Chicken Scratch Fever

Snow birds

Gigi, Nellie and Loretta check out snow for the first time.

Gigi, Nellie and Loretta check out snow for the first time.

We had our first snowstorm of the year, bringing with it about 4 inches of snow, and temperatures that dipped into single digits overnight.

One morning I walked out to find my prized heated water fountain had frozen over. In the 13-degree weather, I quickly scooped out the ice from the water trough, and worried how the girls would have access to water while I was at work. All three were still in the hen house, and I imagined them huddled together, shivering in the cold.

But when i opened the hen house door, I found something closer to a slumber party. Loretta stretched her wings and strutted through the shavings on the floor. The girls were just fine.

After doing some more research, I discovered the heated water container (which was supposed to keep water from freezing down to zero degrees) tended to freeze if left in an open space that was vulnerable to the wind. So I made a controversial decision and moved the water and food into the hen house.

The electric water fountain (left) and the food are now in the hen house.

The electric water fountain (left) and the food are now in the hen house.

Chicken owners have many reasons for not having water and food in the hen house, if only to keep the area clean and free of spills. There also are concerns about the water increasing the humidity levels, which could contribute to frostbite.

But I have to say after a couple nights out of the elements, the electric fountain seems to be working its magic. It didn’t freeze over again. And the humidity levels remain unchanged.

Just in case the girls try to perch atop the fountain, I installed a chain suspended from the ceiling to keep it upright.

I don’t expect any crazy shenanigans from the girls, but it’s probably better safe than sorry.

Catching up

My family takes a break to look at the birds.

My family takes a break to look at the birds.

A lot has gone down in the last few months.

During the summer, I fell ill. Then when my brother came to visit me during my recuperation, he had a heart attack. Suddenly our house was filled with concerned house guests.

And the chickens? They were a welcome distraction.

We spent hours out in the yard, watching Nellie, Loretta and Gigi scratch under a bush, and chase bugs across the lawn. Their chicken antics brought smiles to our weary faces.

Our first green egg, plus a light brown one from Nellie.

Our first green egg, plus a light brown one from Nellie.

The week after everyone left, we got our first eggs. One each from Nellie and Loretta. Nellie would go on to be a powerhouse chicken, providing one egg almost every day. In the months that followed, Loretta gave us just five. Gigi fell somewhere in the middle, offering 4-5 green eggs a week while she was laying.

Another development: It ends up Nellie is one angry bird. She bites me at every opportunity, and has drawn blood on many occasions. If it wasn’t for her super-layer status, I’d be having her for dinner.

The biggest development came when Matt was offered a job as an environmental attorney. The rub is that the dream job is about an hour and a half away. So for the meantime, Matt got a loft near his job, and we started fixing up our house in Ferndale. Our plan is to get it on the market soon, and to buy a farmhouse closer to Matt’s work.

But what about the chickens? I hear you ask. It’s sort of tricky, but if we buy a home that doesn’t have a chicken coop, I have asked a good friend to foster our chickens until we are ready for them.

The feathers on Gigi's neck are thinning, and she's got a bare spot on her lower back.

The feathers on Gigi’s neck are thinning, and she’s got a bare spot on her lower back.

And as the temperatures steadily drop into the 30s, two of our chickens decided to molt. The inside of the run is filled with their feathers, and Gigi and Loretta have bare necks. I feel bad that they are losing their feathers as we head into cold weather, but such is the nature of things. I’ve read that chickens fare much better in the cold, compared to hot weather … and from what I can tell that assessment is completely correct.

One more thing about molting: no eggs during this time. Except from Nellie. That angry lil’ bird still has all her feathers and is focused on pumping out an egg a day.

It’s been a busy few months, from health scares to triumphs. And we anxiously look forward to what’s coming next.

Bring it on.

Hooked up for power

This outlet will power a radiant heat panel.

This outlet will power a radiant heat panel.

After a couple grueling weeks digging a trench, and having friends come over to do the handiwork, the electrical line running to the chicken coop has passed inspection!

The Ferndale city inspector came out bright and early at the beginning of the week. We started out in the yard, where the electric line came out of the house. The inspector checked the two outlets there, and said he detected power. This was good.

I think that's a chicken checking out the new power outlet.

I think that’s a chicken checking out the new power outlet.

We followed the trench line back to the coop, and he went in with the chickens for a few minutes to check things over.

“They don’t bite, do they?” he asked, as Nellie sized him up from behind.

“I think you’ll be OK,” I assured him, hoping Nellie would hold her pecking behavior in check.

After checking the inside of the hen house, we went into the basement to look at the circuit breaker box.

As the inspector filled out my neon green “Approved” sticker, he told me the wire work would hold up for years to come.

I never had any doubt. I had a great crew of friends working on this project, and I fueled it with my lucky Dutch Girl donuts. Of course this was going to pass with flying colors!

Now I am ready to buy an electric/heated waterer (this will prevent their drinking water from freezing during the winter months) along with a small radiant heat panel for the hen house. As I’ve read chickens are pretty resilient down to about zero degrees, I’d still like to have something in place to raise the temp just a few degrees on those impossibly cold days.

It took a long time, but I finally have the trench filled back in. I forgot to tamp down the dirt, and hilariously sank to my knee when I stepped on the line! So now everything is slightly tamped with my feet, then loosely covered again with more soil.

I’ll leave the finish work to darling Matt.

In the trenches

Matt begins the trench in front of the chicken coop.

Matt begins the trench in front of the chicken coop.

With the last bit of summer running past us, I decided to embark on a large pre-winter project: running an electrical line out to the chicken coop.

