Posts tagged ‘backyard chickens’
I am an avid animal lover, but if you had asked me a few years back if it was possible to love a chicken (other than one on a plate drenched in lemon caper sauce) I would have said no. After all, given their reptilian feet, sharp beaks and beady eyes, what is there to love about a chicken?
All that changed in June, 2009, when our first little batch of chicks came off the mail truck. Once I cradled each of them successively in the palm of my hand, stroking their dandelion-soft down and listening to their plaintive peeping, I was a goner. Chicken love washed over me and has never abated.
Thus it is with great sadness that I must report the passing of two of my sweet hens: Lucy and Hope.
All had been well with the flock for quite awhile. We experienced unexplained losses of Lily at just six months and Amelia at a year or so and we struggled unsuccessfully to save Autumn from an internal laying condition in her second year. But lately everyone had been healthy and the hens were happily scratching about, enjoying the beginning of spring.
When you keep chickens, you become inextricably linked to their world. You notice tender shoots of grass and worms writhing in the soil. You are hyper-vigilant to the sounds of hawks. You even know the distinct voice of each of your hens and you know exactly where each hen stands in the pecking order. Hope, a Buff Orpington, was the broody mother stand-in for my second batch of chicks, and the undisputed leader of the flock. Lucy, a Speckled Sussex, was skittish and unsure, and occupied the unenviable spot at the bottom of the pecking order.
As a flock-keeper, you notice any changes in your hens’ behavior. While we were in NYC in March, both Lori and Ashleigh, who watched over things while we were away, noticed that Hope didn’t seem “quite right”. She perked up when we returned home, but still was not quite herself, although we couldn’t put a label on her symptoms other than that she wasn’t as interested in treats as usual and didn’t seem to want to take charge of her flock. She hadn’t laid since going broody last summer and molting in the fall, but at three years of age, I wasn’t sure if I should expect much in the way of eggs from her.
Then, last weekend, as we were about to leave for Newport Beach, I went into the coop and noticed that Hope had not come down from the roost that morning. When a chicken stops moving, all the alarm bells go off, and the CE rushed Hope to the vet. Dr. Sellers at the Cat and Bird Clinic was double-booked, as always, but took the time to look at Hope and called us to say that she thought it was a case of sour crop and there was a good chance that Hope would survive.
We heaved a sigh of relief and celebrated with pizza for lunch in Newport Beach. But our high spirits were short-lived.
We received a tearful call from Ashleigh on Sunday morning. She had checked on the hens first thing in the morning and all seemed well, but a bit later when she went over to the coop to let them out to free-range, she found Lucy dead on the floor of the coop.
After the first moment of shock, I immediately went to the twin fears of communicable disease or poison, given that two of my hens were affected. I asked Ashleigh to preserve Lucy’s body and she bravely ferried her to the vet on Monday morning for a necropsy. Dr. Sellers decided to send Lucy to a UC Davis facility in San Bernardino for a full work-up as she continued to try to heal Hope.
All week long we waited on news about both hens and I anxiously watched my other four for any signs of distress. They all seemed healthy, although it was clear that they were missing Hope’s leadership.
We were due to leave on another trip Thursday morning and hoped for some news on Friday. We’ve been putting in a new lawn and our underlying worry has been that something poisonous in the soil or amendments had affected the two hens and could be a threat to the remaining four.
More bad news was to come. We learned yesterday afternoon that Hope had passed away. We asked Dr. Sellers to perform a necropsy.
By day’s end, the mysteries were solved. Lucy had died of natural causes. One of her organs – either her liver or a kidney – had ruptured, probably as she jumped down from the roost in the morning – and she bled internally and died within minutes. There was nothing anyone could have done for her.
Dr. Sellers called back in the evening. She had lovingly tended Hope all week long and was probably as anxious as we were to understand what had killed her. As soon as she opened Hope up, the reason was clear: Hope had suffered from ovarian cancer that had spread to her digestive system. This explained why she had stopped laying and why she wasn’t eating. Again, there was nothing anyone could have done to save her.
We are so, so sad to lose these two beautiful girls and it grieves us to be reminded yet again how fragile hens are. A hen’s life-span is supposed to be at least five to seven years, but we have had no such luck. Hope would have been four in June and Lucy was only going to be two. Yet we are also so relieved to know that their loss was unavoidable and not due to a contagion or poison.
I know that everyone’s next question will be: are you going to get new chicks? Too soon to know. Four is such a tiny flock, but our hearts ache so right now and we wonder how many more times we can bear to say goodbye.
It’s summertime, and the living is queasy because of those relentless raptors in the sky, the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.
