Sometimes Hens Get Sick--Sometimes Hens Die

The bulk of the chickens in my flock are in their fourth year  - well past the age that most commercial laying hens are allowed to live.  And I know that chickens don't live forever.  Over the millennia that chickens have been domesticated, high egg production was the trait that was valued above all else—so that's the trait that was selected for.  Longevity wasn’t even considered, since chickens typically were slaughtered long before the end of their natural life.  Thus, chickens don’t have long lives. Laying an egg practically every day eventually wears a hen out.  It is highly probable that eventually something will go wrong with her complex, high production egg-laying machinery—the oviduct becomes infected; an egg becomes impacted; the oviduct breaks and leaks yolk into the abdominal cavity which becomes infected; tumors form—the list goes on.
When I was a kid on the farm, the problems of aging hens was not a problem because there were no aging hens.  Chickens raised for meat were slaughtered in their first year.  Laying hens were kept for two years and when their egg production slowed they became stew.  Old chickens and their health problems became a reality only recently, when people like me started keeping small backyard flocks.  We backyard chicken people bond with our chickens and our rationale for keeping them goes beyond eggs and meat.  We keep them for the pleasure of keeping them, and for the satisfaction that comes with nurturing them and giving them a good and happy life.  Chickens have become pets.  And that’s OK—chickens are fascinating, compelling, and beautiful animals.  But the grim reality that is interwoven with the many pleasures of keeping a flock of backyard hens is the anxiety and angst of dealing with the inevitable sick birds and the anguish when one of those sick birds dies. 

Hipster Hens Hate Heat!

At 7 PM, the temp in the coop was still hovering around 90 degrees
Like most of the country, we’re in the midst of a July heatwave here in Minnesota.  For the last several days the temps have been in the nineties and once you factor in the high humidity, the heat index has been in the 100’s.  Last night it only cooled down to the high seventies and this morning the temperature started rising with the sun.  If you live in Phoenix, I’m sure what I just described is business as usual.  But Minnesotans are about as used to and equipped for handling hot weather as folks in the South are used to and equipped for handling snow.

The heat has been pretty stressful for the hens.  The drop in egg production is proof of how stressed they are.  The egg count yesterday was one.  One single egg.  That egg was compliments of Veronica the Easter Egger.  The nest boxes are small and enclosed and hens give off heat. While she was sitting in the nest box she was sticking her head out of it as far as she could, her beak was open, and she was panting the entire time.  Laying that egg was miserable for her. 

Chickens have three main ways of getting rid of excess body heat.  One way is simply by radiating it away from their bodies from their skin surface. Chickens were domesticated from the Asian Red Jungle Fowl, a bird of the tropics whose body is designed for getting rid of heat.  The Red Jungle Fowl has a huge comb that has a rich blood supply and works just like a cooling fin by expelling lots of body heat.  Unfortunately, domestication has resulted in different shapes, sizes and feather patterns, and some of them are actually adaptations for cold weather, which means those chickens are less able to deal with heat.  Because combs can freeze in the winter, most of the chickens I’ve selected for my flock have combs that are small – great for winter, but bad for hot weather.  My Silkies and Cochins also hold more heat since they have feathers all the way down their legs and on their feet, again not a good trait for hot weather.  Last night when the hens were roosting, many of them were spreading their wings to increase their body surface area and dissipate as much body heat as they could, and many of the bigger and older hens were panting.  

Charlie Barred Rock pants
Panting is a second way chickens get rid of heat—the air they breathe out is hotter than the air they breathe in, so as the weather gets hot, the chickens pant to increase their air exchange.

Darcy Barred Rock spreads her wings to cool down
Maran the Cuckoo Marans hen takes an ungainly pose as she pants and spreads her wings
A third way chickens expel heat is to increase their water intake, just like humans.  Drinking more water works to cool us because we sweat and also because the urine we pass is warmer than the water we drink. Chicken’s bodies are very different from ours, so bear with me as I talk a little about biology.  First of all, chickens don’t sweat.  Sweating, contrary to what all those antiperspirant ads would have us believe, is a wonderful thing—it keeps us cool.  But since chicken don’t sweat, any heat transferred into the extra water they drink must be expelled by passing more urine, right?  But hold on!  Chickens don’t pee either!  Chicken’s kidneys produce uric acid which is eventually exits their body with their poop.  Chickens only have one opening in the back so everything – uric acid, poop, and eggs all enter the world from that one opening.  Which is very efficient but also maybe a little disgusting if you didn’t know that before.  But back on subject, chickens don’t pee, so they can’t transfer heat that way!  “Well,” you say, “We’re running out of options here!  So crap!”  “Bingo!” I say.  Chickens get rid of all that extra water by producing lots of loose, runny poop.  Welcome to the wonderful world of staying cool through diarrhea! This works great for the chicken, but can be disconcerting for the new flock owner uninitiated in the concept of excretory heat transfer (the technical term)!  And it can create some very foul fowl.  My sweet little fluffy white Silkie hen, Courtney, got a bath today because the back half of her body was drenched in—Ok that’s too much information.

