Polar Opposites

Meet Maddie, our nasty hen. You haven’t heard about her or even seen her since she is not personable at all and has never been featured in my stories. She rarely leaves the coop, choosing instead to stay indoors and rule fiercely over the two old coop-bound Tweedles during the day. She endlessly forces those old girls off the roosts, prevents them from accessing food and water and scares away any other hens who come in to lay.

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Maddie, short for Madras Curry, has the distinctive Chantecler cushion comb but the dark plumage of her Pa, Skana. But beware – she is the ultimate Mean Girl.

On those rare occasions when she does venture outdoors, other hens attack her or chase her away. She has a mean streak and is the lowest in the pecking order of our adult birds, besides the Tweedles. No one will roost anywhere near her at night as she will use the cover of darkness to lash out with a surprise peck to the comb. She has no allies and seems to begrudge her keepers for all her woes.

On the up-side, Maddie loves to sunbathe, spreading herself out on the porch in a warming beam or luxuriating in a sun-drenched dust bath. Her pleasure in these moments is so obvious. Another positive is that she is easy to scoop and will usually sit calmly on my lap for long periods, perhaps realising that she is safe from pestering while up in my arms. But she has turned on me, once pecking me right on the white of my eye, causing it to bleed which required weeks of antibiotic drops. She has gone broody only a couple of times and successfully hatched two chicks, Thompson and Thompson whom we couldn’t tell apart for months.

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Maddie with her only two chicks, Thompson and Thompson.

We kept one of the Thompsons – renamed Olive – but Maddie and Olive seem to have both blocked their previous relationship out of their little bird brains and have no memory of or connection to each other at all.

Meet Zorro, a hen so filled with character that she is impossible to ignore. If you have ever visited the Queendom, Zorro would have been right there to greet you and perhaps let you hold her.

Zorro is highly aware of everything going on in her Queendom. With her sleek, little black body and her crumpled Z comb, she is a beauty. She is posing for the camera in this one.

By far, she is FM’s favourite and Zorro turns up the charm whenever FM takes five on the porch. She has Stryper, our rooster, wrapped around her little toe, so much so that he will crow endlessly if she is not in sight and will go to great lengths to ensure she gets the finest grubs around. Zorro goes broody every six weeks, no matter what the season, and she is a regular customer prisoner in the dreaded ‘broody breaker’ but forgives us once released and shows us both love and affection all the same.

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Zorro imprisoned, once again, in the Broody Breaker. This dog crate is outfitted with a wire mesh floor and, within 2 or 3 days inside, hens shake off their ‘baby fever’ since this is no safe place to raise chicks.

In June, we usually let her sit on eggs and she has hatched out three broods so far. She is a committed and patient mama and has lasting, although domineering, relationships with all her grown girls.

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Zorro with mostly full-grown Monkey, enjoying a little porch-love together.

What strikes me today is that these two hens hatched out four and a half years ago on the exact same day by two different mums. Zorro and Zelda came from Sprout while Maddie and Vindaloo came from Tweedle Dum. Looking at the polar opposite ways that these two hens handle life on the Queendom, it is surprising to think that they share so much in common, including the same paternal genes.

But perhaps the difference in chickenality lies in the sort of Mum they each had. Sprout gave Zorro and all her young chicks far more freedom to roam and learn on their own when they were very small. Eventually, Sprout did kick them out of the nest but she continued to be nearby and aware of their needs, even being close to them in later years. Meanwhile Tweedle Dum kept her chicks very close, not even allowing us to get near enough for a photo, and, when she kicked them out from under her wing, she had nothing at all to do with them. They were essentially dead to her.

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Vindaloo (L) and Madras (R) under Tweedle Dum on top of the nest boxes. This is the only photo I managed to get of them as chicks since TD was so overly-protective.

Another factor contributing to Maddie’s meanness could be that we removed Maddie’s brother, Vindaloo, a few months later, leaving Maddie completely alone to navigate the world. Zorro, on the other hand, always had her sister Zelda with her and the two of them gained confidence just by having each other around.

