Chickens – Weeks 34-38

by Beth

It’s almost December 2020! Glorious fall colors have come and gone, taking bug and snake season with them. The chickens are shifting into cold-weather mode, eating a ton, laying a little.

A few of the ladies even decided to grow new coats before winter…

Molting: See You Later, Feathers

Chickens are always shedding and growing feathers. Sometimes it happens en masse, and that’s called a “molt.” Fall is a common time for a molt, usually for birds 9 months or older. At 8 months, both Eula and BeBe stopped laying, their combs faded and shrank, and they started dropping feathers.

They’re otherwise healthy. Eating a lot, no other issues besides looking pitiful. They spend lots of time napping in the sun. Growing new feathers makes their skin sensitive, so I’ve avoided picking them up as much as possible. The roosters stopped chasing them this month, too, which was kind of them.

After weeks of this, as Thanksgiving approaches, both are finally starting to get their color back. BeBe’s poor, shrunken comb is turning red again. Eula’s new down is a gorgeous blonde, and she has more feathers on her feet than before. I’ll try to post “after” pictures next month.

Stupid Creepy Crawlies

Northern fowl mites, which first showed up over the summer, made an encore appearance on BeBe in mid October. A few times a week, a mite would pop up on an egg, but I hadn’t been able to find any on the chickens. One day, BeBe had mildly poopy butt feathers, which our chickens don’t really have, so I snagged her for a closer look: there were the mites! Just a few, but after our experience last month, I mixed Elector PSP with water right away and spritzed BeBe’s butt, legs, and neck, then all the birds’ butts and roosts.

We haven’t seen mites since but will always be on the lookout. They’re part of the ecosystem here so will never be eradicated. The key is balance and management. The same can be said of roundworms, which have also struck again, in dramatic fashion this time.

The first morning the temperature dipped below freezing, Frida Bakawlo (a.k.a. Popsicle Sunshine) the Black Langshan wouldn’t leave the roost. She likes to sleep in, so I wasn’t too worried until she was still there an hour later hovered over a splat of yellow and green poop.

I picked her off the roost, and while she warmed up on my lap, I felt her chest and abdomen, and looked at her eyes, comb, beak, etc. Everything looked good, but Frida wasn’t okay. She was sleepy. I thought I felt an egg near her butt. Sometimes chickens have an egg stuck. It’s called being “eggbound,” and it can kill them.

Before I could confirm the bump was an egg, she hopped up and ran to the feeder, where she pretended to eat. She took a standing nap next to the feeder, then ran to the yard to pretend to be normal, for about a minute, before napping again.

I set up a space for Frida in the study. In case it was an egg problem, I ran a warm epsom-salt bath in the sink and soaked her hind end, which she didn’t mind at all, probably because she was asleep again. Chris ran out to buy calcium pills to crush on yogurt. Calcium is supposed to induce egg labor to pass the egg. After the bath and calcium, the internet said to wait an hour and see what happened.

During that time, I read how being eggbound is less common than other ailments. Furthermore, a lot of issues look like this: eyes closed, puffed up, not eating or drinking. An hour later, there was no egg, so I gave her one more warm epsom soak just in case and double-checked for an egg. Nada. It appeared Frida had a mystery illness rather than an egg stuck.

The next steps weren’t clear. I called vets in 4 counties within an hour’s drive and found only one who knows chickens. She may have had an appointment open in a week. With chickens, life and death can be the difference of hours, so “maybe a week” wasn’t much good.

The next option was to simply drive a poop sample 20 minutes to the local vet again and see if it showed worms or bacteria that could make Frida this sick. By now, it was an hour before the vet’s office closed. It wasn’t the easiest to convince the staff that a chicken poop test was important enough to complete that day. But they did and found roundworms again!

The receptionist brought out worming medication for the whole flock, administered in their water again. She admonished me to bring Frida in for the night because it would be freezing again. Little did she know Frida had been inside taking warm baths all day.

