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. 

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)

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!