Tag Archives: chickens

Cocka-what-a-coup

Some years ago, at a particularly hectic time in our lives, we had a pair of chicks hatch who turned very poorly when only about a week old. We were struggling to care for them, had no idea what was wrong, and consulted our chicken-keeping neighbour to see if she had any thoughts. She very kindly offered to look after them for a couple of days, and brought them back from the edge of death.

Sadly, one still died, but the other, which she named Neo, did well, grew into a very fine cockerel, and somewhere around 2016, he beat the proverbial out of the alpha cockerel Party Pants and took the top spot for himself.

Neo and his challenger

Roll on to the Autumn of 2020 and Neo was showing his age, whilst three lively young lads hatched just over a year earlier were jockeying for position to challenge him. Before anything could be settled, avian flu arrived in the UK, protection orders were issued, and we suddenly had to confine our birds to their shelter, and segregate them from wild birds.

Four cockerels, fourteen hens and a war of succession all in twenty-five square meters did not promise a peaceful time for the hens, so we put the three young lads in the greenhouse to settle their hierarchy. This also gave Neo a final peaceful winter with his girls, because even with the eye of optimism, he was getting old and shaky, and only holding on to his dominance by force of habit.

On the first of April (someone’s idea of a joke?) the avian flu restrictions eased. Our birds went out for the first time in five months, although we left the lads in the greenhouse for the day just to give the hens a head-start on the world.

On the second of April we had two cock-fights. Not some horrible sporting event to entertain barbarians, but three cockerels settling who gets to be Top Bird.

Yes, I know the arithmetic doesn’t add up, but that’s because a couple of weeks back we got a call from friends who run a small holiday complex on an old farm. Their pretty-boy cockerel just died – did we perhaps have a spare? We hadn’t given youngster number three a name (apart from in my head where he was called Drumsticks) because he was the bottom of the hierarchy. Now he has a proper name, half a dozen girls all to himself, and no competition in the business of being the chicken eye-candy.

So, on the second of April, the dominant one of the youngsters, with the snazzy purple sheen to his feathers – whom we call Purple Cock – was randomly assaulted by Neo, probably for looking at The Top Bird in a funny way. That, as it turned out, was a mistake of epic proportions, but it’s remarkably difficult to have the necessary conversation with an old cockerel: listen mate, you’re getting on, slowing down, time to retire gracefully and let someone younger take over.

The victorious Purple Cock

Purple Cock beat seven shades of ow-that-hurts out of Neo, with us standing by to prevent serious injury. It’s not easy intervening in a fight like that – two cockerels hell-bent on flattening each other don’t care about collateral damage. In due course, we did separate them and Neo staggered away in the company of some of his girls.

Which is a problem.

Neo lost. Big time. Except Neo didn’t see it that way. Not in his head. And Purple Cock was mocking him by not running away.

Neo hunted down Purple Cock and got pulverised again. And again. And again. Much of the morning was spent breaking it up, even when Neo reached the point that he was so tired he couldn’t raise his head. Somewhere in that little bird brain, a whispering memory of his youth was uttering sweet stupidity – yes I know you can barely stand, you can’t breathe, you can’t see, but if you stagger around in small circles with your head between your knees, you can really lay a proper smack on that young upstart.

In due course, we put Neo into the greenhouse to get his breath back and hopefully give him time to properly process ow that hurt. We’ll let him out again in a day or two.

Meanwhile, Junior League, the number two youngster, took advantage of the fight and spent the morning hanging out with the hens, the other side of the field and well away from all the excitement. Somewhere around lunchtime, he ran into Purple Cock, still triumphant, and kicked the living victory out of him.

Junior, hanging out with the girls

None of us saw that coup coming, especially Purple Cock.

Today, having had the night to contemplate the mistake and prepare for his comeback, Purple Cock has decided that victory is over-rated and that that dark corner over there looks like a perfect hiding place.

Life is full of surprises.

Now we need a proper name for Junior League.

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PS

When I went to check on the sheep this evening, there were a pair of male blackbirds trying to hammer each other flat.

A Funny Smell

Not too long ago, I wrote about poo. Little did I realise that the topic had a future filled with vulgar humour. I was going to call this Poo Too – Papering Over The Cracks, and then I thought better of it.

