Tag Archive | "Allison Krug"

How to Winterize Your Chicken Coop

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and BI chicken farmer

With the shorter days and colder weather, you may wonder if your chickens are comfortable. Should you be supplementing the light in their coop to keep them laying through the winter? Do they need extra light for warmth? Should you buy a warmer for their water? What do chickens (and their keepers) in Pennsylvania or Minnesota do?

Gardeners here know that much of thishens state is temperate, and Bainbridge Island is actually in USDA hardiness zone 7b (as is a strip of the southeast from Texas to North Carolina). Our temperatures rarely dip below freezing, so compared to chickens living farther north in zones 3 and 4, ours are considerably more comfortable. And they’ve been preparing for winter.

By now they’ve gone through their molt and should have a nice cape of glossy feathers. During the molt, their laying slows, if not stops, a sign of the protein competition between egg production and feather production. If you avoid supplementing daylight with a low-voltage light source, you’ll ensure their protein supply goes to feathers for warmth. Yes, you’ll see a decline in egg production, but with younger birds (in their first year of laying) the decline will not be as noticeable. Last year we saw an approximate 30% decline. Instead of 18 eggs a week, we were getting about a dozen. Our younger hens kept laying while the older hens took a couple of extra days to lay another egg. The entire molt process can take a month or more depending on the hen and her nutritional status.

Home to Roost coop on Bainbridge Island

Home to Roost, Bainbridge Island.

In addition to age, breed of chicken can make a difference in terms of hardiness. We found that our large Jersey giant continued laying and weathered the winter very well. The Rhode Island Reds, which are good meat birds as well as solid layers, also fared very well. Minnesotans and Alaskans posting to a chicken forum say that Buff Orpingtons, Plymouth (or “Barred”) Rocks, and Red Stars and Black Stars (hybrid breeds) do well in cold weather.

Breeds with larger combs and wattles will tend to get frostbite, but you can help prevent that with a coating of Vaseline. Although these tough northern birds sometimes live in a three-sided shelter in the middle of a snowy field, you might want to be sure your coop isn’t too drafty but does have proper ventilation. Use gaps no bigger than half an inch, though, or you’ll find more than fresh air getting into your coop!

Ladies of Wisteria Place, Bainbridge Island.

Ladies of Wisteria Place, Bainbridge Island.

In a temperate climate like ours, winterizing is pretty easy. For example, Rolling Bay Farm’s Adrienne Wolfe uses a “deep litter system.” She keeps about six dozen laying hens to supply her farm stand with fresh eggs. “I just keep adding bedding material—straw mixed with about 20% pine shavings—to the floor of the hen house,” she explained. “The chickens mix the materials together to create compost, which heats the coop as the manure decomposes.” Adding fresh bedding keeps the methane levels down so the chickens don’t get sick. The manure will dry and turn into a fine dust at the bottom of the coop. In the spring you can shovel out the bedding and add it to your compost pile. I appreciate the sheet-metal floor in my coop because it makes cleaning with a hose quite easy!egg

One of my favorite chicken husbandry books is Choosing and Keeping Chickens by Chris Graham. Bay Hay & Feed carries an excellent selection of books on chicken breeds, and there are plenty of good web resources, such as Henderson’s Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart.

[This article from the archives was originally published November 25, 2012.]


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Images courtesy of RickPilot_2000 and Julie Hall.

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Photo of the Day: Final Rose of Fall + Neil Young

With nights dipping into the forties, days turning crisp, and autumn at its height of color, it is a rare pleasure to find a red rose in full fiery bloom. Thank you to Allison Krug for sharing this shot of a spectacular late Bainbridge Island blossom.

As Neil Young said, “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it. It only grows when it’s on the vine. A handful of thorns and you know you’ve missed it. You lose your love when you say the word, “Mine.”

May this rose bloom on in our minds through the gloomy months ahead as a warm blood red promise of summer’s return.














Listen to “Love Is a Rose” by Neil Young:

Photo courtesy of Allison Krug.

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hens on the fence

Beware ‘the Professor': It’s Back to School for Chickens!

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and Bainbridge Island chicken farmer

Bay Hay logoThank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.

They’re catching colds and have bigger appetites. They’re going to bed earlier. And they are reluctant to get up in the morning. Our back-to-school fall routines are actually pretty similar to those of our feathered friends.

