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Blog: My Little Farm in Town

Living a rich country life in a small Midwestern town.

Showing 16 posts in the Pets category for this blog.
Chicken Treats: Suet Cage O' Greens
Thursday, February 10, 2011

Feeling “all cooped up” is literally true for many chickens at this time of year. With all these snow storms and cold snaps, my girls have been confined to their coop more this year than any other in their short chicken lives. It has got to be pretty boring.

I like to give my hens greens from time to time throughout the winter. Whenever I make a salad, I save the outer leaves and core for my little girls. That is where the suet cage comes in.

I bought a large NEW square suet cage from my local wild bird seed supplier. (It is important that the cage be new and not used because wild birds carry all kinds of bird diseases.) I suspend the cage on a chain that I hang from a nail in a rafter of the coop. I use chain to make it easier to change the height of the hanging cage. As the amount of bedding in the coop rises and falls over the course of the winter, I can easily adjust the length of the chain to suit.

 I hang the cage of treats just high enough that the hens have to stretch a little to reach it. I use a double-ended snap to attach the cage to the chain. It also makes detaching and attaching the cage to the chain easy. When not in use, I hang the cage itself on the same nail in the rafter that supports the chain.

As the birds peck at the greens in the cage, it swings around wildly, requiring the hens to judge the swing of the cage to get their next bite. It keeps their pea brains stimulated and their naughty beaks busy. It’s the chicken equivalent of tether ball! Begonia


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First Eggs of 2011!
Saturday, January 22, 2011

This morning I found two newly laid eggs in one of the nesting boxes! My husband and I each had an egg for breakfast! The egg laying season has started on our little farm in town.

My hens started molting in the late autumn when the day length got too short for egg laying, which is kind of handy because birds don’t lay eggs when they are in full molt anyway. The downside was that I have such a small flock (four birds) that I had to use some supplemental heat in the coop to keep them alive until they got more feathers!

They are fully feathered again and the days are getting longer. The sun is setting at about 5:30, but it is still bitterly cold. This is the coldest part of the year for us. I don’t use artificial light in the coop. I want my chickens to sleep more when conditions are more crowded. I don’t want them awake getting bored and thinking about bad things to peck like each other or their own eggs.

Since they are both pets and egg and manure producers for my little farm in town, I don’t mind if they have a couple of “unproductive” months each year. I am in this for the long haul. These girls are never going to end up as stewed chicken, so they have a few more years to lay their eggs.

I noticed for the last three or four weeks that the girls have been hitting the oyster shell pretty hard. I’ve had to refill the quart jar in the feeder several times.  In the last two weeks, the shavings in the nesting boxes had been disturbed. Last week, I came into the coop one evening to turn on the heater and found that they had been fighting over one of the boxes and had knocked off the front of it! I brushed out the dusty old shavings and replaced them with a fresh supply.

I’m going to keep better track of egg production this year. I have a chicken journal that I started a few years ago that I will use for the purpose. Now I have one more marker to gauge the coming of Spring! Begonia


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Frosty Chicks: Baby It's Cold Outside!
Friday, December 03, 2010

The temp is due to drop into the single digits tonight and 5 to 7 inches of snow is predicted for Friday night and Saturday, the first major storm of the season. I went out to the coop at sundown and unplugged the heat emitter and plugged in the oil radiator. The heat emitter can only raise the coop temperature 10 degrees, so it isn’t enough when the temps drop into the single digits Fahrenheit. A person with a bigger flock wouldn’t have to worry, but I have only four sadly molting hens in a fair-sized coop, and supplemental heat is necessary.

I’ve had them cooped up for some weeks now. I have opened the pop door on warmer days when the temperature gets in the 40sF, but they tended to come out for short periods and then go back inside to warm up. I run the 250 watt ceramic heat emitting bulb most days and will gradually run it less and less as they get more plumage.  By late January, they will be outside on sunny days in the teens when they are fully feathered again!

Inside the coop I’ve been giving them more and more layers of “chicken straw” to spread around the coop floor. It insulates the floor which is quite cold because the coop is up on brick footings to discourage vermin.  The oil radiator is up on bricks as well. It has no open flame or heating coil, but it’s never a good idea to have something hot too close to something flammable!

I won’t close up the north side vents until the temperature drops down into the low double digits and single digits consistently. Air circulation is really important in the closed up winter coop because the birds give off so much moisture when they breathe. If the “wet” air doesn’t circulate out of the coop, the birds can become damp. A damp bird is a cold bird, and a cold wet bird becomes a sick bird very quickly. 

I’ll also sleep better tonight knowing that my girls are cozy even during a bitterly cold night. You stay warm, too! Begonia


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Chickens and Winter: Tucking in the Chicks
Monday, November 08, 2010

The temperature is really beginning to dip here on My Little Farm in Town. It is time to get the coop and yard ready for winter.

