Thursday, December 12, 2013

Gifts from The Flock

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This is the time of year that our thoughts turn to gifts and our minds begin to reflect on the past, isn’t it?

I want to share with you some reflections of the gifts my chickens have given me. Many of the gifts are lessons taught to me, and I’m passing these lessons along as my gifts to you.

Number One.  Chickens are cannibals.
  Well, okay, this is not so much of a gift as a warning.  When you are new to chicken keeping, it can come as a terrible shock  - when one flock member has a wound of some sort - to find the rest of the flock chasing her around trying to get a taste.  It is, however, what chickens do.  The solution (and here’s your gift) is to watch your chickens carefully, and if there’s an injury, treat it immediately.  If the picking continues, or the injury is deep or extensive, you will want to isolate the injured bird until the wound has healed. Being pecked to death by chickens truly does happen.
  This time of year, if you live in the cold parts of the country, you may find chickens have some black spots of frostbite on their combs.  Watch these spots, because they can “weep” and draw the attention of the next bird on the roost.  Just covering the area with petroleum jelly (or I’ve even used Bag Balm) can help keep inquiring beaks away from the spot while it heals. 

Number Two. Requirements for bedding can change with the season, but it’s never good to have the bedding wet.
  In the summer, when my flock spends every waking moment outside, a light layer of flake shavings covers the floor of the hencoop.  This litter is absorbent and easily raked or replaced when necessary.  As the weather cools down and chilly northern breezes whip around the corners, I add straw on top of the base layer of shavings. The chickens love to scratch through the straw, finding stray seeds and grain.  As the straw packs down, I will fork through it, turning it every few days and adding more as necessary.  The litter nearest the floor becomes crumbly and begins to decompose - even more fun for the chickens to pick through.  This composting also helps a bit to keep the coop warmer in the winter, and the additional straw keeps the process moving along and helps keeps the coop smelling pretty nice!
  Unless the water jug spills.  A wet floor in the summer can cause mold and mildew; a wet floor in the winter also creates a good base for pathogens to grow, and just seems to make the winter coop feel colder.  If water spills in your coop, rake it up as best as possible, and if necessary, remove the soaked litter and bedding and replace with fresh.

Number Three.  Chickens speak a language of their own, and if you listen carefully, you can interpret it.
  I like to eavesdrop in the coop or yard when the chickens are clucking quietly to each other.  It makes me think they are just comparing notes and morning gossip.    
Occasionally, a special tidbit might be found, and there’s much exclamation over that (“Look, Mavis! A June bug!”), with others running to see as well.  If it’s something stretchy they’ve found—like a worm—the resulting hen cantering around the yard with a troop jogging behind is worth a smile, if not a giggle.
  The “egg song” sung from a nest box is loud enough for me to hear while I’m working in the garden.  The announcement of a day’s labor accomplished is hard to describe, but once heard, memorable.
  I like to listen to the little “huffs” and “purrs” of the hens as they settle in for the night, too. 
  Clucks of alarm are easily identified, too. Usually the loudest squawks are caused by the silliest reasons, I’ve discovered. (“Oh MY! Someone has knocked over the feeder and now it looks so different! Oh MY! Oh MY! Help! Help!”)  If a predator has entered the coop or run, you will hear henny shrieks of terror, too.  Check your chickens when you hear cries of alarm.  It might be silly—but maybe not.
  A group of silent, still chickens can be an indicator of an aerial predator, by the way.  No noise at all is not good, either.
  As you watch your flock and learn about them, you will be able to interpret much of what they are communicating.  You may even want to try talking back to them.

Number Four.  Roosters don’t just crow in the morning. 
  Although that’s ONE of the times they will make their presence known. 
Roosters will crow when they are disturbed, alarmed, or threatened.  I’ve learned that a four-year-old boy can appear threatening to a rooster, by the way. 
  I think roosters crow just for the fun of it, too.
  You can also try crowing back to a rooster, and that quite often works.

Number Five.  It’s not a good thing to introduce new chickens to a flock without a period of adjustment. 
  If you put the new chickens in a wire cage, in the coop, and leave them there over two nights, you should have no introduction problems. We use our old metal dog crate. 