I made small talk with the receptionist as we waited for a tech to Xerox paperwork about bird worms. I had asked for as much information as possible to empower me to address health issues since poultry vets are in short supply. “Do you have chickens?” I asked her. The receptionist said no, and she would only have the kind you can eat. A.k.a., she thought I was bonkers for being emotionally attached to a chicken, and as fragile as they can be, I see her point. But in the next breath, she said to call when they opened at 8:30 if Frida didn’t improve overnight. She’d find us an appointment. The vet doesn’t know chickens but has treated parrots.

It was dark when I got home. Frida was asleep in the study, roosting on top of the brooder bin, which, thanks to our limited space, is still in the study, storing chicken feed and supplies that are sensitive to the elements. I’d start dosing the rest of the flock the next day, but Frida needed medication now. When the light came on, she woke up briefly and was stoked about the medicated water. She had drunk so little all day that she drank a large dose of the wormer before falling back to chickensleep. I hoped for the best.

The next morning, she looked as weak as the day before. I contemplated calling the vet when they opened, but at 8:30, Frida started to eat. Really eat, not just pretend by picking up food in her beak and dropping it.

The day before, I’d avoided plying her with treats like oats and raisins. They’re supposedly empty calories and it wasn’t clear if her system was working well enough to process much food anyway. Her crop was emptying slowly, and her poops were those weird, yellow and green splats. After more research – and a day gone by with Frida not eating – it seemed important for her to have any kind of calories, so that morning, I sprinkled rolled oats on the floor. Frida was ecstatic to have treats all to herself. She’s not high on the pecking order so doesn’t always get the goodies.

After oats, she drank more treated water and went to her other favorite food, mash. Mash is just chicken food mixed with water. For some reason, Frida thinks it’s SO GREAT when water is poured on food, but she hadn’t been interested for the past 24 hours. Now she ate. Throughout the day, she opened her eyes more. I gave her another epsom foot bath because she likes those. She spent the rest of the day napping in the corner of the study.

What probably happened was worms caused a blockage in Frida’s intestines. With her system backed up, organs would quickly start to shut down. Her survival depended on worming medication, luck, and a quiet place to recuperate. Frida’s bright yellow poop may have indicated that an infection had already taken hold, but antibiotics can be hard on chickens, so I decided to start with the wormer and not press the vet for more drugs.

Is it weird the flock had roundworms for the 2nd time since summer? Unfortunately no, though many people never worm their flock, and we’ve had to do it twice in 3 months. Our earthworms may carry a lot of roundworms. The chickens’ systems may be better able to fight parasites over time, but I’ll also test the flock regularly for a while to avoid these kinds of crises, as possible.

As Frida gained strength, she seemed to be looking for her friends. After work, I brought her outside to be with the flock. She looked content but quickly fell asleep, and I brought her back to the house. The visit seemed to lift her spirits. That evening and the next morning, she was practically peppy at times. She started to bakaw when she heard the roosters crowing through the window. I peeled the top off a new container of organic rolled oats and let Frida dip her head in. She. Was. Amazed.

Later in the day, her poops became more normal. The “urates” (white stuff on bird poo) were still yellow, but overall, everything was solid, a big step forward. She spent 10 minutes outside in the grass and had a blast. Her tail was up and she started to purr to her flockmates. A chicken purr sounds like a cat purr with more treble, or like a person rolling rrrrs.

By the end of the week, purring Frida was able to spend most of the day outside. Fortunately I was unaware of the rule that you’re supposed to slowly reintroduce a chicken after being isolated because they’ll get picked on. I did notice BeBe was annoyed about Frida’s reappearance, but Frida dodged her pecks, and BeBe forgot about it.

After spending 6 nights in the house, even making an appearance at a best friend’s Zoom baby shower, Frida moved back outside full time. Her poop was kind of yellow for another 2 weeks, and she still naps more than I’d like, but she’s not being picked on, and she’s heavy and shiny and excited about life.

I’ll have the poop retested soon to see if the wormer did a good enough job. Here’s hoping, since it’s a lot of chemicals for their little birdie systems. Plus we have to throw away their eggs for several weeks each time they’re on wormer.

