Chickens – Weeks 23-33

by Beth

How did 10 weeks fly by so quickly? With full-time jobs; dome build; puppy; chickens; improving barnbungalow; preparing bees, fields, and gardens for fall – not to mention the vampire that is COVID ennui – time and energy to blog have been in short supply. But the chickens have still been growing and having adventures!

In the last CHICKENS post, we had received a big new coop and moved the little Easter Egger chicks outside to the tractor coop to grow big enough to move into the big coop with the others. Stilton the surprise rooster was learning to crow, but Cogburn and the pullets were keeping him in check, so it looked like we may be able to keep a 2nd rooster.

Meanwhile, the older pullets were starting to lay…

Hooray, Eggs!

All 6 Brahmas and Langshans are now laying, with Pinkie finally starting last week, 13 weeks after the first of her group started laying and 6 weeks after the last Langshan to start.

  • Buff Brahmas Peep and Eula: 19.5 weeks
  • Buff Brahma Donna: 22 weeks
  • Black Langshan BeBe: 24 weeks
  • Black Langshan Frida Bakawlo (the chick formerly known as Popsicle): 26 weeks
  • Black Langshan Pinkie: 32 weeks

Each lays 3-5 eggs per week. Again, all were hatched by Ideal Poultry.

The Brahmas’ eggs are a transcendent tan and sometimes speckled. The Langshans’ eggs have been an awesome surprise. Their medium-brown eggs have an extra heavy protective coating, called “bloom,” that makes them pink!

When they first started laying, their bloom “ink jets” took a week to warm up, and sometimes they still lay eggs that are more brown than pink. Another fun tidbit: Pinkie was named for her pink beak as a chick, but currently her eggs are pinker than anyone else’s.

While the egg’s shade may fluctuate slightly from day to day, each chicken lays a unique shape. Donna’s eggs are small and round. Pinkie lays a lozenge.

They’re still laying 2-4 eggs a month off the roost. It only happens overnight or early in the morning. They seem perfectly happy with the nesting boxes, but if they have an egg on deck before dawn, they sleep-lay. Hopefully it’s something they’ll grow out of. Until then, we might need to install a trampoline under the roost to keep all the sleep eggs from breaking.

For more egg photos and facts, check out this post.

Pinkie’s Rebound

Pinkie’s late-laying start is common for Langshans, but with her flockmates laying months before, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for a Pinkie egg. Laying is a sign of health, so if she wasn’t laying, was she okay? One afternoon, Pinkie finally settled into a nesting box. I perched at the edge of the coop to keep her company and see if she would lay an egg.

I wouldn’t have done this if Cockerel Cogburn were in the coop. When the first pullets started laying, he took great pride in standing guard by the nesting boxes, and I didn’t like to interfere. After a couple months, Cogburn stopped escorting to the nesting boxes as frequently. He’ll run to the coop when a pullet bakaws for him, but otherwise he stays in the yard scratching up treats for the others and watching the sky. A rooster’s job is never done.

Something else that changed recently: outgoing Pinkie has practically been in exile. When others started to lay and she didn’t, she gradually became withdrawn and fell down the pecking order. As a chick, I called her “the ambassador” because she was always calmly, happily in the middle of whatever fray the Brahmas were causing. Now, you’d find her off to the side in the yard, by herself.

One day, a rainstorm started when I was out with the birds. Everyone, including me, wandered into the coops’ covered runs to wait it out. Except Pinkie, who stayed huddled under a sapling.

That’s Pinkie’s prerogative. Chickens don’t necessarily mind rain, but they usually “don’t mind” it in a group. Pinkie was alone. When it stormed harder, I ran out to fetch her. Instead of putting her in the front of the run with the others, I set her inside the coop by the back door. She didn’t join the others. She just stood by the back door watching the rain.

There’s something transcendently serene about Langshan chickens that made the moment more poignant than I can describe. It appeared Pinkie’s ambassador days were over.

Pinkie gradually became so timid she wasn’t spending as much time at the feeders or running up for treats with the others. The biggest chick in the brooder was now the smallest Langshan pullet. Was that because she was the slowest growing, or was she not getting enough feed? I started meeting her secretly at the small feed station at the back of the coop, where I’d hand her a raisin or handful of sunflower seeds or pour out some fresh feed. This quickly created a monster. Chickens are incredibly trainable. Pinkie learned within a day to covertly wait at the back of the coop when I came to the yard. If I forgot that was the routine, she’d remind me by peering from the back of the coop with her dark-brown, guilt-trip-laying eyes.