  We’ve also used our wire summerhouse—the chicken tractor—to acquaint young chickens with the outdoors at the same time.  We pull the summerhouse right up next to the hen yard, and it’s not long before they are pecking alongside the adult birds.
Number Six.  A “mother hen” takes her job seriously, and it’s a long-term investment.  We’ve had setting hens sit on a nest for more than two months - just waiting, rarely eating, a haven of safety for their precious eggs.
  Once the eggs have hatched, mother hens try to teach their chicks all they need to know. Day old chicks can recognize clucks for “Come! Let’s eat!”, “Hold perfectly still until I determine if there’s danger”, “Snuggle here under my wing”, and various others.  As the chicks grow and their horizons expand, the mother hen appears to worry more and more about them.  There are special little anxious clucks for that.  In my experience, even when the chicks are really too large to cuddle under their mother, though, they will snuggle up next to her in the hen coop for security at night.
Number Seven.  Chickens, to a point, will choose good and necessary food for themselves.
  Oyster shell, for example, is an important part of my laying hens’ diet, and I see them scooping it up from the self-feeder often.  I’ve never seen a rooster or a pullet going near the feeder.  Grit, on the other hand, is also offered at a self-feeder in my coop, and all the chickens take advantage of it. 

Occasionally, a few tomato leaves or onion peels are tossed into the hen yard along with scraps from the kitchen.  Everything else will be eaten, except these things—which aren’t good for chickens.  I try to be very vigilant and careful, but when things slip through, the chickens become picky.

Number Eight.  There really is a pecking order. 
 It’s most evident in the chicken yard when a treat is brought in.  Not long ago, for example, I emptied a bag of raked leaves into the yard.  The Alpha Chicken, a Rhode Island Red, was the first to poke at the leaves.  Once she had determined they were safe, the rest of the hens moved in.  The last to have a chance—and not until the leaves were scattered throughout the pen—were the three young chickens and their watchful mother.
 It shows up on the night roosts, too.  The best spot (apparently) for roosting is at the top of the four cross rows, in the center, in front of the window.  Usually the same hen will have that spot, and woe to the lady that tries to take it away from her.

  Our most recently added chickens have begun moving up the roosts, I’ve noticed.  One of the youngsters is a rooster, and just this week, he’s taken top row center. 

As I continue reflecting, I realize that unless you do not yet have chickens, you are very aware of these lessons and observations.  I’d like to know, then, just what gifts have you received from your own flock?  What could you add?  What have you learned?

Happy Holidays from our coop to yours!


  1. Thank you. I haven't had chickens in years, and it brought back alot of memories. Hope to have them again soon. I enjoyed it very much.

    1. Yup, all very true! I love to listen to my flock "gossip". If I am working in the garden, one usually comes and watches and calls all the others over if I am turning over dirt! WORMS!!! Then I just step out of the day I had three chicken butts sticking out of a hole that I was digging for a tree I wanted to plant. And until they declared it "clean", did they come out!!! I often just sit in a lawn chair with a few treats and listen to the "talk" of the flock.

  2. Awesome read. We will start our 1st flock in the spring of 2014 with our chicks arriving the week of 4/9/14. I've read several of your points before and learned a few new ones - thanks for writing the list of "gifts" :) ~Sam

  3. #3 Silence among chickens is not always golden. That's why I keep guineas with my chickens. The guineas will make plenty of noise for the chickens when aerial predators loom while their more demure cousins flock under bushes and stare at the sky. Enjoyed your perspective very much.

  4. I agree with sam3abq, Awesome read! I have chickens and #1 is a problem for me. I have 3 chickens with some bald spots and I will try the petroleum jelly. Thanks for all the good advice.
    Out of all of the Community Chicken article writers, you are the best one. I have taken you advice on several occasions with great results on chicken care and gardening.
    Thanks Meredith,
    Paula from Louisiana

  5. I have had chickens almost four years now, and I have learned much from all my babies. Unfortunately, the dreaded EYP has taken two of my ladies, and the neighbors' anklebiting dogs took out my beloved Rooster and two more hens (dogs were small enough to sneak through my fence). My absolute favorite hen, Diva, was the first to go from an unknown illness. We believe it was due to the cold. I have learned as I've gone along...and still learn with each chicken I add to my flock. I will be adding to my flock this Easter, and will continue to grow my feathered family. I cannot imagine my life without them!

  6. Excellent article! Great advice for those just starting out. The only other thing I would offer is not to be too hard on yourself if you lose a bird. If the birds have all they need, and you've paid attention to their safety and feeding concerns, and you still lose one, it's just the nature of the business. Think instead of how great a life that bird had with you, and try to learn something from every experience. I've met people who've raised chickens for fifty years tell me they are still learning. I've had them for going on ten years, and I can say for sure that I'll never know all there is to know! But I'm thankful every day that I live somewhere that I can have them, and for the people I've met because of them.