When the temperature dips below freezing, as it will tonight, the first thing I do is bring the water font from the chicken yard into the garage for the night. Then I plug in the electrically heated water font in the coop. I ordered it from Farm Innovators ( ), and it was one of the best investments I’ve made—besides purchasing the girls themselves! It is not good for chickens to go thirsty at any time because it affects their laying, and I’ve already had my fill of frozen water buckets growing up on a hobby farm with no water hydrant in the barn. (I used to lug five-gallon buckets of water through thigh-deep snow, and it was so cold that when the water slopped onto my legs, it froze before it could soak my long underwear!)

 I closed almost all the vents on the south side of the coop and blocked the east and west corner ridge vents with triangles of Styrofoam insulation board.  One south vent is always open a little bit. Until the weather gets into the teens Fahrenheit, I won’t close any more vents. I will always have one vent open a little north and south. The chickens’ respiration is moist and rapid. They breathe out a lot of water that can condense on the inner walls of the coop, as well as on the chickens, if there isn’t enough ventilation in the coop. A damp bird has a hard time keeping warm and is liable to become ill.

My husband dug out and cleaned the storm window I salvaged to use in the coop. (Another window of the same size covers my cold frame.) He built up a frame for this window, which is basically a piece of glass with an aluminum edging, inside the main window of the coop so that there would be a three-inch air space between the two panes of glass. He used some butterfly clips to secure it and make it easier to install and remove. This window is warmer and brighter than the Styrofoam board that I had been using to insulate this window. My husband built the overhang on the coop to admit the lower angled rays of the fall and winter sun. The double-paned window has the added advantage of letting in sunlight and making use of solar gain on bright days.

I’ve already hung the 250-watt ceramic heating bulb screwed into a heating lamp hood in the coop above their perches. (I found it on a website that sold supplies for people who keep reptiles as pets.) I won’t plug this in until the weather gets into the teens. (I have to admit that I’ve used it when the temperature was in the low 20s (F) and a hen decided to molt at the wrong time of year—they are pets after all!)

When the temperatures get in the single digits and near or below 0 (F), I will set up the oil radiator on top of a couple of the thicker patio brick. (Putting any heater above the bedding lessens the chance of fire. Don’t use a heater with an exposed flame or electric bar—you risk losing your coop and all your stock.) It will heat the coop when the temperature really drops. People with bigger flocks don’t need heaters; the birds themselves heat the coop. I only have four gals. My girls will only raise the coop temperature 4 or 5 degrees and that mainly because my coop is so well insulated with R11 bats in the walls!

 I start to get into the habit of checking the thermometer that I have in the coldest corner of the coop, and I make sure that my LED touch light on the wall just inside the door is in good working condition. The thermometer tells me whether my heaters are working or if they need to be adjusted. The LED light helps me read the thermometer during the dark of winter!

Another thing that I do to prepare for colder weather is bed the yard more heavily. I clear out the broken down and exhausted straw and use it to create new garden beds or add it to old beds as a feeding mulch. Any raw manure in the straw will be broken down even further by the harsh winter conditions. I pay special attention to the northwest corner of the yard that bears the brunt of the prevailing winds. I create wind breaks with slices of straw laid against the fence (see my November 6 blog: Chicken Nests and Windbreaks). The girls will almost always choose the outside to the inside, so providing a sheltered situation for them is important.  

My last preparation for snow and frigid weather is to locate my big tarp for the chicken yard. I will tarp the yard at night or when a big snow storm is coming during the day. When the snow stops, we shovel off the tarp enough to drag it and the remaining snow out of the yard. This keeps the space relatively snow and ice free and allows the girls to be out most of the winter. I like to avoid cooping up the birds as much as possible. This prevents most pecking problems that come with boredom and crowding.

A lot of the things that I do to keep my birds healthy and comfortable are things that a person in a more rural situation probably wouldn’t bother with. In town, chickens tend to be viewed as pets, working pets but pets all the same. My neighbors enquire after the wellbeing of my girls when the weather is harsh.  They ask if they are warm enough!  We urban chicken ranchers also tend to have fewer of birds, which creates problems that people with bigger flocks don’t experience as acutely. Keeping your birds from freezing to death during a northern cold snap of -10 or -15F weather is more of challenge with a small flock! (Although last year during an early winter cold snap, some country folks with much larger flocks lost numbers of birds to the cold.)

Winter can be a tough time for the feathered ones and for the people who care for them. With a little foresight and preparation, a lot of its hardships can be avoided. Stay warm! Begonia


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Chicken Nests and Windbreaks
Saturday, November 06, 2010

We are truly headed into winter. Last week we had cold, gusty weather. The wind came out of the northwest and chilled right to the bone. Some of the gusts topped out at 60 miles per hour.  The chicks went out as usual, only retreating to the coop when it began to blow and rain.