The back of the coop is where everyone’s favorite nesting box is, and where I was perched the afternoon Pinkie finally decided to sit in it. I was there less than 2 minutes before the band of cuddly Easter Eggers stampeded my lap in a flapping mob, which startled Pinkie, who said baKAW and hopped out of the nesting box to find Cogburn and tell him what happened. Oh well, I thought. Maybe Pinkie wasn’t ready to lay after all.

Cogburn came running to Pinkie’s bakaw and met her in front of the coop. Then, boop! Pinkie tooted an egg onto the ground.

Cogburn regarded the egg for a second before I picked it up. Pinkie had already trotted off to forage with the others like nothing happened. Except something had happened. When Cogburn rejoined the flock, Pinkie nudged past the others to forage next to him.

I was bummed Pinkie’s precious first egg was an oopsie on the ground, but Pinkie wasn’t. Unceremonious or not, the appearance of the egg signaled the end of exile. In that instant, she bounced back up the pecking order. Now she’s pushing others out of the way to walk next to Cogburn and dustbathing with the boisterous Brahmas again.

Of course, she’s still happy to meet at the VIP (Very Important Poultry) entrance to the coop for extra treats.

The Alpha Beta Boys

Roosters are SO interesting. We have 2, the Light Brahma Cogburn…

… and the Easter Egger Stilton.

Stilton was purchased as a sexed pullet. By day 2, when his wing feathers were growing differently than the others, I suspected he was a rooster, even if he didn’t show the same leadership tendencies Cogburn had as a tiny chick.

For a long time, I stayed detached from Stilton because we weren’t sure he could stay. “They” (chicken books, the internet) say the only ways to keep roosters are with 8+ hens per rooster or by housing roosters separately from hens, in a whole other area where they can’t see the hens. Otherwise, the males may fight and “overtread” the hens, meaning they’ll rip feathers off hens’ backs when they try to mate too much.

It’s not clear how “they” keep chickens. Is that ratio only for confined flocks? I’ve met an old-school chicken keeper with separate groups he kept in small coops but let into the yard at different times of the day. He had 4-6 hens per rooster, and his hens were in sterling shape. We have 9 females, for a ratio of 4.5 hens per rooster. I reached out to chicken people via email and message boards to ask if 2 roosters can be kept with only 9 hens. The response is always some version of, “Time will tell.” Chickens teach you to be alright with not knowing.

As summer rolled into fall, a relationship formed that involved Cogburn chasing Stilton around the yard a few times a day but otherwise tolerating him. Cogburn is shockingly fast for his size and can catch Stilton, but only once did I witness Cogburn actually doing that. Instead of letting Stilton run away, Cogburn grabbed him, then pecked him on the back of the head. Stilton trotted away. Cogburn caught him again and pecked him, then did it a couple more times. Stilton shook it off, and life went on. No blood shed. Which is surprising considering what Cogburn was like when he was Stilton’s age…

At 16 weeks, Cogburn pecked off part of Donna’s comb and rang Eula’s bell so hard that we considered removing him from the world for the sake of the flock. Instead, we built Cogburn’s Cabin for Angry Birds and removed him from the coop at night so he wouldn’t have a chance to terrorize the pullets in confinement. It’s taught us a lot about roosters and worked wonders for the flock.

Not only does Cogburn have an uncanny ability to spot dangers like this in the sky and evacuate the flock under cover…

…but when the pullets started laying, Cogburn became a kinder bird (to other chickens, not to humans, but whatever). After 10 weeks of sleeping separately, the pullets welcomed Cogburn into the big coop to roost with them.

To recap, every night for 10 weeks, I went to the chicken yard to scoop up Cogburn and put him in his cabin to sleep. There were only 2 or 3 times I arrived late enough that he was already on the roost in the big coop with his pullets. I was always hopeful I wouldn’t have to put him in the cabin. He seemed so reformed by day, but the pullets huddled as far away as possible on the roost any time he’d try to join them in the coop. So I’d scoop him up and set him in his special cabin, with the nice low roost we built specifically for him. Lower roosts are recommended for big birds; less wear and tear on their legs.

