A Year with Chickens! Weeks 41-52

by Beth

Preamble

This post is months behind. I thought about letting it live in drafts forever but have been pecking away at it since publishing the previous chicken post back in December. It feels like an accomplishment to finish it. Not only did we make it a year with chickens; we’ll have now posted about the entire year.

It was a good year.

Of course, the dark and dreary winter was trying. Wunderground said temperatures were 10°F below normal. The previous winter, temperatures averaged 15°F warmer than usual, so this winter was a shock to the system. Most days barely crept up to the low 40s, with stretches of relentlessly gray days that never reached freezing. Our brains and bodies were dying for sun by February. Writer’s block cozied up with the malaise of SAD, as blog posts twiddled their thumbs in the purgatory of the drafts folder. On the up-side, it was the snowiest winter we’ve experienced here so far. A foot of snow fell on Christmas Eve for a magical white Christmas.

We were some of the lucky ones who didn’t lose power in that storm. Thousands of households in our county were out for up to a full, freezing week. Over a hundred cars, mostly travelers sent the wrong way by GPS, slid off surrounding mountain roads and spent Christmas waiting to be rescued. That scene repeated itself in less dramatic fashion across the winter. It snowed every other week, and in February, every week, then every few days. We seemed to be at just the right elevation for snow. Some days our land was blanketed while land 100′ below went snowless.

Fortunately, that much snow comes with reasonable cold, not severe cold. At our elevation, there was only one night of single digits the whole winter. Somehow, one intrepid broccoli plant and a Calendula persevered the entire season, telling me to have faith our gardens will do better in year 2…But I digress. Winter broke nearly overnight as the Brahmas and Langshans celebrated their first birthday at the end of February. Here’s how the final weeks of our first year with chickens went.

Overwintering Chickens

Chickens supposedly despise snow, but ours just find it inconvenient. The adventurous Easter Eggers had no problem wandering around in it. Because the Brahmas and Langshans have feathered legs and I’d read horror stories about trying to melt ice blocks off foot feathers, I closed them in their run on the slushy days, and they were fine with that. On the dreariest days, they often barely left the coop anyway.

We didn’t provide supplemental heat. Many recommend not to add heat to the coops of cold-hardy breeds because if the power goes out, heat-reliant/non-acclimated birds will quickly suffer. However, seeing the flock fluffed up, watching through sleepy eyes as I unfroze their waterers, I couldn’t help but worry about stress on their immune systems. In the future, we may work out a way to add small amounts of heat. Many do this for older flocks, especially bigger breeds prone to arthritis.

On the coldest mornings, I poured hot water over pans of rolled oats and chicken feed. Juggling a coffee tumbler, oatmeal pans, and a stack of freshly filled waterers (brought in overnight because they turned to blocks of ice otherwise), I’d bumble across the porch to a sled ready to slide to the chicken yard.

Chickens LOVE oatmeal, and I liked providing them with a warm breakfast after they braved freezing temperatures all night. Maybe it helped them stave off the illnesses waiting to take advantage of the cold.

In fact, everyone stayed healthy through the harshest parts of the season. Though they didn’t always look healthy, thanks to molting.

More Molting, Less Laying

Cool weather brings calm to the chicken yard. Late fall through winter, chickens often molt a.k.a., shed a bunch of old feathers and grow new ones. They trade out feathers all the time, but it happens en masse when they molt, which takes 60-90 days.

Growing so many feathers is hard on them. They basically nap all day in between wandering around looking sad. Even the roosters left the molting hens alone. One complication is that molting often happens during cooler months, leaving the birds without their winter coat. The hope is they finish molting before the harshest part of winter begins.

In bad cases, people bring molting chickens inside to protect them from the cold until they grow feathers back. Luckily that’s unusual, and nobody in our flock had a very big molt, either because they’re young or because genetics or good nutrition let them avoid too bad of an experience. After looking straggly for a couple months, 5 of the older pullets emerged from their molts by the New Year.

Hens stop laying when they molt, and some don’t start again until warm weather. By December, we had as few as 2 eggs a day from 9 layers. The eggs we did get came from the newest layers, the 3 Easter Egger ladies, who began producing beautiful green and blue eggs in October/November. Newer layers seem to lay prolifically the first few months no matter the weather.

We’ve learned from beekeeping that the winter solstice marks the moment not only when days start to lengthen but when bee colonies begin to increase their populations for the year. It turns out that’s when our chickens started laying more again, too. The Brahmas picked back up first, with their pretty tan eggs. The Langshans, who stopped laying almost entirely in November, started again in January.

The lull is fine by us. Two eggs a day add up faster than you think. More importantly, the break is good for a hen’s system and can help prevent potentially fatal health issues that are a key reason we avoided “production” birds bred to lay large or XL eggs daily. Laying is hard on the body, and production birds often have a shorter lifespan because of it.

