Critters

The Hipster Hen Ranch sits on nine acres near the St. Croix River, a pristine, protected river that forms a long section of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The house, other buildings, gardens, and chicken runs take up maybe an acre, and the rest is pretty much mature oak forest.  One nice thing about living in the oak woods is the abundance of wildlife.  Last night when Bailey and I took our final trip outside before bed,  I listened to two great horned owls having an extended conversation.  We often hear or catch glimpses of owls, eagles, wild turkeys, hawks, deer, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bears and gazillions of squirrels and rabbits.  There have even been occasional reports of cougars and bobcats. 

I truly appreciate being able to interact with all these wild critters, but there’s a downside.  Most of my neighbors and I choose to live in the country for the country lifestyle.  That usually includes growing big gardens and raising a few animals.  And that’s where our interaction with the local wild critters can become tricky.  Critters can be divided into three categories:  The carnivores, like the hawks, foxes, and coyotes have a pronounced appreciation for chickens—but not in the same way that you, my blog readers, appreciate chickens.  The herbivores, such as the deer and rabbits, have an insatiable fondness for my garden and apple trees.  And then there are the omnivores, best represented by the raccoons, who would be happy to have a few tomatoes from the garden for an appetizer before settling down to a fine chicken entrĂ©e. 

We all do our best to deal with this problem.  In the not-so-distant days past, the solution was to shoot every critter in sight.  When I was a kid, I learned that the birds I now call hawks were “chicken hawks”, that they existed to eat our chickens, and when you spotted one, you reached for your rifle.  Fortunately, most folks are a bit more enlightened now.  I realize that I have chosen to raise my vegetables and chickens in habitat that was occupied by wild animals long before I arrived.  So I share the space—one acre for me and my domestic plants and animals, and the other eight acres for the wild animals.  But I prefer not to share my chickens and tomatoes.  To protect my gardens from plant munchers, I keep them close to the house, spray copious amounts of repellent, and of course I have a ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever.  And to protect the Hipster Hens from chicken munchers, I don’t ever allow them to free range.  When I’m home, they’re strolling around a half-acre chicken run, and when I’m gone, they’re in the hen pen with its wire roof, and perimeter of buried wire.  And of course there’s the ferocious 16-year-old Labrador Retriever. 

My system to protect against predators does seem to make a difference.  Last summer, a nearby neighbor lost an entire flock in one night to a weasel attack.  A friend who free-ranges her chickens had almost her entire flock picked off one hen at a time over the course of the summer by an unknown predator.  By the end of the summer she was down to two war-hardened and apparently very savvy old Barred Rock hens.  On the other hand, I've never lost a single chicken to predators (I’m knocking hard on my wooden desktop as I write this).  There has been one hawk attack that all the chickens escaped unscathed (more on that in a later post), and then there was the July 2015 raccoon incident.

Back in early June of last year, I saw a raccoon hanging around my backyard on several occasions.  The coon was quite interested in the bird feeder and quickly figured out how to shimmy up the pole, around the squirrel baffle and to the very top.  Then it was a simple matter of sitting on top and reaching down for one little raccoon handful of birdseed after the other—directly out of the tray.  I wasn’t particularly happy about the birdseed, but was even more concerned about the chickens.  While the chickens were pretty well protected in the hen pen, it would be an easy thing for a raccoon to scoot up a tree to get over the eight-foot-high chicken run fence.  The chickens are only in the run during daytime hours when I’m home, but this raccoon was not a bit shy and had no problem snuffling around the backyard in the daylight. 

The Raccoon

Spurs!