Cogburn didn’t seem to mind being shut alone at night, especially with a full food dish waiting in his coop. At that age, he was so focused on letting the pullets eat first that he wasn’t eating enough himself. Sometimes I’d sit with him while he ate for 20-30 minutes at the end of the day. You would think that might make him nicer to me, but no.

The evening the older birds turned 26 weeks was one of those rare times I reached the yard late. Cogburn had already snuck into the big coop to roost and was flanked by pullets, all preening and settling in like nothing was wrong. I quietly closed the coop. My alarm was set for pre-dawn to evict him in case he went back to his old, pecky ways when the sun came up. He didn’t.

Patience and time had carried the flock through this crisis. Now, instead of not being able to close him in with the pullets, I’m relieved to put him with them. The flip side of his boldness and aggression is he’s a reliable protector.

Now that they’re back together, a funny roost routine has emerged at night. Cogburn takes a spot near the middle, with Brahma Donna (head hen) on his right and the latest layer to his left. First that was BeBe. Shortly after, Frida Bakawlo won the spot on Cogburn’s left for 6 weeks.

When Pinkie started laying last week, Frida didn’t want to give up her place, but Pinkie was determined to roost next to Cogburn. Here’s the crowded half of the roost that night as the pullets argued over who would sleep by Cogburn. They piled on him like a teen idol and almost pushed him off. Eventually, Donna ended up on the right, Frida on the left, and Pinkie roosted proudly in front of him, beak to beak.

Back to Stilton: since Cogburn turned terrible at 16 weeks, when the Easter Eggers reached 16 weeks, I braced for chaos. Would Stilton go through the same phase? Online, people are quick to point out that Easter Egger cockerels are aggressive. Light Brahmas are supposed to be docile. If Cogburn’s “docile,” there was no way the flock would survive an aggressive bird.

But Stilton’s a good boy. Surprisingly good.

Maybe he’s calmer by nature, but more likely, he learned good manners from the older chickens. After all, for months, the Brahma pullets were as stern with him as Cogburn. They taught him civility in a way I absolutely did not teach Cogburn.

Stilton has grown big and roostery enough that the Brahma pullets have stopped fighting him and let Cogburn defend them instead, which Cogburn can do with a side-eye. Stilton knows better than to challenge the great white woolly mammoth, a.k.a., the Bitter Beaker. For now, Cogburn and Stilton have ended up in an alpha/beta rooster arrangement, where the beta rooster acts as backup for the alpha.

As the boys seem to be building a solid alliance, I’ve dug deeper into rooster research and found plenty of sources who say the “right” rooster:hens ratio is an oversimplification and well circulated myth. The way chickens interact is greatly dependent on space, availability and quality of food and water, amount of exercise, etc. A popular rooster advocate on BackyardChickens.com has some flocks that are 1:1. They’re also fully free-ranging, meaning they have all kinds of ways to escape conflict. We can’t free range because of predators, but the 2,000-square-foot protected yard that Chris built provides plenty of entertainment for big, “docile” breeds like Brahmas.

In the future, I’d love more hens, but 11 chickens are plenty for our freshman year of poultry, and any time we add hens, there’s a probability of adding more roosters. For now, Stilton has taken to his role as beta rooster, and we’re glad to have him. Beta roosters are less aggressive with the flock but not to predators, and Stilton is a brave fellow. We’ve seen him chase squirrels!

Health and the Almighty Chicken Kit

These 10 weeks have been a journey when it comes to chicken health.

Coccidiosis

One afternoon, I went to visit the chickens and found 3-4 bloody poops in the Easter Eggers’ tractor coop. At the time, the baby Easter Eggers had been living outside for 4 weeks so were at high risk for coccidiosis (or “cocci”), a common and fatal disease caused by a bacteria in soil. Older birds generally develop immunity, but cocci can kill chicks literally overnight.

Common symptoms include bright blood in poop and birds being puffed up and withdrawn. That afternoon, the chickens were perky and appeared normal, but that poop blood was so bright…my gut said to treat the flock immediately as a precaution. Treatment is easy and low-risk. You mix a dose of something called Corid into water and refresh it every day for a week. Speedy treatment can prevent death, so I had bought a bottle of Corid for our “chicken kit” when we first brought chicks home.

Of course, Corid and a packet of electrolytes were pretty much all that were in the kit back then.

