Legbar Eggs!

For those of you who have been following the saga of the Cream Legbar chicks since they first hatched in March, I’m proud to announce that the cycle of life, egg to chicken to egg, reached a milestone this morning when I found the first little pullet eggs.  I found not one, but three eggs!  The mystery is, are these eggs from three pullets, or did one pullet start laying three days ago and I’m just now finding the eggs?  Until I find more proof, I’m going to vote for the latter.  I check nest boxes diligently, several times a day, but the little pullet(s) that laid these eggs is a novice egg layer and still a little confused as to how it is all supposed to work.  I found all three eggs in the dust bath!  I am hoping that the responsible party will figure out that dust baths are for bathing and nest boxes are for eggs, and I’m also hoping that the other Legbar pullets don’t follow this example.


All along, I’ve been expecting blue eggs from these hens, so was surprised when the eggs turned out to be sort of aqua—very close to the color of the eggs I get from my Easter Eggers.  So then I checked the Cream Legbar Standard of Perfection.  Interestingly, while the very first sentence describes the Cream Legbar hens as “prolific layers of blue eggs,” further down under “Economic Qualities”, the egg shell color is described as “blue or green”.  And the British Cream Legbar Standard describes egg colors of blue, green, or olive!  So while the first three eggs are not the blue I expected, they meet the standard and they are, in fact, very pretty.

If you would like to read the story of the babies from the early days of March when I was picking out a broody hen to be their surrogate mom up to the present, here’s a linked list of the blogs in chronological order:

March 2:  Broody Hens—Will the Legbar babies have a fluffy black mom or a fluffy white mom?


March 21:  Baby Chicks! Coming Soon To a Coop Near You!The brooder coop is ready!  Courtney is waaay ready!  All we need is baby chicks.

March 29:  Driving Across State Lines to Pick Up Chicks—The chicks hatch—we drive to Madison, Wisconsin to pick them up.


April 12:  The Chicks Are 16 Days Old—The chicks already have cute li’l wing feathers.

April 20:  Fine Poultry Art & The Chicks Go Out—The chicks leave the broody coop and meet their new coop-mates.

April 26:  Coop Update—The chicks celebrate their 1-month birthday.

May 3:  A May Day at the Chicken Ranch—The Legbar chicks, Bonnie, Marissa, Nicky, and Paulette, celebrate their 6-week birthday.  In chicken-years, they’re teenagers now!

May 11:  The Legbar Chicks Go Into the Great Wide World—Courtney takes the chicks outside for the first time and then steps back a little from her motherly duties to go back to work—she starts laying eggs again.

May 17:  Coop Update—The Legbars, like teens everywhere, hang out.

July 4:  4th of July at the Hipster Hen Ranch—The Legbar teens are growing up.  Courtney becomes an empty nester.

August 16:  Coop News—Slightly Out of Date—Some pictures of my beautiful Legbar pullets—all grown up!


And of course there will be many more posts right here on this blog about the Legbar ladies and all the other chickens!

Baseball, Sick Chickens, and Love

Right now I’m supposed to be sitting on the third deck behind home plate watching the Minnesota Twins play baseball.  Instead, I’m at home dealing with another coop crisis.  Before I explain, I should just say that this no doubt will become a “first in a series” post since it’s just the beginning of another “ongoing-situation.”  And I should also say that if you are eating, or squeamish, or eating and squeamish, you should probably not read this.

Roxie the Rhode Island Red
This time it’s Roxie the Rhode Island Red.  My poor Reds have just taken a beating lately!  I noticed a couple of days ago that Roxie had some diarrhea—it’s an easy thing to notice when a bird’s feathers become soiled with poop.  When I notice this on just one hen and it’s a new thing, I keep a watchful eye, but I certainly don’t panic.  Hens get diarrhea—sometimes it’s just due to the heat or “something they ate” and sometimes it’s due to something more serious.  So I watch and wait.  Roxie seemed bright-eyed and active so my concern for her was mild at most. 

