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!