Technicolor Dream Eggs

Eula and BeBe (molting) and Frida (recovering) aren’t laying right now. With the cooler weather, Donna, Peep, and Pinkie have slowed down to 1-2 eggs a week.

However, all 3 Easter Eggers have started laying, and they all lay blue-green! Chickens seem to lay a lot when they first start, so we get 2-3 of these gems a day right now.

These beauties are so eggciting. Easter Eggers can lay blue, green, brown, or pink, but each bird only lays one color. The Brahmas and Langshans already lay brown and pink, so I was really hoping the Easter Eggers would lay something fabulous like these. Carrots’ eggs (above) are sage green while Ashley’s (below) are a little more blue.

To recap, here are the ages everyone started laying. All of these chickens came from Ideal Poultry via our local farmers co-op.

Buff Brahmas Peep and Eula: 19.5 weeks
Buff Brahma Donna: 22
Black Langshan BeBe: 24
Black Langshan Frida Bakawlo (the chick formerly known as Popsicle): 26
Black Langshan Pinkie: 32
Easter Egger Carrots: 21.5
Easter Egger Raisin: 22.5
Easter Egger Ashley: 23.5

They’ve been laying enough to form habits. Donna and sometimes Eula like the built-in nesting boxes in the big coop, with the imitation eggs, easy-roll trays, and no bedding (I took out the bedding during mite-fest this summer). Carrots and Raisin rotate laying in the tractor’s 4 nesting boxes. Ashley the Easter Egger will only lay in the big coop, in the most popular nesting box, by the back door.

She sleeps in the tractor at night, so some mornings when I get to the yard, she’s the only chicken awake, waiting for me to unlock the coops so she can race to the big coop to lay a little blue egg.

Pinkie the Black Langshan is also inflexible when it comes to the most popular nesting box. If she and Ashley are ready to lay at the same time, they’ll take turns bullying each other out of the box. One day I was there when the 2 were arguing until Cogburn intervened.

Last I saw, Cogburn ushered big Pinkie away so little Ashley could lay. Cogburn’s job is hard enough without managing me, so I left the yard while they worked it out. Later, Pinkie’s pink egg was in the favorite nesting box, and Ashley’s blue egg was laid in the “runner up” box I put next to the favorite for situations like this one, so I guess Ashley lost the argument.

Everyone seems to have adjusted to the shorter days (except for Chris and me). “Sleep laying” off the roost stopped this month. Instead, they sometimes go to bed in the nesting boxes.

Roosters and Musical Coops

I’ll repeat the standard preamble: roosters are SO interesting. We have 2: Light Brahma Cogburn, a big, strong, aggressive guy who rules the yard with an iron beak, but he does have a nice, low crow you can barely hear in the house…

…and Easter Egger Stilton, a calmer guy with screechy voice who likes to crow at 4:30 a.m.

They’re both in high puberty and it’s surprising how well they’re getting along, based on what books and the internet say. Those same sources say space is key, and space, they have. Three coops, 2K square feet of yard, lots of places to eat, drink, hide out, nest, nap, though they often orbit peacefully within 5′ of each other.

Another factor is that Cogburn, is older, bigger, and clearly the alpha, so it’s been a snap for him to keep the “beta” Stilton in line.

I just try to stay out of their way. Sometimes Stilton finds creative ways to stay out of Cogburn’s way, too.

Because we have the space and 2 roosters, I’ve had no need to force the older and younger chickens to integrate into a single coop. For about 4 months, the little Easter Eggers went to roost in the tractor at night, while the big ones roosted the big coop.

Then one night early this month, around the time she started to molt, BeBe went to roost in the tractor. That was a surprise. Maybe, I thought, she was homesick for the tractor where she was raised as the weather turned cool again. Maybe she was looking for Frida, who was spending nights in the house during her recovery. Maybe BeBe preferred the company of the calmer beta Stilton.

When Frida moved back outside, she joined BeBe to roost in the tractor. So did Eula. A few nights later, 10 chickens crammed into the tractor. I’m pretty sure Cogburn’s bending the roost here.

Stilton is in his normal spot on the far right. The photo was taken well after dark, when I went to make sure nobody was stressed out or evicted out into the run. Nope, they had been fast asleep. The only reason they’re awake here is I had a light on them.