This afternoon as I was cleaning the coop I noticed Roxie make a couple of attempts to hop the short distance into a nest box and fail at both attempts.  This is when my concern went up a few notches and I picked her up for a quick exam.  Her eyes were bright, her comb was a nice bright red, and neither her crop nor her abdomen felt puffy or distended.  But there was a lot of poopy feathers on her back side, so I flipped her over to take a closer look and then audibly gasped.  She had become fly-blown.  Here’s the part you don’t want to read if you’re squeamish.  Sometimes in the summertime certain flies find their way to hens who are suffering from diarrhea.  Flies, as we all know, love poop.  So the female fly deposits her eggs on the poop-laden feathers.  When the maggots hatch, they immediately burrow into the chicken’s skin and create bloody skin ulcers that are laden with thousands of maggots.  A hen can go from normal to fly-blown in 24 hours, and can go from fly-blown to dead in an equally short period of time.  Roxie’s back end was teeming with maggots.  I immediately carried her to the house, took her to the laundry room,  and bathed her several times in dog shampoo and water, removing all the poop and maggots that I could find.  I found several large maggot-eaten ulcers around her vent.  I trimmed the feathers around all the bad spots and treated them all with Veterycin, an antimicrobial for animals.  Then I installed her in a crate in the basement, and mixed up some probiotic and electrolyte solution to get her diarrhea under control.  After that I finished cleaning the coops, and in the process checked all of the chickens to make sure that nobody else was maggot-infested.  It took the rest of my afternoon & most of my evening.  Tomorrow morning I’ll start in again and give Roxie’s ulcers a good wash with betadine and follow up with more Veterycin.  Roxie will be living in the basement until she heals.  Her diarrhea is not yet under control, there are no doubt more fly eggs that I missed that will hatch into maggots, and there is the strong possibility that the ulcerated areas will become infected.  She’ll be getting lots of baths and TLC.  I really hope that this sweet little bird makes it.

Speaking of sweet, my wife, Kathy, scratched the baseball game off her evening's plans and went out
and bought Chinese takeout for both of us.  I told her later that one thing I'd accomplished today was to grasp two expressions of love:  "Love is being willing to pick maggots and poop off your chicken's butt.  And love is when you see your husband storm into the house, wild-eyed, ranting, and with a chicken under his arm, and you just calmly do what you need to do."  Kathy rolled her eyes and in an aside to our dog said, "You know, Bailey, it sounds like I love him and he loves his chickens."  Well, yeah.  I do love my chickens.  She hit that nail on the head.  But I love her kind of a lot, too.

[This post has been shared on "Clever Chicks Blog Hop #218]

Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 1 - California’s Prop 2

My Hipster Hens live the good life. They have plenty of space to move around—each bird has 9-10 square feet of coop space, they can go outside every day as long as the weather allows it, and “outside” is either the spacious “hen pen” or the half-acre chicken run.  Both the run and the pen have plenty of dirt for scratching and lots of trees for shade.  Both coops have ample roosting space, plenty of nest boxes and a large container of sand for dust bathing.  The birds get free choice commercial chicken feed, grit, and oyster shell as well as some scratch grain every night as a treat and all the garden waste and kitchen scraps that I’ve got. 
The Hipster Hens - July 2014
The typical laying hen living on a factory farm is a whole different story.  About 75% of all egg laying hens live in battery cages.  Each cage holds a huge bunch of hens.  By law, a hen only has to be given 67 square inches of floor space.  A standard sheet of printer paper is 93.5 square inches, so if you imagine a hen sitting on that sheet of paper, she doesn’t even get the whole sheet.  The caged hen can’t do any of the things chickens naturally do—no dust-bathing, scratching in the dirt, or nest building.  In fact, the cage is so crowded the hen can’t even manage to flap her wings or turn around.  What can she do?  Well, she can stick her head between the bars of the cage to get food and water, she can lays eggs—right where she stands (they roll down the slanted wire floor to a conveyor), she can poop, and that falls through the wire floor onto the rows of cages below her, just as the poop from the cages above her rain down on her, and basically she can stand in one place for her whole life.  From the hen’s point of view, the world outside her cage consists of rows and rows of other cages that fill up a cavernous, windowless barn.  The air is filled with the stench and ammonia of accumulating manure, and the sounds of thousands of other chickens. 