When it stopped raining, I broke a bale of straw and lined the northwest corner of the yard with “slices” or flakes of hay. These were normal-size kicker bales, so each slice was about chicken height. I then laid a few flakes of hay in the middle of the “V” so the girls could scratch them up and create their own fluffy bed of hay to snuggle down into protected from the wind.

Being chickens, they just couldn’t resist all the possibilities in those flakes of hay lining the fence, so eventually they tore them up and stomped them down as well. I went out a couple of times that day when the wind was at its worst to kick the hay back up against the fence and bank the corners. (Another option might be to wire a few sheets of plywood into place, but we don’t have any to spare at the moment.)

Most days find the girls gathered in the corner nestled deep in the straw, their dark plumage soaking up what sun is shining. They are tough gals and enjoy being outside, especially when there is some protection from the wind. Begonia


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The Chicks Get a Halloween Scare
Sunday, October 31, 2010

We had a flesh eating visitor today. It would have been Nightmare on My Little Farm in Town if not for the substantial bird netting we have over our chicken yard!

Our unwelcome guest was an immature Coopers Hawk.  It was sitting right in the middle of the netting that protects my chicken yard trying to figure out how to get at those nice plump hens. My daughter spotted the hawk first and I stopped her from driving it off long enough to get a picture.  

For more information, check out the following web site:

These birds seem to think my patio bird feeders are their private snack bar. They are usually unsuccessful because of the family of crows that consider my yard their territory and regularly drive off intruders.  My birdfeeders also are situated so that smaller birds can take cover quickly.

We’ve also been visited by Red Tail hawks in the past. Again the netting did its job. If you have chickens and don’t want to lose any to hawks, there is no substitute for a nice barrier between them and the cold cruel world. Begonia


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Worm Wrangling: Vermicomposting on My Little Farm in Town
Friday, October 29, 2010

I had a worm roundup a couple days ago on the sunny south side of the house before all this blustery weather blew in. I had two worm composters that needed attention before winter. I needed to empty both boxes, rebed one, and transfer my population of squirmies to their winter “digs.” (Get it? Worms, Digs. . . sigh.)

Worm castings are the real black gold. I dumped the bins into the big red sled that I use to haul all manner of stuff around the yard. Then I drew up a lawn chair and began separating worms and their cocoons from finished worm compost. (This wasn’t as hard as it sounds because most of the worms were in one layer of the box.) I dropped the worms and cocoons into a tray with some cover for them to hide in—worms hate light. I eventually put the remaining worms in the newly bedded box.  I dumped most of the contents of my vermicomposting boxes on the bed that will be covered by my newest cold frame, where I will plant next spring’s greens in March.

I learned about worm composting over 15 years ago when I read the now classic, Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof.  I didn’t get around to actually doing it until after we moved back to Wisconsin from Iowa in 1993. I’ve been vermicomposting for about 10 years.

Vermicomposter—such a fancy word for a plastic box drilled with holes (one of my worm composters is a retired recycling bin) filled with leaves, chicken yard hay, and vegetable kitchen scraps with a piece of junk window screen in the bottom to keep the worms from escaping!  Boxes and worm beds can take many forms, but the most important thing is that you have a container with good drainage to hold the worms and their bedding and food. The bedding shouldn’t be too wet. It should be about the dampness of wrung out sponge. You can use shredded corrugated cardboard, black-and-white newspaper (don’t use bleached paper or colored newsprint—it poisons the livestock) and some dirt or peat, old hay, chopped up grass clippings and leaves, or some combination of all of the above about 8-10 inches deep.

The worms—buy red worms mail order when the weather isn’t freezing or from a bait shop. I bought two tubs of red wiggler bait worms to “seed” my latest box. This worm’s Latin name is Eisenia foetida. I tell you this because this worm has a lot of different common names. You  want to be sure to get the kind of worm that lives in the top 6 or 8 inches of litter not something that requires a permanent burrow like the night crawler (Lumbricus terrestis) or garden worm (Allolobophora of various types). You can find ads selling redworms in the back of outdoors magazines or on the web. You also might get a couple handfuls from someone who already composts with worms and is feeling charitable.

Worm chow—kitchen and garden scraps, coffee grounds including the paper filter, tea bags,  and crunched up egg shell are all good food for worms. Don’t try to feed them any fat, oil, or meat—this stuff just stinks and attracts pests. I pull back a few inches of bedding and add food and then cover it again so my worms can dine in the dark as they prefer.  

Location, Location—worm boxes are best located in a shaded area sheltered from the weather. You don’t want the sun frying them or the rain drowning them. I bring my worms into my semiheated garage as soon as the nighttime temps start to fall into the low 50sF. I bring them into the basement when my garage temperatures fall into the 40s and high 30sF. (I’ve even heard of people keeping a worm box under the kitchen sink, which I’d be tempted to do if I had enough room under there!) I’ve never had a problem with smell.  Every once in a while I might get a few fruit flies if I don’t bury the scraps deep enough in the box. By the end of the winter, I sometimes have to start a new box because the worms have reproduced so well in this ideal environment!

