The Unthinkable Happened

Precious Snowy Owl

Precious Snowy Owl with her ear tufts and fluffy beard

It is a regular summer morning. Just as FM is about to head to work, I check in on our free-ranging flock. There is a lot of noise this morning – with both roosters crowing and some of the hens begawking all at once. I peek inside the coop through the chicken door to see who is announcing their egg. There is Snowy Owl, lying on her back underneath the roost. I race around through the workshop to the other coop door. When I get to her, her feet and body are warm. Her eye focuses on me. I scoop her up, already awash in tears. Whatever happened JUST happened. Her neck is floppy and she doesn’t move as I cradle her in my arms. She dies soon after as FM and I are both trying to figure out what happened.

This is not the work of a predator. Initially, it looks like she broke her neck. With this new cockerel around, it isn’t unusual to have a panic in the coop and perhaps Snowy ran into a roost rung while trying to escape the chaos. But upon further inspection, there is no blood, no abrasions, nothing to indicate trauma like that. Could it have been a heart attack? A stroke? She was fine yesterday, free-ranging, laying her pretty blue egg and snuggling with me on the porch. How could she simply die this morning? Benedict is giving us a full report but, since we don’t speak ‘chicken’ and we have no webcam in the coop, we will never know.

The other hens are quiet now, perhaps confused or relieved. I leave Snowy Owl’s body on the porch for a while and each hen comes to inspect her – nudging her, growling low or circling her. Speedy sits beside her for a long while. This was her BFF, her partner in crime, her sidekick since they day they hatched. This death will be hard for me but it will be hardest for Speedy.

Speedy sat beside Snowy Owl's body for a long while this morning.

Speedy sat beside Snowy Owl’s body for a long while this morning. Inseparable since hatching, this will be a life-changer for Speedy.

Snowy Owl was my girl. She would come to wherever I was standing and wait at my feet for her daily scoop. She loved to burrow her head deep into my jacket or sweater and then snooze in the warm darkness she found there. But truly it is Speedy who has lost her Bestie and will have to learn to carry on without her.

Speedy was the brain of the pair. Snowy would follow Speedy's lead.

Speedy was the brain of the pair. Not-so-bright Snowy would follow Speedy’s lead.

Another BFF photo. These girls were made our flock LBGTQ-friendly.

Another BFF photo. These girls made our flock LBGTQ-friendly.

Even dust-bathing together - Snowy Owl below and Speedy above

They even dust-bathed together in the same hole under the porch steps most days, pecking and preening each other- Snowy Owl below and Speedy above.

Snowy Owl had congenital curly toes and a malformed thumb on her right foot. She could not hop down easily but managed pretty well all the same.

Snowy Owl had congenital curly toes and a malformed thumb on her right foot. She could not hop down easily but managed to get around pretty well all the same.

She loved both of us and was always willing to be scooped and held. FM's shoulder makes a fine roost.

She loved both of us and was always willing to be scooped and held. She even tolerated being pet by our two year old nephew. FM’s shoulder makes a fine roost.

We had a special connection and I will miss her terribly.

We had a special connection and I will miss her terribly. She was a consistent layer and a delicate soul who almost made it through her first year.

Keeping chickens gives me no end of pleasure but the pain of losing one is almost too much for me to bear.

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The Up-And-Comers

At barely six months old, Sprout had already decided that motherhood was her calling.

At barely six months old, Sprout decided that motherhood was her calling.

Sprout is a full-on broody hen. No sooner had she begun to lay at five months when she decided to become a mum.  Of course, there is nothing more lovely than a hen raising her own chicks so we encouraged her and gave her three eggs – one of her own, one of Trixie’s and one of the Tweedle’s.

On April 15, two of those three hatched and we finally got to meet Jockey and Ash.

Here, Jockey and Ash are about three months old.

Here, Jockey and Ash are about three months old.