Our big rooster Merlin (the not-so-friendly one) is a ruthless timekeeper. When I open the door to the coop on the way to school drop-off, most of the chickens come flying out in a huge rush. But a couple of the hens like to lounge on their roosts and wait to come out, especially on the really gray mornings. Merlin, however, thinks the hens should be up and at ‘em right away, and he marches around in front of the door menacingly, sometimes huffing, wings flapping, to usher them out.

Rooster evil eye

Beware “the Professor”

I can relate. Of my two boys, one is an early riser who prefers to have some quiet time before the mad rush. The other needs to be extracted from his “roost” and propped down on some pillows on the floor so he can come to consciousness gradually. On some mornings I wish I could be like Merlin and make it be known just what time it is!

Does it seem like the door to summer slammed shut when September rolled in? It does to me. By the end of the month we had clocked more than 5 inches on our rain gauge. The chickens have noted that their recess is not as pleasant with all the muck. I’ve been keeping the bedding from coming out of the coop, so the mud is not the slick, slimy surface it was last year. Real dirt/sand is better than composted chicken litter if you don’t have a covered run. On very rainy days I have been known to move dirt around so the chickens have something to play with. They are real prospectors, and if the ground is too hard or heavy to turn over, they don’t have as much to look through. But if you pile up their dirt, they will happily spread it around and enjoy finding worms in the process.

One of my boys loves to dig, too. He finds rocks and cracks them open so he can identify the minerals inside. I enjoy it, too. As a matter of fact, today he remarked that his “mine” is so big he can probably fit a car into it! He’s right—I think it’s about the size of a Mini Cooper. When we play soccer in the driveway right outside the coop, two of the younger “girls” sit on the coop door and watch, beaks following us back and forth. They’re always the last ones in at night, trying to squeeze as much fun into their day as possible. On sunny days, we are all guilty of forgoing homework, chores, or any other obligation in favor of more recess.

Welcome back to fall, chickens. Show us how to make the most of each day by your industrious example. Be well, and don’t drink the muck water—that’s why we fill your fancy waterer!

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Photos courtesy of Jeff Kramer.

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Coop Scoop: Chickens in the Garden—Paradise or Plague?

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and Bainbridge Island chicken farmer, with Julie Hall

Bay Hay logoThank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.

Do chickens and gardens really mix? The clucking characters can be charming and even helpful in the garden. BUT they also can be messy and thieving. The key is to have a good system down.

Garden Burglars

When we first got chickens, I flipped through a couple of beautiful books about gardening with chickens and admired with envy the darling pictures of hens scratching away in a lush garden. How in the world do those chickens not dig up the plants? Are mine just savages? Have I not trained them properly? Is it possible to pick plants they don’t enjoy? And what about predators getting the chickens while they are out free-ranging?

Chicken-proof garden bed

Hoops with mesh keep the chickens out. Before I transplanted these potatoes, the chickens ate some of the leaves, which apparently irritate their gastrointestinal tract.

For a while I had such an ad hoc system set up that I couldn’t get in to weed or harvest my garden—only the chickens could! And a few hawks enjoyed chicken dinner at our expense. I was serving too many masters, and I needed to take charge.

Now in our second summer season of chicken rearing, I enlisted my step-dad Richard in the battle. On the to-do list, at long last, was a final assault on chicken-proofing the garden. Richard and I hung out by the garden fence, observed our enemy and discussing their tactics.

I wanted a garden “cover” that allowed me to get in and out easily. I needed something for peas to climb up (I can only grow things starting with “p”–peas, potatoes, parsley, plums). And I still wanted the chickens to be able to trim the grass and remove slugs from around the raised beds—one of their redeeming qualities.

Having a fence reach all the way to the ground would prevent them from decimating the garden. The fence had to keep the chickens from pushing their heads through to reach the peas. And we couldn’t reinforce the top of the fence with PVC or wood, because seeing a solid landing spot would encourage roosting followed by a quick hop into my little Eden.

pea garden

A wood trellis with wire fencing is attached to PVC pipes, which slide into wider PVC holders attached to the garden bed by brackets. The 6-foot sections of fence can be lifted up.

So Richard worked to build a prototype, creating setups and then taking them down when the chickens continued to get the better of us. Each day he would emerge from “The Hunger Games” in the evening and relax with a glass of wine, only to—bless his heart—come up with another plan for the next day. Now he was serving too many masters—11 chickens plus a step-daughter with an impossible vision. We finally decided to keep it simple, and it seems to be working.