So, barely had I written about the challenges of moving sheep poo when I encountered that time-honoured joke – there’s a funny smell and it keeps following me, but no matter how fast I turn around it’s always behind me. Well, I suppose it’s a joke. I struggled to see the humour when I got in from putting the chickens to bed and found there was a funny smell following me around.

Maybe funny is not the right word. Fowl, of course, and perhaps best described as vile with highlights of nausea, faint enough that it might just be my imagination, but strong enough to be annoying. It wasn’t just following me around, but it kept hiding, only to sneak back out when I wasn’t paying attention. The sort of smell that stands to your left, reaches round and taps you on the right shoulder.

I did all the usual things, starting with washing my hands again. Chicken poo comes in all sorts of interesting colours and odours, but there is a particular variety with a shade and texture akin to soft caramel, a stench to turn the stomach and a persistence that defies soap and water. Somehow, it just gets into the skin and lingers. I’ve stood with my hands in hot soapy water for ten minutes just trying to shift the last trace.

Washing my hands did not remove the smell, so maybe it wasn’t coming from my hands. It was that perfectly balanced intensity where one moment it seemed to have gone, and then seconds later it was back. Sniff hands once, fine. Sniff again, and there’s the smell. It was like an itch I couldn’t quite scratch and destined to drive me nuts.

I decided to ignore it, which lasted almost two minutes, but then there it was again. Move, turn, stand still, and eugh. There it was – untraceable, unbearable and unscratchable.

In desperation, I retreated to the bathroom and removed my trousers, just to check them over for the tell-tale smear of soft caramel. As it happened, the trousers were fine, so I took my jacket off. I had been wearing an outer jacket, but you never know – chicken poo appears to be able to magically reach anywhere and everywhere.

The jacket was fine.

I removed my clothes methodically and found no trace of chicken poo, but the smell was still with me. Sudden movements made it go away, but as soon as I stood still, there it was, wafting about my head.

By a process of elimination I found the source – I had chicken poo in my hair. I even worked out how it happened – bending down to stare into a nest box where one of the older hens had decided to snooze for the night. Of course, where exactly in my hair was a trickier question – I have a lot of hair. The thing is, when you go looking for a needle in a haystack, unless the needle is a desperately valuable family heirloom, who cares if you don’t find it? When I have poo in my hair, finding and removing is all I care about.

At least I was in the bathroom. I stepped into the shower and shampooed my hair. And then again. And again. That stinky caramel-texture poo is persistent stuff, so I was taking no chances.

Last time I wrote about poo, I mentioned AA Milne. Sorry about that, but here I go again.

This cycle of wash-rinse-repeat until I felt clean was really winnowing the poo.

Brush Off Your Chickens

The youngest four of last year’s chicks (two from Honey and two from Horus aka Mama Flake) have taken to hanging out together. They are most assuredly the bottom of the pecking order, and finding them a space in the shed at night is a challenge. The other hens get there first and won’t share nicely, so the only way the youngsters can get in is after dark when the other birds can’t tell what’s going on. This a variant on something I wrote about a couple of years back – Chickens In The Dark.

I herd the youngsters in and then wait around with a torch to provide enough light for them to get on to the perches. It’s a finely balanced thing – too much light and the other hens can see a target to peck at, or even decide to jump down and hunt the shed floor for food, but too little light and the youngsters won’t make the leap up. There’s an old pallet set up as a ladder to help them – they’re big enough now that they don’t really need it, but at least if they’re a few rungs up I know they’re headed in the right direction.

This dodgy system has been working well until recently. I did my usual head-count and came up short. This happens from time-to-time when a hen decides to brood a batch of eggs in some obscure spot, or is simply really late turning up. Sometimes being a hen short just means I need to work on my counting skills, and occasionally it means a bird has met a fox. Whatever the reason, when I’m a bird short, and several re-counts have made no difference, I go hunting.

So far, this year, we have had one broody hen and I found her in the hay barn. A week earlier and I wouldn’t have spotted her, but by the time she decided to sit her eggs, enough hay was gone to expose the nest. I’ve had two rounds of counting failure, which is easy to do in the gloom, and turning on too many lights wakes them up and sets them moving around. So far, no foxes. However, that’s for one missing bird. Four missing was a bit of a puzzle.