Right on schedule, at two months old, Jockey broke our hearts and began to crow. As we tried unsuccessfully to keep our affection for this unwanted young rooster at bay, we admire his Sprout-like plumage, listen to his infrequent crows and watch as he is excluded from the flock most of the time. He is lovely with his green/purple iridescent feathering and his gentle demeanor. He seeks us out as a refuge when being chased by Skana, enjoys a belly scritch and makes a pleasant coo as he laments about his troubles.

Jockey is a negative image of his mom's colouring

Jockey got his name from sitting up on Sprout’s shoulders when he was a chick. He is a negative image of his mum’s colouring.

Jockey sports the 'librarian bun' tail just like Skana did but J's is full of iridescent green and purple. It will be spectacular.

So far, Jockey sports the ‘librarian bun’ tail just like Skana did but J’s is full of iridescent green and purple. It will be spectacular.

Ash is a beauty. She has her father’s dark eyes and his silver-grey colouring. Some of her chest feathers are rimmed with rusty gold, just like Trixie. She also seeks us out as a safe refuge and doesn’t mind being held. She is trying hard to find her place in the flock but pretty close to the bottom of the pecking order. She will be laying within the next six weeks!

Ash looks a lot like an oversized Robin with her golden chest feathers.

Ash looks a lot like an over-sized Robin with her golden chest feathers.

Many of her silver feathers are rimmed with dark grey and have a rusty coloured shaft. She is a beauty!

Many of her silver feathers are rimmed with dark grey and have a rusty coloured shaft. She is gorgeous!

Although Sprout was a patient and attentive mum, keeping these two under her wing for more than six weeks, she is broody again and sitting on another clutch of eggs. Both Jockey and Ash often sit near her, cooing at her and vying for her attention but she has moved on and is only concerned with the next brood. It seems these two were kicked out of the nest too early and are unable to hold their own in the coop. At this point, they sleep outdoors on the woodpile and each night FM and I have to carry them into the outdoor coop for safety. It’s tough love in the chicken world.

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I Dub Thee Trixie

Over-Easy was your name.

When we brought home seven 4 week-old chicks, OverEasy was the most comfortable with us, climbing up to FM's shoulder

Over-Easy was only 4 weeks old when we brought her home. The little sparrow chick was happiest up high on FM’s shoulder.

On the day that we acquired you, FM won you over easily as you hopped up onto his shoulder to roost and, ever since, that egg-name stuck. At four weeks old, you looked more like a house sparrow than a chicken and we guessed that you had been sneakily laid in some unknowing chicken’s nest. But now, as you near the end of your first year, you have proved yourself to be a chicken, although one of unknown variety.

Here is a sample of a typical daily haul. Each egg can be easily linked back to its hen.  Over-Easy's is the top-most egg.

Here is a sample of a typical daily haul. Each egg can be easily linked back to its hen. Over-Easy’s is the top-most egg.

A restless spirit, you are endlessly searching, looking up, trying to get higher. As everyone else settles into the coop at night, you pace the walls, watching shadows. During the day, you leave the flock and explore the Queendom alone, searching, searching. Neurotic? Intelligent? Anxious? Who knows.

A few weeks back, FM and I saw that our daily egg count was low. After paying closer attention for a few days, we noticed that it was your tiny, perfectly round eggs that were absent from the next boxes. We set out on an egg hunt and look what we found:

What is that behind the tall grass?

What is that behind the tall grass?

11 eggs in a grassy nest. This is about 2 weeks of hidden eggs! Trixie indeed!

11 eggs in a grassy nest. This is more than 2 weeks of hidden eggs! Trixie indeed!

After we discovered your cache, you changed your strategy and began laying in the same next box as broody Sprout. And after we moved Sprout out to the broody pen, you laid eggs in a bunch of other non-conforming places – under the front porch, in the canning pot, beside the barbeque. I spend my afternoons trying to figure out your latest hiding spot – an endless game of hide-and-seek.

I had to use the butterfly net to scoop these three eggs out from under the front door porch.  Apparently, SunnySide likes this impromptu nest too!

I had to use the butterfly net to scoop these three eggs out from under the front door porch. Apparently, SunnySide likes this impromptu nest too!

