exactly the same size, Big Mary’s comb was slightly larger than Little Mary’s.  They not only looked almost the same, but had the same temperament – active, curious, flighty, and aloof.  But they were inseparable.  When they were outside foraging, they were always together.  Every night they had their spot reserved on the roost and would roost together. 
Last winter I realized one day that Big Mary was under the weather.  Eventually she became so sick that I sequestered her from the rest of the flock in a small area in the corner of the coop that was partitioned off with hardware cloth.  Little Mary started spending her day right on the other side of the hardware cloth.  She only left at night to roost and I’m sure she was reluctant to do even that.  Then Big Mary died.  Little Mary changed that day.  She became much less active and spends more time just perching on the roost.  She is mourning her friend.  Is that anthropomorphizing?  I can only report what I see.
Mary and Mary the Golden Campines
Finally, there are Snowball and Angitou.  Snowball was the only Silkie chick in my 2013 brood.  It is virtually impossible to sex Silkie chicks so you have to wait until they are approaching maturity before you have any idea if they’re hens or roosters.  And Snowball was a late bloomer.  We were well into the fall when Snowball got up one day, looked around, and crowed.  Unfortunately, since there were already a couple of other roosters in the flock, that was exactly the wrong thing to do.  Every day from that point on, Snowball’s life became an exercise in escaping the wrath of the big roosters.  Eventually, the hens picked up on the fact that he was very low on the poultry totem pole and soon everybody was picking at him.  In due course, he wouldn’t leave the roost – even to eat or drink.  I started putting him by the water font so he would drink under my protection and I would hold him on my lap and feed him out of my hand.  That kept him alive, but his was a pretty pathetic existence.  Eventually I built a small 4x4 coop just for him, complete with a sign proclaiming, “SNOWBALL’S SWINGIN’ BACHELOR PAD”.  And that’s where he was living when Angitou came along.
Angitou is a Golden Polish hen that was part of the 2014 batch of chicks.  Incorporating that group of new hens into the existing flock caused an uproar.  Angitou was a big part of the problem.  Like most Polish hens, Angitou is a very excitable girl.  Another problem is her limited vision due to her elaborate head crest.  From the first moment Angitou found herself in her new environment, she lived in terror.  When she would be pecked by another hen, rather than peck back, she would squawk in fear and then run blindly, literally blindly due to her crest, through the coop, caroming off other hens as she went.  We trimmed her crest to allow her better vision.  She still ran around and bumped into other hens – now more due to fear and panic than blindness. This behavior was obviously not acceptable to the other hens.  I intervened when I found Angitou curled into a ball and lying in a corner while a group of hens gathered around and pecked at her.  I moved Angitou and Emily, a small black Silkie hen, to a separate crate.  With three chickens now living separately from the rest of the flock, I decided it was time to build a second coop. 
By midwinter I put the finishing touches on Coop Two, an 8 x 14 space that had Snowball’s swingin’ bachelor pad incorporated into one corner.  Then I opened the door and allowed Snowball to meet the two hens.  They got along well from the very beginning.  And Snowball and Angitou actually became another of those inseparable pairs.  Every night Emily settles in on the floor because Silkies typically do not roost.  Snowball does roost because he apparently doesn’t know that rule.  And Angitou joins him.  It’s a big roost and they could each stake their claim to a portion of it.  But they actually snuggle in, side by side, and leaning on each other.  Angitou often tucks her head under her wing, and that’s how they spend the night.  Courtney the Silkie hen joined this group last winter, and everybody still gets along.  Then Courtney moved into Snowball’s old bachelor pad for a short time to brood her babies.  She has just rejoined the other three chickens with her babies and so far everybody is happy. 
Snowball the Silkie Rooster and Angitou the Golden Polish Hen
It is, I’m sure, obvious by now that I care about the chickens' happiness.  If mine were a “for profit” chicken operation, I would not be removing problems chickens to separate coops.  The huge poultry producers cram chickens together so densely that the chickens are guaranteed to peck each other.  They solve that problem by removing a portion of the chickens’ beaks so the pecks are not harmful.  Debeaked chickens have problems preening and eating and are definitely not happy chickens.  Smaller, more sustainable operations don’t debeak their chickens but do cull problem chickens.  Chickens at the bottom of the pecking order become stew. 
The function of chickens here at the ranch is definitely not to make stew.  And while they produce eggs, their function is not really to make eggs.  Their real function is to make me happy.  And I’m happiest when the chickens are happy.  Once you realize that, you understand the guiding philosophy behind the Hipster Hen Chicken Ranch.

In that same regard, you may be of the opinion that chicken friendships are a case of bogus anthropomorphism and that this entire discussion is a crock.  That’s fine, if that’s what you believe. I’m only reporting what I’ve observed.  I don’t think I’m reading more into it than is actually there, but if I am, that’s what makes me happy.  And as I said, that’s really what it’s all about.