Roosters (and some hens!) have spurs – a claw-shaped projection on their legs just above their feet.  Spurs start out as small bumps on young chickens and gradually grow into long, curved, sharp weapons.  And they are weapons.  Roosters use their spurs to defend themselves and their flocks.  When a rooster attacks, he propels himself forward feet first, intending to slash his opponent with his spurs.  People who engage in cockfighting (which, thankfully, is now illegal in all 50 states after Louisiana banned it in 2007), cover their fighting roosters’ spurs with long metal spikes called gaffs.  This guarantees that the spur, which can be injurious enough in its normal unadorned state, will be even more harmful—thus increasing the blood, fatalities, and excitement for the spectators of the “sport”.  I’m referring to this brutality as sport only because that’s how it is characterized in the parts of the world where it remains legal.  But I’m getting a bit off track from the topic I really want to talk about—trimming roosters’ spurs to make them less dangerous.  In addition to removing a weapon, spur trimming also helps protect hens from being injured while mating with the rooster.  And since spurs can become amazingly long, shortening them can actually make it easier for the rooster to walk.

Last week, my wife, Kathy, astutely noticed that one of Emile’s spurs was so curved it was almost winding back into his leg.  Spurs sometimes can actually grow all the way back into a rooster’s leg, causing pain and lameness.  I don’t know how Kathy even noticed Emile’s spurs since his legs are covered in dandy feather pantaloons all the way down to his feet, in the usual Cochin style.  But when I got a chance to get a closer look, I saw the curved spur as well and decided it was time for Emile to get a pedicure, and I further decided that we would take care of all the guys while we were at it.

If you were to x-ray a chicken spur, you would see that the tip is solidly made of the same keratin-rich horny material that covers the entire spur—it’s the same material that is in a chicken’s toenail and it’s dead—there are no nerve endings or blood supply.  Starting about half-way down the spur and going all the way to the leg, there’s an inner core of living tissue, and inside this core is bone—an extension of the chicken’s tarsometatarsus.  (Watch me toss around the hundred-dollar words!  That’s the official name for the bone a chicken’s leg shank.)  The presence of an inner core of bone make spurs more analogous to horns than toenails.

It’s good to have a mental picture of the inside of a spur when you’re trimming.  If you trim too closely to the leg, you'll cut live tissue and could even cut into bone.  If you cut in the right place, it’s as simple and painless as trimming toenails.

Spur trimming is really a two-person job.  You need one person to hold the squirming, frightened rooster, and one person to wield the trimming tool.  There are three different methods—each with its own tool:

One choice is to trim the spurs with a sharp dog nail clipper.  The operative word here is “sharp.”  A dull clipper can function more like a nutcracker and actually crack the entire outer layer of the spur—not good!  You should trim about a third of the distance from the end and keep in mind if you trim too much you’ll be cutting into live tissue.  It’s a good idea to have styptic powder on hand in case you hit live tissue and cause bleeding.

A second method is to use a Dremel pet grooming tool—an electric tool with a rotating file at the end that’s designed for filing dog toenails.  There’s no chance of cracking the spur with a Dremel and you’re probably less likely to go too deep and cause bleeding since filing is such a gradual process.  The down-side of a Dremel is that it is gradual.  Filing a spur can take some time, and meanwhile you’re holding this unhappy, frightened rooster.  And then, a Dremel is a bit pricier than even the best clipper.

Another technique is to grab the spur at the base with pliers and gently squeeze the pliers while wiggling the spur back and forth.  Eventually the entire outer layer of the spur will detach and you can pull it off, leaving the living core behind.  You will definitely need styptic powder for this procedure—there will be blood.  Many resources that I respect offer “uncapping” as viable method for trimming spurs, but I can’t get past the notion that it’s on par with pulling out someone’s fingernails.  There’s no denying that desheathed spurs will bleed and that the rooster will feel pain.


I'm a proponent of the dog-clipper method, and that’s exactly what we did.  It was quick and painless.  The hardest part was managing to apprehend all three guys!  

Kathy was the holder and I was the trimmer.  Each rooster in turn got quickly and painlessly trimmed while frantically thinking, "What is HAPPENING TO ME!?"


Emile's nearly ingrown spur


 Not only is Paul the smallest of the roosters, but he's also covered in very silly frizzled feathers.  So it's so ironic that he has HUGE spurs.  Ah, life.....