This canning pot could not have been a comfortable place to lay.

This canning pot could not have been a comfortable place to lay.

And so she laid beside the canning pot, next to the barbeque.

And so she laid beside the canning pot, next to the barbeque.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason for the nesting places you choose so how can we predict your next move?

Get out of my car, Trixie! There will be no egg-laying by the accelerator!

Get out of my car, Trixie! There will be no egg-laying by the accelerator!

And so, I dub thee Trixie and I await your next ‘begawk!’ as a clue to today’s easter egg hunt.

We're on to you, Trixie!

We’re on to you, Trixie!

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Chicken Mathematics

6 +7 -2 +1 -1 -2 = 9 chickens. This math question contains 5 chicken stories.

Quite a lot has happened here in the Queendom since losing Chip in August. Too much for a lazy blogger. Upon losing Chip, we had 6 chickens (2 roosters and 4 laying hens). This is what has happened since then:

1) +7  We were given seven new chicks from Gavin at Holiday Farm, the same breeder who had supplied our first brood of Welsumers and Chanteclers. His pure-bred heritage flocks had intermingled and he no longer had pure breeds so he gave us seven “Heinz 57” chicks who were somewhere between 3 to 5 weeks old.

There are 7  baby chicks in this pile of feathers. They are about 4 weeks old and a mish-mash of inter-breeds.  Heaven!

There are 7 baby chicks in this pile of feathers. They are approximately 4 weeks old and a mish-mash of inter-breeds. Heaven!

These new chicks spent about a month separated from our flock before we tried integrating them. They had the fenced area around the garden shed where they scratched and pecked and could see the other six birds free-ranging nearby.

2) -2 FM came home from work one afternoon to find feathers scattered near the shed. Two of the new chicks were missing – Shadow and Sprout – but only the black and white speckled feathers of Shadow were apparent. Upon closer inspection in the fading light of the day, we found the remains of little Shadow’s body. We can only guess that the Red Shinned Hawk who occasionally passes through had flown into the garden shed and taken Shadow out. Their area was completely covered in netting, except for the top half of the partially opened shed door. It would have been some fancy flying for that hawk to get into the shed and then even more spectacular for it to get out with a chick in its talons.

All that was left of Shadow was this nauseating pile of feathers. The olny upside is that the hawk wasted nothing.

All that was left of Shadow was this nauseating pile of feathers. The only upside is that the hawk wasted nothing.

But where was little Sprout? She wasn’t in the shed with the others but there was no sign of her body or her white feathers anywhere. In complete darkness that evening, I called out and searched for her with a flashlight. I looked in all the possible hiding places around the house, shop and shed. The books all say that a missing chicken has simply been taken by a flying predator. We went to bed that night with heavy hearts, knowing that we had lost 2 chicks in one fell swoop.

3) +1 The next morning, as we were preparing to leave for work, we opened the garden shed door and carefully placed netting over the entire door to prevent further hawk snacking. Just then, little Sprout emerged across the yard from under the house porch. She had spent the night alone, in -5 ºC temperatures, under the porch. I had searched that space the night before but had not seen her. It is still a mystery to us about how she got out of the fenced shed area. Had she had been picked up by the hawk at the same time as Shadow? How had she escaped unscathed? How had the hawk done it? She had no cuts or punctures and was very happy to be back in her flock. Sprout is a lucky girl indeed.

Here are the six survivors, liled together in their garden shed home. Sprout, the lucky one, is the white chick on the far right.

Here are the six survivors, piled together in their garden shed home. Sprout, the lucky one, is the white chick on the far right.

4) -1 Last summer, we had trouble deciding which rooster would be top cock so we kept two of our last brood – Skana and Pingu. But, as those two boys became teenagers, their sex-drive went into over-drive, much to the chagrin of our hens. After observing the violence that too many roosters brings, we dispatched poor Pingu and the entire flock breathed a sigh of relief.

