Social Engineering in the Coop – The Arlene Denouement

The more behavioral scientists study domestic chickens the more they come to appreciate their high intelligence and their complex social structure.  Chickens “talk” to each other with a large number of different vocalizations, each with its own meaning.  They show complex thinking in decision making—they take into account prior experience as well as their knowledge about their current situation.  They exhibit self-assessment, and make comparisons between themselves and other chickens in their flock.  They understand the rank of each chicken in the pecking order of their flock, which demonstrates logical reasoning ability. They engage in group activity when they forage and defend themselves.  They demonstrate long-term relationship-building (i.e. friendship) that requires long-term memory.  Author Annie Potts states “It now appears that the cognitive processes involved in representational thinking in chickens are similar to those required for associative learning in humans.”  The fact that chickens think like us is disturbing when you consider how the vast majority of domestic chickens are treated.  But it is also intriguing to think that just as we humans are subjected to subtle social manipulations by Madison Avenue and political campaigns, that chickens, too, can be socially manipulated, because they think like we do. 

And that brings us back to the story of Arlene Barred Rock.  It is not random happenstance that of all my chickens, it is the picture of Arlene perched on my shoulder that is featured prominently in the upper right-hand corner of my blog page.  From the time she was a chick she has always been an intelligent, adventurous, and gregarious bird.  When I go into the coop, she will run up to greet me with a peck on the leg and then will happily follow me around.  So it was very distressing to find her injured, lame, and sitting alone in the hen pen when the other chickens had gone indoors to roost for the evening that day in late June.  I moved her out of the coop that night and got to work on nursing her back to health.  It was heartening when she gradually regained her health and mobility to the point that I could move her from the sick chicken pen back to the regular coop.  But then I had to endure the drama of two of her former Barred Rock buddies, Barbara and Charlie, show one negative aspect of chicken behavior by becoming “the mean girls” and stalking, harassing, and aggressively pecking her in a display of dominance.  Arlene was constantly on the move to avoid their attention and her limp was becoming more pronounced.  Finally, when I saw that the mean girls had pecked Arlene so hard that her comb was bleeding in several places, I said a few words under my breath, snatched her up, put her back in the corner sick chicken pen and shut the door.  Once again, she was living by herself.  She stayed in the corner pen for a couple more weeks—until late August when I made my second attempt at reintegrating her into the flock.  And the second time, I used some social engineering. 

Arlene on her own again, after being beat up by the Mean Girls
In my post on pecking order, I talked about my flock’s roosting behavior, and how every bird in the flock wants to roost on the top rung of the roost.  It creates friction at roosting time, because the entire flock simply will not fit on the top rung.  So I changed things up a little—I made the top rung twice as long.  The top rung of the roost runs along the wall, and it would have been difficult, due to space constraints, to continue it along the wall, so I ran a second perch from the top rung across the coop to the opposite wall.  It created a limbo pole for me to duck under every time I walked through the coop, but it effectively doubled the chickens' “high up” space.  Then, right at roosting time, I swung the corner pen door open, and Arlene ambled in to rejoin the flock for a second time.  By the time everybody was ready to go to sleep, Arlene was peacefully sitting on the new part of the roost with a few other hens and everybody was interacting like they were a living representation of “Peaceable Kingdom.”

And, oh yeah, I did one other thing.  After I swung the door open for Arlene to go into the coop, I scattered some scratch grain in the small corner pen.  Barbara and Charlie Barred Rock sauntered into the small pen to investigate this fascinating treat, and once they were in, I slammed the door shut.  Arlene was with the flock and the mean girls were separated!  Barbara and Charlie leisurely pecked at the grain at first.  It was only when grain was all gone and it was time to roost with the flock that the realization that they were trapped hit them.  They pecked forlornly at the fence separating the pens for quite a while, with Charlie, the verbose one, complaining bitterly the entire time.  Eventually the automatic lights went out.  I found them the next morning sadly roosting on the low roost in the corner pen.  For the next ten days, they lived in the corner pen at night and the center part of the pole barn by day.  The center part of the pole barn is generally a chicken-free zone.  I use the space for feed and tool storage and it’s where I park the tractor.  On other rare occasions, I’ve had chickens live in that space.  Arlene, for instance, spent time there—it was a nice open space for her to walk and get her lame leg working again.  No chicken has ever caused problems in that space, but don't you know that Barbara and Charlie did!  They were into everything! I was more than a little upset when I discovered that they had made an entire square foot section of exposed Styrofoam insulation disappear by eating it!  And I was quite relieved when it seemed to go all the way through and come out the other end looking just like it did when it went in—apparently with no ill effect to either hen.  The very worst offense was when they roosted on my shiny green John Deere tractor and did what roosting chickens always do.