Coop Update

Happy birthday to the chicks on their one-month birthday!  Here are Mama Courtney, Bonnie (in back), Marissa, Nicky,  & Paulette (L to R).
Here's a picture of Nicky the Teenage Chicky.  See how she's starting to get the crazy Legbar hairdo already! She's also already getting the salmon colored breast feathers that will be her adult color.
Meanwhile, over in the big coop, every nest box in the coop is empty except for this one which both Veronica the Easter Egger & Buffy the Buff Orpington seem to feel is the only one that will work for them. Never said chickens were bright. On the other hand they're a lot like us.

Fine Poultry Art & The Chicks Go Out

I recently had a birthday, and my amazing wife, Kathy, presented me with an equally amazing birthday present – a portrait of four of my chickens by the Wisconsin artist Susan Martin.  I’ve been using an image of Susan’s painting “Three Wise Roosters” on my egg cartons because I love its rusticity and whimsy, so I was overjoyed to see the images of Snowball the Silkie rooster, Emily and Courtney the Silkie hens, and Angitou the Polish hen put to canvas. 

Snowball and His Hens - by Susan Martin
This group of chickens, by the way, are my “decorative” chickens and share a coop separate from the rest of the flock.  Courtney and her Legbar chicks share a small coop next door to this coop and my plan is for them to all eventually live together.  The first step in incorporating the babies with this group of chickens happened a week ago when I replaced the solid pop door separating the two coops with a hardware cloth panel, so everybody could see each other.
The Legbar Babies Viewing the World Through a Hardware Cloth Window
Yesterday, I opened the door entirely so I could see how everybody would interact.  I sprinkled a handful of dried mealworms at the door entrance and in no time at all, Courtney and the kids were at the door and then through the door, happily pecking up mealworms. 

Courtney calls to her babies through the pop door & out they come, pell-mell, tumble bumble!

Emily and Angitou were in the coop when Courtney walked in with her chicks and both hens acted very cautiously.  Emily was a little taken aback by this intrusion of strangers, and quietly backed into a corner.  Angitou stood stock still and actually backed up when one of the chicks ran over to check her out.  Courtney apparently was concerned about this interaction, however, and ran at Angitou aggressively, chased her around a couple of times until Angitou escaped out the door and into the run.    

After an hour in the big coop, I put Courtney and babies back into their coop.  They’re in the big coop again today, though, and I’m hoping I can leave them there all day without any major battles.
The chicks are 23 days old today!  Here, Marissa says, "See how cool and grown up I am!  I can perch!"

“Locally Laid – How We Built A Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm—From Scratch”—A Book by Lucie B. Amundsen

“Locally Laid – How We Built A Plucky, Industry-Changing Egg Farm—From Scratch”
Lucie B. Amundsen
March 1, 2016

Lucie Amundsen and her husband Jason are out for out for a romantic dinner date at a local Mexican restaurant on a warm summer evening:  ‘”I want to talk to you about something,” he said, clearing his throat. “Commercial egg farming.”
“If this were a sitcom, a record needle would scratch across vinyl and someone would cue the laugh track.  But this was just my life.  I blinked and kept shoveling salsa into my mouth between gulps of beer….Poultry wasn’t exactly the foreplay talk I was hoping for, so instead I just enjoyed the rhythm and cadence of his voice.  I heard something about pastured hens foraging on fresh grasses producing healthier, delicious eggs with less fat and cholesterol, something about the local food movement and its ability to remake America’s food system.”
My fellow Minnesotan, Lucie B. Amundsen, is a wonderful writer.  Her book is an autobiographical account of how the Amundsens created a unique, commercially viable egg farm.  She writes warmly, humorously, and honestly as she tells what is really a very personal story about her family and herself.  And in the process, she explains how modern farming practices have gone off the rails and how people like the Amundsens have rolled up their sleeves and gotten to work in an attempt to set things right.  I have nothing but high praise for this book.
For the Amundsens as novice chicken farmers, ummm...well, I have less praise.  I will give them oodles of kudos for their willingness to take risks, for their spontaneity, and for their creative imaginations.  But I have mostly jaw-to-the-floor bewilderment for their lack of foresight and their irresponsibility in risking their own mental and physical health and the health and lives of a couple thousand chickens.  They get lots of points from me for having the courage to live their dream.  But maybe they should have found a plaque with the Girl Scout motto, “Be prepared,” and hung it prominently on a wall.  
I grew up on a farm and I spent my childhood in a close personal relationship with chickens.  We maintained a flock of a couple hundred hens.  They free ranged during the day and roosted in the chicken house at night.  It was my mom’s job to collect the daily basketsful of eggs from the wooden nest boxes, haul them to the basement, wash them, and pack them into boxes.  As the chickens aged and their egg production waned, some became stew.  The rest were put in crates and hauled to the local Campbell’s Soup factory.
We also kept a flock of roosters for meat.  We would buy forty or fifty rooster chicks for a few cents apiece in the spring – rooster chicks cost next to nothing because they were roosters.  Over the summer they would free range around our farm, scratching up bugs and worms and pecking up the grain that would get spilled as it was being hauled to the hogs and cattle.  In the fall, the night would come when my dad would go into the coop and pick ten or fifteen of the fattest ones and put them in a crate.  The next day, our whole family would spend the morning butchering chickens.  We would chop off the heads, dip the bodies in scalding five-gallon buckets of water to loosen the feathers, pluck the birds clean, dress them out, cut them up, put them in plastic bags, and then into our freezer.  Unlike all those folks who think that food is somehow magically and spontaneously generated at the grocery store, we knew where our meat came from.  And we knew firsthand about the lives and deaths of the chickens that gave us our eggs and meat.
The poultry industry, since the middle of the last century, has devolved into a behemoth that produces cheap meat and eggs in an inhumane and unsustainable way (For the story of legislation to improve the lives of laying hens, read my series in this blog, "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs" ). 