The one chicken in the big coop that night? Donna, head hen. While the others argued over roost space in the tractor, Donna toddled to the big coop and took the primo spot, which Eula usually snags. She, too, was fast asleep before I shined a light in to check on her.

Everybody was so relaxed that I let this arrangement stand for the night but woke up extra early to unlock the coops so Stilton could escape Cogburn during Cogburn’s morning-angryfest, where he chases everyone in circles for 5 minutes after he wakes up.

Since that night, many roosting combos have occurred in the tractor. The only constants are that Stilton always sleeps at the far right of the one roosting bar, and the Easter Eggers never roost in the big coop (I put Carrots in one night because she pines for Cogburn, and it was fine, but they won’t walk over there on their own at night). While the big birds used to live in the tractor coop, the EEs have never lived in the big coop, and the few times they tried to roost there early on were kicked out by the bigger pullets.

Meanwhile, the big chickens make themselves perfectly welcome back in the tractor. Some nights, I carry Cogburn and 2-3 others to the big coop because I don’t feel like waking up 40 minutes early to run rooster interference. Other nights, some of the big birds roost in the big coop on their own, tickled it’s so easy to get their favorite spots at the ends of the roost.

One of the rules of chickens is that chickens don’t like change, so it’s mystifying how they’re playing musical coops. For now, it’s fine, but I’m strategizing ways to shift them back to a predictable routine on the off-chance we can travel in the near future and they’re chicken-sat by someone who doesn’t love carrying roosters around from coop to coop (which is most people).

Chicken Sitting

Speaking of travel, in mid-October, Chris and I packed our masks for took our first trip together, and my first night away, since COVID. One of my sisters had offered to spend the weekend farm sitting. She and my brother-in-law drove 5 hours to arrive late Thursday night. Friday at sunrise, as I was pulling on shoes to unlock the coops, my sister emerged, surprisingly fresh eyed, to start learning chickens.

I had tried to write out a guide to chicken care, only to realize I’m bad at explaining this. Some of it is straightforward: scoop coops, refill feed and water. Listen for the rooster’s distress call and watch for hawks. Don’t step on chicken toes or let them escape. If you leave during the day, coax them into their coops (somehow) and lock them in. Remember to turn the fence on. Don’t turn your back on the rooster.

Other things are easy enough to explain but not what I want to burden anyone with, like patrolling the yard for snakes, mushrooms, moldy feed, and wildflowers that are toxic to chickens. I scoop poops off the ground a few times a day, part feathers to check for mites, and let them nap in my lap until my limbs fall asleep. The chickens will probably survive even if nobody does any of this for a while.

However, how do you describe the nuances of managing a cranky rooster, sneaking yummies to the lowest in the pecking order under the watchful eyes of the flock (chickens don’t miss much), deciding whether a chicken is sick or just cat-napping, or catching a rogue hen? I barely know how to do any of this myself, much less explain it.

My sister did a wonderful job despite my loosey-chickeny instructions, and she bears the rooster scars to prove it. We came home to 4 happy dogs, 11 happy chickens, and my sister reading a book in a chair by the chicken yard.

After being here and nowhere else for so long, the weekend was a tiny, refreshing window into a future,when we’ll be able to travel and visit with family again on the regular. Big thanks to my sister and bro-in-law for making that possible.

At the end of this post, the big chickens are almost 9 months old on the dot, and the Easter Eggers are a little over 6 months.

3 comments

  1. When you get a chance you might want to research about “diatomaceous earth”.
    I get the stuff for my chickens to give themselves dustbaths in – and I’ll even add some to their food. It helps with keeping parasite problems to a minimum.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! We definitely keep DE on hand. It helped reduce the fire ant population enough that our young honey bee colonies could fight them off earlier this year. I’ve heard of putting it in dustbaths but am a little concerned about respiratory issues from it. When the weather warms up again, I may spread DE around the edges of the run and coops as a preventative. Wild turkeys are abundant here in the spring, which may have something to do with the mite issue.

      Like

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