There’s really no such thing as a bad chicken.  These girls are Barred Rocks, so they were just being their usual adventurous selves—and there were two of them, so there was a second hen to egg the first one on.  No pun intended. Really!  But having those two hens hanging around outside of the coop was as big a trial for me as it was for them.

So ten days passed, and then on the tenth day, at roosting time, I opened the door and the two Barred Rock girls walked back into the coop.  Now there was a role reversal.  Instead of being the top bananas, the two Barred Rock hens were the new kids.  But there was absolutely no commotion.  The other chickens simply looked up and said, "Oh.  Hi, Barbara. Hi, Charlie."  And Barbara and Charlie nonchalantly said, "Hi, everybody! Hi, Arlene!" Then they just fell right back into their leadership role, only this time Arlene was right there with them.  And there were no dominance games at all--and they all seemed to be best of friends.  I shot the picture at the bottom just yesterday.  There are three hens perched on the edge of the dust bath where chickens often congregate and socialize.  That’s Arlene in the middle with her two buddies, Barbara and Charlie, on either side.

Charlie, Arlene, and Barbara Barred Rock, BFF's
[This post has been shared on "Clever Chicks Blog Hop #223]

What?! Another Sick Hen!

Unfortunately,  I have another sick hen to report today.  Jennifer, the white crested black Polish hen is not eating and lethargic and I’ve just separated her from the flock.  I don’t know if my recent plethora of sick chickens has to do with the incredibly wet summer we’ve had, the fact that many of my hens are getting old, or a combination of things, but since each sick hen seems to have her own distinct illness it isn’t like they’re infecting each other. 
Currently,  Roxie the Red is still recovering from her illness and is occupying the small pen where sick chickens usually stay, and Emily the Silkie is brooding away in the broody coop.  So I’m running out of places to put chickens!  I had to drag my outdoor “chicken gazebo” into the pole barn and have set up a sick room for Jennifer there.
Jennifer’s illness appears to be respiratory – she’s breathing with her beak open as though she can’t get enough air.  I did a throat swab to check for gape worms (more on gape worms later!) and there was no sign of worms, but there was some mucous.  If you’ve ever had pneumonia, you know how it can knock you for a loop.  Now imagine that your infected, congested lungs filled your whole body and you can imagine how Jennifer feels – birds' respiratory systems include not just their lungs but also five air sacs that are spread throughout their entire body cavity, and respiratory infections can involve the whole system.  Jennifer, when she’s healthy, is as crazy and fun as one expects Polish hens to be, and the other hens and I are missing her antics.  We’re all hoping she gets back on her feet soon.  Here’s a small gallery of Jennifer pictures from happier times.


Spending too much time in the rain can do terrible things to a girl's do

Baby Jennifer

"Meet the Flock" Roundup - July & August, 2016

Meet Snowball the Silkie Rooster. This personable little roo has an amazingly long back story for one so young and fluffy. In 2013 I picked three baby chicks out of a batch of straight run fluffy-footed chicks at a local feed store. “Straight run” means that the chicks had not been sexed, so their gender was unknown. “Fluffy-footed” means just that –these chicks would turn into chickens that would have feathers all the way down their legs and on their feet. In my inexperience, I was hoping for three Silkie hens. I’m glad I was not playing the lottery that day, since all three chicks became roosters. Two of them were not even Silkies – early on I figured out that Emile and Paul were roosters (like when they started crowing!), and that they were both bantam Cochins. Snowball was the only Silkie. Sexing baby chicks is difficult – it requires the ability to see minor variations in the baby chicks’ cloacae. It’s so difficult to sex chicks that it is considered as much art as science, and is only done by professionals. Baby Silkies display such minor cloacal differences that it’s pretty much impossible to sex them at all. So you have to wait until they’re 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 Paul and Emile had declared their roosterhood weeks before Snowball got around to it, crowing was exactly the wrong thing for him to do. Every day from that point on, Snowball’s life became an exercise in escaping the wrath of the other two roosters. Even the hens became hostile to him and soon everybody was picking on him. In due course, he was afraid to 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”. He lived there by himself for about a year. Then, in 2014 I built a second coop which became Snowball’s new home and since then I’ve gradually introduced more chickens to that coop. Today, Coop 2 is home to two Silkie hens, a golden Polish hen, a buff Orpington, and the four teenage Cream Legbars. And Snowball is lord of the manor!