5) -2 As soon as our newest chick brood reached two months old, a funny sound came out of the garden shed early one morning. It sounded like air being slowly released from a pinched balloon. Little Radar and Big Cleo had begun crowing in response to Skana. It was a heart-breaking day for us since we had just got rid of Pingu. FM and I knew that there was no place for any more roosters in our flock. We decided to fatten them up and allow them to reach sexual maturity before they too would become our next chicken dinners. It was hard to keep our affection for them at bay over those months. Especially with Radar since he had such a gregarious chicken-ality with a Little-Big-Man swagger. At the ripe age of four months old, Cleo and Radar were lovingly killed.

Cleo - originally named Cleopatra, for her extensive eye liner, turned out to be a Roo, much to everyone's dismay.

Cleo – originally named Cleopatra, for her extensive use of eye liner – turned out to be a Roo, much to everyone’s dismay (especially his).

Radar was full of personality and had an awesome, long pointy tail that gave him his name. Bold and confident, he took charge of the flock from day one.

Radar was full of personality and had an awesome, long pointy tail that gave him his name. Bold and confident, he took charge of the flock from day one.

It feels like so many chickens have come and gone here at the Queendom. So far, during our 20 months of chicken keeping, twenty chickens have been part of our flock. Seven of those 20 have been roosters and 13 have been hens. Six roosters have been slaughtered, 3 hens have died of illness and 2 were killed by predators. I simply hope that our flock will hold fast at 9 for a good long time.

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Two Many Roosters

Or This Queendom Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us

The correct ratio of roosters to hens is 1:10 or so, but we have kept two roosters and four hens. As usual we are determined to learn from experience rather than rely on what literature tells us. I prefer Skana with his charcoal plumage, his dark Australorp eyes and his patient demeanour when I scoop him. These attributes allow me to ignore his ‘scream-a-doodle-doo’ crow.

Skana is beautiful, with his charcoal black feathers and rilliant red comb. He lacks a true tail and his crow is like a blood-curdling scream.

Skana is beautiful, with his charcoal black feathers and brilliant red comb. He lacks a true tail and his crow is like a blood-curdling scream.

FM prefers Pingu with his iridescent green and purple plumage, gorgeous rooster tail and rare crowing but he is elusive and expertly avoids the daily scoop.

The sunlight brought out irridescent green and purple in Pingu's feathers. His tail was superb!

The sunlight brings out irridescent green and purple in Pingu’s feathers. His tail is superb!

Both boys get along with each other, having been raised together, but Skana is definitely the top cock. He roosts with the girls, grazes with the girls and has his pick of the girls. Pingu hangs out at the edge of the flock and occasionally tries to get in on the action but is quickly put in his place.

As a result, Pingu has taken a keen interest in the new chicks and has set his mind on establishing his own harem. Like a pedophile, he spends the days lurking around their fenced area, crowing and strutting for them. Eventually when we opened the fencing to allow the chicks a wider range, he was on them in a mating frenzy. The flying feathers and screeches of these two month old babies stressed all of us out as they were pursued beyond their enclosure and had trouble finding their way back.

It also puts strain on Skana. Upon hearing the panicked calls of the chicks, Skana runs from his flock to the chicks to Pingu, trying desperately to assess the danger and to discipline Pingu. As Pingu’s confidence grows, he has started edging in on Skana’s hens but does so in a sneaky and violent fashion.

Pingu is looking a little sneaky here. No doubt he is lurking near the baby chicks, waiting to terrify him with his manliness.

Pingu is looking a little sneaky here. No doubt he is lurking near the baby chicks, waiting to terrify him with his manliness.

The hens are able to keep their eye on Skana’s macho moves and scoot out of reach when they choose to but they constantly blind-sided by Pingu’s ungentlemanly pounce. Let’s just say that everyone has lost a lot of feathers and every egg had been fertilized at least twice. Two of our hens, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, have gone into a hard moult and I truly believe that it is partially due to the stress of being constantly pursued.

And I haven’t even mentioned the crowing. The quiet Pingu has now found his voice and uses it as an answer to each of Skana’s calls. Oh… the endless crowing — it stresses out all 15 of us!