She and her cage mates are always stressed due to their living conditions and crowding, and the stress and crowding make them more prone to diseases such as avian influenza (stay tuned for a post on bird flu). Not surprisingly, crowding compels the hens to peck each other a lot.  To prevent pecking injuries every hen has the end of her beak cut off when she is still a baby chick.  “Beak trimming” is done without anesthetics and not only is it intensely painful for the baby chick, but it causes chronic pain for the rest of the hen’s life.  A hen, after a season of laying eggs, needs to molt in order to renew her feathers.  Since hens don’t lay eggs during their molt and since not all of the hens in a flock molt at exactly the same time, it creates annoying imprecision in the well-oiled machine that is the factory farm.  So the hens are forced to molt simultaneously by manipulating the light, by withholding water, and by starving them.  When the second season is drawing to an end, to avoid another molt and another period of lagging egg production, the entire flock is slaughtered.  Thus, after about two years, a hen’s life ends and she is turned into dog food.

Battery Cages (Maqi~commonswiki)
These are the basic facts of the egg industry and it is both appropriate and important that everyone who eats eggs is aware of them.  If some of the practices sound cruel to you, that’s because they are.  But having said that, I think that we all also need to acknowledge this truth:  Factory farmed chickens are a business.  Egg companies expect to make a profit, and they do whatever necessary to stay competitive.  The factory farm battery cage system that I’ve just described is a sterling model of efficiency that produces the cheapest eggs possible for the least amount of capital invested.  My chickens, on the other hand, are a money losing proposition.  I sell a few eggs to friends, but the money generated by egg sales is a fraction of my expenses.  I’m in the chicken business for the fun of it, and the Hipster Hens provide me with an abundance of joy and gratification.  But as a business model it’s ridiculous.  

But here’s the other important truth we also need to never lose sight of:  The battery cage model of egg production depends on the torture of living, sentient creatures.  As Andrew Lawler points out in “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?” “You don’t have to be vegan to wonder if it is right to put another entire species in perpetual pain in order to satisfy a craving for chicken salad and deviled eggs.” So here’s the question:  Is there a middle ground somewhere between my happy Hipster Hens and the abused battery caged hens?  Is there some sort of compromise situation where hens can be humanely and ethically treated and the egg company can still make a profit? 

As someone who takes time to read this blog, I’m sure that you agree with the majority of consumers (58%) who, according to a survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, would be willing to pay more for eggs that are labeled “humanely raised.”  The majority of voters in California (63.5%) had similar sentiments in 2008 when they voted in favor of Proposition 2.  Proposition 2 created a new state law that would prohibit “the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, or fully extend their limbs.”  Other states had previously voted to eliminate crates for pigs and calves, but this was the first legislation to end the abuse of chickens. 

Proposition 2 finally went into effect in 2015 and once in place, it has had a huge impact not just in California, but in the entire country.  This year, we’ve seen almost continuous announcements by national retailers and restaurants that they will no longer use eggs from hens in battery cages.  Some of these companies include Starbucks, Burger King, Subway, Kraft Heinz, and Unilever (the maker of Hellmann's Mayonnaise).  Recently MacDonald’s, which uses over two billion eggs per year, made the switch.  Don’t assume the battle is over, but it has been a hard fight—both before and after the California vote—just to get to where we are. 

The run-up to the 2008 vote saw intense campaigning by both proponents and opponents of the proposition.  Proponents argued that it was cruel to confine any animal in a cage that was barely big enough for its body, that better conditions for our food-producing animals would result in better health for us, that standards to raise chickens humanely would allow those farmers already operating humanely to be more competitive, and that if all egg producers had humane practices, the scale would cause the price to go down.  The primary contributor to the “Vote Yes” campaign was the Humane Society of the United States which contributed over 4 million dollars.  Here’s a typical ad run by the “Vote Yes” people. 