Water Hogs

Chickens drink a lot—and I don’t mean beer. Keeping up with their water demand during the warm summer months can be especially challenging, and that doesn’t even factor in the occasional chicken knocking over the waterer while roosting on it or fleeing from another chicken. Eggs are at least 70% water, and providing enough H2O is arguably more crucial than a steady food supply.

Automated chicken waterer

Automated chicken waterer

So, once again, Richard came to the rescue. I had never dreamed of automating the chicken watering chore. What decadence that would be! Isn’t that cheating? Totally.

Game for more coop work, Richard came home from Bay Hay with an auto waterer and had it installed in about 2 hours. It’s working beautifully. Every couple of days I take the bottom off to clean it out with a hose and screw it back on to start the water filling again. In the winter we may want to go back to the usual method if the water freezes in the hose, but that would be the rare day or two here so it was well worth it to go automatic.

Zen Masters

garden bed and chickens

Free-ranging spirits

This leads me to my last point. Chickens truly live in the moment. Any blame we place on them for plotting our garden’s demise is misplaced. They see tasty green plants, and they try to get to them. But they soon forget old habits if we can break the habit for just three or four days.

We humans are always striving to learn how to live more fully in the moment. Our chickens offer a daily window into that elusive state.

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Featured photo courtesy of Hardworkinghippy. Other photos courtesy of Allison Krug.

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Coop Scoop: Keys to Keeping Healthy, Happy, & Productive Hens

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and Bainbridge Island chicken farmer

Bay Hay logoThank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.

Going Organic and Free Range

Housing and feed affect egg quality and safety. A ban on egg production from caged hens went into effect in Europe in 2012, and California will follow suit in 2015. Backyard keepers generally have free-range hens (a coop plus an outdoor run), but not all use organic feed because it is more expensive. I made the switch to organic very spontaneously once I did the math—with two egg subscribers, the additional cash partially offset the added cost of organic feed. But about a month later, egg production seemed to decline. After ruling out common factors which affect production (see list at end of article) I researched chicken nutrition and housing.

free-ranging chickens

Free-ranging chickens

Not surprisingly, I did find that cage-free living is better for the chickens, and indirectly for their keepers. But there are a few drawbacks we should probably be aware of as well. Some of the research from Europe and the United States indicates that organic, cage-free eggs may be smaller and contain chemical residues (such as dioxins) from environmental exposures. Although the difference is not consistent, organic eggs may be more likely than commercial eggs to contain Salmonella because the chickens are allowed access to bugs and fecal matter from rodents and wild birds. Free-range birds also may be treated more frequently for parasites, so residual levels of veterinary drugs may be higher as well. (However, keeping the litter clean limits re-exposure to chemicals and drug residues.) On the plus side, while organic eggs do not have a lower overall cholesterol level than commercial eggs, their fatty acid profile might be more favorable. And eggs from chickens who can forage freely may also have brighter yolks if they have access to green plants or have alfalfa or corn in their diets. I didn’t find any information that suggests flocks on organic feed experience lower production. Provided the feed has the proper nutritional composition, production should be unaffected.

Understanding Chicken Nutrition

Chickens eating table scraps

Chickens eating table scraps (including egg shells)

Adding table scraps and other treats, such as scratch, does change the overall composition of the chicken’s diet, altering the proportion of protein and other nutrients, and potentially causing hens to become overweight. It probably makes sense for the new chicken keeper to buy a commercially prepared bulk feed and take the guess-work out of it. Both regular and organic layer feeds have 15%-18% protein, and an all-purpose feed will have 16% protein (suitable for birds at least 20 weeks of age). The amino acid methionine is essential (meaning the chicken must get it from feed because it can’t be synthesized by the bird) and is the most commonly deficient nutrient. Brown egg layers need more methionine than white egg layers, and the minimum supply in the feed should be about 0.3%. Plant proteins (such as soybeans) do provide methionine, but those who want to avoid soy-based feed due to GMO concerns will need to rely on synthetic methionine. Natural sources of methionine include fishmeal, earthworms, and insects, which free-range hens may find (but which can also contain parasites). Because it is so hard to supply enough organic sources of methionine without oversupplying protein, the USDA’s National Organic Program approved the use of synthetic methionine for organic farmers in 2010 [AK1].