First came the freak chickens. Poultry producers, through selective breeding, created a chicken with massive muscles that gained weight at a phenomenal rate.  The rapid muscle development, and simultaneous bone and tendon abnormalities in these birds has resulted in lameness and many birds that are barely able to stand.  Others have completely lost the ability to walk and drag themselves around on their hocks. Those that can walk are hampered by their large breast muscles which move the chicken’s center of gravity forward causing an ungainly unnatural gait.  Scientific studies have shown that these chickens are in constant pain. These sad creatures are raised in windowless sheds and packed in at about ¾ of a square feet of space per bird (that’s about the size of an 8½ X 11 inch sheet of paper).  By the time they reach market weight they basically have no room to move. 

About the same time that these freakish meat chickens were being developed, somebody came up with the battery cage system for egg production.  Egg laying hens are stuffed into battery cages with slanted wire floors.  They access food and water by sticking their heads through the bars of the cage.  Their poop falls through the wire floor and their eggs roll down the slanted floor to a collector.  They spend their entire lives here – unable to turn around or stretch their wings – essentially egg laying machines – until their egg production drops and they are slaughtered. 
Because freak chicken meat is so cheap, nobody wants to use laying hens for soup or any other human food anymore.  Laying hens, almost entirely, become dog food at the end of their lives.  And because freak chicken meat is so cheap, nobody uses the roosters of laying breeds for meat anymore.  The day they hatch, baby chicks are separated by sex and the roosters are euthanized. 
This is the thumbnail description of the poultry industry. If you think about it in terms of cheap and rapid production of meat and eggs, it’s all great.  If you pause to remember that the meat and eggs come from sentient creatures, then you realize that there are all sorts of problems. 

People have been talking about this broken system at least as early as 1964, when Ruth Harrison wrote “Animal Machines.”  Many have tried to circumvent this system by raising backyard chickens or by starting small commercial flocks.  The Amundsens, though, have taken it to next level.  Their business model was not for a small flock.  Neither was it for a gigantic animal warehouse filled with hundreds of thousands of birds.  They chose the middle path:  An initial flock of around 2000 chickens living free range and periodically rotated onto fresh pasture.  The hens would be treated humanely, would live in a healthy environment, and consequently would produce healthier eggs.  The system would be sustainable, and the business would be profitable.  That was their vision.  The book is a three hundred page recounting of what went wrong and how they managed to circumvent each problem.

What went wrong:  Let’s start out with the basic premise.  Pasture raising chickens.  In Northern Minnesota.  I assume, since the Amundsens live there, that they were well aware of Minnesota winters - and that much of the year there would be no pasture.  But, wow - that first winter, as described in the book, must have been heartbreaking. That was one big hurdle.  Then there’s the matter of experience.  Prior to undertaking this endeavor, their entire animal husbandry experience was a few backyard chickens.  They chose to start their venture on rented pasture with no preexisting infrastructure.  They built a number of prefab, canvas-covered hoop houses to shelter the hens.  I would rate these as fine in the summer but barely adequate in the winter.  The buildings were not plumbed for water and every drop of water for eighteen hundred hens had to be hauled from a nearby well.  Water, of course, freezes in the winter.  Did I mention that this was Northern Minnesota?
They persevered, they survived, and they have become a model for the sustainable agriculture movement.  In part they have survived and grown because they have subcontracted much of the business of egg production out to local Amish farmers.  They have also done an excellent job of PR with a cute logo, a clever name, great ads and great press.  Each chicken is named Lola (for LOcally LAid) – My God!  How can you not love them just for that?!  And really, these are likable people doing good stuff--so what's not to like?  You want them to make this crazy enterprise work!  But the spoiler for me was that I knew it worked--I can go to my local grocery story and see their eggs right there in the case.  

