The Chicken Chronicle
The mis-adventures of a backyard chicken wrangler

I'm Back but the Hens Never Left (except Lucy)

6:31 PM
I fear I may have committed a "blogger sin": I haven't posted anything in 4 months!


This is probably bad, especially when you are starting a new blog and you realize that you actually have a few followers. Mea culpa.


OK, here's an interesting thing that I JUST learned (when checking the web for the correct spelling of mea culpa): the slang term (which I am not fond of), "my bad", is the literal English translation of mea culpa. Let's all try to sound more erudite and stick to Latin, shall we?


So what has occupied my time and attention these last few months, you ask? The short answer is that I decided to buy a horse. After nearly 30 years away from horses, I realized that I am a "grown-up" and I can actually fulfill my childhood dream of owning my own horse. I have had Foxy for a month now and am thoroughly enjoying what has become very much of a part-time occupation caring for, riding, outfitting, and learning about horses. I will have a lot to say about my equine mid-life crisis on my new blog that I am creating called: Hippie Horse. More on that later, this blog is dedicated to chickens.


I guess I will talk about Lucy. I did loose this beautiful Welsummer during my horse haze period. She developed bumblefoot, which is a terrible infection under the pad of her foot -- probably from stepping on something sharp (like a stray wire from the bottom of the hutch) that must have penetrated the skin. I spent a month treating her foot by placing her on oral antibiotics, and doing regular surgery on the foot to remove the bad tissues. I had to cut the pad and dig out hardened yellow-white patches of infection from under the pad with tweezers. Then I used a topical antibiotic on the wound and wrapped it with gauze. The foot was actually making progress in the positive direction, but in the meantime she developed a severe infection in her body cavity. She was extremely heavy with fluid, yet was not eating. She also was turning purple in her face and gasping for air. It was heart-wrenching to see her go through this torture. I decided that I needed to end her suffering myself, but how to do it was a difficult decision. I still don't know if I picked the best method, but it was the only one I was able to execute myself, not having the stomach to break her neck or chop her head off. I drowned her in a bucket of water and wept through the whole thing. Even though this was a few months ago, I still find it hard to form the experience into words.


Lucy was a chicken that my good friend, Jim Dennis, raised for me until she had enough feathers to be outside. She laid the most beautiful terra cotta colored eggs (which my two current Welsummers do not), she was the most friendly chicken in town, and a little too proud of every other hen's eggs (she would tell the world every time someone laid an egg, and with 19 chickens, that's a lot of squawking). We will really miss Lucy. (photo: NannyPs Hens)
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A Few Things I've Learned About Egg-Laying

9:30 AM

I read one time that there are only two shell colors: white and blue. What about brown eggs, you ask? According to what I've learned, some birds deposit a brown pigment on the shells as the egg is being laid. Thus turning white shells varying shades of beige to chocolate, and blue shells to green and khaki. This also explains occasional spots, speckles, and color fades. The brown pigment is laid on darker when the bird begins to lay again after molt, and fades toward the end of their egg-laying cycle (before they are ready to molt again).

These are the eggs I collected yesterday. For the most part, I know which egg came from which chicken. Having a variety of breeds helps to differentiate the eggs. I've been known to quietly stalk my hens, waiting for them to finish their business in the nesting box. I've also had the privilege of watching eggs come out. One time my son and I watched Lupe (our first Barred Rock) lay an egg and we promptly ran to the kitchen to fry and eat it. Talk about fresh!



I am always amazed by the effort it takes to lay an egg -- like delivering a baby every day. Can you imagine? No wonder they proudly crow to announce their accomplishment to all within earshot. Sometimes they feel the egg pushing its way out, but are prevented from using the nesting box due to their lower status in the pecking order. No matter if you have 3 or 23 hens in your backyard, they will all share the same 1 or 2 nesting spots, and the order in which a hen is permitted to use the nest is predetermined by her pecking order. This is done instinctively to facilitate incubation (more on that in a minute). Of course, if the top girls don't have to go or aren't paying attention, someone may sneak in, out of turn. However, it seems to take 10-20 minutes of meditation and pushing to get the egg out, and I've seen some hens violently pushed off the nest once their subterfuge is exposed, under a barrage of head-pecks and the threat of pulled feathers. If they are very close to laying, they may try to bury their head in the corner and weather the attack. It depends on the persistence of the superior hen. This is why backyard chicken wranglers may occasionally find an egg on the ground outside the nest.