Understanding the nutritional requirements for chickens prompted me to consider whether they could subsist solely on free-range foraging, provided I had the right plants in my garden. Given that my green thumb is very brown, I decided this year I’d stick with a premixed organic feed for layers. Maybe next year I’ll attempt a “chicken garden” that is TRULY a chicken garden—for them to rip into and enjoy—and keep them out of MY garden.

Making Your Own Chicken Feed

If you want to surprise your chickens with a real treat, you can make your own organic, whole-grain, soy-free chicken feed with ingredients from the bulk section at Town & Country! Here is a recipe to try: http://www.gardenbetty.com/2013/04/homemade-whole-grain-chicken-feed-updated-and-now-corn-free/. I called T&C to find out if any Islanders were doing this already, and they weren’t aware of it. You may set a trend, but I hope a dozen of you don’t show up all at once! (Remember, you have to buy each ingredient separately—don’t mix them all in one bag as they each have a separate price per pound.) T&C has everything you need except black oil sunflower seeds (or BOSS, which you can get at Bay Hay & Feed), grit (which your free rangers probably have enough of, especially if you have a gravel driveway near their run) and oyster shell (which Bay Hay & Feed carries in large and small bags).

Factors Affecting Egg Production

Basket of fresh eggs

Basket of fresh eggs

If you notice a change in production, consider the following possible causes:

  • Access to food and water at all times. Eggs are about 74% water, and access to fresh water is even more important in hot weather. If you go away for a long weekend and don’t have a reliable person tending your flock, you may wish to invest in an automatic waterer.
  • Disease. You can look for mites (which cause scaly leg) by checking the roosting bars at night when they climb up your hens’ legs. Other culprits are infectious diseases and parasites. Keeping the coop relatively clean and using diatomaceous earth (DE) in the nesting boxes and corners of the coop will keep pests under control. Picking up manure daily from the run will help manage contamination and re-exposure to environmental contaminants.
  • Heat stress. Heat stress can start to have an impact on chickens at around 77˚ F (25˚ C). Egg quality and quantity will be affected if access to fresh water and shade is not assured. You may notice the chickens starting to pant. If you’re not buying a premixed feed product, you might want to consider whether your chickens are getting enough salt in their diet (0.4%). Interestingly, the homozygous frizzle mutation (FF) makes chickens more heat tolerant at high ambient temperatures (nearly 90˚ F or more than 32˚ C). This makes sense—have you seen a frizzle chicken before? The feathers curl outwards instead of lying flat. I can imagine that extra air flow would be nice in the heat!
  • Other stress. Has there been a change in routine? An addition to the flock? Recently my husband took over the chores for 4 days while I was camping with our boys. He reported a few banner days of egg production, so maybe my flock enjoyed a fresh face!
  • Molting: This usually happens after 10-14 months of production, but it can be triggered by environmental stressors such as temperature extremes or running out of food or water. After 6-8 weeks of feather loss and regrowth (eggs and feathers compete for protein), the hen will start laying again. Production may be less than in the first season, but the eggs may be bigger.
  • Hide and seek. Are your free-range hens hiding their eggs in the potato plants? Ours did that last year. We found a brown egg and thought it was a potato at first until we saw our hen hiding out in the shady potato patch.
  • Light. Fourteen hours of daylight are needed for peak production. Since we just passed the summer solstice the hens are getting plenty of light. In fact, they stay up later than I do on some nights!
  • Free-range time. You’ve heard the adage that happy chickens lay more eggs. And you know that free-range time = happiness. I became a believer when I noticed the impact of free-range time on egg production. Daily “recess” of 3-4 hours translated to more eggs—a difference of about ½ dozen a week for my flock of 9 layers. But ensuring free-range time now is not boosting production, so some other factor is at play for my hens.
  • Age. Egg production declines markedly with age. Compared to the peak first year of laying, the second year will be about 80% of the first, and the third year about 65% or so. (See graph from University of Florida Extension below.) Source: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/LyraEDISServlet?command=getImageDetail&image_soid=IMAGE%20PS:PS029F2&document_soid=PS029&document_version=32769)

egg production/age chart











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Organic vs. commercial egg quality: http://feedstuffsfoodlink.com/story-are-organic-eggs-safer-healthier-74-71784

Oldie but goodie: http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/avian/feedingchickens.pdf


Recipe (corn-free): http://www.gardenbetty.com/2013/04/homemade-whole-grain-chicken-feed-updated-and-now-corn-free/

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Photos courtesy of woodleywonderworks, Ian D Nolan, Hunter Desportes, Will Merydith.