I used to step outside on a summer morning and revel in the tranquility of our semi-rural neighborhood. You might hear a blue jay’s hoarse cry or a mockingbird run through its repertoire, but otherwise it seemed so quiet that you could hear the trees breathe if you paid close attention.
Then we got chickens. And I learned to tune in to the cry of a hawk. And now that’s all I hear. Because currently, from dawn to the last moments of dusk, our property is patrolled by a trio of hungry hawks.
In April we saw the hawks pairing off and there were quiet weeks in May while they attended to their babies, but by the second week of June or so, they were back in action, with mama or daddy hawk showing a young one how to hunt down my chickens!
Last week I learned that the predators I have assumed to be red-tailed hawks are actually red-shouldered hawks, thanks to my dog-walker Lee, who knows her hawks. She explained that bands across the tail indicate the red-shouldered hawk, which thrives along the California coast. I think we have both species in our area, but our immediate threat displays the hunting behavior of the red-shouldered variety, which, according to Wikipedia, “…typically wait on a perch and swoop down on prey. When in clearings, they sometimes fly low to surprise prey…”
Our little flock of hens are avid free-rangers, which makes for many stressful moments throughout the day. Indeed, as I have been typing this post, I’ve had to go outside to check on the girls three times as the piercing cry of the hawk comes closer and closer. Here’s what it sounds like:
Last week one of the hawks swooped down so suddenly that by the time I could get out to the chicken yard it was already gone and instead of six chickens, I saw only five plus a small pile of feathers on the ground where Pippa should have been! Surely there would have been more noise if the hawk had gotten Pippa, I thought, but I searched and searched and could not find her. Finally, after a few heart-stopping minutes, I discovered her, frozen in fear, but well-hidden beneath the bales of pine shavings we store on a workbench near the coop.
The hawks behave with impunity, as if they know they are federally protected. Kill a hawk without a permit, and you will pay a hefty fine. It is not illegal to scare a hawk away, but they don’t scare all that easily. When I’ve found them lurking in our oaks, they’ll wait until I get fairly close before nonchalantly flapping away.
The only fail-safe way to guard chickens from hawks is to keep them securely penned or in the coop. But, of course, that’s no fun for them. The CE and I go round and round about what level of risk is acceptable: quality of life or life vs. death? Some people recommend stringing aviary netting as I discussed in a previous post, others claim that nylon fishing line or hanging shiny CD’s to frighten the hawks will do the trick. I’ve also heard that getting a dog to guard your flock is the way to go. We’ve got the dogs, but I don’t think guarding chickens or anything else is in their DNA.
If you’re lucky enough to live where you can have a rooster to guard your flock, that’s a first line of defense. Otherwise, providing ample cover for the chickens and hoping they’re smart enough to use it is key. Our girls do seem to know how to scramble when death with wings swoops down, but one false move or a straggler like Luna whose Silkie pom pom obstructs her vision, could spell tragedy in the Chicken Kingdom. For the moment, we rely on vigilance – who knew that my job description would ultimately become Human Shield for Hens?
With all due respect for T.S. Eliot, he had it all wrong. Yes, he murmured eloquently of lilacs and hyacinths, but little did he know the cruelty he escaped by not having to house-sit for us in the month of May.
(This brings up an interesting concept – if you could pick a historical celebrity to house-sit for you, who would it be?)
Friend Lori and her kids Bryson, Lauren and Chadd somehow convinced us that there was nothing they would rather do than spend half a month with our menagerie. Undaunted by the “walk-through” whereby she learned that several hours a day are spent administering to various animals’ health, well-being and grooming rituals, Lori promptly sent me an Excel document with various tabs to reflect the daily goings-on. I should have known right there and then that she was bringing her A game.
How do we get so lucky with our housesitters? Yes, there has been the occasional bad experience like the one several decades ago when I enlisted a former work acquaintance to stay a weekend with our cat (this was before we started the pet collection) and he took the opportunity to host a wild (and I suspect, drug-fueled) party, leaving the sordid detritus for us to discover upon our return. But more recently we’ve had Dave (who has actually been known to rake a carpet after vacuuming!) and Karen (patience of Job!) , Pamela (the chicken lady alter-ego!) and Kirk (who hates cats but allowed mine to sleep with him for two weeks, go figure!) and now Lori and her kids, who, by all accounts, kept the place running like a Swiss watch, despite the animals’ efforts to trip her up.