In the chicken world, it takes an individual to raise a village. The hens will all deposit their eggs in the same nest and once there is a decent collection of eggs (4+) for a few days, one of the more maternally-minded hens may be triggered into broodiness. This means that she will stop laying her own eggs and be overtaken by an overwhelming desire to sit on the eggs night and day. She usually won't begin to lay eggs again until after the chicks hatch (21 days) and they are about 6 weeks old. Some breeds are more inclined toward broodiness than others. If you have broody breeds, this is one reason it's very important to collect the eggs regularly.


I have one hen, a Dominique named Chica-Mara-Choo-Choo (my kids named her), who is an excellent mother and loves to sit on eggs. She may go off the nest for 10 to 15 minutes only twice a day to eat, drink, poop, and take a quick dust bath and then she rushes back to her eggs. While she's off the nest, the other hens are quick to lay some more eggs in the nest for incubation with the rest. (This is typically the point where there is some breakage, as some hens scratch around roughly trying to get positioned.) Sometimes they will even cozy in next to her while she's sitting and after they deposit their egg, the broody hen will slip in under her warm breast for safekeeping. Once the chicks hatch, it doesn't matter who laid the egg, they all belong to the girl that put the effort into nurturing them.
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Rainy Days

8:37 PM
It's been raining in Phoenix for three days solid and tomorrow's forcast is for more of the same. Flights are cancelled at the airport, interstate highways are closed, and some roads are so flooded that certain schools will be closed tomorrow. It's so rainy that my dog wouldn't go outside and pooped next to the toilet in the bathroom.

I spent some time with the girls today to find out how they were dealing with the rain. The ground in the chicken run is flooded and earth worms by the 100s are sacrificing their lives to escape the soggy and suffocating depths of their burrows for a breath of fresh air. Good to know that I have such healthy soil, but I'm kind of bummed that the girls are eating all the worms.

I noticed that some girls stayed dry as they waited  for a pause in the downpour before going in search of food. Others happily passed the day forraging for worms until they were soaked to the bone.

As I was snapping a few pictures, Chica-Mara-Choochoo (my Dominique) jumped down onto the ramp and plotzed -- legs sprawling -- on what I'm calling her "egg belly". It was a pretty hard landing and I drew in a quick breath upon hearing the thud, but she walked away, seemingly unfazed.

She layed an egg today in the shape of a jelly bean. You can clearly see a circular flattened imprint of her fall on the egg shell. What seems to me to be the strangest thing of all is that I happened to witness this event and I now know exactly why I found a strangely-shaped egg. I think this is conclusive proof that if a tree falls in the woods and there is nobody there to hear it, it DOES nonetheless make a sound. It seems like there is a life's lesson in there somewhere too . . . your work doesn't have to be noticed to someday make a mark.

"The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit." --Nelson Henderson
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Roundworm in Chickens

3:53 PM
So . . . here is another very gross subject, but a very important heads-up for any backyard chicken wrangler -- roundworm (Ascaridia spp.). Roundworm is a common problem for free-range flocks, as it is picked up from the ground, including consumption of earthworms (or so I've read). The adult worm lives in the intestine where it lays large numbers of eggs which are excreted in the birds’ droppings. The roundworm eggs are then transmitted throughout the flock as the chickens scratch for food. Apparently roundworm eggs can remain viable on the ground for very long periods, particularly in damp, shaded areas.


