Posts tagged chickens

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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DIY Vet – A Broken Toe

Just like any chicken-keeper with a backyard flock, medical issues come and go on a fairly regular basis. In the seven years that we have kept chickens, we have dealt with roundworm outbreaks, respiratory issues, impacted crop, bumblefoot, possible wry neck, eagle attack, internal laying and a few other unknown, undiagnosed problems. We have only taken a chicken to the vet once, figuring out all the other issues through ‘Dr. Google’ or common sense. We have lost a number of girls to medical problems over those years but we have also helped others survive and thrive.

Chickens are stoic in their pain and discomfort and, despite all my efforts at chicken whispering, they rarely tell me the root of their problems. It takes keen observation of their unique chicken-alities so that you can quickly notice a change in behaviour or physical wellness. The word on the street is that once a hen shows weakness, it is too late to help.

Benedict is our top hen despite her 6.5 years.


Me and Ben have a special bond. She comes to me most mornings for a snuggle, a chat and a game of beak (which she invented)

She is boss of the coop and boss of the Queendom. She is usually one of the first out in the morning and contentedly ignores our rooster to forage where she chooses. So, last week, when I found her sitting on the coop floor, it struck me as odd but I wrote it off as weather-related since we had 20 cm of fresh snow on the ground and it was still snowing. A day later, she was still sitting on the coop floor and again the following day.

Finally on day 3, I went to pick her up and was shocked to see that her foot was bright green at the base of the middle toe and that toe was dangling loosely. I carried her into the house where FM and I analysed it more carefully.

Strangest bruise I have ever seen, but apparently normal.

A quick internet search taught me that chicken bruises are bright green and typically show up 2 days after an injury. It appears that there is a break somewhere in her middle toe, probably the bone closest to the foot. I found a website which discussed helping wild birds (mostly songbirds) who have injured their wings, feet or legs. It suggested making a whole foot splint out of pipe-cleaners or popsicle sticks and vet wrap. Somewhere else, I found a suggestion to use a styrofoam meat tray as the splint.

With a bit of creative ingenuity and a very patient bird, I managed to cut a splint for the one toe out of a foam tray. I made it fit the whole base of her foot and extend the length of the injured toe, ending before her claw. I made sure the splint had smooth edges, and I wrapped it with gauze.


The Chicken Kit his always at the ready and has all sorts of supplies for every eventuality


Her middle toe is about the same length as my finger.

With Benedict laying on her side against a pile of towels, I used vet wrap to fix the splint in place. With one piece of vet wrap, I wrapped the toe onto the splint and used a second piece of wrap to fix the splint around the base of her toe, her foot pad and her thumb. I finished off with electrical tape just to keep the vet wrap edges from peeling up. The electrical tape doesn’t touch her skin.


Here is the only photo I took of the splinting (one week later). Her middle toe is splinted straight but her three other toes are all able to flex and bend. She’s always flipping me the bird.

One week later, the splint is still on and in place. Benedict has not left the coop but has progressed from hopping on one foot to gently putting weight on her injured foot and limping from the food to the water and her favourite sleeping spots. Last night, she even hopped up onto a roost bar for the night!


She has managed to get up and down from the roost over the past couple of days and is pretty adept at limping around the coop. I imagine it will be a solid three weeks before she free-ranges again.

Most forums I found suggest keeping an injured hen separate from the flock until she can fend for herself but I didn’t do this with Benedict. She doesn’t bear confinement well, calling and crying whenever left alone in the ICU dog crate, and would probably injure herself further in trying to escape. Also, since she is the Alpha, no one would dare mess with her. So far, this has proven true.

We still don’t know what could have broken her toe. Nothing in the coop was out of place – no signs of a struggle. Perhaps the ‘snow day’ caused some crazy cooped-up chicken antics in the coop. Their lips are sealed.

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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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A Winter Wonderland

The snow-less, cold snap finally snapped this week and we joyfully received a refreshing dump of snow. About 15 cm of dusty, dry powder now covers everything around the Queendom. Following on the snowfall’s heels was a clear, bluebird day with temperatures plummeting to -11° C. I took a gentle trudge around the place and am almost speechless at its unbelievable beauty. That white blanket of snow blissfully covers up the bare, mucky, unkempt land that we call home. I, for one, would love snow cover year-round.

The gentlest of breezes would send snow puffs down from the trees. The pond is frozen solid, too!

