Monday, November 11, 2013

Oreo Becomes a Mom

Oreo in the nesting box with Cotton.

I think one of the things that appeals to me with my hens is how matronly they seem. We’ve seen the mother-hen instinct in action for the last week, and I find myself absorbed by the behaviors and instincts throughout the flock.

Oreo is the older silver-laced bantam cochin hen that my sister-in-law gave the girls in exchange for the esteemed rooster, Cluck Norris. I’m not sure how old Oreo is. She came to us with Clover about two years ago, and she might have been two or three at the time. I do know it has been a long time since she laid an egg.

When we went to the chicken show last week, L brought home the small bantam barred rock (currently being called “Cecily” by L) and a little bantam cochin chick – probably about four weeks old – who she named “Cotton.” The chick will look a lot like Oreo when she's full grown.

Cotton and Cecily were placed in a separate crate in the coop to introduce them to the new flock safely and gradually. Cotton peeped endlessly. We put a red heat light in over the crate to be sure she was warm. But still she peeped. Cecily did not seem particularly interested in being friends with Cotton.

One morning I let the two little ones out into the small chicken yard while the big hens had the run of the backyard. Cotton peeped and peeped. I noticed that Oreo seemed to be hanging out, clucking away, nearby. Curious, I let her in to see how she’d behave toward Cotton and Cecily.

She chased Cecily away with a peck, but seemed unconcerned about Cotton. Not necessarily interested, but at the same time, not hostile. I sat and watched, uncertain. But Cotton clearly had no doubts: Oreo was her long lost mom.

It wasn’t long before Oreo would scratch and peck at the ground, make a distinct cluck sound, and Cotton would hurry to see what Oreo had found. Cotton peeped and Oreo clucked. In those first little communications, a bond was forming. Convinced all three would be fine, I left them for a while.

About an hour later I returned to find Oreo in the nesting box. Tucked under the warmth and shelter of her wing was Cotton, quiet and happy, not making a peep. Oreo looked pleased.

At that point, I wondered what I should do for the evening. If Oreo kept the chick under her wing, Cotton would be warm enough. But if not, Cotton would be exposed not only to the chilly night, but also to the big hens who might easily hurt her. I hemmed and hawed. Then I opened the run door so I could see how Oreo behaved with the big girls around.

Eventually, I saw Oreo lead her new charge out into the backyard. Cotton’s peeps kept Oreo aware of where she was at all times. If Oreo became concerned, she’d cluck to Cotton and the little chick came running. Then I watched Pip approach Cotton like she was going to pick on her. Oreo charged between them, drew herself up and chest bumped with Pip, even throwing her feet up at the younger hen.

Pip retreated, chastised. Oreo and Cotton ran to each other, the danger past. Rosemary then decided to pick on little Cecily, and I chased her off. But my actions and Rosemary’s hostility threw mama hen into action. She chased her chick to the safety and cover of the lilac bush. One of the black hens suddenly became auntie, and joined them to offer additional protection.

Clearly, Cotton would be fine in the flock with her fierce mama (and auntie) watching out for her. When Kirk went out to close the coop that night, he noticed that not only was Oreo tucked into the nesting box with Cotton, but Violet had wedged herself in as well, adding her name to the auntie roster.

Yesterday, all were out in the yard happily pecking, and Cotton was trailing along, peeping and pecking and checking in with mom. I was supposed to be doing yard work, but it was a beautiful day, and I found myself constantly stopping to watch the sweetness of the bond between mama and chick. The other hens minded their manners and Oreo proudly shepherded her baby like an old pro. It certainly makes my job a lot easier and eases my mind, and it is nice to think the Oreo gets to be a mama after all this time.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Mom and Daughter Day

One of two new girls in the flock, a bantam barred rock, name still pending...
On Saturday, L and I woke up early. If you knew me, you would know the magnitude of that statement. L is an early riser. Me? Not so much. Clearly, I must have had a compelling reason to get up early on a Saturday.

We were heading to the Rocky Mountain Feather Fancier’s show in Brighton, about an hour away.

Yes, that’s right: A chicken show.
Can you imagine a better reason to get up early on a Saturday? Me neither!

We jumped in the car and were on our way. L had her Pocket Poultry guide with her, just in case there was an exotic breed that we needed to identify in a jiffy. She chattered all the way down to the show as we braved Denver traffic and found our way to the Adams County Fairgrounds.

We have, sadly, lost a few hens over the past year: Clover, Pearl, and Betty Boop. Bossy Clover and sweet Pearl from old age. Betty Boop, the funny Polish Crested who had yet to lay an egg, was found lifeless on the coop floor several weeks ago. This made me sad. She was a young pullet that had started following me everywhere, and she had been perfectly chipper the day before. Once again, we were reminded that chickens are fragile.