My story is that one morning after letting the girls out of their hutches, I turned around to find a pile of wormy poop that looked very much like the picture (photo by smiler43 at http://www.chat.allotment.org.uk/index.php?topic=17568.0). Once you have found a pile of wormy poop like this, it is safe to assume that your entire flock is infested. Roundworm will likely always be present, but it should be managed because, left unchecked, the worms can cause lower egg production, thinner shells, they can block the digestive tract of the bird, and can migrate from the digestive tract to the reproductive tract and could be found inside the eggs, particularly if the shells are thin-walled. Here are some recommendations for managing roundworm parasite:
  • Regularly apply food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) in foraging areas. DE is the fossilized skeletons of microscopic aquatic organisms. The theory is that the DE will abrade the surface of roundworm eggs and hopefully kill them.
  • For one week each month, spike their water with raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar (ACV) with the 'mother'. I purchased Braggs ACV at my local healthy food market. ACV contains vitamins, minerals and trace elements. It will help to lower the pH level in the digestive tract, creating a more hostile environment for harmful pathogens. Apparently it will also facilitate removal of mucous, which may be beneficial in fighting common respiratory illnesses by clearing their airways. According to this article on poultrykeeper.com, "due to the acid content of ACV, it is an antiseptic. As well as killing germs, it is also a mild antibiotic as well, (that is, it contains bacteria that destroy infectious organisms)." While ACV may not directly increase egg production, a hen with a healthy digestive system and that is free of respiratory illness is bound to be a happy hen (thus performing better). Poultry Keeper advises that ACV should be added to their drinking water at a 2% dilution, in other words 20ml per liter (I calculate this to be 5T/gallon). I hope chickens can't taste, because this seems awfully vinegary! The first time I used ACV, I forgot that it is corrosive to metal and I ruined my $35 automatic water bowl, so remember to use only plastic water containers. Poultry Keeper recommends 0.5% solution (5ml/l or 1+T/gallon) for chicks and growers.
  • For three consecutive days each month, help your girls purge their worms by feeding Verm-X. It can be ordered online from Verm-X USA. It comes in pellet and liquid form. Verm-X is a natural control of intestinal parasites and contains herbs like garlic, slippery elm, cinnamon, cayenne, quassia, thyme, and peppermint. I have not yet tried the liquid (which you add to drinking water), but I think it may be easier to administer than the pellets. In order to entice the girls to eat the Verm-X, I have had to concoct "Chicken Smoothies" to mask the pellets with a tasty treat. I make the Chicken Smoothie by blending the required dosage of Verm-X with pine nuts or pumpkin seeds (which apparently immobilize the worms), buttermilk or yogurt, and whatever egg shells and kitchen scraps I've been saving to feed the hens. By the end of the day the Chicken Smoothie is gone, but I don't advise hanging around to watch them eat, as they tend to shake the excess off their bills and all over your legs!
A note about Wazine: It appears that many people use Wazine to worm their birds 2-4 times per year. Wazine will kill the intestinal parasites, but it is not labeled for use in egg-producing chickens. I contacted the company and asked about this, since it is labeled for meat poultry. They told me that it is because the product has not been approved by the FDA for egg poultry. I also realized that a chemical treatment of any type would probably be a little hard on the birds, and it wasn't necessary since they would immediately re-infect themselves when allowed to forage and scratch on the ground. I therefore opted for regular use of the Verm-X, as it is more of a control approach than an intermittent eradication approach with the Wazine. I do have some Wazine on hand and have used it once for a hen that I suspected was badly infected with worms. If you use Wazine, a two-week withholding period for the eggs is widely recommended. There is no withholding required when using Verm-X.

While researching this topic I found a great pictorial reference of chicken poop from healthy and sick birds. The Chickenkeeper's Guide to Poo is provided by Allotment and Vegetable Gardening. This is a handy reference you'll want to file away somewhere.

UPDATE: After three days of Verm-X, I've seen some very small worms in a fresh output of diarrhea -- noted as a squirming movement upon close and immediate observation. After reading this post on BYC Forum by ThreeHorses, I've decided that I agree with the contention that if you are noticing roundworm in the feces, you are at the point of a full-blown infestation in your entire flock and that Wazine treatment (yes, throw away eggs for 2 weeks following) is warranted, followed by ongoing management.

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Poultry Lice!!?!

