The Days of Our Lives with The Combed and the Feathered

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We definitely have a pet chicken now.  She arrives at the camper early in the morning, shortly after the flock finishes their breakfast, and more or less stays all day.  She stays under the camper when it rains, roams in the surrounding woods when it’s clear, and keeps an ear open for any comings and goings from the camper, upon which she will appear out of nowhere to lurk, staring up with her downturned beak/mouth perpetual chicken grimace.  She happily eats of my hand, and if I put out a dirty pot or bowl, she’ll clean off any grains or vegetable remains (impressively well, considering she has no tongue), tapping out “chicken morse code”.  We’ve deterred any other hens from hanging around our camper by chasing them back when they occasionally follow her out.
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We’ve named her Friendly.  The alternatives were Low Chicken and Baldy, because of her receding featherline.  She’s bald to behind her ears because of being pecked on. Both options were rather unflattering so we went with some positive branding.  She may be low, but she’s smart and independent.  All the red full-size chickens are too look-alike to name, except for their feather patterns.  There’s bald Friendly and Naked, the molter.

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When her feathers return we’ll have no way of telling her apart.  All of the chickens have unique saw-tooth patterns in their combs, but I am just not dedicated enough to memorize comb variations so they can have names.  They only get dubbed according to their difference.  There’s one with more white than the others (Whitetail), and for many days there was a chicken with one feather persistently sticking out at an angle (Wears One Feather Askew).  Then three other chickens took up the fashion all at once and there was now more telling them apart.

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Personally, I love the patter of chicken feet, but when all nine of them are hopefully shadowing my every move, back and forth, back and forth, it’s easy to feel mobbed.  They curiously get in the thick of everything we’re doing, climbing in the trailer or on our tools and wood, or sampling the sawdust when we’re building.  I can’t think of any good reason why eating (fresh, local, wildcrafted) sawdust would be bad for them, but it makes no sense why they want to eat it. Yet they do, enthusiastically.

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H.W. gets upset with “them all crowded around, staring at me”, and threatens to throw his hat at them.  His hat-throwing has made such an impression that he no longer has to throw headgear, just give it a cowboy swoosh over his head, and instantly the chickens turn as one and flee.  Not the hat!!!  Hilarious, and effective.

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Oh, were you working here?

H.W. wants to put anklets on them some night.  I know there are two hens that prefer to be on their own and hang out down along the driveway where it’s shady and kind of swampy.  Often when I feed the flock an evening snack there’s only 7, including Friendly, and I always find two more lingering halfway down the driveway.  There seem to be two that are always near the rooster.

Updates:

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Naked is growing feathers again, and just in time.  It’s getting cold.  She got worse before she got better, though, losing so many feathers she was just a mostly white fluffball of under-feathers, looking miserable on rainy days.

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Naked regrowing, so fast!  Good thing, it’s just in time.  She’s been hanging around a lot lately with her shoulders around her ears, so it’s a good job her feathers are coming back. Now she is only Nearly Naked, and soon will be namelessly indistinguishable from the flock.

First potato

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I was digging with my hands hoping for enough young potatoes for a meal, and this big one came up!  A little bit on the creative side, but a nice healthy potato.

The potatoes, beans, strawberries, and cucumbers are all thriving this year on the unamended soil we dug in the spring.  The greens, beets and carrots are best not mentioned.  Next year, we will probably plant only the former crops in the new-dug beds, and the latter and anything else finicky in this year’s beds, which will have had some building/amendment.

The cucumbers are just out of hand, like zucchini
The cucumbers are just out of hand, like zucchini

Broody hen embroilments

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Robin the red hen setting, on the floor next to the nest so carefully prepared for her.

The little red hen was settled down on the coop floor again, clearly broody, so I got busy.  I made her a cardboard broody box that fits in a third of the Silkie coop, full of grass and supplied with food and water.  There’s a slightly elevated but shallow next box that I’ll put her and the eggs in.  There’s room for her to get off and eat.

Egg roulette
What eggs to put under her?  Hoping hard that I got a couple of eggs from the poor black hen, I chose six eggs to put under her, including two of the original three she was setting on, which I assume are her own, also which are possibly non-viable, if she was on them long enough to quicken.  All are labelled with their possibilities.  The likelihood is practically an algorithm, but there’s a chance of 1-3 from the black hen, 2-4 from the red hen, and 2-5 from the white hen.  Overall there’s a good possibility of 4 chicks.  If she hatches one chick, I’ll be thrilled.