You probably have everything you need around the house to make and bed a vermicomposter right now. Add a double handful of redworms, and you’ll be a worm wrangler, too! Begonia


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Chickens: Dust Baths and Boxes
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I remember the first time I saw one of my pullets (female chicks) bathing. I thought she was dying! She was lying on her side sporadically scratching with one leg and flopping a wing around. When she flopped over and started doing it on the other side, I finally caught on to what she was doing.

All birds bathe in some fashion. Mike, my grandmother’s naughty green parrot, loved his daily shower in the bathtub. Even the pitiful birds in wire cages in the factory egg farms will try to bath each day—poor things.

 My chickens are a little more down to earth.  Before my husband built their dust box, they bathed in the dirt of the yard and the litter in the bottom of the coop. If they have been off the roost for a half hour before I open the coop for the day, I will see signs that they have been down in the pine shaving litter taking their first dust bath of the day.

Birds seem to enjoy bathing, but one of the most practical reasons for doing it, one that is hardwired into their peas-sized brains, is to control vermin. There is a pest that specializes in almost every part of a bird: head, neck, body, and even feather shafts! With even the cleanest coop and yard, chickens can pick up lice and mites from wild birds and other sources.

Why provide a special box for dust bathing when the birds already seem to be taking care of the job?  I want to have a little more control over the bugs at all times of the year. My dust box is out in the chicken yard because it takes up too much floor space in the coop. I cover it with a plastic cement mixing trough when it looks like rain or snow. I keep it supplied with a mixture of sand or sandy soil and clean hardwood ash in a 6:1 ratio (six parts sand to one part ash). I also sift the mixture so that there are no chunks of charcoal or other matter that might damage their feathers.

When the birds bath in the dirt/sand and ash mixture, they scratch it up and puff it under their wings and through all of their body, neck, and head feathers. The ash coats their skin and feather shafts with a fine, base coating of ash that discourages bugs. Bugs breathe through little holes in their exoskeletons and the ash clogs these holes. The pH of the ash also may have some effect.

The dust box should have high sides and a rim that keeps dust from puffing out of the box too much. The box should be able to hold more than one bird at a time. My box is made of plywood and the edge on top is about two inches wide. The box is about 30 in by 30 in. My husband used a pattern from an article in Backyard Chicken magazine. (This is a great publication. You can get a free copy by going to their website, , or by sending in a postcard  from one of those back-to-the-land postcard promotion packs.)

Our dust box had to be modified from the original pattern because my girls wouldn’t use it after the first try. We figured out that they didn’t like getting into something that they couldn’t stand up and see out of. I think it made them feel too vulnerable to predators.  As soon as five or six inches of height had been removed, they started fighting each other to get into it. They also seem to like to bathe in groups. Sometimes there will be three birds in the box at one time!

My girls enjoy their box many times a day and use it year round.  They are beautiful healthy birds, and it is the least I can do for all that they give back to me in the form of eggs and enjoyment. Begonia


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Requiem for my Lucy
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I lost Lucy yesterday. She died of an inflammation/bacterial infection of her oviduct called Salpingitis. It was caused by the same bacterial infection (“cold”) that I managed to nurse her through this spring. (See my Sick Chick, May 22, 2010 blog.) This time antibiotics didn’t work—I guess they just don’t most of the time with this sickness.  It is the most common cause of death in layers. 

I’m grateful that I live in an area of Wisconsin with a high concentration of people keeping small flocks of pet chickens. The large animal vet I was referred to was sympathetic and helpful but also realistic and truthful with me. We nursed her to the end just as you would your dog or cat. We buried her this morning shortly after sunrise. She was a good hen. I will miss her greeting me each morning and being my gardening buddy.  Begonia


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It's a Scorcher! Chickens and Hot Weather
Monday, May 24, 2010

We went from days in the mid-70°s F and nights in the high 50°s F to 90° F days and mid-70 ° F nights with high humidity. I am watching Lucy closely for signs of heat stress. It hasn’t been that long since she recovered from her cold, and she is still weaker than the others.

 Lucy is the cover girl for heat stress. I notice beaks open on several of the girls, but Lucy is panting and holding out her wings trying to cool herself. I don’t like the look of her, so I decide to give her a break by bringing her just inside the garage for a snack. The garage feels air conditioned, insulated by the house above and cool cement slab below. I leave the door open behind her and let her eat some scratch from a colorful Frisbee toy turned over and used as a plate. After a while her breathing settles down, and I take her back out to the yard.  

 I noticed last night that the girls didn’t all roost on one pole as usual. It was three up on the top perch and two down on the bottom one.  I have installed the clip fan in the house and directed the flow of air downward toward the waterer. It is noticeably cooler there with the air blowing across the water in the font.  I don’t like to create drafts on the hens when they are roosting, but this will circulate the air near them at floor level.  I will also direct air toward the nesting boxes. The fan isn’t strong enough to create a strong draft but is enough to move the air a bit and provide some relief.