12:33 PM
Warning: This topic is not for the faint of heart. If you find yourself scratching your head while reading this post, it won't be for lack of understanding. Having survived a bout of head lice with my children, the mere mention of the word conjures up waves of obsessive itching. I hasten to note that -- according to my research -- poultry lice do not infest humans. Whew! (Pausing to scratch the back of my neck, nonetheless).

If you are a dedicated chicken keeper, you'll understand me when I say that I was inspecting my girls' backsides for evidence of diarrhea when I noticed about 5 strange-looking crusty cone-shaped structures near Babs' vent. Thinking they were new feathers gone awry, I pulled them out and then noticed several very tiny straw-colored bugs scattering across her skin toward her belly. I parted the feathers and was horrified to discover a favela of lice feasting on dead skin cells and feather parts! I promptly released the hen and ran inside to my computer. I discovered that Babs has chicken body lice and here is what I found courtesy of the University of California (source: http://ucanr.org/freepubs/docs/8162.pdf):


  • Chicken body lice do not infest humans. They are present on the skin and feathers of the chicken and can be transmitted from one bird to another when roosting or nesting close together. Their eggs (nits) are found in clusters around the base of feathers, usually in the sparsely-feathered area beneath the vent.
  • Eggs take 4-7 days to hatch and 10-15 days to mature to adult-hood, therefore re-treatment 7-10 days is necessary.
  • The chicken body louse spends its entire life-cycle on the bird, therefore it's not necessary to go crazy with disinfecting the entire property.
  • My chickens could have contracted the lice from new birds brought into the flock, wild birds, or rodents. Chickens should be inspected regularly (twice/month) for the presence of egg clusters or adult lice, both of which are typically found by parting the feathers on the abdomen below the vent. Lice also hang out in the wing-pits and on the head. They are more of a problem in the cooler months of the year.
I am following a sensible procedure for managing this parasite that is a compilation of advice I received and found on various websites, as follows:
  • Clean out the chicken hutches by removing all poop and bedding and spraying down with water. I may also spray the interior with a dilute bleach/water solution. This should be done at least weekly.
  • Regularly sprinkle the chicken yard with food grade diatomaceous earth (DE), focusing on the areas where they dust themselves (identified by the presence of bowl-shaped depressions in dry soil). DE is a flour-like product which is fossilized skeletons of microscopic aquatic organisms. It kills lice and mites by damaging the insects' exoskeletons. I will use a mask and goggles for personal protection when sprinkling the DE. If it rains, I will need to re-apply as DE doesn't work if it's wet.
  • For each chicken, inspect them for the presence of egg clusters. Remove them, if possible, and seal them in a ziplock bag and dispose.
  • Dust each chicken with poultry dust (available at most feed stores) or a Sevin-5 powder, which can be purchased at any hardware or garden store. Repeat dusting in 7-10 days.

A note on dusting . . . some people recommend placing the chicken, up to its head, in a plastic bag containing the dust and then "shake & bake". Can you imagine how difficult it would be to get the chicken in the bag, let alone everything else you'd have to overcome with this procedure? I found it easy to pick up the chicken, hold her legs in one hand and support her back with the other. Gently lay her down on a flat surface on her back and pull the legs upward and toward you just so her knees are straight (helps her stop fighting to right herself). Most chickens will open their wings in this position, which is very helpful. Librally sprinkle the poultry dust or Sevin-5 on the rump, abdomen, and wing-pits. Use your fingers to massage the dust between the feathers so it reaches the skin. Gently fold the chickens wings against her body and roll her over holding her legs and breast in one hand and her folded wings and back with the other. Place her on the ground and she's done. Be sure to wear a dust mask when dusting the chickens.


Happy chicken dusting!

UPDATE: 10 days after dusting, I am pleased to report that the live bugs are all gone. I am going to dust the girls again today as a follow-up to catch any bugs that are just hatching, as the lice eggs (nits) are unaffected by the Sevin-5.
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La Curucana

La Curucana
Part woman, part chicken, her job is to keep children from playing with the chickens, and picking up bird lice. (Holly Wood at artfangs.com)

Goldie

Goldie
My pet chicken. The others are just chickens.