Meet Betty the Easter Egger! Easter Eggers are not a true breed. Rather, they are a cross of a variety of different breeds with Auracanas, a South American breed that lays blue eggs. Auracanas lay blue eggs by adding biliverdin, a hemoglobin byproduct, to their eggshells. Easter Eggers can lay eggs that range from blue to olive green. This sweet hen used to be a regular layer of pretty light-green eggs, but has not laid an egg since last fall. At age three, she’s only middle-aged, but I suspect that Betty may have opted for early retirement!

Meet Bonnie the Cream Legbar pullet! Bonnie is one of the baby chicks I got at the end of March and is unique because she doesn’t have a tail. Poultry people refer to this condition as “rumplessness” and in addition to no tail feathers, rumpless chickens are also lacking a tailbone. There are breeds of rumpless chickens, but Legbars are not one of those breeds, so I don’t know what’s going on with Bonnie. At first I was chalking it up to the Auracana (a rumpless South American breed) genetics in Cream Legbars, but after doing some more reading I now realize that when R.C. Punnett developed the Cream Legbar in the 1930's he didn't use Auracanas per se - the blue egg and the crest genes came from a "yellow-brown colored, crested Chilean hen"—no mention of the hen not having a tail. I’ve exchanged emails with the breeder that Bonnie came from and she is surprised – this has never occurred in her chickens before. I suppose that this must be a spontaneous mutation, which makes Bonnie very special. I expect once she’s a little older she’ll develop super powers.

Here's another picture of Bonnie enjoying a little leaf tidbit in the chicken run.

Meet Buffy the Buff Orpington hen. Buffy is in her fourth year, but maintains her girlish figure and turns out a continuous stream of those lovely brown eggs. She does stop laying eggs on occasion and goes broody. She actually is the only non-Silkie hen in my flock that has bouts of broodiness. I'm hatching a plan (no pun intended, of course!) to put her broodiness to good purpose by using her as the broody hen for next year’s batch of chicks.

Meet Carmen Maranda the cuckoo Marans and Mary the golden Campine. This is not a fabulous picture of either hen, but it’s a great juxtaposition of the largest and smallest hens in the big coop. Carmen, as mild mannered as she is large, lays beautiful chocolate brown eggs and Mary, high-energy and aloof, lays petite white eggs.

Meet Charlie Barred Rock. Charlie is in her fourth year, and just between us, is kind of bossy and verbose. She never stops talking! How can any hen have so much to say? Charlie is the largest of the Barred Rocks and she is without a doubt the alpha hen in the flock, so maybe all that talk is just her reminding the other hens how cool she is.

Meet Courtney the white Silkie hen. If you’ve followed this blog for any time you may feel Courtney needs no introduction, since you no doubt followed the story of Courtney raising the batch of Cream Legbar chicks as their surrogate mom. But Courtney actually has a secret past! Courtney started life in an amazing local bookstore that is not only filled with tons of children’s books, but also a variety of animals for the kids to interact with. Courtney was known as Iggy Peck back then—a perfect name for a chicken living in a bookstore! While Courtney is the smallest chicken in my flock, she makes up for her size with her assertiveness, and apparently that part of her personality manifested itself in her previous life as well. She not only made life miserable for the other chicken in the store, a poor hen-pecked little rooster named Neal, but one fateful day she also pecked a toddler. It was a soft peck and the toddler was not harmed, but Courtney lost her job selling books that day. So then she came to live here at the ranch. The bookstore folks report that since “Iggy Peck” left, Neal has blossomed into a happy, outgoing rooster that loves the attention that all of the kids bestow on him. And Courtney has become a Hipster Hen and a mom! So this is a story with happy ending for everybody!

Edging Away From Cruel Eggs: Part 2—Slogging Toward Enactment

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

California’s Propostion 2, “Standards for Confining Farm Animals” passed in 2008, but the fight against it didn’t stop with its passage.  The forces aligned against it included many of the country’s top egg producers and their minions   “Egg producers” refers to the gigantic corporations that sell eggs and egg products.  It is a very misleading term.  I’m very sure that not a single one of the guys who run these companies has personally produced an egg, ever.  Egg production is really the job of the millions of caged chickens in their enormous “production facilities”.  And I don’t suppose that any of those guys resemble the image of the stereotypical farmer either.  They most likely spend their days behind a desk or at a boardroom table, and are about as likely to look like Old MacDonald as a giant chicken confinement building looks like a red mansard-roofed barn with a crowing rooster on top. 
Battery Caged Hens (Maqi~commonswiki)
In the previous post on this topic I talked about how in February of 2008, nearly eight hundred thousand California voters submitted signatures in favor of putting the proposition that would become Prop 2 on the Election Day ballot.  It prohibited “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.”  While the measure freed pigs and calves from confining crates, it also got chickens out of battery cages—it was the first legislation, ever, to end the abuse of chickens.  Then, after a vigorous campaign by both the proponents and opponents of the measure, it was approved in November, 2008 by 63.5% of those voting.

