Tag Archive | chicken behavior

Baby Eggs

Here are some of the first eggs laid by my silver splash Ameraucana pullets from the Jan hatch.  The baby eggs are always the best color.  Some of the eggs look big, but this is just a trick of the camera.  They are all small to medium grade sized eggs.

I knew the young hens were ready to lay and have been trying to keep them in the pen during the morning to encourage laying in the nest boxes.  So far they have deposited 4 or 5 on the floor.  For the past few days I’ve been placing hens in nest boxes to show them where to lay.  One hen in particular has found a way to escape the pen.  She is always hanging around waiting to be let back in when I go out to do morning chores.  Today I started to get suspicious about her early morning activities.

Sure enough, after a long search through the hedges and bushes, I found her stolen nest.  There were about two dozen baby eggs deposited there.  I suspect she and her sisters have been using the nest.  So today I will put a new net over the chicken pen to stop the birds from flying out and hiding their eggs.  The pullet in the front of the photo below is the main culprit.  Such naughty little birds!  


Rough Life For A Chicken

Chicken society can be brutal.  Ameraucana chickens are known to be less aggressive and more tolerant of other birds than many breeds.  That does not preclude them from becoming vicious at times.

This hen is part of the flock, hatched at the same time as the rest, raised as a sister.  Yet, one morning in the middle of the winter when I did chores, I found this hen with her head all bloody.  I thought the weasel who attacked my flock in December had a relative trying to prey on my birds.  I locked them up tight at night for awhile.  The hen began to heal.

Then one morning, again, her head was all bloody.  She was also acting afraid of the primary rooster and trying to stay away from him.  I closed her away in her own smaller pen and her head healed.  Just about the time she was starting to look good again, she escaped from her pen and went in with the others.  Everything seemed fine that day.  She went to roost with the rest of the flock.  The next morning, there she was again, her head pecked into a bloody mess.

This time I ensured her enclosure was completely escape proof.  I gave her a nest to use and after a few days she began laying.  She was separated from the other birds by wire so they could still see each other and interact.  When her head was well healed I tried once again to introduce her to the flock.  Within minutes, as I watched, the rooster went after her, attacking her head.  Quickly, I scooped her up.

I don’t know why the rooster took such a strong dislike to this hen.  She looks like everyone else.  She lays an egg a day.  She is docile and submits to the rooster.  Perhaps she said something to insult his male pride and he won’t forgive.  Who knows?  Chickens are ruthless.

So, to keep her company and fertilize her eggs, I placed the auxiliary rooster in her pen.  He is the back-up in case the main rooster dies.  The birds hit it off immediately.  He is a perfect mate, considerate and gentle, always finding little tidbits to entice her affection.  She cuddles up close to him at night on the roost.  They are so happy together.

Every day the main flock goes out to free-range in the afternoon and returns to the roost about an hour before sunset.  When the coast is clear, I lock the main flock up and let the hen and auxiliary rooster out to roam.  Their happiness is complete.  I’m hoping the poor hen will grow feathers on her head again.  With all the trauma the skin has endured, she may remain a bald bird.


Feather Picking and Chicken Coats


Hens with bare backs from feather picking

Most anyone who has kept chickens knows that the terms pecking order and hen pecked have roots in real life.  The dominant hens in the flock pull the feathers out of all the others.  Every hen plucks the rooster’s beautiful hackle and saddle feathers because they flutter and catch the eye.

Feather picking is not a sign of missing nutrients or over-crowding.  It is the way dominant hens control the other birds in the flock.  If the most aggressive pickers are removed, others just step into their places.  Chickens are not nice animals, they are vicious, hierarchical creatures who have evolved a very tough society over millions of years.

Some believe it is the roosters who pick the hens bare, but it is mostly the other hens–in my experience.  Rooster feather damage is seen on the elbows of the wings and at the top of the head.  You can tell which hens are the feather pickers because they tend to have the most feathers.  In the photo above, the dominant hen is the silver at front left.  She is mostly feathered and is also wearing a chicken bit.  Some of the other hens participate in feather pulling, but she is the worst culprit.


Feather picking culprit

Chicken bits are loops of metal that attach into the nostril holes and go in the mouth, like a horse bit.  This is supposed to prevent the hen from grabbing feathers by keeping the jaws separated.  it doesn’t work for very long.  The hen quickly learns how to position her beak to catch feathers using the bit.  Also, the metal is very soft and the beak soon wears through until the mouth can close again.


Bit clinching pliers, new bits and a used bit


The hen’s beak quickly wears through the soft metal bit

A hen doesn’t need all her feathers to survive, but they are nice for preventing sunburn, keeping warm and keeping cool.  Naked hens are also unsightly.  There are breeds of featherless chickens.  These are food birds and having no feathers makes cleaning their carcasses much easier.  I think these birds are pretty pitiful and ugly.  I prefer my hens with feathers.  So, what to do about those bossy hens and feather picking?