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #227]





A Broody Pullet?!

Last week’s big surprise in the coop was the sight of Marissa the Cream Legbar pullet hunkered down in a nest box with her jaw set in determination as she tried to hatch eggs.  “No!” I told myself. “Marissa can’t be broody!  Legbars don’t go broody!  Pullets don’t go broody!”  Nevertheless, she spent an entire day on the nest, and when she was still nesting the next day, I decided it was time to do a little research.

Marissa, her jaw set in determination, broods.
First of all, Greenfire Farms, the only U.S. importer of Cream Legbars states very clearly on their website that Cream Legbar hens “are rarely broody.”  So there you go.  “Rarely” is not the same as never, but the odds certainly seem against broodiness in this breed.
 
So what’s the scoop on broody pullets?  This little hen is barely out of her teens!  Doesn’t she understand the risks of having kids at such a tender age?  I couldn’t find anything from any of the experts I depend on regarding broody pullets, but when I checked the “Backyard Chickens” forum, there were several discussions regarding broody pullets.  One flock keeper reported that one of her buff Orpington pullets started laying eggs at five-months-old and went broody three weeks later.  Of course Orpingtons do have a reputation for going broody at the drop of a hat.  The general impression I got from the information I sorted through on the forum is that any time a chicken is laying eggs they can certainly go broody, but that isn’t the usual behavior for pullets.

Basically, my research confirmed what I already thought I knew.  Pullets rarely go broody.  Cream Legbars rarely go broody.  Combine those two things into one hen and it would be extremely unlikely that she would go broody.  So I passed this information on to Marissa.  She responded by puffing her feathers waaay out and dismissively stating, “Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck.”  Typical broody hen behavior.  So that’s when I put her in the broody crate.  I only kept her in there a couple of days.  Even toward the end of the first day she was shaking her head and muttering, “What was I thinking!?”

Now she’s back with the flock and is a totally reformed hen.  She’s not laying eggs, though, and may not for a bit, which is too bad since so many of the other hens are not laying because they’re going through their fall molt.  Was this a sign that this little hen will continue having bouts of broodiness?  That’s something only Marissa can answer, and in time, I’m sure she will.


One postscript:  If you’re new to my blog or new to chickens and you’re wondering what all this broodiness stuff is about, I’ve written this post, and another one here that will fill you in.


[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #226]

A Dog Story

It’s after midnight and I’m pulling into my garage.  It’s been a long day with lots of driving.  My sleeping daughter groggily stirs to wakefulness in the back seat.  She’s been at music camp for most of the week and this was the day that my wife and I drove there, attended a concert put on by the camp kids, then loaded our daughter and all of her stuff into the car and headed home.  My wife, daughter, and I all get out of the car and stretch.  While my wife helps my daughter unload her cello from the car, I fumble with my keys as I walk to the front door.  The house is dark—my son is apparently out for the evening since there’s no way a nineteen-year-old college student would be in bed at midnight.  I unlock the door and swing it open.  The two dogs run out of the dark house and cavort happily on the lawn.  There is something so wrong with this scene that my wife, my daughter and I stand and stare in gape-jawed disbelief.  We don’t own any dogs.  “Are we at the right house?” I query in disbelief.  “Um…do we have dogs now?”  “Are those dogs?” my daughter asks in confusion.

Yes, they are definitely dogs—two big dogs snuffling around our yard.  They look like labs—one is black and one is yellow.  They are both wearing collars with weird little boxes on top.  I go into the house and find a note from my son.  “Well, there’s not much we can do about this right now.” I tell my wife and daughter.  “These dogs are going to have to spend the night with us.  In the morning we’ll call Animal Control.”

