Tag Archive | raising chickens

Baby Chicks Learning to Free Range

The baby Ameraucana chicks are three weeks old now.  This past week they have been learning to go out on their own into the big world and free range.  Seeing such small babies on their own can give a mother hen like me heart palpitations, but I can’t hold my little ones back.  They need to understand how to find food, hunt for insects, avoid danger and return to the safety of the shelter at night.  Although they are quite tiny, these chicks are old enough to be on their own.

The babies love freedom.  They run together in a little flock.  All twenty-three of the original hatch are still with us, hale and hearty.  On a sunny spring day they sprawl in the sunshine lighting the barn doorway and spread their wings to collect the warmth.  As a group, they move from place to place finding adventure and keeping in constant contact with a steady stream of peeps and chirps.

Thursday was the first time the little birds ventured from inside the barn out on the grass.  Once this wonder was discovered, there was no stopping those chicks.  They found the grass and greens delicious and also teeming with juicy bugs.  I am teaching them to drink from a pan by sinking their plastic waterer in the center of a rubber dish full of water.  The chicks have quickly caught on.

It is amazing how fast baby chickens grow.  The tiny roosters already test their strength in mock fights.  In no time the birds will be fully feathered and starting to fly.  A baby chicken is actually quite a good flyer because its body is small and light in comparison to the size of the wings.  This tends to give the small birds an advantage against predators.  They are very good at escaping.  Although they appear delicate, millions of years of evolution have made these small creatures tough and capable of caring for themselves.

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.

 

New Incubator

The new incubator is up and running with the first set of eggs.  It’s a Brinsea Ovation Eco 28, a new design for Brinsea.  The incubator has automated egg turning and digital temperature control.  The humidity control is done manually although you can purchase a separate attachment to automate humidity.

So far the incubator has been running great.  It maintains a temperature of 99.6F, with no fluctuation I have noticed.  There is a warning alarm if the temperature goes above or below a pre-set level.  This incubator is a big step up for me, function-wise and price-wise.  For many years I’ve used styrofoam body incubators.  The first one did not have automatic turning so I had to turn the eggs by hand twice a day for 19 days.  Then I got one with egg turning racks and a blower fan.  It was around $175, a Hovabator.

The hatch rate for the styrofoam incubators was always disappointing for me.  It rarely got over 70%.  Some hatches were dismal with only 40% or so.  The poor performance was most likely due to difficulty with maintaining correct warmth and humidity.  A chicken breeder said try a better quality incubator, so this year I finally sprung for the $380 Brinsea.  It has a hard plastic case.  The digital temperature control is much easier to use than the old manual control on the Hovabator.

The Brinsea only holds 28 hen eggs as opposed to 42 for the Hovabator.  In the past I was lucky to get 18-20 chicks in a hatch.  Most of the time there were less. But with Brinsea users attesting to 90% plus hatch rates, I may end up with more chicks than ever before!  I’ll just have to wait another 20 days to find out!

January Chicks

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The first Ameraucana chicks of 2017 finished hatching overnight.  Currently there are twenty babies, an excellent hatch rate any time.  The hatch is particularly impressive for eggs that were collected when the temperatures were at or below 0 degrees F and the majority of eggs set had been stored in the refrigerator for several days.  When the best breeding rooster for the next generation is killed by a weasel, any possibly viable eggs that could contain his DNA should be set.  Of the 42 eggs I placed in the incubator, 37 grew embryos.  Of those, 22 pipped and 20 hatched.  Had I owned a better incubator, I believe the hatch rate would have been higher.c3

In the photo above, the last two chicks to hatch are in the lower area.  They appear less fluffy than the rest because their down has still not shed all the albumen residue that keeps them wet and lubricated so they can escape from the egg shell.  In a few hours they will be as fluffed as the others.

I’m saving my pennies to purchase a Brinsea incubator to replace the styrofoam Hova-bator currently in use.  Had I known that such an early hatch was necessary, I would have begun saving sooner.  The usual hatching season begins in March for me.  By then all the hens are laying well, the days are long enough to assure good fertility and when the babies hatch, the weather is warm enough to keep the chicks in the barn.

Now I am faced with twenty chicks that must live in the house until they are old enough to go outdoors.  They will need to stay in with us for at least three weeks!  Anyone who has raised chicks knows they can get smelly.  They usually go in the barn after one week.  I will need to provide a large brooding area and consistent attention to bedding to keep the odor of chicken at an acceptable level.  The cats are another concern.  One of our cats, Chloe, killed some newly hatched chicks the first year she lived with us.  Since then she has mellowed, but we now have two one-year-old males who consider themselves mighty hunters.  The baby chicks will need to be enclosed in a cat-proof system.