(Please note:  I'm not providing a picture of the third type of heat transfer, much to the relief of all of us, I'm sure.)

So I’m doing what I can to keep the flock cool.  I have a huge industrial fan that blows air through the pole barn all day and well into the night.  I also have been replacing the water in the water fonts several times a day.  I get my water from a well, so it’s icy cold when it’s fresh.  

Large industrial fan
And yesterday, I decided to try a new trick.  I capped an old garden hose, hooked it up to the cold well water, snaked it through both chicken runs, and then used a nail to punch a bunch of holes in it.  It immediately started spraying a fine mist of cold water.

The chickens ran to the spraying water and joyously splashed around!  OK, the previous sentence is what I wanted to happen, but is, in fact, a complete lie.  The chickens were terrified by this strange new hissing snake-like thing in their run.  They all ran away from it like cats from a cucumber, dashed into the coop and cowered in a corner.  Eventually, one brave and smart chicken strode forth, started pecking at the spray, and decided that it was quite cool, delicious, and wonderful.  That chicken was Snowball the Silkie roo.  Perhaps I was witnessing evolution at work--the smart, brave chicken gets the water, thus survives.  After a while he went back into the coop and came back a short time later with his BHF (Best Hen Forever), Angitou.  How did she know to follow him?  I guess he must have told her!  Eventually all the chickens went back into the run.  Today they’re used to the hose and amble over frequently to cool down.  But there hasn’t been any joyous splashing.  My lesson learned:  Chickens are not ducks.

(There's a video of Snowball enjoying water from the hose on the "Randy's Chicken Blog" Facebook page.  Videos work better on Facebook, so I'm not embedding it here, but go please go over there and enjoy it!)

Hipster hens nonchalantly staying cool by the somewhat terrifying hose
While the temperature is in the mid-nineties again today, it is less humid.  Tomorrow we’re expecting highs in the eighties, so maybe the worse of this heat wave is over.  And as we Minnesotans say, “Next winter we’ll all be wishing for some of this warmth!”

"Why Did The Chicken Cross The World?"--A Book by Andrew Lawler

To be completely honest, while the hipster hens liked the book, they loved the scratch grain in front of the book.

Why Did The Chicken Cross The World?  The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization
Andrew Lawler
Atria Books

In the fall of 2014 author Andrew Lawler lectured in the Twin Cities to promote “Why Did The Chicken Cross The World?”  While a few of my friends attended this lecture I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to go due to a conflict.  But I was excited about the approaching December publication date.  I’d been waiting for a book that dealt with the history of chickens, since before this book there was no single book that dealt with the domestication of chickens, their spread throughout the world, their impact on civilization, and civilization’s impact on them.  You can be sure that this book was at the top of my Christmas list in 2014.  You can also be sure that I started reading the book on Christmas Day.  It not only lived up to my expectations but I continue to pull it off the bookshelf frequently as a reference to all things chicken. 

"Meet The Flock" Roundup - May & June, 2016

Here's a recent picture of Angitou the Golden Polish hen. Angitou went through a rare spring molt (chickens typically lose their feathers and grow new ones in the fall). She looked like a porcupine for a while with all those pin feathers sticking out, but now she's got all that shiny new plumage & is quite attractive. Angitou lays an abundance of small white eggs, & has a sweet personality - she's happy to be picked up & carried around.

Meet Angitou the Polish hen as a child! The popularity of the Facebook post on Angitou was pleasantly surprising. That was the first of a planned series of pictures of the chickens in my flock. I chose Angitou for the first one not because she is the prettiest, or my favorite, but simply because I decided to do it alphabetically. But due to Angitou's new-found fame, here's another of her - a photo from her childhood! She's about six weeks old in this 2014 shot.

Meet Emile. Flock provider and protector or abusive polygamist? You be the judge. Emile is a bantam birchen Cochin and the alpha rooster in my flock. Cochin is the name for Emile’s breed - a fluffy footed chicken breed that originated in China. Birchen describes his handsome silver and black color pattern. Bantam refers to his diminutive size but in no way reflects on his attitude. As the alpha roo, Emile is a busy guy - always hurrying from one part of the run to another to end interpersonal kerfuffles between the hens and he is always vigilant and on the look-out for predators while the flock nonchalantly pecks and scratches its way through the run. He would fight to the death to defend his hens and has actually taken me on more than once when I’ve had to pick up or interact with a protesting hen. A less positive attribute is that Emile is a busy guy in other ways. His quest for “favors” from the hens is never-ending, and he regards the whole flock as his “hens with benefits”. He does perform a cute little courtship dance (stay tuned for a movie of the “Emile Shuffle”), but that’s all he’s got – no witty repartee, no flowers and no candy. It’s just dance then hop on. And he doesn’t understand the concept of “consent”. His idea of consent is when the hen doesn’t run away. No, actually, his idea of consent is when the hen doesn’t run away fast enough. A pretty primitive attitude, perhaps, but excusable in his case – he’s a chicken, don’t you know.