“Meet the Flock” Roundup—September & October, 2016

Meet Darcy Barred Rock, the fourth hen in the quartet of Barred Rock hens that rule the Hipster Hen roost. Darcy isn’t super friendly like Arlene, she isn’t super clever like Barbara, and she isn’t super bossy like Charlie. She is, perhaps, one of those individuals who would be characterized by all observers as “the other one”. But I don’t think Darcy cares. I think she knows that she’s SORT OF friendly and clever—and maybe just a little bit bossy. And other than that she’s happy to be the hen that goes about her business of laying one of those nice brown eggs nearly every day!

Meet Emile, the birchen Cochin rooster. Well, actually, you’ve already met Emile. This is a recent picture that I like quite a bit that I had to share—Emile in all his roosterly splendor!

Meet Emily, the plump and personable black Silkie hen. Emily really does have eyes but they’re hard to see because they’re sort of hidden in her fluff and they’re black--just like the rest of her. Emily’s eyes, and the rest of her for that matter, are hard to photograph. She just sort of absorbs all the light and ends up looking like a silhouette. I haven’t ever taken a picture that I feel does her justice, but she’s so darn cute I’m gonna keep trying!

Emily the Silkie stares contemplatively through the chicken run fence on a nice fall day.

Meet Maran the cuckoo Marans hen. She’s pictured here with her constant companion, Carmen Maranda. Maran and Carmen are in their third year—these two girls and Angitou the golden Polish hen joined the flock as babies in the summer of 2014 and came from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. Marans can come in nine different colors, but Maran and Carmen’s cuckoo color is the most common in the US. In addition to being pretty birds, my Marans hens lay beautiful dark chocolate brown eggs.

Here's Carmen Maranda and Maran the cuckoo Marans hens as kids in the summer of 2014, along with their friend Angitou the golden Polish hen.

Meet Marissa the Cream Legbar. I captured this picture of Marissa in August—about the time she started laying eggs. Since then, Marissa has laid a pretty little blue-green pullet egg almost every day, and each egg is incrementally larger than the previous one. My older hens have scaled waaay back on egg production lately, since they’ve started their fall molt. So many days the four eggs I get from my four young Legbar hens outnumber the eggs I get from the rest of the flock!

Here’s Jennifer, my fourth year white crested black Polish hen.  Jennifer was so sick that I removed her from the flock for a while in late September, but she did a rapid and spectacular bounce-back and I’m happy to report that she’s completely recovered now.  I was sure that Jennifer would be eager to model the new chicken sweaters, but she apparently felt otherwise.


In Memorium:  Sweet Roxie the Rhode Island Red.  Gone but not forgotten.

Sweater Girls

This post is about chicken sweaters.  It is also about anxiety. Because sometimes chickens get anxious.  But it's mostly about chicken sweaters.  But first I need to tell you about Emile the rooster. 

Back a few years ago, when Emile was a mere teenage cockerel, he got a bad case of sour crop.  He reached a point where he was all hunched up in a corner, staring into space and literally near death.  Happily, I was able to bring him back to good health and full recovery.  He became an amazingly docile and friendly little rooster after he recovered, maybe because of all the handling that was necessary when he was sick.  But I like to think that perhaps there was also an element of gratitude involved.

Anyway, over the last year he’s undergone a huge change in attitude.  He makes it clear whenever I go into the coop that it’s his coop, not mine, and that he’s in charge not me.  There have been a few instances where he’s taken me on—actually lunged at me feet-first with those long pointed spurs.  This usually happens when he feels I’m harassing his hens in some way, but sometimes it’s just because I maybe look at him wrong, or possibly only because he’s in a foul (um, fowl) mood.  Being attacked by an enraged rooster could be disconcerting if it weren’t for the fact that Emile is a bantam Cochin roo and the biggest thing about him is his ego.

When he goes on the attack, I usually respond by putting on a pair of gloves to avoid contact with those spurs, then I pick him up, pet him, and tell him that he just needs to think calm thoughts and concentrate on his breathing.  This really does seem to calm him, although for all I know he may just be icily plotting his revenge.