Still, my hopes are high for a good outcome with these babies.  I’m certain many of them were fathered by my best rooster since he was the dominant male in the chicken house.  So far they are a beautiful hatch of silver Ameraucanas.  I look forward to seeing their adult plumage and the color of the eggs they produce.c2

 

Fox!

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Here are some of this year’s chick hatch, all different ages together in a nice little flock.  They are safely within the wire and net enclosed run.  That’s because we have a fox!

For most of the summer, the chicks’ house has been open so they can go out and free-range at their pleasure or come in the house to get food and water or to roost for the night.  The doorway was covered with wire and had a small opening just big enough for young birds to squeeze through.  That way the adult chickens could not get in. In the morning when I did chores, I would spread scratch grain in their run and call them.  Soon, all the chicks would come rushing for their favorite scratch treat.

About two weeks ago while the chicks were eating their scratch, I counted them.  There are supposed to be twenty-three, but one was missing.  Because the birds move around quickly when they eat, I assumed I counted wrong and didn’t think much of it.  Then I began to have premonitions about a fox.  I shrugged them off.

Four days ago when I fed the chicks, none responded to my call.  I could hear them talking in the hedges and stands of daylilies and within other cover in the yard.  Suddenly, no one wanted scratch.

Then, when I went to tend the horses, I discovered the half-eaten body of one of my young black roosters in the paddock.  I looked the body over and suspected a fox attack due to the nature of the injuries.  That evening, rather than going to their roosts when it got dusky, the baby chickens came running to me.  I’m their mother.  They stood around staring at me and yammering.  I took them to their house and made them go inside.  It was a struggle.  The young birds were afraid to go in.

That’s when I realized a predator, probably a fox, had entered their coop the night before though the small opening and stole the rooster as he slept.  I counted my babies that evening and got nineteen!  Oh no!  I locked all their doors and reinforced the wire fence around the run.

The next morning one more little black hen was waiting outside the coop to join her siblings.  She had hidden in the hedge for the night.  So now I have twenty chicks.  The loss of a black rooster is not such a disaster.  He would have been sold for $2 otherwise.  Sadly, I don’t know what other babies were stolen.  Probably some lovely little pullets, knowing my luck.  I’m glad to say my most prized ones are still with us and not fattening some nasty fox.

Also that morning I discovered the three most recent rabbit graves, one about two weeks old and two dating back to spring, had been newly dug up overnight.  It was obviously the work of either a fox or small dog by the size of the holes.  So, I’m pretty sure it’s a fox.  There was nothing edible in the graves.  That didn’t stop the creature from digging them up again the next night.  Now they are weighted with rocks.chick2

All the chickens must now spend most of the day penned up.  I have no idea when this fox may try another sortie against my birds.  They are allowed to free-range for about two hours in the evening while I and the German shepherds are outside.  So far no fox has shown its face.  The older birds are indignant about the restrictions, but the younger one actually seem relieved.  They happily go to roost in their safe, locked-up house at night.  During the day they act content to be within the protective wire of the run.

Watch out, Mr. or Mrs. Fox.  Your days are numbered.  If I see the animal in the yard, I will get rid of it for good.

 

Feather Picking and Chicken Coats

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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.

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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.

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Bit clinching pliers, new bits and a used bit

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Chick Update

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The third hatch of Ameraucana chicks finished this morning.  Currently there are 14 babies.  Very cute and alert little guys who are already eating the chick mash.  I’m glad to be done with hatching for this year, it is a chore.

The first two hatches are growing well.  They spend every day free-ranging around the barnyard.  The first hatch from 4/19 has eight young birds, including a beautiful silver pullet (right front.)  It is hard to catch these guys long enough to get a good photograph.  Here I slowed them down with some scratch grains for a pose.a4

a3The second hatch from 5/14 has thirteen chicks.  They are growing fast and have nearly completed their first fledging.  These little guys are real adventurers and even harder to capture in photos than their older siblings.a2a5Here the two hatches mingle at the feeders.  The older chicks chase the younger ones some, but they are getting more and more tolerant with exposure.  By fall they will be one big flock.  I must set up the feed stations inside pens with narrow entries so the adult chickens can’t steal the food.