After a lot of recounting and turning on too many lights, I worked out that I was missing the youngsters, so I went hunting. They’re too young to be laying, but perfectly capable of staying out late and it seemed unlikely that a fox might have picked off exactly the four youngsters. After a tour of the nearest fields and the orchard, I was still four chickens short, and had seen no signs of the feather explosion that marks a fox kill, so I closed the shed door and went to find a better torch.

Strictly speaking, I started to close the door and stopped at the sounds of protest and wing-flapping. All four missing birds were perched on the top of the open door, tucked under the eaves, alive and well, and very annoying. I’d walked past them several times without noticing.

There are so many reasons why this is not a good place to stay for the night. It’s not even remotely fox-safe, it means I can’t shut the door for the rest of the birds, and it leaves the youngsters perfectly lined up to poop on the door bolt. The trouble is, how to get four chickens off the top of the door? If I just close it slowly there’s the chance of crush injuries, and if I reach up I might get pecked or even chicken poop up the inside of my sleeve. It’s amazing just how many yucky things can happen that I’d never have thought of before we had chickens.

Instead, I choose to give them the brush-off, scooting them along the top of the door with the bristly end of the yard broom until they flew down. After that, the broom is perfect to herd four stressed and excitable birds into the shed for the performance with the torch.

Now I have to do the routine every night. You would think that they would learn, but all four get up there and refuse to come down until the broom comes their way. I now have an alarm set to remind me to brush them off at just the right time of day. Too late, and it takes forever to herd them in the dark, but too early and they just fly back up to the top of the door.

It’s easy to fall into painting analogies when dealing with the birds. It’s a matter of finding just the right light, getting them up on the palet(te) and perfecting my brushwork until they’re properly perched if not actually posed.

Psycho, Honey and Momma Flake

Our hen numbers are declining, due to old age rather than foxes, so we decided to hatch a few eggs this year. We now have six near-adult sized birds, but four of them are cockerels and no matter how hard they try, the lads aren’t much use in the egg-laying game. Late in the year, we decided to hatch a few more.

Meet Psycho, bloody mayhem to her enemies, or anyone just getting too close, the hen putting the aggression back into motherhood. She hatched another round and now has four six week old chicks in tow. She’s not the perfect mother, does have the occasional ditsy moment and forgets that they can’t fly as high as she can, but overall Psycho is the prime candidate for future egg hatching.

That was supposed to be it for the year. Roll the dice and hope there are at least a couple of hens in the Psycho family. That was until a hen called Pale Horus built a nest in the top of the Cornish hedge without mentioning it to anyone. She laid fifteen eggs in a shallow dip with nothing more than a few blades of grass and a prevailing breeze to hold them in, and settled down to brood them in a prime spot to be taken by any passing fox.

At this point we had a decision to make – block the nest and put her in with the rest of the hens over night or move the nest and Pale Horus to somewhere safe. As it happened, Psycho was about ready to bring her chicks out of the end of the greenhouse, so I set up the spare nest box in there, moved the eggs and put Pale Horus on top, after dark.

I thought it was a perfect arrangement. Pale Horus threw a total hissy fit and refused to sit on the eggs. Having decided to try to hatch them, we split them into two groups and popped them under two hens who had been broody for a week or more and were determinedly keeping the hay warm in a pair of empty nest boxes.

Meet Honey, who perhaps ought to be called Psycho II – a sequel, but not quite as good as the original. She hatched four out of seven eggs and quickly demonstrated some wacky behaviour. All the Psycho aggression is there, but poorly coordinated. She will spin wildly on the spot, wings fluffed out, looking for a target and doing a fine impression of a dying Dalek that’s just had a sonic screwdriver shoved up where the sun don’t shine.

In the first week or two, it was clear that Honey was a bit of a flop in the motherhood department. Unlike Horus (not to be confused with Pale Horus), who hatched six out of eight eggs and focussed on the job of teaching her chicks to peck and explore the world. No crazy aggression (or rather, no more than the average hen), just getting on the with job of being a mother.