The next morning, Carrots wouldn’t leave the roost. She didn’t want to eat or drink. Eeek! That’s a very bad sign in the chicken world, and knowing how fast cocci can move, I mixed a concentrated dose of Corid into a shot glass of water and grabbed a syringe (no needle). With an unusually pliable Carrots in my lap, I dripped as much Corid water as possible into her beak without forcing it down her throat. Chickens can easily choke, which can be as fatal as cocci.

More Corid water splashed on me than in the chicken, but these biddies are small, and it doesn’t take much to balance their systems if you act fast. Miraculously, Carrots was up and eating in a couple hours. I breathed a sigh of relief. Until the next morning, when the same happened with Ashley!

With the Corid-to-beak treatment, Ashley also bounced back quickly, and luckily none of the other chickens became so ill. It’s possible Carrots and Ashley were acting normal but not eating or drinking as much those first couple days, and I didn’t see it. Like many animals, chickens will act healthy until they can’t anymore. Hiding symptoms means they don’t get picked on.

That’s why the big, asymptomatic chickens had a prophylactic dose of Corid for a week, too. I also moved the tractor a few times and dug up/removed the ground where the littles had been to reduce the load of bad bacteria in their living space.

The lesson here was to be vigilant and prepared. I firmly believe that having Corid on the ready and taking symptoms seriously is the only reason we didn’t lose a chick to cocci.

So, what else should be in that chicken kit? No sooner did I start to ask the question than another health challenge presented itself.

Mites

The Saturday after nursing the Easter Eggers through cocci, I woke up much later than usual, nearly 9! Instead of pausing to make coffee, I tied up my hair and went immediately to the chicken yard to let the birds out. No glasses, no cell phone. Just my blurry, under-caffeinated self with a Saturday morning headache.

I’d been in the routine of letting the big pullets out first and cleaning their coop as they had breakfast and filtered into the yard. Then I’d let Cogburn out of his cabin. The little birds came out of the tractor last. They liked to sleep in, possibly to avoid Cogburn’s jerk phase first thing every morning.

I finished cleaning the big coop and went to the cabin to let Cogburn out. The big pullets had wandered out into the yard except for BeBe. She loves Cogburn, so I assumed she was waiting by the cabin for him to be let out. She seemed extra interested in something on the ground. By the time I leaned in for a closer look, she was eating an entire garter snake like a piece of spaghetti. Wow.

BeBe was very pleased. As I stood in awe at her ability to kill a snake single-beakedly and thought, “I’m going to have to worm you birds soon,” since snakes are a vector for poultry parasites, something else came into focus not 3 feet away from both of us: a copperhead.

I froze. If you’ve been around chickens, you know how fast they are. Maybe even as fast as copperheads, but maybe not. There would be no way to stop BeBe if she decided that fatter piece of spaghetti looked as delicious as the first. The only action my headachey, under-caffeinated brain could muster was to yell, “No no no!”

BeBe is a good bird, and an English speaker. She gave me a look and ran off join her flock, leaving me with the copperhead, which was now striking in my direction. They’re gorgeous snakes, but yuck. I couldn’t unfreeze, and now I was shaking. Quaking. If BeBe or the others trotted 40′ back here to survey the scene, we’d probably lose at least one chicken to a painful death. My heart beat in my head. Chris had to be in the shower by now, out of earshot, but I tried yelling his name anyway.

Two hundred feet away, Chris popped his head out of the barn. He hadn’t heard me, but puppy Fuller did and barked, so Chris decided to check on me. “Are you okay?” he called down.

“Nope!” I yelled, and Chris came down and rescued us without judging me for being a lily-liver.

How does this situation fit under the heading “Mites”? Well, after pulling myself together with coffee and Tylenol and snake-proof boots, I went back to the chicken yard to comb for friends of the copperhead before letting the other chickens out. I picked up Cogburn to pet his neck while walking the yard. He’d been extra pecky lately, and carrying cockerels is supposed to tame them. Noticing he had stepped in a poop, I went to wipe his funny hobbit feet with a leaf and saw tiny black dots running around his legs. And on my arms.

Some magnifying-glass peepers and a comparison of online sources and chicken books confirmed the dots were northern fowl mites. They seemed to have come from nowhere. I carry Cogburn daily, but suddenly he had mites all over on his back, tail, feet, and neck. None of the other birds had a mite that I could see, nor did the coops have mites, except for Cogburn’s Cabin. It was like a mite bomb had gone off overnight.