Opponents of Proposition 2 argued that uncaged production methods were more expensive and would cause the cost of eggs to go up, that uncaged chickens would be more prone to predator attacks, and that the costs and regulations resulting from Prop 2 going into effect would put California producers out of business because their prices would be undercut by producers in Mexico and other states not subject to the Prop 2 regulations.  The big contributors to the “Vote No” campaign were, not surprisingly, the big egg producing companies.  The top contributor was Cal-Maine Foods, which is currently the largest producer and distributor of eggs in the U.S. and the world.  Here’s an ad run by the “Vote No” coalition.  

The success of Prop 2 in 2008 did not mean an immediate victory for California’s abused hens.  The proposition itself dictated that the new laws would not take effect until 2015, and of course, once the vote was in, a whole bunch of lawyers immediately began to construct a whole bunch of law suits.  After the 2008 vote, Prop 2 still had a long rocky road to travel before the 2015 implementation.  I’ll tell that story in my next post.

Coop News—Slightly Out of Date

Here we are in the dog days of summer.  Pretty much everybody thinks of the dog days of the summer as that part of summer where the weather is so hot and humid that our lethargy reaches its peak and all we want to do is hang out in a cool and shady spot away from the mosquitoes, like an old lazy dog.  If I were a dog I think I might be offended by the phrase.  In fact “dog days” original meaning had nothing to do with lazy dogs, and I’m going to share it with you now so you can tell all your friends and impress them with your knowledge.

The constellation Canis major (direct translation from Latin:  “big dog”) contains the star Sirius, which is often described as being the dog’s nose.  Sirius is also referred to as the Dog Star and is one of the brightest stars in the sky.  During July and the first part of August, this bright star rises into the sky almost simultaneously with the sun, thus these days are called “the dog days.”  So now you’re impressed with my knowledge, right?  Well, don’t thank me, thank Google.

My wife and I are taking a “dog days” vacation to escape the heat and humidity and will be camping on the north shore of Lake Superior.  Since Lake Superior is such a huge body of cold water, it creates its own weather system and one can count on the temperature being at least ten degrees cooler by the lake, so it will be great.  The chickens, sadly, are not coming along and will have to deal with the heat and humidity in the care of our chicken sitter.  They wouldn’t have much fun anyway—there’s no place to roost in a tent.

I’ve prepared this post in advance, and will just need to pull my laptop out of the car at some roadside coffee shop with wi-fi, click a button, and this post will magically appear on my blog.  Ah, the joys of modern technology!  One can blog in the wilderness!  All one needs is a wilderness coffee shop with wi-fi!  So here’s the coop news, only a few days out of date:

Speaking of the weather, Minnesota continues to be hit by summer storms.  The latest one took down a small tree and a few large limbs.  Considering that I’ve got more than a few acres where trees and limbs could fall and not hit anything it is both ironic and frustrating that they seem to keep falling on structures.  As you can see, this one landed squarely on my new chicken run tractor gate.  I’ve been told that trees falling in the woods make no sound.  When I found this large limb on my gate, I made several sounds.  I got the limb taken care of relatively quickly, but it was a few days before I could get the gate repaired, so there was a huge gaping hole for that period of time.  I told the chickens that it was beyond my control and that they were on their honor not to fly through the hole and escape.  Amazingly, that somehow worked.  The gate is fixed now and all of the chickens still live here!

The broody rehab crate is once again in use.  Emily the Silkie tucked herself away in the depths of a nest box with the idea that she needed to hatch something.  Since no eggs were available, she was actually sitting on a small piece of cast-off cantaloupe rind.  It was sort of round and vaguely egg-shaped, but still sort of a pathetic grasping at straws, I felt.  So I put her in jail.  She’s recuperating and hopefully will be back with the other chickens before we leave on vacation.

Sweet Arlene Barred Rock continues to recover from her molt, lameness, and the battering she got from some of the other chickens.  She’s living by herself in the open area of the pole barn and whenever I go into the barn she always runs to greet me.  Maybe she’s just looking for treats, but I like to think that she’s being friendly.  Once we’re back from our vacation, I’ll try reintroducing her to the flock again, hopefully with a better outcome than last time, so stay tuned for that!