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Young Zorro and Zelda kept each other company and safe from danger even after Sprout had kicked them out. Maddie, on the other hand, had no one after Vindaloo was removed.

You never know what kind of mama a hen is going to be and that demeanor may even vary from brood to brood. But with hindsight, I think it is wise to put more eggs under a hen (like 5 or 6) so that the young chicks will always have a sibling to rely on through those difficult teenage years. Maddie may have been a team player in our flock if we had given her a few team members from the get-go. But since we didn’t, we can only give her a sunbeam and some space on the porch to enjoy her one pleasure.

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A dust bath can last as long as an hour if Maddie is left alone. It is a delight to watch her indulge.

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Happily Ever After

Last summer, Zorro brought us two adorable chicks, Flipper and Pilot.

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Pilot and Flipper, around two months old

Perhaps you even recall an earlier post featuring Flipper and ‘her’ near-miss with a hawk. It turns out that both of these young chicks were male and both started to crow around five months old. With equal surprise and disappointment, FM and I had to accept that we now had two young roos strutting around the Queendom. Stryper, our alpha roo, was displeased with these new additions and demonstrated it with cacaphonic crowing all day, every day. He was never aggressive with his young sons but endlessly sang about it.

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Stryper is a gentle, handsome fellow whose only defense is to crow. He had no time or patience for these young sons.

There are very few choices when it comes to unwanted roosters. Until fairly recently, a Hobby Farm Network facebook page allowed folks to advertise their unwanted livestock online, allowing other farmers to purchase or take animals off your hands. That is how Stryper came to us – our rooster was killed and we needed another one Pronto. That very day, we picked up Stryper (for free), from a local family who no longer wanted to listen to his song, all via the facebook farm network and it was one of the best moves ever for our little flock.

But, facebook has cracked down and no longer allows the sale or trade of animals so we didn’t have any options for re-homing our young boys. This means our choices (and every other hobby farmers’) were limited to making soup. Pilot, who had became more and more aggressive with us and with the hens, sadly resulted in a delicious noodle soup.

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Yum!

But Flipper had bonded with us both and had a gentle demeanor. We needed to find a new home for him.

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Flipper, with his dark eyes, soft beard and delight for cuddling, needed a home of his own

Luckily, one of FM’s co-workers was looking for a young rooster to watch over her young flock. In the dark of night, we pulled Flipper off the roost, put him into a box and into her car. By morning, he was in a coop on Denman Island with his new family. Of course, a family is not made overnight and nothing went smoothly for him right away. Flipper hid away in the coop for days, stopped crowing and simply tolerated the hen-pecking that came at him. It seems he had imprinted so much on humans that he had trouble fitting in with the flock.

It took almost a month before our young roo figured out how to protect, care for and earn the respect of the flock. But all that happened this week. I just received pictures of him with his girls, making food calls and strutting around his new digs.

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Here he is, roostering!

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My new chicks dig my red hot plumage so I took a new name.    Call me Ember.

I wish him all the best.

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Miss December

Each year, I make up a calendar with our twelve best chicken pictures from the year. This month, when I flipped to the December page, I was reminded of this adorable face.

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Benedict – a character like no other. And yes, that is egg yolk on her face.

It has been almost six months since she died and, in all that time, I haven’t been able to muster the energy to record anything about life in the Queendom. I suppose I feel that she deserves a blog eulogy of her own, considering how amazing she was and how empty I feel now, but I am so sick of writing about the deaths of so many wonderful chickens. I’m pretty sure you are tired of reading all these obits. But here goes:

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Benedict never missed an opportunity for a cuddle on the porch. It seems to be a rite of passage for the top hen at the Queendom.