The proposition gave “egg producers” more than six years to prepare for the implementation of the law.  Many of them immediately started looking at what they needed to do to meet the guidelines provided in the new law and how they could accomplish those actions.  But many of those same “egg producers” rolled up their sleeves and got down to the business of doing and end run around the law. 

It's ironic that some of the very companies that railed against Prop 2 by arguing that it would “force” chickens outside decided, once it passed, that Prop 2 did not, in fact, ban chicken cages.  In 2009 some egg production companies began to suggest that they would meet the new standards by using “enhanced” cages.  “Enhanced” cages were the compromise that the European Union had arrived at in its own struggle between egg production companies and humane animal husbandry advocates (and that’s a story in itself!).  The EU compromise was not a good compromise for chickens.  “Enhanced” cages are also referred to as “enriched cages” or “colony cages”.  The operative word here is “cages”.  Because, yes, they are still cages.  Chickens in these cages are given slightly more room.  Somehow, perhaps totally arbitrarily, 116 square inches became the standard.  116 square inches is definitely better than the 67 square inch standard in battery cages—a hen that previously had less than a sheet of printer paper to live in now would have space equivalent to a sheet of legal paper in the new cages.  The cages also had roosts—but there were not enough for all of the chickens to roost simultaneously and engage in social roosting behavior, and often, because of the low cage ceilings, these “roosts” were at floor level.  And there were dust baths filled with wood chips or some other dry material—but in practice, the dust bath material was quickly scattered out of the dust bath by the chickens and then completely out of the cage through the wire mesh floor.  The hens were observed to stand in the empty dust baths and perform “sham dust bathing—pathetically going through the motions of dust bathing with no material.  And the cages also had nest boxes—but they were devoid of nesting material and there were not enough.  Hens often spent time in the nest boxes without actually nesting.  They would use the nests for sham dust bathing, or just as a place to escape all the other hens in the overcrowded cages.  While “egg producers” did spend a significant amount of money for these new cages, and while the lower density did mean fewer eggs, thus less profit per square foot of barn space, it did little to end the abuse of the laying hens.  Yet the companies rolled out these new systems with champagne toasts and great fanfare.  It allowed their PR staff to show that they were doing something for the welfare of their chickens.  But, all said and done, these cages did not really meet the standard dictated by Prop 2.

While the California egg industry was busy reacting to the impending new law, the California legislature was also diligently at work solving one big problem the law created.  The California egg companies rightfully claimed that the new law regulated them but did nothing to regulate eggs coming into California from Mexico and other states.  If California companies were to meet Prop 2 standards in the way they treated their hens, then they were at a financial disadvantage to outside egg companies that didn’t have to meet those standards.  The legislature agreed with this assessment and drafted legislation that stated that any eggs sold in California, regardless of where they were produced, would have to comply with the standards outlined in Prop 2.  The bill was labeled Assembly Bill 1437, passed both the Assembly and the Senate by large margins and was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger in July of 2010.  Now egg companies in the American Midwest and South were really paying attention.  California is huge market for eggs and if they wanted to keep that market, they were going to either have to change the way they did business or somehow get rid of the new law.  They got right to work trying both strategies.

JS West is a large California family owned agricultural company.  They distribute propane, they grow almonds, they mill grain, and they have lots of laying hens.  Lots and lots of laying hens.  They were one of the first to come up with idea of putting their hens into enhanced cages.  After spending a ton of money on new facilities with enhanced cages, they were incensed when the Humane Society of the U.S. and others suggested that enhanced cages didn’t meet the standard dictated by Prop 2.  In December 2010, JS West filed a lawsuit against the State of California and the Humane Society of the U.S. that argued that Prop 2 didn’t specifically say how much space a chicken really needed, nor did it say how many chickens could be in any given enclosure or what sort of “furnishings” should be provided to them.  By March, 2011 The Association of California Egg Farmers (ACEF), that represented seventy percent of California’s egg farmers, filed to join JS West in their lawsuit.  Debbie Murdock, executive director of ACEF said, “Compliance requires the egg farmers to spend a significant amount of money on construction costs…and they should not be forced to guess whether their new facilities will comply with Proposition 2." They no doubt also hoped that their suit would be resolved with a legal declaration that their enhanced cages met the standard set by the new law.