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Coop Scoop: Chick Fever! Breed, Incubate, or Buy?

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and Bainbridge Island chicken farmer

Bay Hay logoThank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.

“Hey, Alli, got a chick emergency here. They fell into their water and they’re going to die of hypothermia. Do you have a heat lamp I can borrow?”

I love getting a call like this from a friend. Even though I don’t have the six acres I had as a kid, nor the horses, when I can help a farmer friend I feel the same bonds of community, and I drop everything. The heat lamp dried them right out, and we found that putting the water up higher kept them from toppling in (better yet, you can use a hamster waterer to avoid accidents and save space). What a great ending! Now all I need is a chick-shaped twirling light and peeping siren for my yellow truck.

Chick Season

There are three ways to get baby chicks: have your hen(s) hatch them; incubate them yourself; or buy them.

Letting Mother Hen Do Her Thing

Jersey with her brood

Jersey with her brood

If you have a rooster or access to a randy one (which means any rooster), letting your hens sit on their fertilized eggs and raise their chicks is wonderful to watch, great for the mother-chick natural bonding and teaching process, and easy.

In the middle of setting up to host an all-boy water gun war on the last day of school (I got a super-soaker shot straight up my nose!), one of my dear friends called with a frantic question about her hen’s strange behavior: “Alli! Alli! Alice is acting so weird! She disappears for days and then comes back and eats like crazy. She fans out her tail feathers like a peacock and is just a bit savage. Is she okay? What is she doing?!”

Having just seen our hen Jersey act similarly, I knew Alice was likely broody. I suggested that my friend follow her hen into the woods, and sure enough she found a huge clutch of eggs. Poor hen, she’d be sitting there a long time because those eggs were not fertile. We sneaked four of my fertilized eggs under the hen, and three weeks later there were chicks!

Gordon the baby rooster

Gordon as a chick. He still likes to cuddle.

We had a lot of fun watching our girl Jersey, who went broody on Mother’s Day, tend to her eggs, too. It was touching to see instinct consume her so completely. On the rare occasions when she left for food or water, other hens would hop on the clutch to keep it warm. One hen even bunked in the same nesting box with Jersey every night. Our rooster Merlin was a bit confused but very protective. He kept peering down from his roost to check on Jersey. Several times he stuffed himself into a neighboring nesting box to to try figure out what was so interesting that she wouldn’t leave. He whistled to himself, sat down for a minute, and decided it just wasn’t that interesting after all.

Then one morning I heard peeping and found that a little chick had escaped Jersey’s “apartment” brooder in the coop and was hopping around in the run. The little rascal was only hours old but already vigorous. Soon more little chicks emerged. It was so easy to let Jersey manage it all. . . . Whew!

Feather sexing a three-day old. You can sex most breeds using wing feather length within the first three days of life.  If the primary and covert wing feathers are the same length it’s a cockerel, if the wing feathers are different lengths you have a pullet.

You can sex most breeds by checking wing-feather length within the first three days of life. If the primary and covert wing feathers are the same length it’s a cockerel; if the wing feathers are different lengths it’s a pullet.

While I don’t really need any more chicken drama this spring, I am still hopeful someone goes broody. Then I’ll need to prepare for quick and quiet dispatch of roosters before they grow up and get named. Last year we ended up having an 80% rooster hatch rate⎯4 of 5 chicks were male. We kept one, Gordon, and took the extras up to the Wildlife Shelter to feed the eagles, but it was very hard on our boys, who had supervised the chicks during “recess” on the lawn and checked them for pasty butt. Next hatch I’ll trust my feather sexing a bit more and take care of the rooster situation right away, or buy some land for the Rooster Refuge our older son suggested. . . .

Incubating Eggs

Doing Mother Nature’s job isn’t for the faint of heart, or the busy and distracted. For 21-25 days you need to monitor humidity and temperature frequently, because even a degree can make a difference in embryogenesis, speeding things up or slowing them down. You have to turn the eggs three times a day to ensure they “cook” evenly. And on hatch day you must resist temptation to intervene if things seem to stall.