Chickens in Clothes

The cockerels didn’t molt, nor did Brahma Peep or any of the Easter Eggers. As winter wore on, the ladies who didn’t molt started to have feather damage from the cockerels’ treading (roosters mate by stepping up on the backs of hens, called “treading”).

The main culprit was Cogburn, who is massive compared to our other chickens. For most of the timeframe covered in this post, Stilton acted as rooster #2, a.k.a. “beta” or “backup” rooster, meaning he doesn’t get much tread time, because Cogburn was boss.

Plus, Stilton’s light and agile and rarely tears feathers when he does get to tread. Conversely, Cogburn’s heavy and clumsy. Feathers flew every time he jumped on a bird. I began separating him from the flock at peak boom-boom times, like morning and dusk, but once the feather damage started, it went fast. Suddenly, 4 pullets had bald backs: the 4 who didn’t molt. Their un-renewed feathers weren’t strong enough for a clumsy rooster.

They skipped the stress of molting only to have bald backs in the dead of winter. Sigh.

Bald hens are an annoying part of having roosters. People deal with it differently. As long as their skin isn’t being damaged, some ignore it. Others remove the rooster or simply reduce his time with the hens. Yet another solution is the “hen saver” or “apron,” a piece of durable fabric that covers hens’ backs to protects from further damage.

I didn’t want to dress chickens. Aprons make it more difficult to preen and can cause the wearer to be picked on because she looks different. The 4 bald birds also happen to be our most difficult to capture and handle, and putting clothes on them would be stressful for all involved.

I posted an inquiry about pros and cons of aprons on a chicken forum. Many reported success. Others said they rarely bothered: that a bald back is more a problem for the people looking at it than for the chicken. Still others reported that some chickens find ways to shed aprons no matter what. It seemed like the wiley Easter Eggers would be in that category. I couched the idea.

But as winter wore on, I was increasingly bothered thinking about our sweet hens huddled up with no insulation on their backs, which is where chickens’ lungs are. I caved and ordered 4 aprons online: 2 of the most basic style, with elastic loops for their wings, and 2 with snaps and expanded shoulder protection. All were in some shade of khaki or black to match our birds. Some say the frilly, brightly patterned aprons are best for deterring raptors, but others say flockmates may be more moved to pick on ornate aprons, and I liked the idea of maintaining their camouflage.

Carrots the Easter Egger was our first apron tester. She was in love with Cogburn and would not stay away from him. Her infatuation meant she had the baldest back, and she didn’t seem to mind. When separated in the afternoons, Carrots would linger at the edge of the coop, talking to Cogburn through the wire.

I was highly intimidated by the prospect of dressing chickens. The Easter Eggers are hard to catch, and they don’t like to be held. It’s upsetting and slightly dangerous to cause them stress. But it went great. I still don’t know how I caught Carrots and held her long enough to put the apron on without chaos. Before carefully pulling the the loops over her wings, I carried her into the run of the big coop and closed us in, away from curious flockmates. They say to separate a newly aproned bird for 10 minutes until she’s used to having something on her back. If she acts strangely while adjusting to the apron, other birds could attack.

The apron I chose for Carrots was small and black, to hopefully fit in a subtle way that didn’t make her a target. Miraculously, as soon as the loops were correctly in place so they didn’t crimp any of her feathers, Carrots seemed to grow an inch taller, like she was proud of her new armor.

She acted normal immediately, so after handing her a few celebratory sunflower seeds, I slowly pushed the door of the run open, and Carrots sprinted out to be next to Cogburn. Before anyone could focus on what was different about Carrots, I threw scratch on the ground to shift their attention. Carrots’ new outfit was accepted without incident.

Over the next few weeks, some version of this played out with 3 other pullets: Raisin, Peep, and finally the most skittish, Ashley. They wore them without incident. I’d pick the birds up regularly to check under the aprons for any problems, only to see wonderful feathers growing back. The process was sort of making these jumpy birds more okay with being picked up, too.

One morning, Carrots’ apron got pooped on. It’s rare for a bird to get pooped on, so no telling how she swung that, but I took it off to wash. She had a few new feathers underneath…which didn’t last. In the hours it took for the apron to air dry, every new feather on Carrots’ back was stripped off, probably from just a couple treads by Cogburn. From then on, whenever an apron has needed laundering or tailoring, the ladies enjoyed a rooster-free day until aprons were ready to wear again. Carrots and Ashley were later upgraded to larger aprons with shoulder protection, since that part of their wing takes a lot of stress from roosters, too. All the ladies are growing new feathers back under their aprons, though they apparently won’t fully recover until they molt, which could be autumn.

They say it’s important to check under aprons for mites, and while the northern fowl mites did pop up again over the winter (they’re never truly gone), they aren’t more likely to be on birds with aprons. The clothed birds are dustbathing as much as the others and seem to be preening okay despite the aprons on their backs.