Jill Benson, a JS West vice president, hyped their new enhanced cages. “We call it an enriched colony system...The hens can perform their natural behaviors when laying eggs!”  she proclaimed.  “And we give them fresh feed and fresh water!” she added magnanimously.  Fresh feed and water, apparently, was the icing on the cake.

The Humane Society of the U.S. felt that while an exact space per hen was not dictated in the legislation that enhanced cages didn’t meet the standard.  Peter Brandt, the Humane Society’s senior attorney for farm animals, stated, “We’ve always made it clear that hens must be able to turn around, lay down, stand up and fully extend their limbs; it’s no mystery.”

In October 2011, the California State Court ruled against JS West and their friends and the case was dismissed, but the dismissal was accomplished with arcane legal maneuvers that delayed the battle but didn’t solve the problem.  The lawyers for the pro-Prop 2 forces filed a demurrer, which is the California State Court equivalent to a motion to dismiss.  The grounds for dismissal was “ripeness”—the legislation in contention hadn’t come into effect yet, thus there were no pending enforcement actions against JS West or anybody else.  The court sustained the demurrer and the JS West case was dismissed.  The can had been kicked down the road.  But it turned out to be a very short kick.  In early 2012 a family trust that owned a cluster of California egg farms sued the State of California in federal court, arguing that Prop 2 was “impermissibly vague in all possible circumstances”—it was the next but certainly not the last action in the unrelenting legal circus that surrounded Prop 2. 

In the next post:  The egg industry and friends continues to litigate rather than find ways to institute changes to meet the Prop 2 standards.

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs:  Part 3 - Strange Coop-Fellows"

Read "Edging Away from Cruel Eggs: Part 4—California, and now Massachusetts!"

A Bird's Eye View of the Minnesota State Fair

Ah, the Minnesota State Fair—largest state fair in the country by daily attendance, and second only to Texas (which goes on twice as long, don’t you know) in total attendance!  The fair has been a thing since way back in 1854 when it was the Minnesota Territorial Fair, and has happened every year except 1861 and 1862 when both the Civil War and the Dakota War were in progress and again in 1945 and 1946 when we were dealing with World War Two and then a polio outbreak.  Minnesota has had all sorts of other hardships over the years—but except for those few occasions I mentioned, the fair has always gone on, right on schedule.

Fairchild--the Fair Mascot (Jonathunder)
My first Fair experience was in 1969 when I traveled “all the way up to the Cities” to show my prize winning pig.  It both memorable and eye-opening, for me, a teenage farm boy, to find myself in the middle of all the Fair craziness and in the middle of the big city to boot.  But I managed it for three days—sleeping in the FFA dorm at night, taking care of Toody the pig during the day, and otherwise spending a lot of quality time unloading all my summer job cash in the midway and filling up on lots of deep fried cheese curds.  I’ve been going to the fair ever since.  Not every year, mind you, but pretty much.

Last summer was the year that poultry farms across the country were devastated by avian influenza.  Millions of birds succumbed to this highly infectious pathogen.  The fair went on as usual, but there were no birds in the poultry barn—the Minnesota Board of Animal Health had banned all live poultry shows.  All the chicken folks showed up, nevertheless.  Instead of displaying their prize chickens in the Poultry Barn cages, they displayed pictures of their flocks!  Everybody made the best of a bad situation, and the show went on!

This year the chickens are back in all their glory.  Here are a few photos from my 2016 Minnesota State Fair experience.

A typical fair scene--this one is just east of the Grandstands
The Poultry Barn
A very impressive Minorca rooster
A beautiful buff laced bearded Polish hen
The crop art competition is one of my favorites every year.  The entire picture has to be made from plant seeds.  This picture of a hen uses the seeds of green peppers, poppies, brown flax, golden flax, millet, quinoa, red quinoa, amaranth, sesame, and wild rice, as well as lentils, green peas, yellow peas, and cream of wheat.
A detail from a display in the Horticulture Building
This acrylic on canvas painting hanging in the Fine Arts Building is by artist Sharon Anne Dolan and is entitled “Dorothy’s House”.  I like the colorful chickens quite a bit.
Another work from the Fine Arts Building.  This is an iPhone panorama by Janine A. Olmscheid entitled “Blue Ribbon Paper Poultry: 2015 Avian Flu Outbreak” depicting the cages containing pictures of chickens at last year’s fair.  Thus, this is my picture of a picture of some pictures.  Whew!