The gals prefer to congregate in the yard. The yard is open to the south, but there is always some shade that they can retire to during the day. I keep a second font of cool water in the yard so it is always easy for them to drink without moving around too much. I also note that they have been digging holes in the dirt of the yard, creating cool hollows to lie in. Clever Girls!  I empty the outdoor font in the yard when I renew the cool water so there is always a cool place for them to dig.  

They always have access to the coop if they wish. I keep all the windows and vents open in weather like this, closing the windows only late at night when the temps drop. The peak vents are always open once the weather warms.  There are eave vents along the entire north and south sides of the coop, peak vents to east and west, and windows that open (hinged from the top) to the south and east.  If there is breath of air passing through, this coop will welcome it. The time and effort we put into researching, planning, and building the hen house pays off in the extremes of heat and cold we experience here in the temperate zone (although there doesn’t seem to be anything temperate about this weather)! Stay Cool. Begonia



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Sick Chick: Lucille Catches a Cold
Saturday, May 22, 2010

There is always one problem child in every family. In this case, it is a chicken named Lucy. She greets me every morning with a sharp peck to the hands whenever they get within range. I don’t think she realizes they are attached to me. (I’m afraid Lucy isn’t the sharpest chick in the shed.)

I went out with a treat of banana after a series of rainy cold days. I thought the gals might appreciate one of their favorite treats to brighten the tedium of wet muddy straw and drizzly rain. I noticed Lucy sitting in that wet straw. She attempted to rise twice before she was successful and totally ignored her favorite treat. Later, I found her standing with her beak propped on the water font in the coop. She didn’t approach and peck me when I entered—another bad sign.

I got out my chicken books and tried to diagnose her problem, but there are so many ways for a chicken to be sick and very little direction on what to do about it. Mostly what I got was instructions on how to dispose of the carcass. Chickens aren’t a popular pet bird, so when they fall sick most people don’t notice until they find them dead or cannibalized by the rest of the flock.

Since she seemed congested and I didn’t know what was wrong, I decided to fix her up a cage in the garage with the ceramic reptile light strung above it and a draft shield of cardboard made from a countertop my husband had just installed in the bathroom. I set the modified chinchilla cage on a card table to keep it off the floor and make it easier for me to observe and handle the bird.

After I got her installed in the cage with a chick feeder and waterer, I called a friend who is also a small animal (avian, reptile, and small mammal) vet. He advised keeping her warm, quiet, and with water and food easily available. (This is key with birds because of their high metabolisms.) She was so weak by this time that she couldn’t stand up, and as soon as she warmed up, it was hard to keep her awake long enough to syringe feed her.

I asked if there was any medicine like an antibiotic I could give her.  He said he would check. As a favor to a friend, he came by with a baby scale and some penicillin and syringe, prescribed a dosage, and showed me how to administer it. I offered to pay him for the house call, but he requested payment only in cookies (Snickerdoodles—we have already paid the first installment!)

It was pretty intense care for a couple of days. For a while I felt sure I would lose her. By the third day, the antibiotic was taking effect, she started defecating again, and I no longer had to feed her runny scrambled eggs with a syringe. She began eating cooked squash and egg on her own when we frequently offered it to her. Soon she was eating on her own.

 When she was finally able to stand, I took her outside to forage for bugs, slugs, and worms in the leaf pile I keep for mulch. She still tired easily, so I still kept her separated in her cage in the garage and took her out a couple of times of day for a bug meal.

After a few good high-fat and -protein bug meals, she started eating her dry feed again and knocked over the waterer a few times.  When she tried to rejoin the flock on her own during one of her foraging expeditions outside, on the fourth day, I let her back into the yard. The dominant hen pecked her a few times, and I only left her in until she tired and then put her back in her cage for a nap. Gradually, over the next few days, I integrated her into the flock, but only after she was roosting and “talking” again in her cage in the garage. I was up BEFORE the chickens the first morning she awoke with the others in the coop to be sure there was no rough stuff.

The only normal function she hasn’t resumed is laying eggs—I’ll be watching for that. I continue to medicate her because she was still a bit wheezie yesterday, but this morning she gave me a sure sign of returned good health. She attacked the hand that fed her repeatedly as I weeded and she foraged as if to say, “Sure, you saved my life last week, but what have you done for me lately?” Begonia


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Spring Tonic for Your Chickens: Dandelions!
Monday, April 19, 2010

My five Dominique hens (aka, the Girls) are enjoying all this wonderful spring weather. They are clamoring to get out of the coop almost as soon as the sun rises. They zoom through the pop door when I open it like feathered bullets!

While I am cleaning under the roost, clearing the litter from their oyster shell floor feeder, and tipping the stale water and waterlogged feed crumbs out of the font, I can hear them complaining out in their yard. They are calling for the scratch to be scattered. They are, like all of us, creatures of habit. They know what is coming next— a few handfuls of cracked corn and oats.