As far as we know, Lori never sat down. She walked the dogs multiple times a day, herded chickens for hours at a time, created systems all over the house, re-arranged drawers and catered to the whims of each evil feline in residence. How did the evil cats thank her? By leaving the severed head of a captured bird on the shower mat. Nice. Doesn’t it make you want to run over and house-sit for us?
Then there was the dead crow out front and the dead mouse in the chicken yard. Lovely touch, don’t you think? T.S. Eliot would have had to channel Edgar Allen Poe if he’d written The Wasteland at our house.
And for reasons that remain hidden in their tiny dinosaur brains, the chickens caused all kinds of trouble. Hope went broody on the eve of our departure, but little did she know she was up against Lori, the steely Chicken Behavior Modificator. Despite our best efforts a year ago, Hope remained broody for two months until we finally sated her with baby chicks. This time, Lori had Hope whipped back into shape and laying eggs again in a couple of weeks.
Pippa was another matter, however. Due to a disturbance in the force, or perhaps just more mean-girl activity on the nest, Pippa decided she would no longer lay her eggs in the designated nesting place. I guess you at least have to give her props for ingenuity:
We’ll probably never know all the problems our fearless friends fended off in our absence, but we are ever so grateful and eternally indebted. Thank you all so much!
In honor of Mothers Day, today we have an exclusive interview with Hope, a single mother of five adopted daughters.
Interviewer: Hope, thanks for joining us today. We understand you took on a real labor of love by adopting five little ones at one time!
Hope: Well, I’d been wanting children for quite awhile – it’s all I could think about!
I: Umm, children? But I don’t recall that you have a rooster in your coop?
Hope: Rooster? What’s a rooster?
I: Uh, well, let’s move on. What is your advice to mothers of young children?
Hope: Throw yourself into it like a – well, mother hen, while they’re little. Those babies came to me at 4 am one June morning, and by 7 am, every single one of them knew I was Mom. I kept them warm and dry. I stayed with them 24/7 – you know how it is when you’ve got little ones, you can’t even get to the bathroom, right? If I was offered treats, I just took them in my beak and gave them to the babies. When they’re little, you just have to give them 100% – they grow up so fast!
I: I see. So do they have any contact with their birth mother?
Hope: Birth mother! Hah! Some biddy on the East coast who put them in a box and mailed them? That’s not a mother, I’m their mother!
I: Point taken. So, are you a co-sleeping advocate?
Hope: It worked well when they were younger. I just fluffed myself around them and under they went. You can’t get too much closeness when they’re little. It can be a problem, though, when they’re older and they still want to sleep with you…
I: So tell us your views on parenting as they grow?
Hope: Well, you can’t coddle them forever. They’ve got to learn the ways of the world! I had them out in the yard foraging by the time they were three weeks old. They’ve got to be taught important things like which worms taste the best. Above all, they need to understand that the world is a dangerous place. There are always hawks overhead waiting to pounce!
I: I see that you managed to raise five daughters on your own without government assistance. How did you do it?
Hope: Me? Government assistance? Heavens, no. I have staff. I’ve got two rather dim humans who scurry about on my behalf. You know how hard it is to get good help, of course, but they’re serviceable and they mean well.
I: What about discipline? I hear those girls were unruly in their adolescence.
Hope: Indeed they were. I think it came from not having a father in the coop. But I did the best I could. You have to be no-nonsense when they get out of line and my personal strategy is a lot of chasing and pecking. If you peck their feet real good, they usually settle right down. And if not, I just whisper in their ears that they’re headed for the stew pot!
I: Thanks for that advice. I have to say it’s never occurred to me to peck my teenagers on the feet or threaten to turn them into dinner, but I’ll get right on that. So your girls are grown now, right? Are you an empty nester?
Hope: Empty nest? Me? Hah. With this economy? Until those jokers in Washington, D.C. get a clue I’m stuck with all five of them crowded into my two roost bars. I’d like to have more children but I’ve got these free-loading adult daughters everywhere I look.
I: More children?
H: Yes, I’ve been brooding on that for almost a week now. I’ve even taken a leave of absence from my egg-laying job while I think about it, day and night. I figure if I stay with it, those two idiot humans will finally catch on and bring me a few new babies.
I: But what about your girlish figure? Aren’t you worried about getting run down?
Hope: Friend, that’s why I’m shaped like a plus-sized bowling ball and proud of it. All this nonsense about being the skinniest is craziness. You’ve got all these women running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to look like supermodels when all you really need in this world is good moms like me.
I: I can say Amen to that since I seem to be shaped more and more like a bowling ball these days, myself…
Hope: And one last thing – I want to wish every mom out there a Happy Mothers Day. There’s no harder or more important job in the world. And just remember – if they don’t treat you right tomorrow, there’s always the stew pot!