Finally, here are some new pictures of the Legbar pullets.  They’re starting to look so beautiful and grown-up!  They’re finally calming down a little, and will actually eat out of my hand now.  I’m sure we’re just a few weeks away from those first blue eggs!

Bonnie the Cream Legbar

Paulette the Cream Legbar

Marissa the Cream Legbar

Nicky the Cream Legbar

Pecking Order/The Further Adventures of Arlene

In 1904, there was a ten-year-old boy living in Norway named Thorleif.  In addition to having a really cool name, Thorleif was also a very keen observer of the things that happened around him.  He was utterly captivated by a flock of chickens that his parents had given him and spent hours watching them interact.  In 1921, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe used the observations that he had collected since childhood on the dominance hierarchy in chickens as the basis for his doctoral dissertation.  Since his doctoral paper was published in German, he used the term “Hackordnung” to describe this chicken behavior.  When his paper was published in English in 1927, this term was translated as “pecking order.”  “Pecking order” has now seeped into popular usage to the point that it not only describes social interaction in people, but also an economic theory, a card game, and a chicken restaurant in Florida.  As a matter of fact the term has become such a part of the common lexicon that most people have forgotten, or never knew, that it has anything to do with chickens.


Thorleif (Oslo Museum)
But chickens do peck each other.  They have pointed beaks, and their beaks are their main weapon.  In the most extreme situation, chickens can peck each other to death.  That's unusual, though, and most chickens in most flocks go through the day without major squabbles.  That's not to say, though, that chickens are Kumbayah clucking pacifists.  There is a social structure and chickens are constantly trying to move up the ladder.  The top chickens get their pick of the prime spots on the very top of the roost and get to eat the choicest treats for as long as they like.  The bottom chickens find the best spot on the roost they can, and get any leftover treats that the ruling chickens don't want.  And while pecking is involved in maintaining the social norm, it doesn't always come to that - usually a dirty look from a more dominant hen is all that's required for the weaker hen to back down.