This sweet hen is Willow the buff Orpington, one of the senior members of my flock. Orpington is the name of Willow’s breed. Orpingtons were originally developed near Orpington in the county of Kent, England. “Buff” refers to her pretty yellow color. Willow is a large hen – so large that I’ve always worried about her injuring herself as she ungracefully flies/jumps/falls off the roost each morning. I’ve always tried to get to the coop before her attempt and have gently lifted her down. Unfortunately, my fears have been realized and Willow recently sustained some sort of injury. I noticed that she had developed a limp. There was nothing obvious when I looked her over and I’ve hoped that she would eventually recover, but instead she’s actually gotten worse. Willow now walks slowly and no longer roosts at night – she can’t jump onto the roost. The worse part of her situation is the abuse she gotten from Emile the rooster. Emile is looking for “favors” from his hens constantly and his idea of consent is when the hen doesn’t run away fast enough. Poor Willow can’t run. And Emile likes it rough – Willow is missing feathers on her back where Emile digs in with his spurs, and the back of her head is bald where Emile grabs on with his beak. Willow is now living in a shelter and has a restraining order against Emile. The restraining order was issued by me and the shelter is the center part of the pole barn where I normally keep tools and park the tractor. She’s living there by herself, but she can visit the chickens in both coops through the fence any time she wants. She’s eating well, is bright eyed and alert, and while she is still moving around slowly, she seems to be improving. Eventually, I may introduce her into the small coop with Snowball and the Silkie hens and see how that goes. It’s a little less rough and tumble there, and she may fit right in.

This is Arlene, a Barred Plymouth Rock hen. “Barred” refers to her black and white stripes and Plymouth Rock is the name of her breed – a breed developed in New England in the early 1800’s. Pretty much everybody shortens Barred Plymouth Rock to “Barred Rock.” Arlene was among the first batch of chicks I got in 2013 and has the distinction of being the first hen ever to lay and egg here at the ranch. When she was younger, Arlene would fly up to my shoulder so she could see the world from a higher perspective. She apparently feels that sort of behavior is not appropriate for an adult hen, since she’s stopped doing it. She still does persistently follow me around the coop and will occasionally peck me on the leg—not to be aggressive but just to remind me that she’s there.

Meet Barbara the Barred Rock. At the risk of being risqué, this is a picture of Barbara taking a bath. Chickens, counterintuitively, take a bath by wallowing in the dirt. They usually find a spot in the chicken run with exposed dirt and dig a hole to get the dirt loose, then they roll around in the dirt while flapping their wings and kicking their feet to make as big a mess as possible—all the while clucking contentedly. Then they get up and produce a huge dust cloud by shaking themselves off. I’m sure that if you asked them they couldn’t tell you why they do this, but the process does destroy mites and other critters that like to live in chicken’s feathers and suck their blood. Since my Minnesota hens can’t dust-bathe outside when the ground is covered with snow, I have this section of cement culvert on its side in the coop which I keep about half full of a mixture of sand, wood ashes, and diatomaceous earth. It is big enough for two or three chickens to take a communal bath while others perch on the edge and socialize. Stay tuned for a movie of Barbara dust bathing that I shot at the same time I took this photo!

4th of July at the Hipster Hen Ranch

It's a fine summer day here at the ranch.  Here's Snowball the Silkie rooster, up close, as he takes a little stroll through the chicken run.

Arlene the Barred Rock is not having a good week.  She's started going through an unusual summer molt, so is sloughing off feathers left and right and is covered in pin feathers.  As though that wasn't enough, she's somehow injured her leg.  There's no wound - it's more like a pulled muscle - and she's limping pretty badly.  I moved her to the broody coop to limit her activity for a while.  She seems to have calmly accepted her fate and is spending the holiday just sitting there in a Buddha-like pose, contemplating the universe.

Speaking of injured birds, in my June 6 Facebook post, I talked about how Willow the buff Orpington had sustained a permanent injury that had slowed her down and made her a huge target for Emile the rooster.  To keep her away from Emile, she's been living in the center part of the pole barn by herself.  Her newest domicile is the small coop with Snowball the rooster, the Silkie hens and the Legbar teenagers.  I am happy to report that she's getting along with everybody there and things are working out better than I imagined.  She has to negotiate a small tunnel (shown here) to get to the pop door and go outside.  She's a big, slow-moving hen, but she's figured it out!  After spending a few weeks by herself in the center of the pole barn, she's happy to be with other chickens again and thrilled to be able to go outside!