In the night I set her onto her clutch.  Exciting! When I lifted her up I felt another egg under my fingertips in her belly feathers; I moved it with her.  I’m not entirely sure now how many eggs are under her.   In the morning she hadn’t budged.  She’s deep in broody chicken trance, motionless and flattened out wide over her eggs.  Yay!  The end of August is late in the year but I think still ok.  I wanted these Silkies for their broodiness, and now, they deliver!

Oh no!  In the afternoon I looked and she was settled down on the floor of her box in front of her food.  No!  I’ve read they can have a hard time finding the right nest to get back into- hence the isolation of the broody box.   Not only that, but she’d brought some of the eggs over with her, leaving three behind.  The three left were still warm, so I just lifted her with the eggs she was holding and put her back on the others through some mild protestation.  Her belly was hot!  It seemed bare, too, like her feathers were pulled out or else spread out, so her skin was directly on her eggs.  Now I worry.  Does she know better than I do what eggs she should be setting on, what eggs are viable?  Should I not be adjusting her?

After two days on all the eggs I come back to look at her in the afternoon and she’s back on the floor of her broody box, and this time she’s brought all but one egg with her.  (H.W. is again heartily wishing for a chicken cam.  “They have no hands!?”).  Hmm, she doesn’t seem very good at this.  Fine, she wants to stay there.  I check the egg she left behind and it’s cool.  Sadly, it’s marked as possibly one of the black hens.  I don’t remove it then for some reason, thinking I’ll wait until the evening to further disturb her- I have to feed and water her in the night anyways.  At night I go to minister to her and she’s collected that last egg out of the nest and put it under her!!  Good possibility now that three eggs have been killed by cooling, but she’s in charge, and I’m trying not to meddle.
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The white hen has simultaneously gone broody, bedding down in the floor of the main coop where the red hen did at first.  Her I’m going to leave completely to her own devices.  I don’t know how many eggs she’s on, but they must all be her own.  There’s only the two hens now so they don’t need another separate compartment.  I caught the cock sitting in a nesting box, presumably watching over his broody hens, solving the mystery of who’s been leaving feathers in the nesting boxes.  The hens don’t use them, always laying on the coop floor.

The rooster has been crowing a great deal more, and even going on adventures.  H.W. thinks because he’s awfully bored now.  There’s nothing for him to do with two hens setting.  He even ventured around the field, got in a fight with the big rooster, lost and retreated, got lost, hid under the house, and H.W. had to fish him out and catch him to return him to his domain, knowing I wouldn’t take it well if I came home and another Silkie was lost due to negligence.  He figured Snowball had nothing to take care of on the home front so he came across the field to “regulate” over there.

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Silkie rampage

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Our beta Silkie rooster has started to exhibit some bad behaviour.  Besides interfering with mating, understandable, I’ve recently seen him a few times pecking on the hens!  Not ok!  I understand he’s frustrated, but bad behaviour is a one way ticket to either the soup pot or Kijiji. He was also making a stab at crowing.  It was an awful, pathetic, gargling (cocks figuring out how to crow are hilarious), but the prospect of three yelling roosters was sobering, and H.W. was threatening to “give him to nice farm”.  I’m sure he’d make a good, happy alpha rooster if he got to have flock of his own, beta cocks usually do, so I put him up on Kijiji to give away.  Since we are now down two hens it’s kind of urgent; the little white hen shouldn’t have to put up with two roosters each three times her size.

Someone made an appointment to come get him, but that very afternoon we were out by the Silkie coop:  H.W. was just commenting that he hadn’t seen the beta rooster do anything bad when I caught him in the act.  He got a beakful of the little white hen and she started squealing and struggling.  I threw my hat at him, cursing, and he released her and ran away.  I chased him a few steps, and then H.W. said “here comes the other rooster!”. From behind me the alpha rooster streaked past, taking up the cause, running and pecking and squawking.