I first became aware of Locally Laid because of the Super Bowl thing.  In 2013, Intuit, a software company, sponsored a contest for small, innovative companies to get a 30-second spot during the 2014 Super Bowl game – a spot that would normally cost $3 million.  When the local press reported that this small egg company from Duluth that pasture raised its hens was a finalist in the contest, I took notice and so did a lot of other people.  Ultimately, their clever ad was only a runner-up, but they did win the attention of a lot of potential customers.  About the same time pretty much every single one of my Facebook friends posted Lucie’s viral blog post on my timeline.  Her post was in response to a guy who took umbrage to the double entendre of the name “Locally Laid”, and wrote a letter telling them that not only was the name vulgar but in addition their eggs cost more than most of the other eggs in his grocery store.  Lucie’s response was fantastic and spot-on – so it is not surprising that it went viral on social media.  Employing the same humorous and gentle tone to educate that she uses in her book, she explained that pasture raising chickens is both expensive and hard work.  She also explained how small agricultural ventures like hers work to improve the economy in rural America.  Finally, she apologized for having caused offense, and then went on to offer “one of our American-made “Local Chicks are Better” t-shirts, but I don’t think you’d wear it.”
Ultimately, I think, Locally Laid has convinced the buying public that while their eggs are more expensive than many other brands in the grocery store, buying them not only means taking home a superior product, but also it also helps to build a better world.  This message has gained traction because of great PR. As I mentioned previously, Lucie is a fantastic writer, and she writes great ads.  But beyond that, the message has taken hold because it is, simply, the truth.  And that’s the story of their success.

So, why should you care about this story and read this book?  Do you eat eggs?  Do you eat food?  Do you care about the world you live in?  This book will take you on a skillfully guided and amusing exploration of the truth behind those eggs you just ate for breakfast.  In the end, if you don’t buy into the facts about the modern poultry industry and agriculture in general that are presented in this book, I guarantee that you will at least have been entertained.

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"Locally Laid" is now available in paperback - $17.00 from Amazon - Click the image!

The Chicks Are 16 Days Old

Ah, they grow up so fast!  Everybody has cute little wing feathers, and Paulette, precocious chick that she is, already has sprouted tail feathers.

Courtney contentedly poses with a couple of her kids
Paulette is proud of her new tail feathers
One postscript on my March 21 post about the chick nursery:  I'd suggested that paper towels were a good thing to use on the floor of the brooder coop.  They really do work well for all the reasons I talked about in that post.  But, I’ve never had a broody hen in the coop with the babies before.  New advice: If you’re planning on using a hen, forget the paper towels.  Courtney is constantly scratching the floor in an attempt to unearth treats for her babies.   There are no treats down there, Courtney--nothing but a wooden floor!  When the weather gets warmer she can take the kids outside and scratch in the dirt and then she'll be a whole lot more successful in finding buried treasure.  In the coop the only product of her efforts have been huge paper towel tumbleweeds!  When she was just sitting on golf balls the floor stayed pristine.  After a single day with chicks, the coop floor was down to bare wood with lots of piles of crumpled up paper towels.  The morning of her second day with the chicks I found that one of the paper towel wads had wound up in the chick water font and had wicked out all the water.  So not only was there no water to drink, there was also a big pile of soggy towels!  That’s when I got rid of all of the paper towels and put down pine shavings.  The pine shavings have been absolutely fine.

Finally, I have been focusing all my recent blogs on Courtney and the chicks.  There has been a certain amount of grumbling among the other hens that I’m playing favorites and that they’ve been forgotten about.  So to set things right, here’s a sketch my wife Kathy made this week in the hen yard when everybody was out enjoying the spring weather.  There you go, hens--now you can stop complaining!
The Hens

The Chicks - Latest Update

I am sorry to report that one of the babies looked lethargic on the evening of April 1, and by the next morning when I went to the coop I found that she had died during the night.  I am completely mystified as to the cause.  One thing you need to watch for in baby chicks is pasty butt - a condition that occurs in baby chicks where poop sticks to the down around their vent and can build up to the point where it forms an impermeable plug - it can be fatal and is easily avoided simply by washing the poop off their down.  This chick did not suffer from that and as a matter of fact showed no outward appearance of any problem.  Baby chicks can simply mysteriously die, and that's where I am at with this one.  I've been worried that this baby died of something potentially infectious, but time has passed and the others continue to be happy and healthy, so I would like to think that I am out of the woods for an infectious disease.

Meanwhile the chicks have been christened.  I would like to introduce Bonnie, Marissa, Nicky, and Paulette!  They are a week and a day old now - notice how they're already getting little wing feathers!
Courtney & Babies - 8 days old