Willow peeks out the pop door and say, "Yay!  I can go outside again!"

Meanwhile, Courtney the Silkie hen has become an empty nester in a very real way.  The Legbar teenagers still live in the same coop with her, but they're doing their own thing and no longer need her care or protection.  Here she is, enjoying a solitary stroll through the run.

And here are the kids (from left to right, Paulette, Marissa, Nicky and Bonnie).  They no longer hang out with Mom, but still stick closely together with each other.  

Here's Marissa striking a pose.  The Cream Legbar Standard of Perfection would say that she has too much salmon color on her head and neck, but I say she's turning into a gorgeous hen.

Here's Marissa again - such a pretty girl!

Here's Marissa's sister, Paulette, also a very pretty hen, doing bug and worm recon at the base of an oak tree.  

Meanwhile, over in the big hen pen, Roxie the Rhode Island Red notices a feather out of place on Jennifer's elaborate crest.

"Hold still, dear!"  I'll fix it for you with my beak!"

"Oh, that looks so much better!  You probably even feel better!"

Happy 4th, from me and the hipster hens!


The Star Spangled Banner

I remember the fear, uncertainty, and horror I felt on September 11, 2001 when I watched the World Trade Towers collapse on TV. I know all of you share that memory and those feelings with me. Now imagine how you would feel if this country was being invaded by an entire force of a foreign power.
In 1814, the British had captured Washington and torched the Capitol Building and the White House. In order to get a firm foothold on the American mainland, however, the British needed to take a major port. So they turned their guns on Baltimore. A young American lawyer was witness to that battle. He had been captured by the British and was being held in a British ship in the harbor. As dusk turned to twilight and then to night, he witnessed wave after wave of shells and rockets barrage Fort McHenry. He knew that if Fort McHenry fell, Baltimore would fall, and then the very survival of the United States of America would be in danger. A large American flag – fifteen stars on a field of blue and fifteen red and white stripes, flew over the fort. When the battle finally ended in the middle of the night, he did not know if it was because the British had been repulsed or if the Americans had been defeated. He stayed awake all night filled with worry and doubt and with the first light of dawn he strained to see through the early gloom and finally with certainty was able to make out the shape, and then with the advance of dawn, the red, white and blue of the American flag. The flag still flew and America still stood. Young Mr. Key was so relieved and so filled with hope and joy that he found a piece of parchment and a pen and quickly composed a poem that he entitled “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” The opening lines are “Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?”
You may know the words to this poem. It became our national anthem. We all mouth them before baseball games while we’re mentally comparing the ERA’s of the starting pitchers. I suggest that if you have occasion to sing the national anthem today that you think about the situation that inspired the creation of the anthem. And think about what our country stands for –  of the beauty of the land, from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, from the purple mountains to the fruited plain; think of our history; how we fought for our freedom and then how we fought to expand that freedom for all who live here and all who come here; think of our people, a diverse group, who often don’t agree on much, but who all agree in the American principles of freedom and democracy and living together peacefully in spite of our differences.  Every once-in-a-while we need to think about all of this and just sort of get worked up about it and allow ourselves to be filled with pride.
I had occasion to visit the Star Spangled Banner – the actual flag that flew above Fort McHenry – when I was at the Smithsonian last year. The flag is still there. It is battle-scarred and it’s showing its age, but there it is. The flag is still there. I left the exhibit with a lump in my throat.
The United States of America is also battle scarred and also showing its age. But there it is. Our country is still there. And I’m proud of it and glad that it is there for each of us.
Happy Fourth of July.

Fear the Chickens!

They have beady little eyes that never seem to blink and they watch every movement you make as you draw near.  Eventually you are surrounded on all sides by these menacing creatures, some with mud-matted plumage, others deformed by patches of missing feathers, and all filling the air with alien-sounding throaty noises.  Then they advance on you, slowly at first, then running, then awkwardly flying with their talon-tipped claws stretching out to tear your flesh.  You drop the egg basket, fall to the ground and cover your face with your hands.  They swarm over your body and peck at your hands with their sharp beaks insistently, relentlessly—but you know that if you move your hands away they will be ravenously pecking your eyes!

Have you ever had this experience while gathering eggs?  Probably not.  Have you ever had these thoughts?  If you have, you may suffer from alektorophobia, a fear of chickens.  No study has ever been conducted to find out how frequently this phenomenon occurs, but from a variety of anecdotal, personal accounts and from people seeking help from mental-health professionals, its obviously a real thing.

My wife, Kathy, created this piece for an art class.  What does it mean?  Who knows!  Is she a closet alektorophobe?  Um….probably not.