My email inbox has been buzzing with links to yesterday’s NYT Straight From the Home Coop story. It’s a great article and includes recipes as well as anecdotes from urban and rural flock keepers. While reading it, I was reminded yet again of the mysterious and soothing effect a flock of hens has on the soul.
Those wise little feathered ladies know how to mark the rhythms of the day: rouse with the first light of dawn, preen and peck, then forage in the yard for morning bugs. After that, it’s time to get to work – there are eggs to be laid and egg songs to be sung. Loudly! More bug searches ensue and then, perhaps it’s time to find a sun-lit spot for a relaxing dirt bath. Late afternoon walkabouts to work off all the treats that have been begged that day and finally, time to cluck softly about the day’s events and meander back to the coop as the light fades into the western sky. Good work if you can get it!
Much of what I read in the article was already familiar to me – I’ve seen first hand the uptick in egg-laying as winter passes to spring and daylight hours lengthen – we’ve been spoiled with eggs of late! And I knew that the chocolate-brown eggs from Black Copper Marans like our Tulip were designated by Ian Fleming as James Bond’s favorites.
But I hadn’t heard about the Cream Legbar; a breed that sounds like a yummy confection and lays a pretty blue egg.
The venerable Greenfire Farms, which claims to be the only U.S. source of the breed, provides an informative description of the Cream Legbar’s history on their web site. Developed in England from a cross of the brown leghorn, the barred Plymouth Rock, and the South American Araucana, the Cream Leghorn combines the prolific laying ability of a Leghorn with the colorful egg of the Araucana and makes for a lovely little lady of a hen. I’m guessing the inclusion of Barred Rock makes for a more settled temperament since Leghorns are known to be flighty.
For flock keepers, in addition to the lovely eggs, a major benefit of the Cream Legbar is that they are what is known as an auto-sexing breed, meaning that the pattern and coloring of the newly-hatched chick is different in the male than the female so that the birds can be easily sexed.
I thought I had every chicken breed I wanted, and now along comes the Cream Legbar. Little Luna had better watch out – if she doesn’t decide to lay an egg pretty soon, she could find herself swapped out for better model!
I’m very happy to be back home in CA, but the city life it most definitely is not.
Take this morning, for example. The chicken coop was especially messy and I was up to my elbows in bleach and pine shavings when several of the hens decided to “help” me clean. Each time I set a section of the counter top right, Tulip or Coco or Hope started kicking and scratching and pretty soon I had to start over.
And then Tulip turned her back to me and I noticed a bigger problem. Her backside was covered with clumps and clumps of, well, you know what. Many flock keepers call their hens “fluffy butts” and the fluffier the butt, the greater the possibility of, shall we say, hygenic issues. Tulip has a very, very fluffy butt.
I grabbed the protesting Tulip and held her under one arm like a bowling ball while I searched out a plastic container and filled it with warm water. Yes, I was wearing gloves – I’m not completely crazy. She honked at me like an angry goose, but ten or fifteen minutes and several rinsings later, Tulip’s backside was a much prettier sight, while I was soaked and probably should have just committed myself to the compost pile. If you would have told me I was full of s*** at that particular moment, I would have had to completely agree.
My thanks from Tulip for all the trouble was a fierce wing flap to the face when we were finished. But I did check with other folks at backyardchickens.com and found that this is a fairly common state of affairs, especially in inclement weather. One person even volunteered that she has “spa days” for her hens where their hindquarters are bathed and then blow-dried! Now that sounds like a perfect life!
We took friends Pamela and Kirk out for dinner last night to thank them for holding down the zoo – er, fort – while we were away. They managed to find humor in the situation: Kirk was on cat box duty and said he ”raked them to look like Zen gardens” and Pamela said they adopted a “see a cat, feed a cat” motto that seemed to work out fairly well.
They trailed chickens around and chased hawks away. Dogs were walked. Gaggles of animals joined them for sleeping.
And as I heard all this played back and realized oh my gosh, this is my life they’re mirroring back to me, it occurred to me that it’s probably time to get one. A life, that is. And then I realized – it’s too late. What’s done is done; these animals are all here to stay for awhile. But I also noticed when we returned from NYC this time that Chloe is starting to show some white around her muzzle; “awhile” is not forever.
We free-ranged the chickens this afternoon and took a walk with the dogs. Tonight we’ll read with various cats snuggled up next to us while the logs crackle in the fireplace. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but somehow it seems to work for us. And as long as we have dear friends like Pamela and Kirk and Dave and Karen and Ashleigh and Paul who are
crazy enough kind enough to pinch hit while we get our city fix, all will be well. Just know that I won’t ask any of them to wash chicken heinies…
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Pamela and Kirk!
