Chicken Scratch Fever

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)

A dirty little secret (resolved)

This is where all the cool girls hang out. Due to its high traffic, this corner gets dirty quick.

This is where all the cool girls hang out. Due to its high traffic, this corner gets dirty quick.

It’s a backyard chicken keeper’s worst nightmare.

That barnyard smell.

For the first month, it was totally fine. Then one hot, muggy day, after a heavy downpour, it arrived. I had to be standing literally at or in the coop, but the smell was undeniable.

Of course, I freaked out. I worried about it getting worse, and possibly upsetting my neighbors. Trying to be helpful, Matt took a walk by the coop and said he couldn’t smell a thing.

Could it be possible I imagined the whole thing?

A couple days later, after another rain, Matt finally admitted he could smell a slight barnyard smell.

I quickly figured out that the smell went away when the sand in the run dried out. But when it rained …

As with any other dilemma, I consulted the Google Machine.

sweet-pdzI learned about proper drainage, and using pelletized lime to combat smells. Then I discovered Sweet PDZ.

Marketed as a horse stall deodorizer, I found Sweet PDZ also is safe to use in chicken coops. It works by absorbing and neutralizing ammonia in the chicken waste.

Apparently, other people had the same idea because I had trouble finding it in stock. We finally tracked down a bag at a Tractor Supply Co. about an hour’s drive away.

By the time we returned, I was anxious to see if this stuff works.

I had already gotten into a routine of scooping out the chicken poop on a daily basis. So I started with a light cleanup, including of the bazillion feathers the girls shed each week.

initial-cleanThe PDZ directions said to use 6 cups on the first application, then 1-3 cups for maintenance. So I used a coffee mug to spread six cups of the powder on top of the freshly cleaned coop sand. Next, I used a metal rake to mix it into the sand.

apply-pdzBy the next time I went out for a visit, I could tell a difference.

But the big test was with the next rainstorm, which came a couple days later. It was a huge storm, that splashed lots of water into the coop sand.

And when I went out to take a big sniff?

It smelled like heaven.

What are you talking about? Our poop smells like flowers!

What are you talking about? Our poop smells like flowers!

Combs and wattles

Loretta sports a new comb and wattles.

Loretta sports a new, more grown up look.

In the blink of an eye, my girls are almost grown up!

Tonight, as I let them out for their evening stroll, I saw all three are sporting big combs atop their heads. Also, wattles now hang below their chins. The combs and wattles are bright red, too.

Gigi

Gigi

These changes signify that the girls are almost full-fledged chickens. In fact, “egg watch” will begin soon.

Chickens begin laying eggs at 18 weeks old, which is just over two weeks away. It’s hard to believe that day is almost here.

I’ll be on vacation the week before eggs will arrive, and I’ll need the time to prepare. I need to open the nesting box, where the girls will lay their eggs. I have kept it closed off to prevent them from pooping in the nests. I’ve heard it’s best for them to discover the nests just as they need them, and to associate it with, um, nesting!

I’ll also have to pick up a bale of hay to fill the individual nests.

At 18 weeks, the girls also will switch over to layer feed, which will have an adjusted protein ratio plus added calcium to help strengthen the egg shells.

It’s a bit of work getting the girls ready for prime time.

But cue the lights.

Loretta, Gigi and Nellie are ready to strut their stuff.

Nellie: "I'm different because I have a rose comb!"

Nellie: “I’m different because I have a rose comb!”

Week 15: Nite-nite

If I ever had any doubt before, I now know the chickens are in charge.

Up until tonight, they were just humoring me.

After dinner, I let the girls out for a quick evening stroll in the yard. They sauntered over to a cave-like bush near the house, and set up camp.

Matt and I gardened, then I took a lengthy phone call with my brother. It had been about an hour, so I thought I’d put them back in the coop.

I grabbed the Stand-n-Scoop poop-picker-upper, and walked toward the bush. Like a  shepherd uses his walking stick, I use the Stand-n-Scoop to gently guide the chickens back to roost. I don’t touch the chickens, but use the black and pink stick to point them in the right direction.

I quickly saw Loretta wasn’t having any of this. She squawked, and ran back into the bush. Loretta and Nellie quickly followed suit.