First impressions with hens can be so misleading. Honey, the Psycho Sequel, has settled down, her chicks are doing well, and now that they are out and about, free-ranging, she keeps them close, keeps an eye on them and is proving to be an exemplary mother.

Horus, on the other hand, now that the chicks are a bit older, is not doing so well. We’ve had one chick spending its days in a box, in the bath, under a heat-lamp. At first we assumed that it was just a weak chick that needed a bit more care, but it’s increasingly obvious that the problem is Horus. She no longer pays attention. She wanders off without checking the chicks are following. There’s one that always keeps up, another couple who struggle, and then the stragglers who are left completely behind and getting chilled. Unlike Honey, Horus doesn’t pause to do the feather-down umbrella routine for her chicks to take shelter and warm up underneath.

We actually tried fostering the weaker chicks onto Honey, but they were nearly three weeks old and she could tell the difference. No free-loaders in the Honey family.

There’s two ways to go about raising chicks – hatch them in an incubator or under a hen. There’s more control with the former approach, but the advantage of the hen is that she does all the hard work of looking after the chicks, teaching them how to find food and take cover from outdoor threats. That’s not been working so well with Horus – I’ve had a timer running on my phone to go and check on the Horus brood, every fifteen minutes. Just so that the chicks who really can’t cope get moved to the bathroom to warm up before they go back out again.

We’ve had chickens in a box in the bath before, even had a sick sheep in there, but it really makes it tricky to use the shower.

Frankly, Horus needs a new name. In my head it’s Momma Flake. We’ve moved her and the chicks back into the greenhouse for a week or two because her chicks clearly need to be bigger and fitter before they get exposed to the Cornish Autumn. They can all come out when her chicks can cope with the bird-brain performance of Momma Flake.

On The Last Legger

It turns out that I last wrote about this stuff February last year  – we’ve just had our first chicks hatch for the year, only three out of ten eggs, but who cares? There are three little puffballs of joy running around, just waiting to grow into savage, psycho chickens.

Sadly, with the new arrivals still trying to decide whether stepping out of the egg was a wise move, one of our older hens passed away. We called her the Last Legger, from a group of five white leghorns we bought way back in 2015.

One of the issues we contend with here is that our mongrel free-range hens are free to range in front of various predators, which is something we have to take into account when we decide to bring some new blood into the flock. With some of the breeds we’ve tried, the average hen is as dumb as a house brick and can completely fail to notice a fox strolling over. We needed to pick breeds that fitted the profile of our birds – something canny, something alert to danger, a breed of chicken with a reputation for getting out of the path of trouble.

Be careful what you wish for.

We bought five white leghorns from a breeder near Camborne, and introduced them to our flock. The Leggers settled in like oil and water, but then they had been raised indoors, probably with less human contact than our birds are used to, so both sky and new, multi-coloured hens were a surprise.

For the first few days, we quarantined them in a small space, which I thought was chicken proof. Really, that tiny gap right up the top near the roof – no chicken could get up there and go through…

The Leggers were a fine addition to our flock, and certainly as alert and flighty as we had been led to believe. Perhaps rather more than we expected. On at least one occasion we had to retrieve them from a few houses down the hill when something spooked them. We knew which way they went – our neighbour was working on his roof and was startled by the flock passing overhead.

We had an unfortunate incident with a passing dog which killed one and injured another which we thought wouldn’t make it, but actually recovered albeit with a bit of a hitch in her step, gaining the nickname Limpy. It’s possible that the hens didn’t see the dog as a threat as one of them used to wander up the hill and spend time with the neighbour’s boxer. We’ve no idea what a humongous dog and small hen gossip about, but it was a daily ritual. When he saw her, he’d woof to be let out and the two of them would sit together on the lawn. The other hen visited another neighbour with both dogs and chickens to steal feed, to the point of pecking on the window if nothing was out.

Limpy Legger passed away last year, leaving us with the Last Legger, who had been laying until very recently, although she has taken to sleeping in a nest box rather than on the perch. The day after the chicks hatched, we noticed that she was looking a bit droopy and did all the usual things – check her over for signs of trouble, feed a bit of glucose water. She seemed fine, just… droopy.

I found her dead in the nest box the following morning. So now we have no Leggers left. The half-Legger offspring, however, are still going strong and crazy.