Chicken Scratch Fever

Return of the egg

  

Gigi (our olive egger) broke through the winter weather and delivered her first egg since last fall. After checking records, I saw she returned to laying exactly one week earlier than last year. 

Our Marans Loretta still refuses to lay. She stopped during the summer once her missing feathers began to grow back in. (Another chicken pulled out most of her belly and bottom feathers.) she has never been that great of a layer, so I’m not optimistic about her laying eggs again. 

My egg drought shouldn’t last long. In less than four weeks I will pick up two more chicks. By my calculations, I should be up to my ears in eggs by mid summer!

Difficult decision

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Jillian and Nellie.

Nellie was my favorite chick from day one. I loved cradling her in my palm, and as she grew, she seemed to enjoy snuggling in my lap.

Right around the time she started to lay eggs, all of that changed.

She started attacking my, my legs, then she would fly up and go at my arms and chest. She drew blood. She aggressively followed me around the yard, waiting for an opportunity to lunge.

This continued for a year.

In that time, I noticed Loretta’s feathers started disappearing. It wasn’t time for a molt, and yet her chest feathers were missing and her bottom was bare.

I added protein to their diet, and sprayed Blu Kote on Loretta’s bare spots to discourage the other birds from pecking at her.

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Early stages of Loretta’s bare butt.

When I changed out water and food, Nellie upped her game. Her pecks drew blood almost every time, and I could not let her free range without carrying a large stick to keep her at bay.

After she attacked my brother, I kept her locked up when guests visited.

Once we moved, Loretta stated losing feathers on her back as well. At this point, she no longer was a majestic bird. She had lost a significant amount of weight, and hadn’t laid an egg in almost a year.

It was time for a visit to the vet.

After a quick exam, the vet asked if I had any aggressive birds in my flock. Nellie came to mind, but I had never witnessed her harassing the birds.

“Yes, I have one that attacks me,” I offered.

“That most likely is the culprit,” he said, explaining that Loretta showed all the classic signs of feather picking.

“What are my options?” I asked.

His answer was grim. The bottom line was that if I didn’t want Loretta disemboweled, I needed to remove Nellie from the flock. He said he was confident he could find a good place for her if I wanted to bring her back in a couple days.

I packed Loretta back into the carrier, and headed home. A difficult decision waited for me.

 

Week 16: Crazy chickens!

Three chickens.

Nellie (foreground) rushes the camera.

Editor’s note: This is a blog from last year that I never published. It was just the beginning of what became very aggressive and destructive behavior.

Tonight for the first time I felt something other than absolute adoring love for my chickens.

I experienced fear.

I often joke that my house was built upon a junk yard. Countless shards of broken glass make their way up into the grass, surfacing like jagged, colored jewels. Once, a car steering wheel rose in an old garden bed. Just last week, an entire car tire appeared shredded in the dirt by our shed.

Of course, I worry about the chickens. I try to pick up everything I see, but inevitably the birds will find something they shouldn’t peck at.

This evening, Gigi found a small piece of rubber and ran off to a bush. I quickly ran after her, and she ducked, and took a hard turn, flapping her wings along the way. She had grabbed small pieced of rubber before (the inside of an old soccer ball?) but I was always able to get them from her. Tonight she had other plans.

I tried to scare her into dropping it, I tried to pick her up but she was not having any of it. As I continued this standoff, I saw something rushing at me out of the corner of my eye.

BAM!

Nellie bit my leg with all of her pint-sized might. The little stinker.

All of this commotion was enough to distract Gigi, and I grabbed the piece of rubber.

I thought that was that, but I thought wrong.

Nellie came at me again, stretching her neck out far as she tried to bite me again. I quickly backed up. What was going on? I went in the house and put on my farm girl boots. Somehow my summer sandals left my feet feeling a bit too exposed.

As I approached the girls, Nellie broke from the crowd and charged me. She furiously pecked at my feet. Was that a growl I heard?

I backed up, and she came at me again. I was nervous she was going to bite above the boots, so I kind of scurried backward with her in tow.

Just this side of freaking out, I lifted my arms into the air, trying my best flying dinosaur impersonation. At this point, Gigi had joined in, charging at my feet. I felt behind me for anything to protect myself from, umm, two little chickens. I know, I know. But in this moment, I had no sense of perspective.

I felt an Adirondack chair behind me, and pulled it up in front of me. I lifted it high and made a menacing noise. Seriously. I did.

Both birds backed off. In fact, I think they laughed.

I was weak in the knees.

Sensing a break in the action, I ran into the house and watched the girls from the kitchen window.

Sadly, this was just a snapshot of what was to come.

Catching up: Moving with chickens

small red chicken coop.

The temporary coop had two small caged areas that served as runs, plus four nesting boxes on the second level of the coop. The girls were cramped.

Moving with chickens is an exercise in logistics.

It seemed enough to pack up every single thing in my house and come up with a plan to move it about an hour from my house in Metro Detroit. But what about the chickens?

I couldn’t see transporting them the day of the big move. So I decided to leave them with a bunch of water and food, and came back for them a couple days later. This gave us time to assemble a very small temporary coop that would house them until we secured more permanent housing.

The day I picked them up, I had already moved their kibble and food/water containers, so all I had to do was put them in a large dog carrier (no easy feat!) and pack them in the car for an hour’s ride.

The drive was grotesque.

Let me tell you, riding with three chickens is one of the smelliest things I have ever endured. As soon as I started driving, they all started pooping. I was so glad it was a warm June day, so I could drive with the windows down the whole way!

Once we got to the new house, I put the chickens in the temporary coop.

PROS: It was a safe place for the chickens to live. There seemed to be (barely) enough room for them.

CONS: It was a really tight fit for three chickens (they were vocal about this). While there were four nesting boxes on the second floor of the mini-coop, there was nowhere for them to roost — so the chickens started sleeping in the nesting boxes. Also the coop’s design did not have a door; the entire area was enclosed but I did not like this design.

Three chickens in a coop.

Loretta, Nellie and Gigi in their new digs.

We used the coop for two months, just long enough to get everyone settled and to find a new, more permanent option.

We ended up ordering a custom-built chicken coop from an Amish furniture company. We had considered building our own coop, as we had in Metro Detroit, but we just didn’t have time on our hands. The chickens were cramped, and we didn’t want to take four months for another build.

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The new chicken coop.

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Inside: an electric door and nesting boxes.

In the end, we bought a coop that is 4x6x6 feet tall. Quite a bit smaller than the coop we built, but still recommended for 5-7 chickens. It has nice shingles on the roof, along with a small run area, plus space for the chickens to wander under the coop. Bonus items are an electric package with four outlets and a ceiling light, along with a electric-powered door that automatically lets them out in the morning and closes them up at night. I heart that feature!

So far, it’s more than enough room for two chickens. (We had to rehome Nellie shortly after the move; I will write about that in the next blog.) We plan on getting two more chicks in four weeks. That will bring us up to the city’s limit on chickens, and probably the realistic limit on the coop.

STAY TUNED: In the upcoming blog posts, I will write about rehoming Nellie, Loretta’s health scare, Gigi’s first bath, molting, going broody, prepping for winter and road tripping for chicks. Come along for the ride!

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.

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