After a shower, I went to the feed store for supplies. The chicken kit grew by a bottle of Permethrin solution and a large can of “poultry dust.” The rest of Saturday was spent removing coop bedding, (showering) vacuuming (showering) (doing laundry), and treating coops and chicken butts. Like coccidiosis, they say you need to treat all birds and coops if you find mites anywhere, because they’re likely lurking. They’re so tiny!

My weapon of choice that day was a Permethrin/water solution mixed in a spray bottle. Permethrin is relatively inexpensive. Online, many say it’s the best way to eradicate mites. It’s not. Not our mites, anyway. The spray, which I thought I’d mixed a little strong, did almost nothing. Per recommendations, I had spritzed everyone’s butts that night to help avoid future mites. In less than 2 days, Cogburn was covered again, and now the Brahma pullets had mites on their butts.

I switched to the GardStar poultry dust. The powder worked wonders compared to the spray. A dusting on pullet butts kept them mite free for a week at a time, but Cogburn had to be re-dusted every few days, and mites were still popping up. It was incredibly frustrating, as well as uncomfortable to use so much pesticide, but ignoring the problem wasn’t an option. Besides making chickens unhappy, mites can make them fatally anemic and susceptible to disease.

There was one more option, a chemical with the brand name Elector PSP, only available online. A bottle the size of your hand will set you back $130. Online reviews were stellar, though it was hard to tell if the reviewers were influencers. Cringing, I put a bottle in my Amazon cart and clicked “purchase.” It felt like such a gamble, but it’s hard to put a price on being mite-free, as the marketing promised.

When the little green bottle arrived, I waited until the sun came out the next afternoon to measure the correct dose into 4 gallons of warm water in a small storage bin. I scooped up Cogburn and took a deep breath. No more messing around with clouds of dust and poison mist. It was time to dip this angry bird.

To my surprise, Cogburn didn’t so much as flap as he was lowered into the warm water. He stood serenely while I massaged his skin for several minutes. Hundreds of mites floated to the surface. I towel dried him, and though he looked like a wet mop and Elector PSP smells terrible, he pranced proudly back to his flock. Head held high, smile on his beak.

He hasn’t had a mite since. I filled a spray bottle from the bin, spritzed the coops, and weeks of struggle with mites came to an end. The $130 bottle is tucked away in the chicken kit. It should hopefully last us years.

The chicken kit now sits in the storage bin that was Cogburn’s bathtub. I drew gallon hashmarks and dosage notes on the side with a permanent marker and added a spray bottle, rubber gloves, and mixing equipment to the kit.

Roundworms

Weeks after the cocci and right in the middle of the mite plight, more bloody poops appeared in the tractor coop. I put out Corid water and kept a close eye on everyone, but this time was different. Nobody acted sick, but the poops weren’t improving. I kept thinking back to BeBe eating that snake, and all the earthworms and bugs they eat. The odds were high they were dealing with worms.

A day later, I brought a baggy of chicken poop to a local vet who said they didn’t treat chickens but “would test any poop” we brought in. Hmm.

They found roundworms, though it took me a while to figure that out. At the time, a masked tech said something about “tricka-googlies” and shoved a bill for $43 and 2 doses of wormer through the car window. Each dose was to be mixed into a gallon water, served 10 days apart.

The bill had “tricka strongillies” typed on it, which Google helped decode to Trichostrongylus, a type of roundworm that poultry gets from earthworms. Poops went back to normal after the first dose. Unfortunately, wormers come with an egg-withdrawal period because the chemicals that the FDA recommends not eating find their way into the eggs. If the FDA says it’s bad, you know it must be! This means we had to throw away eggs for 3 whole weeks.

The silver lining is you don’t have to throw out the eggs right away. It’s not like they’re radioactive. You can collect them in a big bowl (remember that picture of the bowl of eggs near the beginning of this post?) and weigh and observe and compare them. That’s how I learned that Langshan eggs are consistently bigger than Brahma eggs, but Langshan yolks are smaller and darker than Brahma yolks. Eula’s eggshells are hombre: darker on one end than the other, Peep’s are the lightest colored, and Donna’s eggs are the smallest in the whole flock even though she’s head hen.

None of these facts are very important unless you’re making a key lime pie and want the best yolks for the job. But knowing who lays what is as helpful as any of the other knowledge gained about chicken health in the past few weeks. Good content for the mental chicken kit, so to speak.

Anyway, here’s hoping the coming weeks won’t be as eventful.

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