Once the problem starts, a chicken keeper must act quickly or feathers will disappear in no time.  Within a week, a hen can be going bald.  There are dozens of remedies for feather picking.  I’ve tried many of them.  Bits don’t work.  I won’t try blinders, which impede the vision right in front of the chicken wearing them.  My free range birds need to see as well as possible in the event of predator attack.  The various concoctions recommended for smearing on the victim chickens don’t work well.  The chickens end up cleaning off a lot of whatever is put on them.  The bully hens also either develop a liking for the taste, or they just ignore the coating, because the picking continues.


Hens wearing their new coats

I’ve found what seems to be working best for my flock:  chicken coats.  These provide a barrier that protects the feathers.  Many variations on this idea are available.  People knit, sew or crochet little jackets, vests or sweaters.  Chicken attire is cute and probably works ok, but cloth can be hot and gets dirty fast.  A wet, soiled scrap of fabric is unhygienic.  I don’t want to have to continually catch the birds to change their clothes.

A product called Chicken Armor is available and I ordered a bunch to try.  The little coats are made of vinyl so they are lightweight and strong.  The material can be hosed off, if necessary.  It does not absorb water so the chicken stays dry.  The coat fits loosely over the back to allow good air circulation. You slip the chicken’s wings through the arm holes and set her free.


Hen with hand made coat.  Note the feather loss at the wing elbows, that is where the rooster stands when he mates.

Before I ordered the Chicken Armor, I made a coat out of a thick, waxed paper and duct tape.  It was somewhat heavier than the vinyl version turned out to be, but it did stay on and worked well.  The hen who wore it started growing new feathers right away.


New feathers growing in under the coat.

So far the coats have done a good job.  A few hens manage to get them off.  After putting them back on once or twice, the coats stay on.  The hens actually seem to like their clothes, it must feel nice to get the blazing sun off the back.  And to not have feathers ripped from them.  The coats have a roughened upper surface so the rooster can get a grip for mating.

I will need to put some coats on the roosters as well.  All the hens enjoy pulling the boys’ feathers.  My roosters are so kind they will allow their feathers to be yanked out.  Here is a link to the Chicken Armor site to learn more:  http://www.chickenarmor.com/

I have not received any consideration for endorsing this product.  I’m sure the company has no idea I even mentioned them.  When I find a superior product, I like to share.


Teaching Chicks to Roost


Ameraucana chicks from first hatch 5/7/2014

Ameraucana chickens rarely become broody.  That means the hens do not often act like they want to set on a nest of eggs and hatch them.  Some breeds of chickens are prone to broodiness, not Ameraucanas.  These hens would rather lay their eggs every day then spend the rest of the time in carefree pursuit of bugs and seeds, or dusting under the hedge.  Setting on a clutch of eggs is hard work.


First hatch chicks

Twenty-one days of patient incubation are required to hatch a chicken egg.  An incubating hen leaves the nest only for a quick drink and bite of food.  She turns the eggs daily, talks to the embryos in the eggs and assures the proper temperature and humidity are maintained on the nest at all times.  Only one of my Ameraucana hens ever successfully hatched babies. Most get bored after a week and abandon the nest for more fun activities.


Ameraucana chicks from the second hatch 6/3/2014

To have new generations of Ameraucanas, I use an incubator with a fan and automatic egg turner.  As the babies grow in the eggs, I talk to them like a mother hen, using the same sounds I’ve heard hens use.  When the chicks are hatching, I encourage them with excited clucks and chirps.  The first face the babies see and the first voice they hear is mine.  I use the ‘time to eat” call to show the babies their first bites of chick mash.  All my chickens think I’m their mother hen.  Being mother to so many babies carries responsibilities.  One of my jobs is to teach chicks how to roost, just as a hen would do with her chicks.


Second hatch huddling together, getting ready for a nap

Roosting is done at night.  Adult chickens sleep well above the ground on a limb or other handy perch, safe from most night-time predators.  Baby chickens sleep in a huddled mass on the ground.  If they had a real mother, they would sleep under her, protected by her body and wings.  Alas, I can’t spend the nights in the barn sheltering chicks.  As soon as the babies get a good covering of body feathers so they don’t have to huddle together for warmth, I teach them how to roost.


Fifteen chicks in the second hatch, all roosting successfully

You would think roosting comes natural to chickens.  During the day it does.  The babies fly up and rest on any convenient surface all day long. Yet, when dark falls, they want to mass together on the floor. Without light, chicks often stay frozen in one place. This works to my advantage.  In the dark, I scoop up the chicks and place them, one or two at a time, on the perch.  At first they tend to squawk and drop back off.  But, with persistence, all the babies will stay on a roost.  This is hot, dusty, sweaty work in the dark with a small flashlight clenched in my teeth.  My upper thighs get sore from all the crouching to pick up chicks.  The life of a mother hen is not easy.