I open the door to their yard and a few girls squirt out and begin grazing on the new green grass. They would gladly eat it rather than the scratch, especially at this time of year after a long winter of making do with cabbage leaves, kitchen scraps, and the occasional pumpkin. They yearn, as we all do, for a nice green salad.

Fortunately, I have plenty of what they crave in the lawn: the chicken (and human) super food, dandelions! I keep a hand trowel and container handy and dig them a little every day from the lawn.  When I garden, I keep the dishpan handy and throw the dandelions in as I weed vegetable and flower garden beds.  It doesn’t take long to fill the container.

The girls watch as I dig and make encouraging singing noises. They know what is coming next: crops full of greens filled with the vitamins and nutrients they need after a long winter. I also know what is coming next: busy, contented chickens and eggs with dark orange yolks that taste like butter! Begonia


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The True Nature of Chickens
Friday, February 19, 2010

You may be thinking after reading my last blog about “What Chickens Want” that I am a few bricks short of a full load and that I don’t understand the true nature of chickens. Always keep in mind that I live in town,  I have a small flock, and they are basically “working pets.”  I have a lot of people watching and enquiring (sometimes daily) about the health and well being of my “girls.”

Here are a few characteristics of chickens that they don’t tell you about at the feed store when you are admiring those fluffy little chicks:

  • Chickens Are Birds and All Birds Are Naughty. Our chickens scold, jump, and peck at us from time to time if the snacks are present but not being dispensed quickly enough.  They are not as bright as parrots but can be just as ornery. My Grandmother’s green parrot, Mike, used to bully my mother whenever she came to visit. My grandmother doted on the little terror, and he could do no wrong. He would nip at my mom’s ankles and drive her up onto a chair and then chuckle and knuckle walk around it until my grandmother took pity on her,  picked him up, and fondly chided him. For all his antics, he was good company for my widowed grandmother.                                         We have one hen, Saucy Sally, who is always trying to get our attention for one reason or another by pecking. We sometimes pick her up and tuck her under one arm while doing chores. This gentle domination seems to settle her hash temporarily. Sure, she’s spicy, but she’s a good-looking hen who lays nice eggs, and we feel she is worth the effort.
  • Idle Beaks Are the Devil’s Workshop. Chickens are hardwired to seek and peck. If they are under- or overstimulated, crowded, or malnourished,  they seek and peck each other. This can get so ugly that I won’t even elaborate on it here.  Keeping  birds busy with toys, chicken Kongs, and things they can peck and eat is just common sense from the standpoint of controlling noise, as well as controlling carnage. The goal is eggs for our table and manure for the compost bins, not casualties.
  • Chickens are miniature T-Rexes with Feathers.  This is related to my previous point. Chickens are like killer reptiles with warm blood. Watch them gobble up anything that moves, and you will know what I mean. An acquaintance of mine picked up a board in her coop one day and uncovered a colony of mice. The chickens got right to work and killed and ate them as efficiently as good mousers. Chickens also move abruptly, compete fiercely, and are harder to read than mammals, which makes some people uneasy.
  • Roosters Can Be the Spawn of Evil. I have no roosters because I live in town and minimizing noise is very important. I’ve run into a few of my chickens’ country cousins, though, and it wasn’t pretty. Roosters are very good at challenging and attacking what they consider threats whether it is you, your child, or another bird. They seem to fluff up to three times their normal size and come hunting red meat.  They don’t respond like mammals to yelling and posturing; they just keep on coming! Many people have had experiences with roosters that have colored their view of chickens for a lifetime.  Roosters do, however, do a wonderful job of warning the flock  and deflecting danger, so the hens  and chicks can get to safety—often at great cost to themselves. 


All in all, I enjoy my hens just the way they are and have very few illusions about them. They keep me on my toes and are absorbing to watch and work around. I like the little noises they make and how their eyes get shiny when they are about to do something bad.  They are one of my dreams come true. I hope you are as fortunate. Begonia

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What Chickens Want
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

We are having a snow storm, so I won’t be uncovering the yard and letting the girls out today. I went out a little later than usual this morning with the daily scratch and cleaning implements.  I could see immediately that the gals had been busy. There were four eggs in nesting boxes, the area in the northwest corner had been scratched down to shavings for dust baths, and the straw around the door was beaten flat by big chicken feet.

While I unbolted and unclipped the door, I could hear them inside scolding and making excited “give me scratch” noises. Their dear beady little eyes dilated when they saw the other object I carried: baked pumpkin in the half shell! I put it in a white plastic tray I keep in the coop for serving such delicacies and put it down among them. They fell to at once, greedily slurping up the squash.

This distraction gave me time to clean under the roosts and clear the water font of waterlogged feed crumbs. It wasn’t long before a couple of the girls were looking for scratch and tugging at my trousers with their naughty beaks.