    1. That's a great point, Mary. You are absolutely right…even if you've done everything "right"..sometimes it just happens. And you're right again when you say no matter how long you have them, you can always learn! Thanks for commenting.

  7. You forgot to mention a hen party. Now there is conversation. Really funny to watch.

  8. I'm having a terrible time with my chickens pulling each other's feathers out and pecking on the spots. Have tried bag balm, other creams and scents like cloves. Anyone have any ideas?

    1. Blue Lotion at the pet supply store in vet care area.....treat the areas with this and keep it covered as long as needed till healed or ignored by the others. Mine leave each other alone as long as I keep the bald or injured areas painted with it. It's like an iodine solution similar med only blue/purple. DON"T get it on you or clothing or you'll be a pretty shade of blue/purple though lol......yep, been there, done that.

    2. Thanks a lot. I'll get some of the blue lotion and try it but how do I keep the bald spots covered or do you mean covering it with the blue lotion?

    3. If you do not have time or a cage set up you will do fine to introduce new birds (or re introduce a bird who has been absent) at night. Place the bird into the coop once all are asleep. By Morning there is very little issue. 25 years of raising poultry and this has always worked for me.

    4. Blue Kote found at TSC and some feed stores it turns the wound or bare spot purple and covers it up, makes the others less likely to peck at it. It works. Just be sure to wear somekind of gloves and old clothes when using because anything it touches turns purple.

    5. When I got my girls last May, I noticed the farmer had clipped their beaks. I wished he had not, but took them anyway. He said by doing that, they cannot peck at each other. They still manage to find good bugs and worms when I let them free range, so I guess it wasn't so bad. AND, they don't peck at each other.

  9. Thanks to Mary H for commenting on the loss of your birds. I really enjoy and get a kick out of my girls and even have a swing set up near the run so I can sit and watch them. But I occasionally lose a bird and get so frustrated wanting to know why!! I feed them well, plenty of fresh water, kitchen scraps and a secure coop and run and will find one dead or one not doing well only to die a couple of days later. I have come to the conclusion it is just part of keeping chickens! Thanks for the great article.

  10. We have Plymouth Barred Rock chickens and these hens are enormous. Biggest chickens I've ever seen. They are fun to be around also. My wife and I were UN-prepared to have chickens until 1 day our granddaughters guy friends from high school came over and built this chicken coop and gave her 5 chickens, heat lamp, bedding, and 50lb bag of feed for the chicks. The rest is history and those 5 chicks grew to be some pretty big birds. They have been giving us big brown eggs. Winter now and they've slowed up a tad. I have yet to put a light in the coop to promote more egg laying. I am thankful for those Black chickens with White spots.

    1. It is said that putting in a artificial light to help them produce more eggs in winter create stress on the chickens and may cause them to live a shorter life. Not to mention you have to be very careful not to burn the chickens or possible cause a coop fire (electrical short, knocked over lamp into bedding). If I chose to put in light, which I don't, I would highly suggest a LED Light. Low voltage (battery), low heat, and long life. Just food for thought (no pun intended lol)

  11. great and interesting article. they are funny to watch, very funny. I enjoy it/.

  12. I put a mirror in my coop, also a feed block for them and the 3 girls I have panic. They wouldn't come to the fenced in area with the mirror for days. I had to remove it. When the mirror was first put in they came running towards me like a car in the INDY 500. The leader saw her reflection and jumped up like 6 feet and hit the roof of the long run way that they were in and ran the other way just as fast taking the other two checks with her. Funniest thing I seen in my life. Anyways, wanted to say great article and the chickens taught me that they can get bored in winter time (no bugs or new leaves) so try to find things to keep them busy and so they stay happy. Find them some freshly pulled weeds or worms.... even freeze dried worms, keeps them happy.

  13. That was the funniest thing I've read in a long time! I haven't had chickens yet. My husband and I were going to try it earlier this year, but I lost him in June. We had moved recently to 5 acres in "Cow Country" and brought an old kitchen with us that I had wanted to put in our old house, but it never happened. When we moved, I asked my honey if he could build me a hen house on wheels if we tore the cabinets apart. He said he would try but unfortunately it didn't happen. I have just received a few books about how to build a chicken coop and I'll try to do it myself, God willing! I'm really looking forward to having much banter and great eggs.
    Thanks again for the great info!
    Virginia P.


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