First hatch getting the idea of roosting

The first three to five nights are for training.  I must go out in the barn after dark and put chicks on roosts. Every night is a little easier.  More have flown up to the new sleeping spot on their own.  The stubborn ones on the floor stay put on the roost after one or two tries. Finally, all are where they belong, safe above the rats and other undesirables roaming the barn in the dark. When the babies make their special trilling noise that means ‘let’s go to sleep,’ I know the training is over for the night.

This year I am training both my first and second hatch to roost at the same time.  The younger ones are learning faster than the older babies.  Perhaps the older ones have been sleeping on the floor longer and the habit is more ingrained.  This evening will be the third night of roosting lessons.  I am hoping a few hop up on the perches by themselves.  Once one or two birds go up on their own, the rest of the clutch will follow within a few days.


Second hatch in background, older chicks in front


Sixteen chicks in the first hatch

The two hatches share space for eating and drinking, but are wary of each other. They have separate perches for roosting.  As they grow and get closer in size, the younger chicks will begin to sleep with the first hatch.  Right now the little ones are half the size of the bigger babies.  The first hatch stands about 7″-8″ at the shoulder and the second hatch, about 4″.  The small ones are nimble and scurry under their older siblings, usually before they receive a warning peck for getting too close.  These are free-range chicks.  They spend the day in outside adventures, detouring into the barn for food at regular intervals.  At dusk, all the babies return to the barn to sleep.


Chick Hatch


The chicks have hatched, and with seventeen active and healthy, a great result.  Most are from eggs I purchased from Ameraucana breeders in NJ and PA.  They hatched well even after traveling through the mail.  Some years none of the eggs I’ve gotten through the mail have hatched.  Most of the chicks are wheaten or blue wheaten color, they are the yellow babies.  There are a few blacks or blues, some brown reds and maybe a silver.  We’ll see exactly what colors are there when they feather out.

Most have already survived two days.  The first three days are the most likely time for a newly-hatched chick to die.  Ones that make it three days usually live to adulthood.  These little guys are sassy and active and eating well.  They think I’m their mother and come running when I call them.

The babies can hear inside the egg so I begin talking to them as a mother hen does, well before they hatch.  A mother hen speaks to her chicks with a soft, low, rapid, buck-buck-buck, clucking.  She also makes a purring sound in her throat that means all is well, we are content, go to sleep.  Chickens make this sound their whole lives when it is time to sleep.

On about day 18- 19 of egg development, the babies turn their beaks into the air cells of the eggs, begin breathing air and can make sounds.  They will answer me when I talk to them like a hen.  By the time they hatch, they are looking for momma, and they see me talking to them.  When I make the contented sound, they copy me and settle right down.  By the time the babies are grown, they are very attached to me and follow me around.  I enjoy being a mother hen.c2


Free Range Chickens–Little Dinosaurs


Here are a few of the young hens free ranging on the farm.  These have come into the door yard and are looking in the window at me.  All five Ameraucana pullets were hatched in early May and are five months old.  They should start laying within the next two months.  The chickens run all over the immediate area of the barn yard.  One of their favorite stops is to eat the drops under the apple trees in the orchard.  Here are a couple shots of several more youngsters hatched in late June.  They are picking at apples.  chick1At the moment there are 29 chickens free ranging.  Sometimes we have 80 or more birds running loose on the farm.  That’s when we need to be hyper vigilant for predators.

Allowing unlimited exercise and access to the foods chickens really want to eat helps develop very healthy, strong birds who produce delicious free range eggs for us.  This time of year when the year-old hens are molting and don’t lay well, and the pullets have not yet begun laying, eggs are in short supply.  My customers complain bitterly about having to buy store eggs. They call them bland, tasteless, stale, pale and anemic.  Which they are.  Even eggs touted as cage-free or all vegetarian do not compare with free range eggs.  That is because the birds are still confined and can’t exercise or eat as they wish.  Chickens are not vegetarians, they are omnivores. They love fruits, vegetables, grains, grasses, legumes, insects, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, eggs, worms and anything else that they can get. Their bright, beady eyes don’t miss a thing and they are very intelligent animals who know how to fend for themselves.

chick2 I think observing chickens has given me insights into the lives and behavior of the birds’ ancient relatives, the dinosaurs.  The structure of their bodies, the way they carry themselves, their habits and methods of producing sounds all hint at what dinosaurs were like.  Especially dinosaurs of the theropod suborder that scientists believe gave rise to birds.  Give chickens long jaws with teeth and soft, downy feathers and they would appear very much like dinosaurs.  Scientists have even discovered a supressed gene present in birds that if expressed would cause development of toothed jaws rather than beaks.  Pretty strong evidence of bird origin. Watching my little prehistoric-like critters is one of the special perks of farm life.