For our 25th Anniversary, we went away to a cute little boathouse B and B on Quadra Island. It was a wonderful trip, filled with kayaking, tidal pools, canoeing, mountain biking and a lovely dinner out. It is fairly common for us to drop everything and leave the Queendom for a couple of days and the chickens simply take care of themselves. But this time, as we drove in the driveway, we were confronted with two large piles of white and grey feathers. The delights of the weekend were stripped away.

As is always the case in June, Bald Eagles nest within a few kilometers of us and they frequently do fly-bys but usually they feast on our neighbours’ penned-in flocks. From the feather trail near the coop, we could tell the story of Benny’s last minutes. The piles of feathers showed where a first and a second attack happened. She was so close to making it inside the coop door and she must have put up a good fight but the eagle won. We found no blood or body parts so we assume that the eagle flew off with her body intact. I imagine that she was flown to the eagles’ nest for the young eaglets to practice hunting and killing. I hope she didn’t suffer for too long.

Another day – another cuddle

Benedict has been the subject of many posts during her six and a half years – Tweedle Dum is a Mum!!, Double Wing Tuck, Desperately Seeking Florentine, and DIY Vet – A Broken Toe, to name a few. She was a slave to scratch grain and loved human food more than anything else. We couldn’t ever enjoy lunch on the porch due to her crazy antics of stealing sandwiches. In her last year, this older lady spent more time inside the coop but she always listened for our cars or the front door and would hustle out to visit.

And another. She was a Handsome Hen – mostly Chantecler but with unusual grey speckles.

It’s funny that she became so fond of human contact since she didn’t like it at all in her younger days. She was a restless young pullet and the only way I could hold her was if I walked around the yard with her in my arms. Eventually, she calmed and over the years she sought us out simply for affection. We had a game I called “Beak” that she taught me. She liked to put her beak on top of my nose, then I would put my nose on top of her beak. It sounds ridiculous but she never tired of it.

And one more.

Lots has gone on this summer here, including our first try at raising meat birds as well as the addition of 10 chicks. There has been much joy and happiness which has helped to distract us from the hole she left in our hearts.

For the 2020 Queendom Calendar, she will, once again be featured, this time as Miss April. I look forward to flipping open that page and remembering her at her best.wp-15770591581654405914489582063741.jpg

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Flipper:1 Hawk:0

When you catch the ear-piercing screech of a mama hen and the panicked flaps of her chicks, you stop whatever it is you are doing and go into rescue mode. With our free-ranging flock, we have witnessed our share of tragedy due to raptors but we have also been on-hand to tend to and mend the near-misses.

We have eight young chicks wandering around the Queendom these days. Two are lucky enough to have been hatched out by Zorro, an experienced mama hen who takes her mothering role very seriously. This is her third brood and many of our other girls were raised under her wing. Flipper and Pilot are just four weeks old but already gaining confidence and leaving Zorro’s side for short stints.

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Flipper in the front, Pilot in the back.

While FM and I were both in the outdoor coop yesterday, there was the above-mentioned screech from Zorro – a long, grating, fear-filled cry – and then the sound of wild flapping. In the time it took to turn our heads towards the noise, a hawk was already gaining altitude and flying away across the property. FM had seen the hawk for just an instant and was fairly certain that it didn’t have anything in its talons. We stepped out to see the damage and instantly saw that one of Zorro’s chicks was missing. Pilot had scooted under a salmonberry bush and had quickly reunited with Zorro but Flipper was nowhere to be seen.

We both started searching for a tell-tale cluster of downy feathers out on the drive. Then our eyes went up to the trees, searching for a feasting hawk who would be casting aside its prey’s feathers. We know that a hawk will land on a nearby branch to eat newly-caught prey before it manages to wiggle free. We wandered to the back of the field, looking for any signs of movement in the thick forest beyond our fence line. Nothing.

Even if we find her, we won’t be able to save her.