The gentlest of breezes would send snow puffs down from the trees. The pond is frozen solid, too. Should I attempt skating?

This is our flock’s first experience with snow and they are not at all sure about it. When I opened up the coop, they all hustled outdoors in their usual way but, as soon as they reached the snow’s edge, they balked (or I should say they ‘bawked’). Although the new chicks were truly curious and unafraid, Tweedle Mum quickly called them back inside and everyone spent the morning on the roost under the heat lamps of the coop.

Tweedle Dee is completely unsure about the new white blanket.

Tweedle Dee is completely unsure about the new white blanket, despite the cleared pathway across the drive.

My loyal followers know that I will do just about anything for my hens and this sort of challenge appeals to me – and I had no other pressing issues at hand. So I cleared a path from the coop to the porch of the house, where they often sit in the sun or hide underneath. I sprinkled scratch down the new pathway and sat back to see who would take the bait.

Did I shovel the driveway? NO! But I did shovel a path for my girls. Who wants to be cooped up anyway?

Did I shovel the driveway? NO! But I did shovel a path for my girls. Who wants to be cooped up anyway?

Tweedle Dee stood for a long while at the gate, eyeing the snow and the path, but didn’t dare venture out. So much for the Chantecler breed being a frost-hardy Canadian heritage breed!

Of course, it was Chip who first dared the pathway and spent a leisurely day puffed up in a sunbeam on the porch.

Lured by scratch and a chance to sit on my lap, Chip was the first to brave the snow.

Lured by scratch and a chance to sit on my lap, Chip was the first to brave the snow. From her first days with us, she has always proven the most adventurous, fearless and willing.

The others waited for her all-clear call and then joined her. As far as I’ve seen, none has dared to step into the pantaloon-deep snow banks on either side of the pathway. It looks like we’re raising some chicken chickens!

Chip, Peeps and Tweedle Dee eventually braved the new experience. Tweedle Mum and the chicks soon followed. If you can get one chicken to do something, the rest will copy and follow along.

Chip, Peeps and Tweedle Dee eventually braved the new experience. Tweedle Mum and the chicks soon followed. If you can get one chicken to do something, the rest will copy and follow along.

Here they are, running back to the coop at the end of the day.

Here they are, running back to the coop at the end of the day. (They were moving fast!)

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Double Wing Tuck

Waiting for new baby chicks to reveal their gender seems like endless detective work! Every day, I watch them carefully to see any hints that might reveal the truth beneath their feathers. But each observation sheds no light and I continue to have no idea. The end result is an uncertainty as to become attached to possible hens or indifferent to possible roosters. (It makes me sad to see it written down so harshly!)

When we originally started down the chicken path, we thought that three laying hens would suffice. So we got six chicks, figuring that 50% of them would be hens. To our surprise (and delight), five of them were hens. We loved the way they all found a ‘bestie’ and would stroll around the Queendom in pairs. Every window’s view would contain a couple of chickens. Pure delight!

After losing one egg-bound hen and culling one nasty rooster, we were left with a seemingly tiny flock of four. Since then, two new chicks have hatched and FM and I are scrutinizing their every move for an indication of gender.

Now six weeks old, Benedict and Florentine are in full pullet-mode, flapping and spinning, chest-bumping and peeping, launching and flying. Both of them are instigators and both of them are victims. They hang out together all the time and seemed distressed if they get separated for long. Whatever sex they are, we think that they are both the same. Tweedle Mum still watches them carefully and protects them from their inquisitive Aunties.

Florentine under Tweedle Mum's wing. (Benedict is on her other side)

Florentine under Tweedle Mum’s wing. (Benedict is under her other wing)

But yesterday, I caught both little chicks during an afternoon catnap chick-nap. Both had their heads tucked under their wings! (Sadly, I don’t have a photo of it for the post but I’ll keep working on it) I have read that roosters never sleep with their heads under their wings. Could it be that we have just added two more hens to our flock?! Or is the wing-tuck story merely an old wives’ tale?

If you know the truth, let me know! It is hard to keep these beauties at arm’s length!

Florentine enjoying a dust-bath while Benedict keeps an eye out for danger.

Florentine enjoying a dust-bath while Benedict keeps an eye out for danger.

Addendum: Once these chicks hit four and a half months, they both began laying eggs. For the time being, I’ll support the myth that only hens tuck their heads under their wings when they sleep.

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