The flock of sixteen birds in my big coop actually contains two pecking orders.  There are fourteen hens and two roosters in the flock, and whenever a flock contains more than one rooster, there is a pecking order for the roosters that is distinct and separate from the hen pecking order.  With only two roosters, it’s pretty easy to see how things fall out for them.  Emile is the top banana.  Then, there’s the small auxiliary rooster, sad little Paul, the frizzled bantam Cochin.  Emile has his way with the ladies whenever and wherever he likes.  Paul will occasionally flirt with one of the hens, and if that hen is not one of Emile’s favorites, or if Emile’s feeling magnanimous, he’ll ignore the situation.  But if Paul puts a move on Emile’s best girl, or if Emile is in a foul (ahem…fowl) mood, he’ll chase Paul around the coop until Paul finds a good place to hide or Emile decides he’s tired.  This goes on every day and will not stop as long as both roosters are healthy and occupying the same flock at the same time.
The dynamic of the fourteen hens is a little more complicated.  I could tell you in general who the top hens and bottom hens are, but to actually make a list of the hens from top to bottom would be very difficult because there is constant shuffling going on.  A hen will move up or down a position due to some subtle interaction that either I don’t witness or I see but don't realize the implications.  In general, I’m positive that Arlene, Barbara, Charlie, and Darcy—the four Barred Rocks—make up the ruling elite.  In general, Barred Rock hens are intelligent, curious, and adventurous, and are most often the alpha hens in any flock.
Roosting time is the best time to watch flock dynamics.  Emile goes to bed early on the top rung and one by one the hens jump onto the roost to join him.  Paul knows that Emile is loath to get up once he’s settled in for the night, so he knows this is his big chance to troll the coop for acquiescent hens.  Each hen, meanwhile, works her way up the roost to the top rung and carefully examines the hens already sitting there to see if there is a hen near her status that she can roost by.  If the top rung is already full, she looks for a hen she can force to move down.  If a hen is not happy with who she winds up roosting by, she’ll not so subtly shove her body against her roost neighbor and try to force her to move.  If that strategy doesn’t work, she’ll casually start pecking the other hen’s toes.  The pecking escalates to the body, the neck, the head, and finally the comb.  Combs are sensitive, vulnerable, and bleed easily, so the conflict usually ends before it reaches that point when the weaker hen reluctantly moves to a lower rung.  Occasionally, if the lower hen feels she can take on the hen challenging her and move up a peg on the pecking order, a full-scale hen fight can ensue, which often ends with Emile’s intervention.
While all this shuffling and sorting out is taking place, the Barred Rocks are still lazily scratching through the coop bedding, or pecking feed.  They know that when they decide to go to bed, they’ll pick any spot on the roost that they damn well please.
And this is the law of the coop.  It may offend your sense of fairness and democracy, but it’s a system that works, and without a system there would be constant bloody conflict.  There are several situations that cause the system to break down.  One is when I introduce a new hen to the flock.  That hen has to fight for a position in the pecking order, or be mercilessly bullied by all of the other hens all of the time.  Putting a couple of new hens into the mix always causes a kerfuffle that lasts for several days, and when the dust and feathers finally settle, the new pecking order can look very different from the old one.  A second situation is when a hen dies.  The sudden death of Rhoda the Rhode Island Red last week opened up a position in the hierarchy and there was conflict.  Some hens moved up, and interestingly, some hens moved down.  A third situation is when a hen is injured.  Hens that rank below her immediately press their advantage.  Recall last week’s post about Arlene and Rhoda.  Both hens, when they were ill, felt safer on the ground, outdoors, with evening approaching, than in the coop with other hens that would probably pick a fight.  A fourth situation is when a hen is temporarily removed from the flock.  When she goes back, she has to regain her position in the scheme of things.  And that brings us to Arlene.
You’ll recall from last week’s post that Arlene has been under the weather with a lame right leg compounded by a hard molt.  She’s been gradually recuperating and on Thursday night at roosting time, I decided it was time to move Arlene back to the coop with the other hens.  I swung open the door separating her corner pen from the rest of the coop and Arlene sauntered out.  Most of the hens didn’t react at all to Arlene’s reappearance among them, but there were a few that did, and it was interesting to see who they were.  First, Paul the pipsqueak rooster scurried up, bubbling with amorous excitement.  I interpreted his ardent clucking to mean, “Arlene!  You’ve been away!  I suspect that the decline in your fortunes means that Emile no longer finds you attractive.  But suddenly I find you so…..approachable!”  Right behind Paul were Arlene’s “friends”, Barbara and Charlie Barred Rock.  They seemed to be saying, “Hey, sister, looks like you’ve got a little limp going on.  That is sooo not cool!  While you were away we saved your spot.  NOT!  There’s no way we ever want to hang out with you again, so take a hike now, or you’ll be sorry!”  Of course chickens don’t really talk.  What they were actually doing was aggressively pecking Arlene.  While I realized that it was important for Arlene to get through the hazing and reintegrate into the flock, I also didn’t want the situation to get out of hand, so I waited it out in the coop as the chickens, one by one, found a place on the roost for the night.  Arlene eventually limped back into her old corner pen and roosted by herself.
I got up early Friday morning, but not early enough to be up with the chickens.  By the time I got to the coop the nasty behavior was once again in full swing—Paul was doing his Lothario routine and the mean girls were bullying.  Arlene was constantly on the move to avoid their attention and her limp was becoming more pronounced.  Also, her comb was bleeding in several places from hard pecks.  I said a few words under my breath, snatched up Arlene, put her back in the corner pen and shut the door.  
Arlene--with comb scabs after a "conversation" with the mean girls

And that’s where she is today.  While Arlene actually seems perfectly happy to be living by herself in the corner pen and with free run of the tractor alley, it isn't a good or permanent solution. She needs to eventually reintegrate with the flock. I'm going to give her some time for her leg to regain some strength and for her comb to heal and then I'll give my next plan a shot: I'll put Arlene back into the coop and do a little social engineering to help her fit in.  I have a plan!  Will my plan work?  Who knows - but it's worth a try.  Life in the coop never gets boring! 

Barbara Barred Rock
Charlie Barred Rock

Paul the amorous frizzled bantam Cochin roo

[This post has been shared on "Clever Chicks Blog Hop #222"]