I timed the hatch of our incubated eggs for our four year old’s birthday. My family had incubated eggs when I was a kid, and I thought it would be fun for chicks to burst out of their little shells on my son’s big day.

You can check on incubation progress with a “candler”⎯a light to illuminate the inside of the egg. You can buy a candler or make one at home. You’ll need a dark room, a cardboard box, and a flashlight. Cut out a hole in the box and then stick the flashlight in and tape it in place. Then rest the egg on top of the box to cover the hole where the bulb of the flashlight will shine. Make sure light only goes into the egg and doesn’t scatter in the room. Contrast helps show the faint shapes emerging in the egg. Between days 5 and 7 candling the egg reveals the spider-like shape of the embryo forming inside the shell. For a neat series of photos, see http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/candling-pics-progression-through-incubation-of-chicken-eggs.

birthday boy with new chick

Birthday boy with new chick

We were very excited on hatch day to see lots of pips—tiny triangle-shaped holes in the shells. Chicks spend a day or more pipping the circumference of the shell, pecking at one of the inner membranes. This membrane is vascularized, and pipping at it triggers the release of clotting factors to keep the chick from bleeding out when the membrane is finally broken during hatch. The chick is also absorbing the rest of the yolk for nourishment during this time. Waiting for at least 24 hours after you see a pip and hear cheeping is essential to give the baby chick time to rest, learn to breathe air, absorb the yolk, and close down the blood vessels. If you start “unzipping” the egg for the chick prematurely you can lose an otherwise healthy bird. When you see this process begin and hear peeping, resist the urge to open the incubator and help the chicks.

Buying Chicks

The third option, buying chicks, means you can request that they be vaccinated against diseases, which have taken several of our birds right at the point of lay, just as they’d become productive.

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Coop Scoop: A Meditation on Roosters, Our Gallant Guardians

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and BI chicken farmer

Bay Hay logoThank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.

After hearing about the bombs in Boston, I am still processing the events. They made me think–again–about all those who live in volatile areas punctuated by the sound of constant explosions. How do they endure the stress? The constant vigilance? Perhaps they don’t know any other way.

As I walked down to close up the coop tonight I thought about the fun our flock had out in the garden this afternoon. I wondered if there would be more eggs this week in response to increased “recess” time. (I have a theory that free range hens really are happier and that this “happiness” translates to increased productivity–I’m working on proving it with a quasi-experimental study.) But my thoughts quickly returned to the theme of constant vigilance. When the chickens are out in the garden for recess, we know that it is risky. We had gotten a bit relaxed about it before spring break and lost a hen who had just started to lay.

fresh brown eggsMy youngest son, Ben, was on guard duty that day. He ran in and told me the birds were alright, and then headed back out as I raced against a work deadline the day before flying off for vacation. It was such a manic day that I didn’t have time to herd the flock back in. It was one of those hyperventilating madness days. I didn’t even have time to eat. So when Ben wanted to stay in for a while, and I thought I’d be done shortly, I agreed. The predator only left behind a few feathers, and I never heard a squawk. I really wonder what it was, but I do know we have a large raccoon with a lovely apartment at the base of a nearby maple. Now we’re back to a state of constant vigilance. But we merely play backup for the roosters.

Yes, we have two roosters, father Merlin and son Gordon. They are always in a state of vigilance, one eye up to the sky while the girls forage. Roosters have a bad rap, but I respect them. And although I have had my share of run-ins with Merlin, I see quite a few admirable traits in my boys. I’m not sure if it is common among roosters, but Merlin and Gordon both point out the best worms and snacks to the hens with a very distinctive chuckle or a bob of their pointy beaks to the ground to draw attention to the treats. From time to time they’ll even pick up a choice snack and deliver it to a hen. They never take the first bite of the good stuff, and often they go without as the girls devolve into a manic feeding frenzy.

chickens in the yardBut I grew up with roosters, so maybe I see things differently than most chicken owners. We had one friendly rooster, King Cluckit, and one “attack” rooster, Charles, who my mother adopted from a neighbor. I’m not sure I understand how that happened, other than I think we were new to the area and this particular neighbor had a rascally funny bone. My mom had mentioned she really wanted chickens. “Well, I have one I’ll give you,” he said. We soon came to know Charles and his ways. When I got off our school bus as a young girl, Charles would be waiting under the bushes that lined our 600-foot rural New Jersey driveway. I’d walk by and out Charles would shoot, wings flapping as I tore off for the house. One time he managed to get my flip flop on my way down to the barn (we raised and boarded horses, too). He held it hostage, knowing I’d have to come back by to get it. I had to call my mom on the intercom to help out. I wasn’t about to try running past him with only one flip flop!