This is my cue to throw some scratch (a couple handfuls each of oats and cracked corn) into the straw/hay and wood shaving bedding that covers the floor of the coop. The girls will spend a good part of the afternoon pecking every atom of corn they can find, and it takes them a little extra time to hull the oats before eating the kernel.

The bedding itself is also a source of nutrition and distraction for the gals. I occasionally put a few flakes of seedy hay or straw in for them to tear apart. They eat the weed and oat seeds, mummified bugs, and green parts of the grasses. What is left breaks down and insulates them from the cold floor of the coop during extreme winter weather. When the bedding becomes really poopy and chopped up, I use  it as a carbon layer for my winter compost system, which makes room for fresh bedding and the cycle begins again.

I sometimes bring them a treat of a few crumbled bread heels while they are out in their yard. They will seek out every crumb, digging very energetically. They are such energetic diggers that I don’t feed bread in the coop because they kick up geysers of bedding and dust, totally fouling (ha!) their water.

I leave a little bit of scratch in the plastic coffee container and turn it so that the scratch falls into the handle. The hollow handle is too small for them to get their heads trapped in, (this might not be the case if your birds are a bantam or smaller variety, so be careful),  but it does trap some of whatever dry treat I put in it. It acts as a kind of chicken Kong, making them work to get that last bit of feed out. It is quite entertaining to watch them scratch and knock the container around the yard or coop, excited by the delicious rattling sounds.

Sometimes I will put a handful of dry feed into a brightly colored Frisbee disk. They seem to like the contrasting colors and the tapping noises their beaks make on the hard plastic. Our first chicken, The Budge, enjoyed the larger bright, crinkly Mylar ball cat toys. She was a tiny hen and would push them all around her portable coop. My present flock of big birds were absolutely terrified of the same type of toy! (We always make sure we never put any nonfood item in with the chickens that they can pick apart and swallow.)

I also have a large, square suet feeder that I fill with cabbage and hang in their coop from time to time. It swings around as they peck, and they have to calculate the swing of the cage in order to feed. A new suet feeder is pretty cheap. I wouldn’t advise using a used suet feeder; wild birds carry a ton of viral diseases that you wouldn’t want to pass on to your flock.

You’re probably thinking that my hens are some of the most spoiled chickens in the United States of America.  You may be right. They are working pets that give me eggs and manure for My Little Farm in Town. I figure that the least I can do is give them a good chicken life. Begonia

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What Chickens Need
Monday, February 15, 2010

What DO chickens really need? I ask myself this questions daily. I've been keeping chickens in town for four years—just a year or so before the big chicken craze hit this country. My neighbor across the street had been raising chicks from eggs for 3 or 4 years before that. We would go over and visit her brood. She would encourage us to just DO IT. I was hesitant. I wanted to do it right. . . I'd witnessed too many sad situations where ignorance was misery for animals. (A good overall book on raising and housing chickens is Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow. It's worth the money, just buy it.)

We finally borrowed an incubator and fertile eggs from a friend and managed to hatch our first bantam chick. We named her The Budge. (That is short for bugerigar, or parakeet for those of you who are not bird fanciers.) We brooded her in our basement office. My husband, an extremely patient man, listened to her cheep nonstop for weeks. I would sometimes come down to find him holding the tiny chick in his lap, gently rubbing the top of her head with the tip of his finger to quiet her. Chickens really need company. We had to supply that care and attention because hers was the only egg that hatched.

Our second batch of chickens are the five Dominiques that we now tend. We also brooded them in the basement (but not in the office this time!). I got them from a farm supply store in an adjacent county. I had already successfully brooded a chick, so I knew what to do and had the brooder set up and at the right temperature so I could pop the chicks into it as soon as I got home. I transported them home in a small pet carrier lined with paper towels and swaddled in several thick towels with the car heater on high. I sweated all the way home, but they were just barely warm enough. Chicks need warmth as much as they need food and water.

Chickens need a safe, dry, draft-free place to roost and get out of the weather. Most breeds can handle some cold weather (mine handle very cold weather). People wack together some pretty pitiful hovels to house their chickens and then wonder why their feet freeze or the racoons get in and kill them all. Building a stout and (in our area a well-insulated) properly ventilated coop is a must, because we have hot, humid summers; long, cold, and snowy winters; and plenty of vermin and wandering dogs. (Our neighbors call our hen house the "Robo-Coop" but we prefer to think of it as our "Litltle Fort Knox.")

My husband built a mobile coop from plans I found ina book by a wonderfully precise British fellow by the name of  Michael Roberts (Poultry House Construction, Gold Cockerel Books) ( They lived in this coop on the backyard lawn until they got too crowded and started picking feathers out of each other because chickens need adequate space.