Turning back towards the scene, we began looking in all the favourite hiding places – in the woodshed, behind the wheelbarrow, under the garden tool shelf, under a different bush, behind the old stump. But reality started to settle in when we saw Zorro standing tall near the porch, scanning the yard and processing what had just happened. She seemed bewildered and devastated, if you’ll allow me artistic licence on her feelings. One moment, Flipper was there; the next, she was gone. A life erased, just like that.

For a brief instant, our hope rekindled as we all heard a familiar cheep cheep from across the yard. As we hustled over toward the sound, we realized it was just one of the penned-up meat birds chattering.

It was too much to hope for.

A long while had passed – probably close to 30 minutes – and, after having considered every option, we both had returned to our weekend tasks with heavy hearts. Then, something caught my eye and I looked over to see Flipper quietly hustling across the drive, over to her mum. Hidden alone, way beyond the compost bin, she had outfoxed the hawk – and us. Zorro dropped her stoic stance and welcomed Flipper home with clucks that promised fresh shoots and grubs. Flipper chest-bumped her sister and then jumped up to perch on a tree branch.

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Both Pilot and Flipper love to roost in the pine tree beside the porch

FM and I were awash with relief. There is something so precious about a little chick. In her short month of life, we have already become attached and we look forward to years of watching her on Chicken TV, as in:

Let’s go out on the porch and watch an hour of Chicken TV.

This whole episode (of Chicken TV) makes me wonder how often this kind of close-call happens. For us, this was the first attempted predator attack for young Pilot and Flipper. But what do we know? This could be happening once a week or even daily. Our lives are busy with work and play. This flock is busy with daily adventure and survival. Flipper and Pilot are being taught by the best and have proven to be fast learners – which is great since their lives depend on it here in the Queendom.

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But life in the Queendom is pretty good, too. Here, Zorro takes in a sun beam with white-chinned Flipper by her side and preening Pilot beyond.

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One Tough Chick

We lost Sprout this week. As I came out onto the front porch for my regular morning coffee and chick visit, I could hear a chorus of begawking coming from inside the coop. I found her dead on the coop floor, exactly in the spot where she has been choosing to sleep lately. It seems that she passed pretty peacefully, tucked in beside the nest boxes. I picked her up and found that her feet were cool to the touch but she still had some residual warmth deep under her thick feathers next to her skin. It was a sad discovery but not a surprise to either of us.

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When Sprout was just a month old, she mysteriously escaped a hawk attack within the coop and spent the night alone under the porch in -5° C temperatures. We had assumed that she had been taken and killed until the next morning when she emerged, looking for food. Toughness, learned early.

Sprout has been ill for a long time – more than 2 years according to my journal. Back in December 2016, we first noticed her distended, watery belly which caused her pain when palpated. We initially treated her as if egg-bound but ruled it out after a gentle vent probe. But she did have a solid mass, deep in her abdomen, that sat against the left abdominal wall. She was able to poop, eat, snooze, preen and forage but she sometimes gasped for breath or her comb would turn a purply colour.

A few months later, we decided that we were brave enough to drain her ascites belly. We took 2/3 cup of amber liquid out of her with a syringe. She bounced back but we knew that we were only dealing with a symptom of something much more serious. Her voice had changed and she kind of squeaked instead of chattered and her open-beak gasping became her signature pose. I don’t know how many times I wrote in my journal that she would die soon.

So, why didn’t we cull her or put her out of her misery, you may ask. We are prepared to do this to a much-loved bird (although it pains us both deeply) but we were waiting for her to have a downward turn. Every morning, she was the first one out of the coop, ready to get out into the fresh air and forage with the young chicks. And often she was the last one in at night, waiting until all the young’uns were inside and accounted for before she hit the roost. If this behaviour had changed, we would have stepped up and done the deed.

She was tough to the end. She didn’t let her sickness hold her back. She was a caring mother hen, raising two clutches of chicks herself and being a surrogate mother to many other little ones.

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Sprout was an amazing mother hen. Here she is, in healthier days, with Zorro and Zelda.