We still have Violet, the Grand Dame of the flock. And Oreo, Thelma, Louise, and Pip. Young pullets Nettie, Hazel and Rosemary have yet to produce an egg. But we were heading to the show to see if we could find a Bantam Cochin pullet for Lydia, and maybe one other hen.

We hadn’t spent one-on-one time together in a long time. We talked chickens and horses and music and books. It was good.

Pulling into the parking lot we wondered if this was the right spot. Our questions were answered when we opened the car doors and heard roosters crowing. We both looked at each other and said, “We’re in the right place.”

The fiercely competitive tension crackled from the fair buildings.

Well, ok, not really. Poultry peeps are fairly relaxed folk.

There were a couple of horse trailers parked in the front of the building. They were filled with cages and stereophonic with quacks. Ducks for sale. Poultry pushers. Oh, so tempting. We glanced longingly at the little Call Ducks, but we both knew what we were there for, and ducks weren’t on the list.

Kids strolled around with hens tucked nonchalantly into the crooks of elbows. Rows of cages housing birds entered in the show filled half the building. I asked where the sale birds were, and we were directed to the north end of the building.

Four people were sliding a floorless pen along the cement floor to relocate it to a different spot. Inside about a dozen adult ducks waddled along, their webbed feet making little slap-slap noises as they walked along, like a bunch of kids in flip flops at the pool. We waited for this little procession to pass by, then got down to the serious business of bird buying.

I liked a nicely colored Ameraucana hen. Housed with her was a pair of very nice cochin bantams—a hen and a rooster. We really can’t have a rooster in town. The owner wasn’t sure she wanted to split them up, which I can understand. She had a box full of young chicks, bantam cochins, but their coloring was iffy for showing, though we thought maybe 4H would be more lenient. Then we saw three little bantam barred rock hens. Hardly exotic, but appealing. Violet is a barred rock, but she’s a full sized hen and her feathering wasn’t as fine and barring wasn’t as crisp as these birds.

We knew we didn’t want to introduce a solo bird to the flock. But just about every cage held a pair (hen and rooster) or trio (rooster and two hens). We hemmed and hawed and decided to go have a coffee at Starbucks and think about our choices.

We chatted and enjoyed the time together, then headed back to the show. Someone had brought in a bunch of speckled Sussex hens, reminding me of Mabel. L didn’t really want another Speckled Sussex—because they reminded her of Mabel. We made a decision. We’d get one of the barred rock bantam hens, and one small chick. We talked to the owners, L made her selections and we put our new flock members in the small crate we’d brought. As we pulled out of the fairgrounds…. The naming game began, punctuated by peeps and clucks all the way home.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Quicksand in the Coop

After reading on that sand makes a good bedding or “litter” for coops (see the blog post here) and chicken yards, I decided to give it a try.

We’ve always used pine shavings. But I’d find myself going through a half bale every three weeks or so, and putting a large amount of chicken waste and shavings in the compost pile. We were running out of room. Plus, it just didn’t seem to stay clean and tidy for very long.

We scraped out all of the shavings (when K built the coop, he put down an industrial grade vinyl tile that makes it very easy to clean). K calculated how much sand we could put on the floor of the coop based on weight. There are times when it comes in handy to have an engineering type in the family. He determined how much sand would weigh per square foot and magically calculated that the coop floor would handle a 2-inch depth of sand just fine.

We used construction grade sand (not the fine sandbox grade). It wasn’t dusty, and immediately felt cleaner somehow.  We use a fine tine small rake to lightly rake the droppings from the sand. Instead of about two cubic feet of waste going to compost, we’re putting about a garden shovel full – maybe about four cubic inches – into the bins. It works beautifully. It keeps the girls’ feet and toenails cleaner. We thought it was a great solution.

The next morning, the hens seemed to have forgotten that they walked on the sand to get to their roosts the night before. They typically hop down in the morning as quickly as they can. But when K opened the coop door the morning after the litter change, they seemed to think that someone had filled their coop with dangerous quicksand. 

(I'll attempt to post a video here... ) The big hens look down and shift around on their roost. They aren't sure what to do. The little hens are afraid to hop out of the nesting boxes, and Betty Boop, the Polish Crested, paces back and forth on her perch and looks bewildered by this sudden shift in footing (I think Bewildered is her middle name). All were highly suspicious. Once coaxed out with a treat, they made the leap into the unknown, and have grown accustomed to the sandy surface now. All the droppings from the night before were easily scooped up in a few minutes, and their coop was tidy again. 

And in case you wondered... Chickens do look before they leap. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Louise's Close Call

Louise, before her close encounter with Mr. Fox.