This looks so quaint and picturesque but, in reality, wine glasses within a kilometer radius were shattering!

Skana’s morning crowing session – This looks so quaint and picturesque but, in reality, wine glasses within a kilometer radius were shattering!

And so, the fate of Pingu was decided at the young age of 5 months old. We killed him and processed him just as we had done with his two brothers a few months earlier. Pingu wasn’t a malicious guy at all. He was the right rooster in the wrong place. He was just a guy trying to make his mark and I’m sure he was well-intentioned. His downfall was his gender.

As a three month old cockerel, Pingu was a shy beauty with lovely green/black feathers.

Here, as a three month old cockerel, Pingu was a shy beauty with lovely green/black feathers.

Sadly his sister, SunnySide will be the only one who mourns his passing.

Once again, Skana has been selected as top cock. Here he stands on the rooftop to celebrate. SunnySide is mildly impressed.

Once again, Skana has been selected as top cock. Here he stands on the rooftop to celebrate. SunnySide is mildly impressed.

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Taking A Break

Imagine the reaction you would get if you simply didn’t show up at work for 4 months. Well, that is what both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum have done.

In late September, these two sisters stopped laying eggs, lost many feathers and refused to leave the indoor coop.

These two posed for this picture. Usually they are hunkered down with feet hidden and heads pulled in close.

These two posed for this picture since usually they are hunkered down with feet hidden and heads pulled in close. Tweedle Dum is on the left and Tweedle Dee is on the right. (and, just so you know, the filth on the coop wall is not poop but dried Gorilla Glue from the old shower insert)

Now it is the end of January and there seems to be no end in sight. They continue to lose feathers from different parts of their bodies and they stay roosted all day and all night. Dum laid one egg at the beginning of December but then stopped laying again. The only time either of them leave the coop is if FM and I forcibly scoop them and bring them outdoors. But as soon as they spy an opportunity, they run back indoors.

Tweedle Dum is reluctantly joining FM for a  post-run coffee on the porch. She is getting antsy here, ready to get back inside.

Tweedle Dum joins FM for our post-run coffee on the porch. She is getting antsy here, chatting away and getting ready to head back inside.

On weekends, we make a point of bringing them each outside to sit on our laps on the porch. Neither of these girls minds being handled and will sit quite contentedly and snooze – especially if the sun is shining.

Dee sat with me for a good long snooze in the sun. She watched the chicks and kept a close eye on our rooster, Skana, who was keen to jump her bones.

Tweedle Dee sat with me for a good long tme in the sun. She watched the chicks and kept a close eye on our rooster, Skana, who was dancing and singing for her, keen to jump her bones .

These two are from our original brood and are now a mature 22 months old. I read that chickens will go through their first hard moult during their second winter but I had no idea that it would last so long.

Look at those long claws! Since she hasn't been scratching for bugs and digging in the yard, her claws have grown longer than 1.5 cm!

Look at those long claws! Since she hasn’t been scratching for bugs and digging in the yard, her claws have grown longer than 1.5 cm!

This week, while reading Annie Pott’s Chicken, I learned that a natural moult can take five months. I also learned that denying food and water to a moulting chicken can shorten the moult and get them laying again. That is what is done in factory chicken farms but that kind of treatment has no place in the Queendom.

Even young Benny (15 months) is going through a moult, but hers isn't the full deal. She stopped laying for a couple of weeks but has already restarted. Egg production is down a bit, since it is dark 16 hours a day.

Even young Benny (15 months) is going through a moult, but hers isn’t the full deal. She stopped laying for a couple of weeks but has already restarted. Egg production is down a bit, since it is dark 16 hours a day.

My loyal followers will also note that I have taken about five months off from writing this blog. But, in my own good time, I have returned and so will the Tweedles. All of our employment contracts will be reinstated whenever we see fit to return to work. And nobody will mind if our productivity tapers down as well.  It’s all part of living in Chicken Heaven.

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