She died at 4.5 years old, a month after her BFF Speedy was killed by a hawk. Perhaps she couldn’t carry on without her old nest-mate buddy. She was ill, had trouble breathing and probably in pain for a long time but she had a deep resilience and kept us fooled.

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Ever curious and beautiful.

[Warning: necropsy details ahead]

FM bravely opened Sprout up to see if her illness was visible. Indeed, it was. She had two huge masses in her lower abdomen. The astonishing one was a heavy white mass, the size of a softball. It was made up of layers upon layers of dense, white tissue and had egg material in the center, complete with softened shell around a yolk. For those chicken keepers out there, it resembled a hard, internal, lash egg, which I understand to be a result of oviduct cancer. We have had only one lash egg, a number of years ago, which may have been hers. The other mass is a mystery to us and our best guess is an enormous, enlarged spleen.

Upon seeing her insides, it was obvious that these two masses had filled up her abdomen, reducing her lung capacity substantially. I also suspect that she may have occasionally manifested as egg-bound or as egg-peritonitis because the tumours may have caused a temporary bowel obstruction.

We suspected cancer way back in 2016 and it turns out that we were probably right. The mild relief is that it isn’t contagious and the rest of the flock will carry on.

It has been a tough six months here on the Queendom. We have lost five hens since August, one to a hawk but the rest to unknown illnesses. Chicken-keeping is tough on this old chick.

 

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Another Close Call

With bald eagles and sharp-shinned hawks making regular passes over the Queendom these days, our rooster, Stryper, has a heavy workload. He tirelessly leads, follows and gathers the girls together, ever watching the sky and assessing the level of danger. At the end of the day, when he finally roosts for the night, he is the first to sleep, exhausted by his task.

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Stryper is the most attentive rooster we have had. He chatters away all day and the girls love what he is dishing out.

Some of our older girls ignore his constant pestering and choose to wander in the other direction. They are probably content that the new young beauties hold his attention so fixedly. But everything has a cost.

Today, FM found a pile of gray feathers in a shed bay, behind the snowblower. He had noticed that the flock was hunkered down, out of view, under the front porch when he arrived home so he went back to see who was there and who was missing. We currently have six gray hens and it turns out that beautiful Ash was missing.

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What a beauty Ash is. She looks like a Robin Red-Breast with her rusty highlights.

Ash is an experienced hen – probably five years old – who growls at the slightest danger and continues growling long afterwards to remind the others to be careful. She also loves a snuggle and spends time each day with her sickly mum, Sprout.

With headlamps on, FM and I headed over to the pile of feathers and began searching.

Feathers everywhere – even a thick pile under this wire shelf. She was found under the right hand shelf. Afterwards I collected them all and could easily have stuffed a pillow.

Expecting to find a lifeless body, I was elated to find her bright eyes looking at me. She was flattened down under the gardening shelf, between a bag of grass seed and another of peat moss. She was totally invisible. In fact, FM had just searched this same area ten minutes earlier with no luck. She seems relieved to have been found and easily came into my arms but was still on high alert to danger.

We carried her back into the house and checked her over for injuries. Most of the feathers on her back are broken off at the base and she has a scratch which cut through the thin skin between her wings. One of her claws is broken, deeply split and bleeding. She is missing most of the feathers on her belly and on her left leg.

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She just looks fluffy from this angle but you can see that the outer feathers from her leg are all gone. Those downy under-feathers are covering up her bare-naked patches.

But, she is alert, has all her internal organs intact and hungrily devoured some pear and hemp seeds. She must have put up the fight of her life before finding safety under the garden shelf. She is now back in with coop, probably telling horror stories of her getaway to the young chicks.

After losing precious Speedy to a bald eagle last month and after finding Gandalf hunkered down in a similar hiding spot six weeks ago, we are keenly aware that losing hens to birds of prey can happen any day. I’m just glad that today wasn’t that day.

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Ash and her only chick, Ace, about 2 years ago. Ace was never kicked out of the nest and now, a few years later, they still hang out together.

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