It was about 6 p.m. The sun was shining, and it was a nice summer evening. We were having dinner. The Weimaraner barked, but this was not taken seriously, since he barks at everything from butterflies to snowmen. 

But then we heard a chicken sending up a noisy alarm on the side of the house. M hopped up from the table and looked out the window.

“There’s a fox! In the yard! Chasing a chicken!”

All four of us scattered, running out of the house like it was a fire drill. (Our Dalmatian decided this was an opportune time to eat M’s sandwich. He was not concerned about the chickens. At all.)

We’d seen a fox scouting out the coop, and knew it had taken hens from nearby yards. In the backyard, Oreo was making noise, and the four young pullets were in a corner, looking worried. Violet, Pearl, Pip, and Thelma were also present and accounted for. But Louise was not. I herded the nine safe hens into the run and locked them up. M realized Wilson, the rabbit, was out hopping around, so she put him in his hutch.

The girls kept looking for Louise. I felt bad that I’d been complaining about her, but must admit that of all the hens, she was the one that I’d miss the least because she was so mean to the others. But still, I didn’t want her to come to a bad end.

Suddenly, M called out from the front yard that she’d found her. I held my breath, wondering if she was hurt, but by the time I got to the front yard, M was holding her and the hen looked sound, if a little bug eyed. “She was hiding under a bush. She’s breathing really fast,” she said.

She handed me Louise, whose feet gripped my hand tightly. No bluff and bravado from a normally cheeky hen. I carried her back to the chicken yard, opened the door and carefully put her among friends. She stood up, looked around, recovered herself and began to tell everyone all about her great escape. 

I left them to settle in, but I think I was feeling as rattled as they were. After cleaning up the dishes I went back out to check on them, and where they had been two distinct little flocks between new and old hens, they were suddenly one united group. I have heard that trauma will cause a flock to bond and pecking order to change. They all stood grouped together and even Louise—who normally pecks at Betty’s strange fluffy head—was wing-to-wing with the new hens like they were best buds. Any port in a storm.

No sign of Mr. Fox. But it looks like the hens’ free-ranging evenings are going to be curtailed sharply. K is working on enlarging their yard a bit, but until then, they’ll be sharing close quarters.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Learning with Chickens

Children feeding chickens (source).
Some time ago I came across an old article that reported on a school project that involved chickens. Reading about it made me smile.
The article appeared in “The Francis W. Parker School Studies in Education” published in 1912. The Chicago school (which still exists today) was founded in 1901, and it chronicled a school project with chickens.

The report talks about how the second grade class was given the care and feeding of a flock of chickens. I loved the lessons the teacher said the kids learned, and some of the comments the kids made.

They learned about problem solving. When they found that the bedding kept ending up in the chicken waterer (I can totally relate to THAT frustration), they set about finding ways to engineer new ones.

“The group discussed plans and made drawings,” the teacher reports. “Children went home and constructed models and these models were studied and criticized by the group. When finally a satisfactory one was chosen, the making of the article was turned over to an individual pupil.”

Problem solving 101, in second grade.

The teacher continues, mentioning students becoming more careful, kind, and orderly. 

“The class has become more trustworthy under its responsibility for the chickens’ comfort. If they forgot to open the hen house door for example the chickens had to roost in the run all night and had their combs nipped.
“We have seen heedless children acquire forethought. Many of them formed the habit of standing and turning over in their minds the number of different articles they had to gather together before they left the building for the chicken quarters.
“Children have grown keen too in the power of observing things: ‘The hen's comb was a good color today,’ one would remark.
“And best of all, the care of the chickens has introduced into our children's lives new joys. Every day is full of expectancy. And when baby chicks come the joy is supreme.”

And it turned out to be a multi-age project as well, with the fifth grade class engineering a carefully planned coop that met the needs of the hens, rooster, and their young caregivers. The students consulted poultry guides and bulletins, took a field trip to a poultry show, learned about inheritance of feather coloring, the process of moulting, the sale of eggs, and proper feed rations.

They tracked the number of eggs they collected, the amount of money they earned, and applied that information to learning subtraction, addition and story problems. Genetics, business, math, engineering, problem solving. In second grade.

And I loved the “Code” the children came up with as a governing statement:

“Our chickens have life in the city. They cannot range the fields to find food. They depend upon people. We must not let them suffer. We must never forget them. We must be trustworthy.”

Reading the report was like a step back in time, when chickens were a more accepted part of every day life. They were woven into a curriculum that presented such a wide range of rich lessons, and it’s clear these second graders were learning without realizing it.

Makes me wonder if the elementary school down the road might have room for a coop. Hm.