Chicken in the House

We had our 2nd mystery illness. This time it was less severe. Bebe’s comb was pale one day, and the day after that, she was off to the side, not really eating. These are universal signs of chicken illness.

Last time this happened, Frida Bakawlo tested positive for roundworms. Worming medication brought her back to life in 24 hours, but she was weak enough that she slept in the house for a week. This time, the flock had just been wormed. A health check showed everything seemed to be working fine on Bebe – no stuck eggs or weird bumps or lumps – but she clearly wasn’t right.

Knowing our chickens’ personalities helped me work through this one. The day before Bebe’s comb turned pale, heavy winter rains had finally saturated the ground enough to create puddles in their coop’s normally dry run. Chickens are titillated by water. The flock dug the puddles into a full-on drainage pond to play in. Unfortunately, the pond was gross and muddy and probably full of bits of poop and old feed.

As soon as I saw their play puddle, I grabbed a shovel and worked in the rain to fill it with clean dirt and pine chips. But if there’s a chicken who loves water, it’s Bebe. I think she drank a bunch of the dirty water and had a colossal stomachache. <–by the time I’m editing this, I’m also wondering if there have been issues with Clostridium or mystery bacteria out there more than roundworms, but I’m still thinking that through.

To recover, Bebe spent a sleepy day napping in a corner of the study. By afternoon, she was sleeping in 30-minute intervals with breaks to eat and drink, a good sign. I added a pinch of chicken probiotics to her feed in case it helped.

She was well enough by the next day to go back outside. She napped more than usual, usually in a nesting box, for the next week or so. But she was acting normal enough not to get bothered by the others or to make me suspicious that she was spreading illness to others. Soon after, her only residual issue was regular wet poops, which I’m still trying to figure out. As long as a hen is red-combed and sociable and eating and drinking and laying eggs, there’s probably not much intervention needed. I did eventually try adding Corid to their water for a week with no real change in the poops.

Chicken people do end up focusing on poop a lot.

Rooster Drama

Eleven months into our adventure with chickens and 7 months after adding our accidental 2nd rooster to the flock, Stilton decided he couldn’t be 2nd rooster anymore. He’d been testing Cogburn for a few weeks. Stilton would puff up his neck and dance around, Cogburn would step on him, and Stilton would scurry off. But one January evening, Stilton didn’t scurry off. He kept running back to test Cogburn over and over. As the sun set, I separated the guys into their preferred coops for the night and locked up. As soon as both coops were unlocked the next morning, Stilton went for Cogburn.

There’s an old-timer rule to let roosters fight it out for an hour before calling it, but I knew it was time to separate after 20 minutes. Cogburn would’ve let it go if Stilton could’ve backed down, but as the fighting grew more vicious, it became clear Stilton was never planning to back down again.

Each had comb damage. Cogburn lost a little strip of one wattle. I brought them to the house separately for a quick, warm bath in the kitchen sink and to dust wounds with corn starch. Back at the coops, they had big meals to recover. Both were tired but appeared proud of themselves.

There’s a popular article about human-chicken history that starts with a description of our storied first encounter with these feathered dinosaurs: Greek soldiers in fifth century BC supposedly found 2 roosters fighting on the side of the road and marveled that one rooster wouldn’t give way to the other.

“Marveling” isn’t how I’d describe my reaction. I was very sad. It was the end of harmony in our first flock.

This was something we knew might happen. Not every rooster can co-exist with other roosters. It was evident Cogburn would’ve been fine with a 2nd rooster around, but Stilton wasn’t. Every chicken is an individual, but this is consistent with their breeds. Brahmas aren’t usually interested in arguing, while many say their non-Legbar Easter Egger males won’t tolerate other males, even when there are no hens to fight over.

Either way, suddenly we had 2 flocks, the Easter Egger flock and the Brahma/Langshan flock, and they’d either have to range in shifts in the yard, or one rooster would have to be confined while the other had the yard. This is less convenient than it sounds, and it wasn’t without stress on the flock, as the hens had to deal with 2 cranky roosters across the day. I began giving them “rooster free” time so they didn’t have to stress about being pecked or bullied.

We knew it may be best to remove one rooster for the health of the flock, but which one? Both roosters had their good and bad points, and both were cherished. Rather than make a quick decision about something so final, we decided to adjust to the inconvenience of ranging roosters in shifts as the question matured long enough for the answer to reveal itself. If that makes any sense.

Preparing to Kick off Year 2

Even with the rooster dynamic in the air, we needed to keep moving forward if we wanted to meet our year-2 chicken goals. After a year of researching chicken breeders within a 5-hour drive, I started conversations with a breeder of Legbars and champion Black Copper Marans in upstate South Carolina, and Chris began plans for a new coop and chickenyard expansion.

A post about those year-2 chicken goals, and new baby chickens, is coming soon.

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