This went on and on for about 15 minutes, until I gave up.

We're footloose and fancy free!

We’re footloose and fancy free!

I went into the house and grabbed a popsicle.

“The birds put away?” Matt asked. I was hot and frustrated.

“No!”

“So you just left them out there?”

I paused. I knew what he was asking. I left them out there vulnerable to predators, most specifically hawks. I didn’t know what else to do.

I watched them from the kitchen window, and they all seemed fine. They threw themselves to the ground inside their cave clubhouse, taking luxurious dust baths. Surely a hawk couldn’t spot them in there, I tried to tell myself.

I went out again and tried to round them up one more time. No luck.

So I waited until dusk, which was 9:12 p.m. tonight. Before I got chickens I had heard that they naturally roost at sundown. And wouldn’t you know it, they lined up, just like clockwork.

At first they huddled at the door of the coop, then Loretta went in first, followed by Nellie. Gigi was busy pecking at something, but quickly followed suit once she saw she was alone.

A few weeks ago Matt jokingly suggested that we needed a butterfly net to catch the chickens.

Now I’m thinking that’s not such a bad idea.

Toe trim trial

Gigi: My nails are just fine, thank you very much!

Gigi: My nails are just fine, thank you very much!

The other day as I was watching the girls perch on a homemade jungle gym, I noticed Gigi’s toe nails seemed long. Instead of laying on the surface on the wood, aligned with her toes, the nails seemed to curl sideways.

I went inside and Googled “how to trim chicken nails.”

After watching a tutorial, and consulting photos illustrating the proper length and appearance of chicken nails, I decided something needed to be done.

When Matt came home, I told him he would be the chicken holder in my scheme to trim Gigi’s nails. Surprisingly, Matt didn’t fight it. Normally he would say I was overreacting, and that her nails were just fine. But this time, he just shrugged, and walked out into the yard.

Gigi let me grab her easily. I had Matt hold her on her back, just like I saw in the video.

In my pocket, I had a vial of styptic power (in case I cut the quick), a folded paper towel (also for possible bloodshed) and my dog Charlie’s nail clippers.

The first nail went well. I barely trimmed anything off. She didn’t even squirm.

Suddenly her nails didn’t seem that long. I hesitated, wondering if I should proceed. But here was my chicken, presenting her sideways nails, and I just went with it.

I carefully clipped the next nail.

Pop!

Then red.

Blood on my hands.

Blood on my hands.

The bleeding was intense. I poured a small pile of powder into the paper towel, and dipped the nail in it.

I then worked quickly to clip the rest of the nails.

By the time I finished, blood was everywhere. It was dripping on the ground. It was on my shirt, on my hands.

I looked at Gigi. Surely, this was freaking her out.

And she was sleeping! Completely missing out on all the drama.

Matt continued to cradle Gigi, as I dipped her wounded nail in pile after pile of the powder. The blood just seeped through.

Finally, I put the nail in a huge amount of the powder and held it tight. I took Gigi from Matt and held her close, softly apologizing for hurting her.

It took about 20 minutes before the bleeding stopped.

I gingerly put Gigi on the ground, and held my breath. She looked at me, then scurried off in a chicken waddle to join Loretta and Nellie.

No limp, no trouble scratching.

Hopefully she won’t have a long memory, like my old dog Lexie, who refused to let me touch her her toes FOREVER after I made her bleed.

All that was left was the cleanup. It took me three passes to get all the blood off my hands.

And I’m happy to say Matt never rubbed my nose in it.

Yet.

I’ve since read online that even a bad bloody nail trim is never enough to kill a chicken.

 

Good to know.

Week 14: Chicken sitter

Nellie and the girls forage under a bush. They say this is much better than time in the coop.

Nellie and the girls forage under a bush. They say this is much better than time in the coop.

Just as Matt and I got a routine down with the chickens, we decided it might be nice to get away for a long weekend.

The biggest dilemma wasn’t where to go, or what to pack.

We needed to find a chicken sitter!

Unlike a dog, we couldn’t board the chickens, or drop them off at a buddy’s house. Honestly, the task seemed daunting.