Matt and our neighbor To finish up the trench.

Matt and our neighbor to finish up the trench.

Why do chickens need electricity, you ask? Mostly so I can plug in a heated water jug. I just don’t have it in me to run fresh water out to the coop three times a day in freezing weather.

Having power in the coop also gives me the option of hooking up a small radiant heater, in case temperatures drop below zero. I’ve heard that most chickens are hardy down to this temperature, but I’d like the option to add a bit of heat if things really get cold.

So, to run power out to the coop, first I needed to get a permit from city hall. A neighbor and his cousin (an electrician) offered to help with the project.

This morning I rented a trencher to dig a 24-inch trench from the house to the coop. It took Matt and my neighbor to wrestle this 600-pound machine across the yard. But we now have a trench that we can lay the electrical line in.

In the next week, I’m hoping we can add a power circuit in the house, and set up the rest of the line.

My goodness, these chickens are spoiled!

After returning the trencher, I checked on the girls. I found all three in nesting boxes, working on their daily offerings!

Gigi, Loretta and Nellie settle into the nesting boxes. Can a girl get some privacy?

Gigi, Loretta and Nellie settle into the nesting boxes. Can a girl get some privacy?

A green egg!

This green egg did not make it to a nesting box.

This green egg did not make it to a nesting box.

Exactly two days after we received our first eggs from the girls, today we were greeted with another gift.

A green egg.

Nellie: "I must say that I laid my egg in a nesting box. Not in the middle of the run, like Gigi!"

Nellie: “I must say that I laid my egg in a nesting box. Not in the middle of the run, like Gigi!”

I knew Gigi was holding out. With eggs from Nellie and Loretta, it was easy to do the math. Two brown eggs meant we were waiting on Gigi’s coveted green egg.

Our first green egg, plus a light brown one from Nellie.

Our first green egg, plus a light brown one from Nellie.

In her showgirl style, Gigi bypassed the nesting box and laid her olive egg in the middle of the run.

Show off!

Nellie also produced another light brown egg today. That’s two eggs in two days for her. I’m wondering if that’s why she’s been so cranky and bitey lately. Hmmm.

So far the eggs are really small, but that soon will change. Before long, they should grow to medium egg size.

You know, green eggs and ham is starting to sound really good.

Week 19: We have eggs!!!

We think the darker brown egg belongs to our French Black Copper Marans, Loretta, and the lighter one to our Dominique, Nellie.

We think the darker brown egg belongs to our Black French Copper Marans, Loretta, and the lighter one to our Dominique, Nellie.

Two eggs in one day?

That’s how our first special delivery arrived this evening.

As soon and Matt and I got home from work, I went out back for my daily egg check. I wasn’t really expecting anything; the last two weeks had come up empty every time.

And then I saw it. Nellie’s light brown egg in the far right nest box.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

As I steadied myself, my eyes glanced over to the left nest box, … and there sat a second egg!

Both are small, about half the size of an extra large egg.

But they are easily identifiable.

Loretta, a Black French Copper Marans, will eventually lay dark chocolate brown eggs. The one she offered today is still on the light side, but her eggs will quickly darken up. And since Gigi, our Olive Egger, will lay green eggs, it was easy to deduce who left the second lighter brown egg.

After handing the day’s bounty off to Matt, I grabbed a handful of scratch and threw it into the run.

“Well done, girls!” I said, as they eagerly pecked away.

We don’t have quite enough for an omelette, but Matt and I will have a special celebratory snack tonight!

Week 17: Prepping for eggs!

Loretta is ready to give us some eggs!

Loretta: “You’re ready for eggs, you say? Get your cartons ready!” (Photo by Bryan Bogater)

Tonight, Loretta squatted for me!

In chicken-speak, this means she’ll be laying eggs in the next week or so.

For some reason, she wouldn’t come out of the coop today. Normally she’s the first one barging through the door. But it took coaxing, and finally me just picking her up and putting her outside.

That’s when she did it.

Loretta, facing away from me, knelt down and slightly outstretched her wings. I had read about this behavior, and immediately recognized it for the good news it is.

I welcome any and all good news, especially after I unexpectedly spent three days in the hospital this week. Matt was a real champ, staying by my side in the hospital and still finding time to take care of the chickens while I was laid up.

More good news: I have a visitor — my brother Bryan who just arrived from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

It wasn’t long before he was hen pecked.

I showed Bryan the girls, and the chicken coop, which was not finished when he last visited in December. Gigi, Loretta and Nellie cooed and called out to him. They wanted out of the coop, so I opened the door.

Bryan pulled out his camera, laid down in the grass, and let the girls get up close and personal. Nellie tugged at the strings hanging from his shorts, and Gigi cautiously pecked at him. Loretta eyed his toes before trying to take a bite.

My brother, Bryan, snaps a few shots of Loretta and Nellie.

My brother, Bryan, snaps a few shots of Loretta and Nellie.

None of this fazed Bryan, and he got some great photos of the girls.

Tomorrow, I am taking Bryan for his first trip to a Tractor Supply Co. I need to pick up a few things to prepare the nests, since eggs are around the corner. On the list are layer ration feed and a bale of hay to put in their nests. I’ll probably open the nest part of the coop sometime this week. It’s suggested to wait until the birds are 18 weeks old before giving access to nests, and that will be a week from today!

How did we get from those baby fuzzballs to almost laying eggs?

My babies are growing up so fast!

Gigi: I'm ready to lay some egg-cellent eggs!

Gigi: “I’m ready to lay some egg-cellent eggs!” (Photo by Bryan Bogater)

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