flock roostingSo my background with roosters may have prepared me to accept Merlin’s rather cold and calculating demeanor. Because Gordon was incubated and hatched into my hands on Ben’s fourth birthday (we timed it that way for his party), he is still friendly nearly a year later. I can pick him up and do chicken head tricks (if you move a chicken’s body, the head stays rock-solid still). I laugh when he dances around me, one wing down, trying to herd and court me. And I enjoy hearing both their crows on our way to school in the morning. I appreciate the stresses of being constantly alert for predators above and below. But maybe they don’t feel it because it’s their instinct. They don’t know any other way. I do wonder if the benevolence I see is instinctive as well. If so, might their kind deserve a bit more regard?

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Coop Scoop: What Kind of Chicken Farmer Are You? Take Our Test

by Allison Krug, science/medical writer and BI chicken farmer

Bay Hay logoThank you to our Coop Scoop sponsor Bay Hay & Feed.

Chickens are alluring little creatures. Their bright colors add spark to our grey days, and they make any garden look happy. They are easy to love because they’re industrious: They give us eggs and meat (if we choose), and they don’t ask for much in return. They don’t mind a muddy run, aren’t depressed by rain, keep their feathers neat, and wake up happy and bright-eyed. They even go to bed on their own!

Sure, they’re also dirty, incontinent at night, and love to dig holes. They sometimes eat their own eggs. They’re strict (sometimes brutal) with their social order. They roost where they shouldn’t and make a constant mess of things. And yet we want them around. Perhaps it’s because their simple traits can be a good reminder for humans about sticking together, muck or not. But beware . . . once you start collecting chickens it might be hard to stop!

Beware Chicken Lust

My chickens.

my flock

Once you get into chicken rearing, you might find that you just “need” a couple more, or just have to try out a different breed. You start eyeing the “zebra” chickens with black and white stripes (Barred Rocks) or want a big Jersey Giant. Plump, huggable Buff Orpingtons might be fun for the kids, right? Some folks even love the sound of a rooster. They add drama to the flock, and they are excellent protectors (I know from experience, having been chased a few times!).

How is the reality of chicken rearing compared to the romance? What kind of chicken keeper has Julie become since she launched her coop last month? Is she still in the honeymoon phase where the coop is immaculate, the water never dusky, the organic seeds always fresh? Or is she in the affectionate but pragmatic phase–what needs to get done is done, and fussing over them can wait for the weekend. Or maybe she’s on her way to being a hard-beaked, full-on chicken farmer, culling the meat birds yearly.

Take Our Test: Where Are You on the Chicken-Keeping Continuum? 

Are you an “eggs are a daily miracle” honeymooner, a soft-boiled chicken chum, or a full-on farmer pragmatist? Give yourself a point for each “yes” answer, and find out.

Do you

My chickens at play.

poultry at play

  1. provide a little table (could be a stump or round, could be an old picnic table) for feeding kitchen scraps?
  2. keep your organic seeds fresh and topped off all the time?
  3. find yourself wandering the organic grocery section to pick up flock favorites?
  4. run out with midday treats for your feathered sweethearts?
  5. scrub the waterer any time it is dirty, with something other than an alder leaf (those hold together under a jet stream pretty well)?
  6. use antiseptic wipes to clean the water trough once a week?
  7. hose off the waterer on the “jet” setting while keeping your eyes averted from splashing fecal matter?
  8. fabricate special nesting boxes so eggs roll out for collection so they don’t get dirty in the box?
  9. hose out the coop every spring and disinfect it, roosting bars included?
  10. sprinkle diatomaceous earth (DE) in the coop to keep mites and lice under control?
  11. mix food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) into the feed (2% by weight) to kill gastrointestinal parasites?
  12. add apple cider vinegar to the water periodically as a prebiotic?

9-12 points—starry-eyed honeymooner

5-8 points—soft-boiled chicken chum

<5 points—full-on farmer

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Photos by Allison Krug.

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Posted in Animals, Coop ScoopComments (2)

InkshedInc Jen Pells
Lynn Smith
Yes on Prop 1
Barn Cat
Bay Hay and Feed
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