We needed someone who would come over at 6:30 a.m. to let the chickens out and put their food in the coop, then return at dusk to close the little chicken coop door and to put the food away. To me this all felt like a lot. Even though I had the duties each down to an impressive 4 minutes when I put my mind to it, somehow it felt like a lot to ask of a friend.

Then about a week before we went on our trip, a neighbor stopped by to chew the fat. She and her husband had shown a great interest in our coop while we were building it, and in our chickens once they arrived. The chickens fluttered around our feet as we chatted. Then I went in for the kill.

“Would you be interested in watching our chickens while we take a long weekend? I’ll pay you,” I offered.

My neighbor laughed, and said “You don’t have to pay me, Jillian! I’d love to do it for free.”

I then apologetically explained about letting them out at the crack down dawn, and returning at dusk.

“Oh, I’m usually up by then. It would be no problem at all,” she said. “In fact, we’re looking for someone to water our yard when we go on vacation later this summer.”

I told her I would love to help her out. And that was that.

We had a chicken sitter.

Last Saturday, Matt and I drove up to Goderich, Ontario, and reveled in our free time. That night, I received a text message from my neighbor letting me know the girls were all tucked into the coop. The second night, she messaged asking if she should shut the coop windows overnight. I had forgot to tell her about that in my tutorial. I told her to leave them open.

The girls enjoy a welcome-home watermelon.

The girls enjoy a welcome-home watermelon.

Monday afternoon, as soon as we got home, Matt and I walked straight back into the yard to check on the girls. They chirped, cooed and even howled when they saw us. It was quite a reception!

I gave the girls a piece of leftover watermelon, and watched them chomp away.

I wondered if they even realized I was gone.

Then I celebrated our short getaway. When we got chickens, I worried if we would ever find anyone who would be able to handle the demands of chicken sitting. It truly was a great unknown.

But with the help of a great friend and neighbor, I can breathe a little easier.

My birds were cared for, and my neighbors’ yard will be greatly tended to.

A fair trade, indeed.

Week 13: Geez, it’s hot!

Gigi, Nellie and Loretta dive into a cool watermelon.

Gigi, Nellie and Loretta dive into a cool watermelon.

Summer has arrived a couple days early, with scorching hot temperatures.

Today it was in the high 80s most of the day, then inching into the low 90s around dinnertime. I kept a close eye on them throughout the day, looking for obvious signs of heat stress.

Around 5 p.m., I went back out to check on the birds. The weather sensor I have on the coop registered 90 degrees in the shade. I took a close look, and immediately saw that Loretta was panting. Gigi and Nelli also had their beaks open, and Loretta was slightly drooping her wings in an effort to cool off.

Gigi spots a mulberry. Yum!

Gigi spots a mulberry. Yum!

I grabbed the waterer, and brought it into the kitchen to refill it with cold water. To give it some lasting power, I placed a frozen water bottle on the inside before putting the waterer back in the coop. Then I ran up to the local market to buy cold watermelon. I know the girls love it, and I was thinking that eating something cold might lower their body temperature.

The girls rebounded quickly, and soon sauntered out for a stroll in the yard. It wasn’t long before they found a field of fallen mulberries on the ground. They munched for a while, most likely surprised by their good fortune. Watermelon AND mulberries in the same day???

It’s supposed to be warm tomorrow, too, so I bought an extra watermelon. The girls will love me for it.

In the garden

Baby cherry tomatoes are starting to grow.

Baby cherry tomatoes are starting to grow.

A couple weeks in, we are starting to see growth in the garden.

Today we spotted several baby cherry tomatoes on the vine. Also we spotted a handful of flowers on the cucumber plants, which are now growing up high enough to touch the trellis. Did I mention the corn is knee high?

The greatest surprise is that the cauliflower plants now have baby cauliflowers growing in them. I don’t know how else to explain it, but there’s a small white ball in the heart of the plant. This greatly excited Matt. I took a photo and sent it to him, and somehow I imagine that greatly disrupted his morning at work. I didn’t want the cauliflower plants because, well, I hate cauliflower. But it’s Matt’s favorite vegetable, like, ever! So this development is huge, and a victory of sorts for him!

The itty-bitty cauliflower.

The itty-bitty cauliflower.

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