We detached the coop section from the mobile coop and put it in the fenced poultry yard that used to be our backyard vegetable garden. They lived in the yard, retiring to the little coop at night, until my husband finished building the permanent coop adjacent to it. As soon as I moved the pullets into the chicken yard, the aggressive behavior stopped. My chicken yard is a fenced 15- by 20-foot space surrounded by a 1- by 2-inch wire mesh fence with 2-foot high chicken wire partially buried around the bottom to reinforce and exclude digging predators. I also have poulty net over the top because we have red tail hawks that love to snack on birds. (One day shortly after installing the netting, I found one of these hawks roosting on the peak of the coop roof surveying my chickens. It swooped down, was brought up short by the netting, and flew away in disgust!)

I bed my chicken's yard with seedy hay and straw. This provides them with plenty of material to scratch and peck because chickens need things to do. Boredom can lead to all kinds of bad habits. Leading causes of cannibalism in chickens are inadequate nutrition, crowding, and boredom. You don't think of chickens of having enough brains to get bored. I think that so much of their behavior is hardwired that they have plenty of space left over to think of other things like: "Where's my snack?" and "What have you done for me lately?"

Chickens need decent food and fresh water at regular intervals. They can get along on scraps and odds and ends, but that is just survival—don't expect peak egg production and lots of wonderful tasting meat. Water is especially important. Chicks' growth is slowed if they don't get enough water, and hens may go into a molt and stop laying if they are deprived of water for a day and a half according to The Chicken Health Book by Gail Damerow (Storey Publishing, (This is another book that is worth owning.) When the weather is hot, chickens need additional cool water fonts and shade.

I'm about chickened out (please ignore the pun) for now. And I haven't even mentioned that chickens need a place to take their daily dust bath! Maybe that will be the subject of another chicken blog! Begonia.

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Just How Complicated Can Five Chickens Make Your Life?
Friday, December 18, 2009

Seventeen inches of snow fell on my neighborhood last week, complicating all of our lives immensely. Then the temperature dropped below 0 F. We had received one or two inches a few days before so I had already been pulling the big tarp over my hens' straw-bedded yard (previously three raised garden beds) each night to keep it relatively snow free. The Girls don't like the feel of snow on their tender chicken feet. They refuse to leave the coop if I don't sweep the snow off the run between the house and yard and put a little straw down to buffer them from the cold.

My five "girls" retreated into the coop before the worst of the storm hit. To further complicate all of our lives, one of the gals decided to molt almost bald before the storm. I entered the coop one chilly morning to what looked like the aftermath of  a massive pillow fight. Since the girls are essentially working pets and she would go out if her sisters went out, I felt I had to coop them and start using the ceramic heat emitter bulb to raise the temperature enough to keep her alive until her new feathers emerged.

In other respects the gals are surprisingly hardy. I purposely chose Dominiques for the color and tightness of their feathers, ability to forage, and their calm dispositions. I liked the idea of a bird that could stand cold, resist frostbite, blend in, find it's own food, and get along with each other and me. My girls will chose to stay outside in 14 or 15 F with a windbreak and some scratch!

Another complication of raising chickens in town is that they cannot be a nuisance. That means no excessive noise, no smell, no flies, no vermin, and no eye sores.  Needless to say, there are no roosters in my small flock. I had to carefully think through my backyard "system" before I even brought the chicks home to brood.

I already had a big two-bin composting system in place to handle my garden and vegetable household waste, so manure disposal has never been a problem. I layer kitchen scraps that I don't feed the hens and the droppings from under their roost and the floor of the coop each day with rough garden material. The benefit is more finished compost more quickly.

How to prevent flies and smells? My extremely handy husband built a very stout, dry coop. (I traded hostas with my  generous brother-in-law for 80% of the building materials). Dry manure doesn't breed flies. Bedding the yard with seedy grass hay keeps the girls busy, and as they scratch to find bugs and larvae under the dark moist cover, they turn their manure into the soil of the yard and into contact with all the decomposers in the soil, eliminating odor. From time to time, I rake up the broken-down bedding and add it as a rough layer to the compost bin or use it as a feeding mulch on one of my garden beds.

Idle beaks are the devils workshop! Busy birds are generally quiet birds. Unless they see a strange dog or person walking by on the street below, or a bunny in the next yard, or they are working on laying an egg! Noise management complicates our lives the most. Five angry hens can make quite a racket. Distractions in the form of food sometimes works, but I can't help feeling that I am the one being manipulated!

Vermin problems have been minimized so far by raising the coop, burying wire in the ground, and fastening it to the bottom of the structure. Hardware wire between the floor joists and the floor of the coop keeps mice and rats from gnawing their way in easily.

The coop is sided and shingled, and next spring it will be painted to match our house. The yard has lattice I obtained from various sources (my favorite pieces were free or purchased at garage sales) fastened to the wire on three sides. It makes the yard more attractive and breaks up the birds' patterns, making them less attractive to loose and roving dogs--the biggest killers of urban chickens.

My husband just woke up long enough to comment that blogs are supposed to be short, so I'll stop here. Stay Warm, Begonia.

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