It was awe-inspiring.  We watched the two of them running off into the woods, hollering and shrieking, as far as we could see, while H.W. narrated. “Yeah!  What she said!  Dirtbag!”  And then “They’re deep out there, I’m not sure you’re going to have a rooster to give away tonight.”  Our Silkies aren’t known for venturing far from the coop, and are for getting lost when they do, so I figured I’d have to go after them.  I circled out into the woods to get behind them.  The alpha rooster was already back with his hen, her honour defended, but the beta was, predictably, wandering, and I chased him back towards the coop.  Who did I unexpectedly run into out in the woods though?  Fearless Friendly!  She sure gets around.

The beta rooster got given away that night to a new flockster with a few (full-size) laying hens.  H.W. skeptically predicted “they’re gonna laugh at him!”  I’m told they are doing just fine.  It’s either the shock of his life or all his dreams come true.  Or both.

Tragedy/Hope

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Today the dog chewed his leash and killed the small black Silkie hen.  I was away working and H.W. left him unattended for barely a moment.

Of course I felt horrible.  We introduced a predator to the farm and then failed to protect our tiny, vulnerable charges.  They have a house secure enough for wild animals, and they’re attacked by a domestic one.  Naturally the dog got “tuned” for his crime, but it’s his nature to hunt, our responsibility to train him otherwise.  And a little fluffy innocent life is gone because of a mistake.
I’ve ordered a poultry net to put around the Silkies; it can’t arrive fast enough.

Same day, the red hen went broody, and I broke her up by accident!  I thought she might be hurt, crouched unusually on the floor of the coop, and I stroked her.  She jumped up with a peep revealing three hot eggs she’d been on, and when I checked later she was on the roost, not on her eggs.

 

Coop Management

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In addition to the chicken making mulch cycle, I have a coop bedding strategy that works really well for me, and takes next to no time.  The birds are in a pretty small coop, and they sleep all clustered together, so the night’s prodigious pooping gets concentrated.
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The birds like to perch to sleep on the edge of the nesting boxes, and depending on which way they point, they might poop in the box.  They avoid laying in the dirty boxes, but rarely foul more than one a night.

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Every day when I collect eggs I toss any poop or soiled nest box bedding onto the main floor, and that tends to cover the night’s mess.  If they get low I put in a couple handfuls of new grass, ripped from the ground nearby.  Easy.  Clean feet means clean eggs, so it’s important to keep the coop well-tended so the birds aren’t wading through their own poop on the way to the box.

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Every few days, I cut down some of the tall field weeds (a few seconds with the scythe), and pile it in on the floor of the coop into a soft, clean, green springy bed.  It smells wonderful, especially if I get a stray sprig of mint.  Any handfuls of finer stuff will top up the nest boxes.

The bedding weeds dry out and shrivel up, becoming a poop and carbon lasagna.

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Periodically, like once a month, I take out the whole black composting floor mat and take it to the garden in the wheelbarrow.  It’s so mat-like I can practically roll it up.  Anything remaining falls through the mesh that forms the floor of the coop.  I add a layer of fresh green weeds and begin again.

To recap, I put clean grass into the nest boxes and  throw dirty nest box grass onto the floor of the coop, covering the daily poop.  Every week I put a serious thick layer of fresh weeds that really spruces it up in there.  Monthly I remove the composting result to the garden.

clean Silkie coop
clean Silkie coop

I’m not sure what we’ll keep it going with in the winter.  Perhaps I’ll just scythe down half the field before the snow flies.  True deep bedding method means allowing the bedding to compost for months and shovelling it out in the spring.  The bedding generates heat through decomposition, which is not a summer concern.  My adaptation is just a super easy way of keeping the coop clean.

Chickens Make Mulch

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Yeah, we do. We made this!

Since our laying chickens get to roam wild and free wherever they want, we are hardly putting them to work in every way we could.  Sure, they make manure compost and lay eggs, but we haven’t asked them to kill sod for garden beds, or put them in a tractor for deliberate fertilizing.  They make mulch for me, though.

Before
Before
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During

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After (two feedings)
After (two feedings)

All I have to do is feed them twice in the same place, by scattering their breakfast grain in a grassy place.  They are so vigorously committed to finding every last crumb that they tear up the grass, it dries, and I collect it with a rake.  Clean, soft, dry garden-ready mulch.  Maybe with a little bit of bonus chicken poop.  Could not be easier.

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Chicken approved