I was in LA one night recently and took Victoria out for a belated birthday dinner. Have you ever been to Mastro’s? It is probably not on Weight Watcher’s preferred list of restaurants, if they even have such a thing. Mastro’s would probably bill themselves as a steak and seafood restaurant, but in truth, they are a calorie restaurant. Calories, calories and more calories. If you’re in search of calories, Mastro’s is your place. I’m guessing even the ice water has a gazillion calories.
We ordered steaks and then shared sides and the famous (infamous) Mastro’s Butter Cake, which is accompanied by a cast iron platter of whipped cream. Enough for a party of, say, twelve. We each took home lots of leftovers.
After that bacchanal, the wine-tasting excursion with Pollo Amiga and Alexandra last weekend seemed downright sedate.
It could not have been a more beautiful day up in the Santa Ynez Valley, and we began our visit with a tasting at Zaca Mesa winery, where I picked up some very nice 2008 estate-grown Syrah. Then we had lunch at Los Olivos Cafe. which is always a treat, and stopped by another winery before heading home.
All of this is by way of NOT talking about chickens in the aftermath of losing Autumn. Thanks to all for the many kind expressions of sympathy over her loss. Cathy, who, along with Kirstie, is responsible for Soho and Chloe’s beautification rituals, surprised me one day with this little movie she took of Hope and Autumn in happier days. Such a nice memento to have, and you can see what I mean about Autumn being a “people person”.
I think of Autumn often, and especially when I do the head count, which is several times a day. Five, six…and then I am reminded there is no longer a seventh. The flock, however, seems to have adjusted to Autumn’s departure. Hope’s new right-hand hen is Tulip, and the two of them have taken a few walkabouts on their own, presumably to gossip about the shortcomings of the other four. One day I found them sun-bathing in a dirt patch near the pool; another day they were swapping secrets over on the courtyard. They have a lot to talk about!
And, wonder of wonders, Coco has decided to lay eggs again. After three months of nada, we are getting lovely light-green eggs from her again Maybe she has a Winter Break written into her contract?
With more laying activity, we get the occasional gridlock in the nesting box:
Everyone is now laying except for Hope and Luna. Hope gets a pass – she’s two-and-a-half, just finished molting and lost her sister. Luna, what in the name of all that fuzz between your ears is your excuse?
Do good hens go to Heaven? I hope so.
Autumn left us on Thursday morning, and strange as it may sound, we are grieving. For a chicken. I know what you’re thinking but please don’t say it.
It’s only a chicken.
Not quite true. Autumn was a horse of a different color when it came to being a chicken.
Even the most hard-bitten flock keeper will admit that at any given time, one or two hens wriggle their way into the humans’ hearts. In our case, Autumn made a bee-line for our affections; she was always underfoot, always looking for a cuddle (and, no doubt, a treat) and generally seemed to prefer human companionship to that of the other hens.
She was a pretty girl. Her glossy, mahogany-colored feathers were tipped in caramel. If you held her close she would make soft little clucking sounds. I think that was her way of saying she was happy.
As many of you know, Autumn was stricken with internal laying and egg yolk peritonitis last spring. This condition is generally fatal, but we kept her going with frequent vet visits and Lupron shots to suppress egg production. But new problems emerged: a few weeks ago she began to favor one leg and then could not walk or even stand.
We brought her inside and made her a little nest in the kitchen where she held forth for several days, enjoying hand-fed treats and lots of affection. She actually seemed to rally for a few days, relishing tidbits of oatmeal and cheese, and we wondered aloud how our house-sitters might react to being slaves to a house chicken.
But sometime during the night on Wednesday, the pain and dysfunction became too much for her little body. The CE found her on the floor, unable to even right herself to a sitting position. He took her in to see the vet, who said it was obvious from the cast of Autumn’s eyes that she was in pain. It was time to say goodbye.
The vet prepared an injection and the CE held Autumn in his arms and rocked her for nearly half an hour until she was gone. The vet said to him “Thank you for taking such good care of this little chicken.”
She was only two-and-a-half years old, but those were pretty darned good years for a hen. Some may think it’s silly to care so much for a pet. For a mere chicken. I almost agree. But on another level, I think that any time we care for another creature, it makes us a little bit more human in the best possible sense of the word.
Autumn is buried in a very nice spot back under the oaks where she enjoyed searching for bugs and worms. She will be missed.